Slavery in the Nineteenth Century

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Why did John C. Calhoun claim slavery was a positive good?

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There were two main strands to Calhoun's defense of slavery. The first was political. As an ardent defender of states' rights, Calhoun believed that the South, with its numerical minority in the Union, needed to be protected from Northern tyranny, from having alien ideas such as abolitionism imposed upon it.

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There were two main strands to Calhoun's defense of slavery. The first was political. As an ardent defender of states' rights, Calhoun believed that the South, with its numerical minority in the Union, needed to be protected from Northern tyranny, from having alien ideas such as abolitionism imposed upon it.

Calhoun was part of a long-standing republican tradition in American political history stretching right the way back to the Declaration of Independence. This tradition was deeply suspicious of majoritarian rule, seeing it as a potential instrument of tyranny, thus undermining the very foundations of the American Republic. Calhoun was concerned that the North would use its superior numbers to abolish slavery, and that this would merely be the prelude to further encroachments on state sovereignty.

The second strand of Calhoun's defense of slavery was based on wider moral and racial grounds. Like almost all of his contemporaries, Calhoun believed in the inherent superiority of the white race. To that end, he endorsed slavery as the best method available—the most tried and trusted—to maintain white supremacy. But Calhoun went even further, defending slavery not as a necessary evil but as a positive good in itself.

Calhoun regarded human beings as inherently competitive, involved in a constant struggle for power and resources. And this Darwinian struggle was moral in that those with the greatest talents and abilities naturally rose to the top. For Calhoun, this inevitably meant the white man. Furthermore, Calhoun held that liberty was what we would now call a zero-sum game: the liberty of Southern whites such as himself was based on its denial to the slaves. Give liberty to the slaves, he argued, and you would take it away from the white man, thus causing the very foundations of Southern society to collapse.

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Calhoun was a strong defender of the institution of slavery to the point where he felt that abolition and the Union could not coexist. His view was that the institution of slavery helped maintain the "peace and happiness" of both the white race and the black, slavery having become "so interwoven with [American institutions] that to destroy it would be to destroy us as a people."

Moreover, Calhoun genuinely believed that slavery was not only something to which America had become accustomed, but also "a good" that had helped the black race attain a never-before seen condition "so civilized and so improved, not only physically, but morally and intellectually."

Calhoun went on to say that "there has never yet existed a wealthy and civilized society in which one portion of the community did not . . . live on the labor of the other." He believed that the black race thrived best in its existing condition as the serving race, and the labor of black slaves was necessary to keep America wealthy and great. He contrasted the US with Europe, where slavery had already been abolished several decades earlier, and suggested that Europe suffered in poverty because of its lack of slaves to look after the old, sick, and weak.

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