"Death is not the greatest calamity: there are others still more terrible to the free and brave, and among them may be placed the loss of liberty and honor. There are thousands of her brave sons who, if need be, are prepared cheerfully to lay down their lives in defense of the State, and the great principles of constitutional liberty for which she is contending."
The separate doctrines of States Rights and slavery coalesced under the genius of one man, to the great detriment of the nation.
Taken from "The Great American Book of Biography," by Hamilton W. Mabie, et al. (Philadelphia: International Publishing Company, 1896). Edited by Gary M. Bohannon.
JOHN CALDWELL CALHOUN IS AN ABSOLUTE UNIQUE FIGURE in American His political life was devoted to the establishment and perpetuation of slavery. He believed that institution beneficial alike to white and black, to North and South, — in a word, that slavery was morally and politically right, and that the welfare of the country was bound up with its continuance. That he was sincere in this conviction cannot be doubted. He was one of the most honest and upright of men; there was no concealment or pretense in him. As a consequence of his purity and ability, his influence was immense. His own state accepted his doctrines and followed his lead with unquestioning faith; and it is not too much to say that the great conflict over slavery and disunion was in great measure due to the doctrines which for a quarter of a century he unceasingly advocated.
Calhoun was born in Abbeville, South Carolina, in 1782, — the same year as his great adversary, Daniel Webster. It was just at the close of the Revolution. The South, which had borne the brunt of the war in its last years, was worn out and impoverished. Calhoun's father died when his son was thirteen. Nevertheless, Calhoun managed to work his way through Yale College, where he won distinguished honors. He used to relate that in his senior year, when he was one of the very few in his class who maintained democratic opinions, President Dwight asked him, "What is the legitimate source of power?" "The people," answered Calhoun. Dr. Dwight combated this opinion; Calhoun replied; and the whole hour of recitation was consumed in the debate. Dr. Dwight was so much struck with the ability displayed by the student, he remarked that Calhoun had talent enough to be a President of the United States. He did not foresee, however, that Calhoun would imbibe ideas which, logically carried out, would leave no United States in existence to require a President.
After two years in the South Carolina Legislature, Calhoun was elected to Congress in 1810, where he served until 1817, when he became Secretary of War under President Monroe. In 1824 he was elected Vice-President, under John Ouincy Adams, and again in 1828, when Andrew Jackson was elected President. In 1832 he resigned the Vice-Presidency to become Senator from South Carolina, and remained in the Senate during nearly all the remainder of his life.
In 1828 Congress passed a tariff bill by which the protective duties were considerably increased. This bill was bitterly opposed in the South, where it was styled the "Tariff of Abominations;" and on its passage Calhoun prepared a most remarkable paper, called the "South Carolina Exposition," in which he maintained that the Constitution authorized Congress to levy tariff taxes only for revenue; that protective taxes were therefore unconstitutional; and that a state had the right and power to declare an unconstitutional law null and void, and to forbid its execution in that state. It was the purpose of the people of South Carolina to agitate for the repeal of the obnoxious law; and, in case their efforts should fail, to resort to the remedy of "nullification." "This Exposition," says Parton, "was the beginning of our woe, — the baleful egg from which were hatched nullification, treason, civil war, and the desolation of the Southern States."
In 1829 the long debate over the question, "Does the Constitution make us one sovereign nation, or only a league of sovereign States?" was at its height. That debate had begun as soon as the Constitution was ratified, in 1788, and it continued until the outbreak of the war in 1861. For many years the theory of a "compact," from which a State might withdraw at will, was maintained by various advocates, of whom Calhoun was the foremost. He supported his view with great ability and ingenuity, and with industry and devotion which never flagged or wavered. In his own State his doctrines were accepted with almost complete unanimity; and the Senators and Representatives in Congress from South Carolina were all disciples of the Calhoun school.
The tariff of 1828 was not repealed; and after the presidential election of 1832, under the direction of Calhoun, who had resigned the Vice-Presidency, a convention of the people of the State was called, which passed the famous Ordinance of Nullification, declaring the tariff law of 1828 null and void in South Carolina. General Hayne, who had been United States Senator, was made Governor of South Carolina; and Calhoun was elected to the Senate of the United States. On the passage of the famous Ordinance of Nullification by the people of South Carolina, the excitement throughout the Union became intense. The apprehension of civil war, and of the dissolution of the Union, prevailed everywhere.
On the 10th of December, 1832, General Jackson issued his memorable proclamation against nullification. This was followed by Governor Hayne's counter-proclamation, defending the position assumed by the State, and calling out twelve thousand volunteers. The crisis evidently approached. The United States troops were concentrated, in some force, at Augusta and Charleston, seemingly for the purpose of repressing any insurrectionary or rebellious movement in the State; while on the other side equal preparation was made. The militia in certain sections of the State were called out and drilled, muskets were put in order, swords cleaned and sharpened, and depots of provisions and supplies established. Officers, natives of the State, in the United States army and navy, contemplated resigning their commissions, and taking up arms in defense of the State; and some foreign officers, then in the country, actually tendered their services to the governor, against the forces of the general government.
On the 4th of January, 1833, Mr. Calhoun took his seat in the Senate of the Union, as the great champion of nullification. This was the most important period in his political life — a period when the whole resources of his intellect were put forth in defense of his favorite doctrine. His most powerful oratorical effort was made on the 15th and 16th of February, 1832, against a bill "further to provide for the collection of duties on imports. This was the celebrated "Force Bill," the object of which was to enable the Federal executive to enforce the collection of the revenue in South Carolina.
On the 15th of February, Mr. Calhoun addressed the Senate, beginning as follows: "Mr. President, I know not which is most objectionable, the provisions of the bill, or the temper in which its adoption has been urged. If the extraordinary powers with which the bill proposes to clothe the Executive, to the utter prostration of the Constitution and the rights of the States, be calculated to impress our minds with alarm at the rapid progress of despotism in our country, the zeal with which every circumstance calculated to misrepresent or exaggerate the conduct of Carolina in the controversy is seized on, with a view to excite hostility against her, but too plainly indicates the deep decay of that brotherly feeling which once existed between these States, and to which we are indebted for our beautiful Federal system. . .
"It has been said by the senator from Tennessee [Mr. Grundy] to be a measure of peace! Yes, such peace as the wolf gives to the lamb — the kite to the dove. Such peace as Russia gives to Poland, or death to its victim! A peace, by extinguishing the political existence of the State, by awing her into an abandonment of the exercise of every power which constitutes her a sovereign community. It is to South Carolina a question of self-preservation; and I proclaim it, that should this bill pass, and an attempt be made to enforce it, it will be resisted at every hazard — even that of death itself. Death is not the greatest calamity: there are others still more terrible to the free and brave, and among them may be placed the loss of liberty and honor. There are thousands of her brave sons who, if need be, are prepared cheerfully to lay down their lives in defense of the State, and the great principles of constitutional liberty for which she is contending. God forbid that this should become necessary! It never can be, unless this government is resolved to bring the question to extremity, when her gallant sons will stand prepared to perform the last duty — to die nobly.
"In the same spirit, we are told that the Union must be preserved, without regard to the means. And how is it proposed to preserve the Union? By force! Does any man in his senses believe that this beautiful structure — this, harmonious aggregate of States, produced by the joint consent of all — can be preserved by force? Its very introduction will be the certain destruction of this Federal Union. No, no. You cannot keep the States united in their constitutional and Federal bonds by force. Force may, indeed, hold the parts together, but such union would be the bond between master and slave: a union of exaction on one side, and of unqualified obedience on the other."
In spite of Mr. Calhoun's efforts, the "Force Bill" was passed; and it is said that President Jackson privately warned him that the moment news was received of resistance to the Government in South Carolina, Calhoun would be arrested on a charge of treason. At the same time, however, important concessions were made to South Carolina, by which the threatened conflict was avoided. In February, Henry Clay introduced in Congress a compromise tariff bill, by which the existing duties were to be decreased each year until they reached a minimum of twenty percent, in 1842. Accordingly, each party in the controversy claimed to have triumphed; and the crisis passed, without finally and formally settling the question of nullification.
During Jackson's administration slavery became the chief question of politics. Texas achieved her independence, and the question of her annexation to the United States as a slave State caused an exciting and angry contest. In the House of Representatives, John Ouincy Adams began his famous crusade for the right of petition, and the contest over petitions for the abolition of slavery convulsed the House. In all these years of stormy debate, Calhoun was always the defender of slavery. He made no apologies, but proclaimed it a righteous, just, and beneficial institution; and he regarded all efforts to abolish or restrict it, or to prevent the catching and return of fugitives, as an interference with the rights of the slave States which would justify their secession from the Union.
The agitation of the slavery question, from 1835 to 1850, was chiefly the work of this one man. "The labors of Mr. Garrison and Mr. Wendell Phillips," says Parton, "might have borne no fruit during their lifetime, if Calhoun had not made it his business to supply them with material, 'I mean to force the issue upon the North,' he once wrote; and he did force it.
The denial of the right of petition, the annexation of Texas, the forcing of slavery into the Territories — these were among the issues upon which he hoped to unite the South in his favor, while retaining enough strength at the North to secure his election to the Presidency. Failing in all his schemes of personal advancement, he died in 1850, still protesting that slavery is divine, and that "it must rule this country or ruin it."