Calhoun and Webster: Secession and Slavery

3 12 2005

Calhoun and Webster: Secession and Slavery

I’ve often wondered how people who were similar could end up fighting in a vicious war against one another. That topic is far too large to consider here, but I do think by reading the speeches of Calhoun and Webster we can see that in spite of their many similarities, there were some deeply seated differences. Perhaps by considering these differences we can begin to understand how they arose and avoid repeating them.

This is not to say they disagreed on everything, Calhoun and Webster did agree on at least a couple of major points. One was that the Union was in danger of coming apart; the other was that slavery had a lot to do with the tensions leading to that danger. Those two topics as they come out in their speeches on the Clay compromise will be the focus of this paper.

Slavery

One of Calhoun’s underlying arguments in his speech appears to be that slavery has always existed and therefore must continue to exist. Webster did accept that slavery existed before the Constitution but he certainly didn’t accept that it must continue. This orientation colors how both men look at the issues.

Webster considered slavery to be a moral, political and societal evil and asserts that was the universal sentiment of Americans in the not so distant past. While Calhoun understands that some see slavery as an evil blot and stain to be removed, he sees it as a necessary part of the social fabric. Is this merely a difference in perception of race relations or does it go deeper? Calhoun asserts slavery is necessary and thus is bound to defend it. In fact, he doesn’t stop there, but claims that the abolition of slavery will bring about evil!

Calhoun certainly laid hold of the fact that slavery was at least implicitly permitted in the Constitution. This is one of his primary weapons in his speech. As far as he was concerned, the actions of the North proved it was guilty of employing “a system of political measures by which the original character of the government has been radically changed.” Hyperbole? Perhaps, but even Webster concedes that the North did not do its Constitutional duty to deliver [runaway]slaves.

Clearly the two regions were at odds about slavery. So what would be the solution? One of the things I believe both men would have agreed was not part of the solution was the abolition societies.

Calhoun uses the term “agitation” frequently – I counted 14 times – and he believes that unchecked “agitation” about slavery will inevitably lead to disunion. What was the source of this “agitation”? Webster’s response picked up on the term and he used it to describe the actions of abolitionists. While he says he is not questioning motives, he is clear in stating that abolition societies did more harm than good, in part because of how they polarized opinions and thus hindered people in the South from opposing slavery.

I think Calhoun is right in attacking some of the methods the North employed against slavery, but he was wrong for defending slavery as a moral action. Slavery (like abortion in our day) needed to be brought to an end, but in my opinion the means by which slavery ultimately was stopped in this country was just as evil.

Secession

One of the interesting things I noticed as I read is how regionally oriented Calhoun emerges compared to Webster. Maybe I am reading back something not in the originals, but Calhoun appears obsessed in an “us versus them” mentality. Webster, in contrast, seems to be asking, “Are you an American or not? If you are an American, you will put the unity of your country ahead of any differences.” Secession, like divorce, is harder to contemplate as an option when you see the whole instead of just the parts. The regional mentality certainly seemed to play a part in the conflict to come.

So what is the cause? The problem as Calhoun sees it is widespread discontent in the South. He claims this is not politically driven by demagoguery but rather was the result of agitation, and because of the inequities between the North and the South. He also believed that the North was not being honest about what they intended. In the final analysis he thinks that how new territories like California are dealt with will show what the North really intends. It isn’t what you say you believe, but what you do, that shows what you really believe.

I think that Calhoun believed that secession was likely and that the only party who could really prevent it was the North. In his thinking the South was the weaker vessel trying valiantly to just follow the Constitution but that it would be willing to “part in peace” if the North didn’t see things his way. Webster is dismayed that anyone can talk about secession at all, much less ‘peaceable’ secession which he believes correctly to be impossible.

By contrast, Calhoun believes that if things continue as they have that the only thing holding the two together will be force, but that the use of force to preserve the Union would destroy the idea of sovereign states. If the North is not willing to adopt measures that deal equitably with the issues, conflict will be the result. With that sort of mentality it isn’t hard to understand why, only a short while later, people were willing to kill one another to preserve their vision of what this country should be.

It is amazing how people with so much in common could over a short period of time become so polarized. I can’t help drawing the comparison to how our country is rapidly becoming polarized in similar ways. Though the issues today are different, some of the rhetoric sounds awfully familiar. Hopefully we can learn from history and avoid the sins of our fathers.

See here for Webster’s Seventh of March Speech and here for Calhoun’s speech

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