Slavery in the Nineteenth Century

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What did John C. Calhoun mean when he said slavery was a "positive good"?

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By calling slavery a "positive good," John Calhoun meant that slavery was not only something that had to be defended, but that slavery was defensible as positive for southern society. He stated that slaves were treated more fairly and better than laboring classes were treated in other societies. According to Calhoun, sick and old slaves were treated kindly and benevolently, and they were surrounded by friends and family and cared for by their slave master and slave mistress. In Calhoun's view, the infirm and elderly in Europe were, in contrast, sent to poorhouses and were subject to ill treatment. Calhoun's statements were not based in fact, as slaves who were sick and infirm were not in fact treated well, but Calhoun used this argument to suggest that slavery was beneficial to slaves and was in fact a "positive good."

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As abolitionists became increasing more vocal in their condemnation of slavery as a moral evil that must be ended immediately, people like John Calhoun, who served as a United States vice president, senator, and secretary of state, pushed back aggressively. While other slave owners saw slave owning as a necessary evil, Calhoun defined it as "positive good." He based this on two premises.

First, he argued that slaves were better cared for than comparable laborers in the North or in Europe and that, in fact, they had cradle-to-grave security. In other words, he thought they were better off as slaves than if they had been free.

Second, he argued that whites were naturally superior to blacks, and thus naturally formed an elite. He said that every society had a small elite group and a large laboring group. It always happened, he said, that the elite profited from the labor of the masses. Slavery was no different; however, this form of social organization also led to the positive good of a stable society in which membership in the elite was based on honor and a way of life and not simply who amassed the most money.

In sum, Calhoun believed a slave-based society was better than a free society because the slaves were so well cared for and the social order so stable.

History shows Calhoun to be wrong, but his ideas helped buttress Southern ideology for a time.

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Calhoun literally meant that slavery was a "good" rather than an evil. A senator and leading defender of slavery, he described the institution of slavery in this way many times, growing more and more strident in its defense as the abolitionist critique in the North gained popularity. Calhoun said that "never before has the black race of Central Africa. . . attained a condition so civilized and so improved, not only physically, but morally and intellectually" as it had under slavery. He argued slavery was not a "necessary evil" that would one day be eradicated, as some previous generations of slaveholders argued. He said slavery was the best labor system and the best way to structure society. In a common trope among slavery's supporters, he compared slavery favorably to the conditions faced by factory workers in the North, which he said created a dangerous working class which led to "disorders and dangers" in any industrialized society. Calhoun went on to argue that if the institution of slavery was threatened, the people of the South would defend it by leaving the Union, a right they were increasingly beginning to claim for themselves. Slavery and abolitionism, Calhoun asserted, could not coexist. Calhoun's views increasingly became dogma among the planter class in the South as midcentury approached, a development that contributed to secession and civil war.

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