In Spielberg's Amistad, discuss the historical issues that drive Calhoun's monologue at dinner. 

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Calhoun's speech at dinner is a reflection of the political reality that the abolition of slavery faced in the film's historical context.  Given how slavery is now seen as such a clear moral evil, it is nearly inconceivable to recognize the structural barriers that existed in American society which prevented its abolition.  Such elements become the historical basis of Calhoun's speech.

Calhoun raises the historical reality of sectionalism that was intrinsic to the abolition debate.  Calhoun suggests that there is an "increasing section of the nation" that wishes to impose its views on "the other" portion of the nation. Calhoun's assertion illuminates how there was a historical reality in which Southerners interpreted abolitionism as a direct attack from the North to challenge and obliterate the South.  This sectionalism emerged in the different paths both sections took towards economic independence.  The industrialized factories of the North were set in complete opposition to the slave- run plantations of the South.  Both economic notions of the good became mutually exclusive with the emergence of the abolition debate.  Calhoun's dinner monologue reflects the Southern inertia to abolition as he stresses that abolishing slavery  will have destabilizing effects on the nation, as a whole, on "us as a people."  Calhoun argues that the abolition of slave labor contains this economic and political motive driven out of sectionalism.  He asserts that the South is an "an emerging economic reality in the South," and thus to take away "our life's blood" will be a way for the North to effectively destroy the South. Calhoun casts his sectionalist argument as historically challenging to then- President Van Buren when he suggests that the South will not support Van Buren's election bid if he advocates for abolition.  Calhoun suggests that the South will "take up arms" in the form of political repudiation if the Status Quo moves the needle towards abolitionism.  Calhoun's sectionalist argument reflects the historical landscape into which the slavery debate took place and a reality that was embedded in American History prior to the Civil War.

Another historical argument that emerges from Calhoun's speech is the judicial resistance to abolition.  The removal of slavery was a radical concept both in American society and its jurisprudence.  Calhoun suggests that there is little in the legal context to suggest that the courts wanted to assert a leadership role in favor of abolition:  "Which court would want to be responsible for the spark that ignites a firestorm?"  Calhoun's rhetorical question, one that silences the dinner table, argues that the radical nature of abolition would not be accepted in a federal and state court system that is comprised of individuals who are either sympathetic to or immersed in slavery.  Calhoun's argument also reflects the lack of political courage at the time when he asserts, "What president wants to be in office when it all comes crashing down around him?"  Calhoun's monologue reflects the historical reality that surrounded the slavery issue.  It was one in which individuals felt powerless to do anything because of the massive political capital lost on either side.  Calhoun's driving point was to warn political leadership, in the form of Van Buren, of the political cost of doing "the wrong thing" in the slavery debate.

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