Slavery in the Nineteenth Century

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In Frederick Douglass's "What to the slave is the fourth of July?" what does he say the effect of slavery has on white people in the north?

According to John C. Calhoun's 1837 speech before the Senate, what were slavery's chief benefits for blacks?

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Calhoun's "Positive Good" speech before the Senate is sometimes seen as a turning point in the role of slavery in Southern politics. Since the Revolution, Southerners had generally argued that slavery was a necessary evil. Many had even publicly advocated gradual emancipation. But by the 1830s, the rise of the...

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Calhoun's "Positive Good" speech before the Senate is sometimes seen as a turning point in the role of slavery in Southern politics. Since the Revolution, Southerners had generally argued that slavery was a necessary evil. Many had even publicly advocated gradual emancipation. But by the 1830s, the rise of the cotton economy placed slavery at the center of Southern society. Slavery was expanding, territorially and numerically. Additionally, the institution of slavery was coming under attack by abolitionists, who argued that it was an absolute evil that had to be destroyed. This provides some context for Calhoun's speech, especially for his claims about slavery.

Calhoun asserted that slavery was actually good for all people involved, including enslaved people themselves. In so doing, he argued that people of African descent were "distinguished" from whites, claiming that they were inferior. He further claimed that "the black race of Central Africa" had attained more moral and spiritual development under slavery than ever before in their history. In repeated an already well-rehearsed trope, he compared the condition of the enslaved to that of northern industrial workers, conjuring an image of an "old and infirm slave ... under the kind superintending care of his master and mistress." Essentially, he was arguing that masters took good care of the enslaved, far better than industrial workers, who were cast out to starve when they were too old to work.

For these reasons, Calhoun claimed that enslaved people actually enjoyed better conditions than any working class in the world.

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According to Calhoun, slavery offered a better life for the slaves because the practice exposed them to civilization and positive improvements in their general wellbeing. He suggests that the conditions in Africa would never have presented the slaves with the opportunities that they were being exposed to in their new environment. However, he does not divulge the details of these opportunities.

Calhoun also suggests that slaves are treated better than laborers. He argues that much is expected from the laborers, but their compensation does not match their input. On the other hand, he argues that the needs of the slaves are taken care of by their masters. However, the state of the slaves was known to be that of anguish because of poor treatment by their masters.

Look at the sick, and the old and infirm slave, on one hand, in the midst of his family and friends, under the kind superintending care of his master and mistress, and compare it with the forlorn and wretched condition of the pauper in the poorhouse.

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Calhoun states that black people have attained the highest status of their race—physically, morally, and intellectually—in their entire history in the slaveholding South. He also states that slaves in the South receive a greater share of the fruits of their labor than slaves (or the laboring classes) in other slaveholding societies and that very little labor is extracted from the southern slave in comparison with slaves in other countries. For example, he states that slaves in the South are taken care of when they are sick or old—they are surrounded by their family and friends—by what he terms their "kind" slave master and mistress. He feels that the southern slave is far better off than the poor of Europe, who live in degradation and wretchedness. In other words, Calhoun defends slavery as a form of kind paternalism which was very far from the truth. 

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In this speech, Calhoun argues that slavery is a “positive good” for blacks.  He makes this argument on a variety of bases.

First, Calhoun argues that blacks are better off in the United States as slaves than they ever were as free people in Africa.  This is because, he says, of the innate inferiority of their race.  They are so inferior that it is better for them to be cared for by whites in the US.  As he says,

Never before has the black race of Central Africa, from the dawn of history to the present day, attained a condition so civilized and so improved, not only physically, but morally and intellectually. It came among us in a low, degraded, and savage condition, and in the course of a few generations it has grown up under the fostering care of our institutions ... to its present compara­tively civilized condition.

Calhoun then says that the benefits of slavery are further proven by the fact that slave populations increase themselves naturally.  These factors, he says, make it clear that slavery is good.

Later in the speech, Calhoun also argues that slaves are better off than free workers.  This was a common argument in the South.  It held that slaves were better off because they would be cared for by their masters and would be treated well since their masters wanted to protect their investments.  This was in contrast to factory owners who did not care at all about their workers.  As Calhoun says,

in few countries so much is left to the share of the laborer, and so little exacted from him; or where there is more kind attention paid to him in sickness or infirmities of age. Compare his condition with the tenants of the poor houses in the more civilized portions of Europe…

Thus, we can see that Calhoun feels that Africans are so inferior that slavery is better for them than freedom, particularly since they are much better cared-for than free laborers.  For these reasons, he says that slavery is a positive good.

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