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Civil War History 48.3 (2002) 279-281

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Book Review

The Papers of John C. Calhoun:
Vol. XXVI, 1848-1849

The Papers of John C. Calhoun: Vol. XXVI, 1848-1849. Edited by Clyde N. Wilson and Shirley Bright Cook. (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2001. Pp. xvi, 578. Cloth $59.95.)
Calhoun and Popular Rule: The Political Theory of the Disquisition and Discourse. By H. Lee Cheek Jr. (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2001. Pp. xii, 202. Cloth $29.95.)

On February 6, 1837, John C. Calhoun on the floor of the U.S. Senate declared that slavery was a "positive good." Senator William Rives of Virginia had referred to slavery as an evil that might become a "lesser evil" in some circumstances. Calhoun believed that conceded too much to the abolitionists: "I take higher ground. 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. . . . 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." A year later in the Senate (January 10, 1838), Calhoun repeated this defense of slavery as a "positive good": "Many in the South once believed that it was a moral and political evil; that folly and delusion are gone; we see it now in its true light, and regard it as the most safe and stable basis for free institutions in the world."

In the latest volume of The Papers of John C. Calhoun, readers will find that by the end of his life, Calhoun had persuaded many Southerners to believe that any condemnation of slavery as morally wrong was an unconstitutional attack on the South that would justify Southern secession. Early in 1849, Calhoun drafted a statement that was signed by about 40 percent of the members of Congress from the slaveholding states. In this statement, he claimed that the fundamental cause of the conflict between North and South throughout American history was "the difference of opinion and feeling in reference to the relation between the two races" (226). He thus rejected [End Page 279] the assumption of Southern moderates such as Henry Clay that all Americans could agree on the "opinion and feeling" that slavery was wrong, although they might disagree on the most practicable way to respond to that great wrong.

The influence of Calhoun's position is manifest in the letters he received. One correspondent spoke of slavery as the necessary basis for liberty, because "the presence of the black race in the United States enabled the white man to treat as his equal all his own race" (65). Another praised slavery as "the greatest blessing to the whole world" and justified it as the rule of a mentally and morally superior race over an inferior race (381, 511-12).

The disgust that many scholarly interpreters of Calhoun have felt for his promotion of slavery has made it hard for them to take him seriously as a political thinker. In reaction against this scholarly scorn for Calhoun, H. Lee Cheek argues that he was a profound political theorist and a prudent statesman. Building on the recent scholarship on classical republican thought, Cheek distinguishes between two strands of American republican thought—the puritan or New England tradition and the agrarian or South Atlantic tradition. Cheek argues that Calhoun is best understood as a representative of the South Atlantic tradition of agrarian republicanism. While the New England tradition stressed a politically centralized enforcement of moral and religious norms to secure civic virtue, the South Atlantic tradition relied on a decentralized moral and religious order based on the idea of subsidiarity (or localism). He develops this idea through a careful study of...


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