John C. Calhoun’s Misunderstood Justification for American Slavery
It’s commonly believed that there were two arguments used to justify American slavery in the 19th century. The first argument was that slavery was certainly evil and immoral, but it was a necessary evil for the economic prosperity it brought. The second argument used to justify slavery, which is often overstated by academics, was that white people were superior to Africans and they deserved to be enslaved.
But there was actually another theory. If one has studied American history, they’re probably familiar with the 1837 speech by South Carolinian statesman John C. Calhoun, who asserted that slavery in America amounted to a “positive good.” He argued:
I hold that in the present state of civilization, where two races of different origin, and distinguished by color, and other physical differences, as well as intellectual, are brought together, the relation now existing in the slaveholding States between the two, is, instead of an evil, a good—a positive good.1
As stated above, Calhoun’s “positive good” speech isn’t unknown to the academic world. But what is completely missing from the historical discussion is a good faith attempt by historians to accurately represent Calhoun’s arguments. Instead of considering the statesman’s argument that slavery was a good thing for both white and black people, academics brush it off as justification for “white supremacy”2 and do not reward it much more thought.
To be fair, it’s hard to blame academics for not giving consideration to an argument that justified the single most reprehensible thing they can think of, which was the enslavement of other human beings. And not just any human beings — black human beings, who are still widely believed by academics to be oppressed by a faceless and all-powerful deity dubbed “systemic racism.” Needless to say, any discussion that includes black people except as their roles as blameless victims can’t be entertained, even if that discussion is about the arguments made by a man who has been dead for nearly 200 years.
But the historical reality is that Calhoun’s argument for slavery as a “positive good” wasn’t based on his desire to dominate over an “inferior” species, as some academics have postulated.3 In fact, Calhoun adamantly opposed slavery in the abstract. The “positive good” speech exists because Calhoun was accused by William Rives of supporting the general abstract idea of slavery. Rives, being from Virginia, supported the institution of slavery in America, but he still believed it was evil. Calhoun’s speech was meant to clarify that he didn’t support American slavery because he liked the concept of enslaving other human beings, but because slavery in America benefitted all parties involved. That context is ironically missing from most academic discussion surrounding the “positive good” speech.
Calhoun’s argument boiled down to the fact that black people, white people, and the entire Union, were better off with slavery than without slavery. Calhoun wasn’t arguing whether or not slavery was moral. According to Calhoun, it was simply an empirical fact that slavery was “good.”
As the friend of the Union I openly proclaim it, and the sooner it is known the better. The former may now be controlled, but in a short time it will be beyond the power of man to arrest the course of events. We of the South will not, cannot, surrender our institutions. To maintain the existing relations between the two races, inhabiting that section of the Union, is indispensable to the peace and happiness of both.4
It is obvious how slavery was “indispensable” to the peace and happiness of southern states, which depended on the institution of slavery for its economic prosperity. However, it is probably less obvious how slavery could possibly keep enslaved black people happy (if you ignore the consistent discontent and poverty black Americans have had since slavery was abolished). But to Calhoun, it was clear as day that black people would not be happy with the alternative to slavery — a future of poverty and sickness.
I may say with truth, that in few countries so much is left to the share of the laborer, and so little exacted from him, or where there is more kind attention paid to him in sickness or infirmities of age. Compare his condition with the tenants of the poor houses in the more civilized portions of Europe—look at the sick, and the old and infirm slave, on one hand, in the midst of his family and friends, under the kind superintending care of his master and mistress, and compare it with the forlorn and wretched condition of the pauper in the poor house.5
Calhoun didn’t live to see the Civil War and its aftermath, but he likely would have felt vindicated. Over the next century and a half, the typical black American experience would be like that of the “pauper in the poor house” that he had described.
- John C. Calhoun, Speeches of John C. Calhoun: Delivered in the Congress of the United States from 1811 to the Present Time (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1843), 225.
- Richard Nelson Current, “John C. Calhoun, Philosopher of Reaction,” The Antioch Review 3, no. 2 (1943): 223.
- C. E. Merriam, “The Political Theory of Calhoun,” American Journal of Sociology 7, no. 5 (1902): 577–94.
- Calhoun, 224.
- Calhoun, 225.