John Calhoun on Slavery as a Positive Good

John C. Calhoun

Despite possessing a penetrating mind on matters relating to liberty and constitutional government, John Calhoun’s reputation will always bear the stain of his unflinching defense of the Southern slave society. Sharing the belief, almost as ubiquitous as it was wrong-headed, that white and black could not live freely together, he subscribed to the increasingly widespread view among slaveholders that slavery in the South was a neo-feudal, beneficent institution. This paternalism came out on the Senate floor in 1837.

But I take higher ground. I hold that in the present state of civilization, where two races of different origin, and distinguished by color, and other physical differences, as well as intellectual, are brought together, the relation now existing in the slaveholding States between the two, is, instead of an evil, a good—a positive good. I feel myself called upon to speak freely upon the subject where the honor and interests of those I represent are involved. I hold then, that there never has yet existed a wealthy and civilized society in which one portion of the community did not, in point of fact, live on the labor of the other. Broad and general as is this assertion, it is fully borne out by history. This is not the proper occasion, but if it were, it would not be difficult to trace the various devices by which the wealth of all civilized communities has been so unequally divided, and to show by what means so small a share has been allotted to those by whose labor it was produced, and so large a share given to the non-producing classes. (FROM SPEECH ON THE RECEPTION OF ABOLITION PETITIONS February 6, 1837) - John C. Calhoun

In other contexts, Calhoun considered it an undeniable truth springing from human nature that unaccountable and unchecked power in the hands of some over others would always be misused. Indeed, that may be seen as the foundational insight on which his theory of concurrence was based. But on the matter of slavery, he was not able to turn his considerable analytical powers to his own practices, and claimed instead that the interests of white and black were blended in the plantation household. It is little wonder that the debate over the value of Calhoun’s contributions to political thought has typically gone hand-in-hand with a debate over how central a commitment to slavery was to those theoretical observations.

Read more in our Liberty Matters discussion on Calhoun, Constitutionalism, and Slavery.