Fighting Words 2
After he gave an intellectual and verbal statement that became the framework of the Confederacy, John C. Calhoun in a speech in 1837 enunciated a doctrine that, in my opinion, encouraged slaveholders and others who supported slavery to isolate themselves from the rest of the world, and to react to differing opinions with suspicion. I believe the result fostered an “us against the world” mentality very much like members of a cult.
The general view of slavery in the south and the north was perhaps best expressed by Henry Clay who lived from 1777 to 1852. He owned 60 slaves. Yet he called slavery “this great evil…the darkest spot in the map of our country.” Throughout his life, Clay maintained a what can bests be described as a “moderate” stance on slavery: He saw the institution as immoral, but insisted that it was so entrenched in southern culture that calls for abolition were extreme, impractical and a threat to the integrity of the Union. He favored gradual emancipation and deporting blacks to Africa. Clay’s view was not benign. When a slave he owned ran away and petitioned the court for her freedom, he opposed her and had her forcibly returned since she was a piece of his property. His stance did not recognize blacks as fully human and his desire for emancipation was not based on doing anything positive for the enslaved.
However, very few people anywhere in the United States believed blacks were anywhere close to whites in intelligence, morals, or humanity. In addition to being close to views in the northern part of the country, Clay admitted the basic immorality of slavery. He had enough common ground with people in general that he was able to compromise with and respect people with differing points of view.
Selections from John C. Calhoun’s 1837 speech:
Be it good or bad, [slavery] has grown up with our society and institutions, and is so interwoven with them that to destroy it would be to destroy us as a people. But let me not be understood as admitting, even by implication, that the existing relations between the two races in the slaveholding States is an evil:–far otherwise; I hold it to be a good, as it has thus far proved itself to be to both, and will continue to prove so if not disturbed by the fell spirit of abolition. I appeal to facts. Never before has the black race of Central Africa, from the dawn of history to the present day, attained a condition so civilized and so improved, not only physically, but morally and intellectually….
The relation now existing in the slaveholding States between the two [races], is, instead of an evil, a good–a positive good.
There is no room for compromise in these words. In other parts of the speech, those who oppose slavery are depicted as hostile. He warns that abolitionists may force the country into a Civil War. To accept the view that slavery is beneficial to the enslaved as well as the owners of slaves required ignoring the obvious reality that slavery is immoral. Letters and books written by visitors to the south from northern American states and foreign countries documented the obvious cruelty of the slave system.
Over time, slavery became increasingly unacceptable throughout Europe. Opposition to fugitive slave laws requiring that escaped slaves be returned to their owners grew in the northern states. Even free blacks could be mislabeled as enslaved and sold against their wills.
During the first six months of the Civil War, Confederate diplomats in Europe were surprised that their argument they were being denied their God-given right to enslave other people was met with disdain and disgust.
When the concept of slavery as good for the slaveholder and the enslaved person was a distortion of reality, eagerly adopted by those who profited by the sweat of others. Sadly, it remains with us today among “Lost Cause” adherents who minimize the horrors of slavery and strive to find some noble purpose in the Confederate cause.