The “Positive Good” of Slavery

Engraving of John C. Calhoun.

John Calhoun, one of the staunchest supporters of states’ rights, was widely known for his view that slavery as a “positive good” in American society.

Calhoun, on February 6, 1837, addressed the Senate: “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.” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 480 quoting John C. Calhoun, “Speech on the Reception of Abolition Petitions,” in his Works (New York, 1851-55), II, 625-33, quotations from 631-33.

Without slavery, Calhoun foresaw that white supremacy was at risk: “the next step would be to raise the negroes to a social and political equality with the whites.” Id. Slavery, according to Calhoun, prevented both race and class conflict: “There is and always has been in an advanced stage of wealth and civilization, a conflict between labor and capital. . . . [Slavery] exempts us from the disorders and dangers resulting from this conflict.” Id.

Calhoun, and other like-minded individuals, were pleased to see the results of the Census of 1840, which appeared to give ammunition to these arguments. The census “wildly inflated the number of insane free Negroes (in some communities it exceeded the total colored population).” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 481. Many southerners cited this data as proof that “African Americans could not handle freedom.” Id.

However, Edward Jarvis, a northern statistician exposed the problems with the data, and John Quincy Adams, “secured a congressional resolution calling for an inquiry into how the mistakes had occurred.” Id. Ultimately, the inquiry would not be carried out to reveal how the data was misused, but later, Patricia Cline Cohen, a historian, “traced it to small print and confusingly labeled columns on the forms the collectors filled out.” Id. The Census of 1840 would be the last “amateurish” census, as the Census of 1850 took advice from Jarvis and others to properly collect and process statistics. Id. citing Patricia Cohen, A Calculating People (Chicago, 1982), 175-204; James Cassedy, Medicine and American Growth (Madison, Wisc., 1986), 124-26; Frederick Merk, Slavery and the Annexation of Texas (New york, 1972), 61-68, 85-92, 117-20.

Some took Calhoun’s ideals and carried them further. Josiah Nott, in the 1840s, claimed that “Black Africans represented an entirely different species, . . . created separately by God from whites.” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 482. While some embraced, this view, most did not, which perhaps “testified to the strength of the prevailing conception of harmony between reason and revelation.” Id. citing Reginald Horsman, Josiah Nott (Baton Rouge, 1987), 81-103.

Calhoun, and his supporters, made American discourse more divisive, without justification or reason. They had fed their farfetched beliefs with false evidence of census returns, and pretended to be prescient about the issues that American society would face. More than anything, they began to unjustifiably associate slavery with other positive aspects of society, like crediting slavery with stabilizing the conflict between labor and capital.

Framing the argument in this way unfortunately could rally the ignorant and the less scrupulous to Calhoun’s side, even if those individuals should not have been predisposed toward supporting slavery. Nonetheless, Calhoun had poisoned the well of American thought and attempted to justify the hatred and enslavement of blacks. With this type of discourse entering American society, it was necessitating a more dramatic, more disruptive conflict than perhaps would otherwise have resulted. Regardless, the vitriol that was permeating American society, like Calhoun’s, was fostering deep divisions and encouraging sectionalism to flourish, at a time when unity was needed more than anything else.

Leave a Reply