Slavery in the Nineteenth Century

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What are the main points of John C. Calhoun's "On the Slavery Question"?

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In his March 4, 1850, speech "On the Slavery Question" before the US Senate, John C. Calhoun explains the discontent of the South about the lack of equilibrium between North and South. The North is growing in population and territory while at the same time agitating for the end of slavery. Calhoun declares that the North is responsible for saving the Union by giving the South territorial rights, accepting slavery, and agreeing to a Constitutional amendment to re-balance power.

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In a speech before the United States Senate on March 4, 1850, South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun recognized a danger to the Union of the United States of America. This danger, Calhoun asserted, rose from a particular agitation and led to a question: “How can the Union be preserved?”

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In a speech before the United States Senate on March 4, 1850, South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun recognized a danger to the Union of the United States of America. This danger, Calhoun asserted, rose from a particular agitation and led to a question: “How can the Union be preserved?”

Before answering that question, he reflected on why he had to ask it. The Southern states were discontented with the “agitation of the slavery question,” he explained, and they believed that things could not remain as they were with the “honor and safety” of the South preserved.

Calhoun continued by pointing out that the equilibrium of the North and the South had been destroyed. The North then dominated in states and population and therefore controlled the government, and it was progressively gaining in power by adding new states and territories that adopted Northern views about slavery. The South, on the other hand, had no prospect of adding territories and states that held to its views. The result by the end of the 1850s, Calhoun claimed, would be “twenty Northern States to fourteen Southern” (with Delaware neutral). The North would have the vast majority of senators, representatives, and members of the Electoral College, and therefore the vast majority of governing power.

Calhoun went on to lament that of all the territory acquired by the United States since its beginnings, the South had gotten only about a quarter. The South, he continued, relied on slavery as “a vital portion of her social organization,” yet the North and its territories remained hostile and opposed to slavery and wished to destroy it. This attitude, he maintained, would lead to a break in the Union if the North did not change its ways.

In the final section of his speech, Calhoun presented what he believed to be “simple justice” for the South. The North must give the South an “equal right” in the territories, cooperate in returning fugitive slaves, and “cease the agitation of the slave question.” The North must also agree to a Constitutional amendment that would reestablish equilibrium between the North and the South. If the North refused, Calhoun implied, then it did not love the Union, but rather its own power. He declared that saving the Union was ultimately up to the North.

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Calhoun shared his statements on slavery eleven years prior to the Civil War beginning. His greatest and clearest concern for the United States was the division occurring in the nation over the subject of legalized slavery in the South. Calhoun stated that although the subject had been discussed and debated for many years prior to 1850, the nation was becoming more and more divided, not unified.

As many in the South justified slavery as an economic necessity for their way of life and as a moral social establishment, Calhoun sought to explain the reasons the northern and southern states were clashing over the issue. He stated that when the Constitution was written, the states were roughly balanced in terms of population. As well, there was an equal number of Northern and Southern states. However, he asserted that in 1850, this balance was no more, and the North had the advantage in the legislative branch. Therefore, Southern states feared that they would lose to Northern power.

Additionally, he stated that the Northern states had made many "aggressions" "on the rights of the South," as many Southerners viewed slavery as a right of Southern states. Calhoun defended the rights of Southern states to protect themselves. Calhoun also supported Southern complaints that many historical land agreements previously passed were more advantageous to the North, and the South did not receive as much land. He cited the Land Ordinance of 1787, the Louisiana Purchase, and the Mexican Cession.

Calhoun provided clear arguments for states' rights and sovereignty against unjust federal acts of power. He claimed that there are diverse interests and positions taken in Northern and Southern states and that citizens in each region should be able to defend their positions. In regard to slavery, Calhoun stated that "this hostile feeling on the part of the North toward the social organization of the South" has endured for a long time. He argued that if the North continued to have dominance in federal affairs, the Southern way of life would be forcibly altered.

Calhoun addressed the various reasons why the bonds of the Union were beginning to break; he even cited religious reasons; he explained changes in Christian denominations in various parts of the country. He posed the question of how federal officials can save the Union and keep the nation from fracturing. His solution lay in granting Southern states more freedom and representation in the government. Calhoun even addressed the dangerous notion of the secession of the South. In his argument for more representation for the South, Calhoun also included great discussion about present and future territories (like California) entering the Union. He also addressed how the South could gain more land.

Calhoun provided great challenges for Northern statesmen to consider if they wanted to preserve a unified America.

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This speech by Calhoun, given shortly before his death in 1850, addresses his concerns and the concerns of other slaveholders throughout the South.  In the speech, Calhoun examines the threats to national unity.  He states that he does not believe that the threats of secession are caused by Northern or Southern radicals because the nation is divided according to political parties--in this case, Democrats and Whigs.  Calhoun rather looks at something that he regards as inevitable--the expansion of Northern power and territory.  He mentions that bringing Oregon and Minnesota into the Union would further dissolve the balance of power between the North and South in the Senate.  He also mentions that as of 1850, the North outnumbers the South by 2.4 million people and Northerners hold more political positions than Southerners.  He also points out that Northern states get more in terms of money for internal improvements than Southern states.  In the speech, Calhoun wants specific protections for Southern states in order to maintain their slavery, which Calhoun in an earlier speech referred to as a "common good."  He also wants the South to have more of a voice in the national government as it had in years' past.  Calhoun's speech, considered by many his finest oration, was meant to parallel the speeches given against British tyranny during the colonial era.  Calhoun saw the Northern power as a quickly rising tyranny that would overpower the Southern states unless action was taken.  

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