Slavery in the Nineteenth Century

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John C. Calhoun's argument in "Slavery: A Positive Good" and its reflection on 1830s American society

Summary:

John C. Calhoun's argument in "Slavery: A Positive Good" posits that slavery benefits both enslavers and the enslaved, reflecting the deeply entrenched pro-slavery attitudes and economic dependence on slavery in 1830s American society. He believed slavery provided social stability and economic prosperity, illustrating the period's widespread acceptance of racist ideologies and the South's commitment to maintaining the institution of slavery.

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What did John C. Calhoun mean by "slavery is a positive good"?

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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What did John C. Calhoun mean by "slavery is a positive good"?

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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What did John C. Calhoun mean by "slavery is a positive good"?

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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What did John C. Calhoun mean by "slavery is a positive good"?

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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What did John C. Calhoun mean by "slavery is a positive good"?

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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What is the primary argument Calhoun makes in "Slavery: A Positive Good" and how does it reflect 1830s American society?

Calhoun's fundamental argument in "Slavery: A Positive Good: is that the south must not make any concessions to the abolitionist north to defend the institution of slavery, which is, he writes, "a positive good." Calhoun predicts (accurately, as it turned out) that the abolitionist sentiment in the north, if left unchecked, would lead to conflict with the south. He writes, "the conflicting elements would burst the Union asunder, powerful as are the links which hold it together." In other words, abolitionism would go on to cause a rift between the north and the south.

Calhoun defends slavery with different points of evidence. He writes that slavery is a condition that has existed throughout history. In his words, "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." He thinks that southern slaves are treated better than the laboring classes in other nations and that less is expected of them. He also contends that slaves are treated more kindly if they are sick or old than are the laboring classes of other countries. He also believes that the relationship in the south between the slave and master provides for a freer state than the conflict between labor and capital in the north. 

Documents such as this one help us understand the conflict between the north and south and the deep-rooted nature of their tensions. How do you think this document shows the economic, philosophical, and sociological differences between the north and south in the 1830s?

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