John C. Calhoun: The Men who dominated National Life

This entry is part 13 of 18 in the series The Roots of the Civil War

John C. CalhounBefore we move on to the the last several events that led up to the Civil War, it is important that we look at the men who dominated national life and the Congress in the antebellum period. Their political careers overlapped and they had a huge impact on the history of the United States.

Let’s start with John C. Calhoun of South Carolina. Born in South Carolina in 1782, Calhoun began his political career as a nationalist, modernizer, and proponent of a strong national government and protective tariffs. After 1830 while still holding national office as Vice President, Calhoun’s views evolved and he became a proponent of of states’ rightslimited governmentnullification and free trade.

Calhoun served in a succession of political offices starting in 1811 when he was sworn into the House of Representatives. He was to remain in the House for six years. He then was appointed Secretary of War in 1817 by President James Monroe.

As Secretary of War Calhoun proposed an expansible army similar to that of France under Napoleon, whereby a basic cadre of 6,000 officers and men could be expanded into 11,000 without adding additional officers or companies. Congress wanted an army to defend the nation in the event of war against Britain or Spain over Florida. Once the crisis was settled diplomatically the need subsided and Calhoun’s plans were shelved.

In 1825 Calhoun was elected Vice President by the House of Representatives in a landslide. He was to serve four years with John Quincy Adams and four years with Andrew Jackson. He was one of two vice presidents to serve under two different presidents.

Eventually, Calhoun split with Jackson over the policy of hard cash, which he felt favored Northern financial interests. Calhoun opposed an increase in the protective tariff. When his position was defeated he returned to his South Carolina plantation to write “South Carolina Exposition and Protest“, an essay rejecting the centralization philosophy.

This led to the theory of a concurrent majority through the doctrine of nullification,”the right of a State to interpose, in the last resort, in order to arrest an unconstitutional act of the General Government, within its limits.” Jackson, who supported states’ rights but believed that nullification threatened the Union, opposed it.

Calhoun and Jackson came to a breaking point over a previous recommendation when Calhoun was Secretary of War. In May 1830, Jackson discovered that Calhoun had asked President Monroe to censure then-General Jackson for his invasion of Spanish Florida in 1818.

Calhoun was then serving as James Monroe’s Secretary of War (1817–1823). Jackson had invaded Florida during the First Seminole War without explicit public authorization from Calhoun or Monroe. Calhoun’s and Jackson’s relationship deteriorated further. Calhoun defended his position and by February 1831 the break between the two men was irrevocable.

In 1832, states’ rights theory was put to the test in the Nullification Crisis, after South Carolina passed an ordinance that nullified federal tariffs. Congress passed the Force Bill, which empowered the President to use military power to force states to obey all federal laws. Jackson sent US Navy warships to Charleston harbor, and even talked of hanging Calhoun. South Carolina then nullified the Force Bill.

Cooler heads prevailed and Congress passed the Compromise Tariff of 1833, a proposal by Senator Henry Clay to change the tariff law in a manner which satisfied Calhoun, who by then was in the Senate.

Calhoun ran for the Senate in 1832 and was elected by the South Carolina legislature. After the Compromise Tariff of 1833 was implemented, the Nullifier Party, along with other anti-Jackson politicians, formed a coalition known as the Whig Party. Calhoun would gain his most lasting fame and his most influence as a senator.

Calhoun led the pro-slavery faction in the Senate in the 1830s and 1840s, opposing both abolitionism and attempts to limit the expansion of slavery into the western territories; actively anti-Wilmot Proviso. He was a major advocate of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, which required the co-operation of local law enforcement officials in free states to return escaped slaves.

In a famous speech on the Senate floor on February 6, 1837, Calhoun asserted that slavery was a “positive good.” He rooted this claim on two grounds: white supremacy and paternalism.

“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 may say with truth, that in few countries so much is left to the share of the laborer, and so little exacted from him, or where there is more kind attention paid to him in sickness or infirmities of age. Compare his condition with the tenants of the poor houses in the more civilized portions of Europe—look at the sick, and the old and infirm slave, on one hand, in the midst of his family and friends, under the kind superintending care of his master and mistress, and compare it with the forlorn and wretched condition of the pauper in the poorhouse… 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.”

Calhoun cooperated with Jackson’s successor Martin Van Buren, who became president in 1837. Democrats were very hostile to national banks, and the country’s bankers had joined the opposition Whig Party. The Democratic replacement was the “Independent Treasury” system, which Calhoun supported and which went into effect.

Calhoun, like Jackson and Van Buren, attacked finance capitalism, which he saw as the common enemy of the Northern laborer, the Southern planter, and the small farmer everywhere. He therefore united these groups under the banner of the Democratic Party.

Van Buren’s successor was William Henry Harrison, a Whig, who died a mere month after taking office. He was succeeded by John Tyler, a former DEmocrat, who appointed Calhoun as Secretary of State in 1844. Calhoun would serve in that position for less than a year but had a huge impact on American foreign policy.

He was able to resolve  the Oregon boundary dispute, claimed by both Britain and the U.S. Calhoun compromised by splitting the area down the middle at the 49th parallel, ending the war threat.

Tyler and Calhoun, who were both Southerners, were eager to annex the independent Republic of Texas. Texas was slave country and the Southerners wished to bring Texas into the Union as a slave state. When the Senate could not muster a two-thirds vote to pass a treaty of annexation with Texas, Calhoun devised a joint resolution of the Houses of Congress, requiring only a simple majority. Texas joined the Union and war broke out with Mexico in 1846.

Meanwhile, Calhoun had resigned as Secretary of State in March 1845 and returned to the Senate in November of the same year. Calhoun by then believed that the country was threatened by a totally corrupt party system. He believed that in their lust for office, patronage and spoils, politicians in the North pandered to the antislavery vote, especially during presidential campaigns, and politicians in the slave states sacrificed Southern rights in an effort to placate the Northern wings of their parties.

He was the driving force behind the drafting and publication of the “Address of the Southern Delegates in Congress, to Their Constituents.” It listed the alleged Northern violations of the constitutional rights of the South, then warned southern voters to expect forced emancipation of slaves in the near future, followed by their complete subjugation by an unholy alliance of unprincipled Northerners and blacks, and a South forever reduced to “disorder, anarchy, poverty, misery, and wretchedness.”

By 1850, Calhoun was gravely ill with tuberculosis. During the debate over the Compromise of 1850, which Calhoun rejected, he was so ill that one of his colleagues read his speech, calling upon the Constitution, which upheld the South’s right to hold slaves; warning that the day “the balance between the two sections” was destroyed would be a day not far removed from disunion, anarchy, and civil war.

John C. Calhoun died on March 31, 1850 in Washington. He was returned to Charleston and interred in the St. Philip’s Churchyard.



The Missouri Compromise

This entry is part 4 of 18 in the series The Roots of the Civil War

Missouri Compromise of 1820The period from 1800 until the passage of the Missouri Compromise in 1820 was a tumultuous one in the United States and the world. The slave population in the United States continued to grow and in the 1800 Census there were 893,605 slaves held in bondage. The Napoleonic Wars raged across Europe and the oceans of the world. The United States instituted an embargo that was extremely unpopular in New England and the Mid-Atlantic manufacturing states.

Click to enlarge image.

In 1803 the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory from France. The total land that came to the United States doubled the size of the country and added 828,000 square miles to the country. There was a large population of enslaved Africans made up of a high proportion of recent arrivals from Africa, as Spain had continued the international slave trade.

This was particularly true of the area of the present-day state of Louisiana, which also contained a large number of free people of color. Both present-day Arkansas and Missouri also had some people holding slaves.

As states organized within the territory, the status of slavery in each state became a matter of contention in Congress, as southern states wanted slavery extended to the west, and northern states just as strongly opposed new states being admitted as slave states.

At the urging of President Jefferson, Congress outlaws the international slave trade in an Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves. Importing or exporting slaves becomes a federal crime, effective January 1, 1808; in 1820 it is made the crime of piracy. The trade had been about 14,000 a year; illegal smuggling begins and brings in about 1,000 new foreign-born slaves per year.

John Randolph of Roanoke warns during the debates that outlawing the slave trade might become the “pretext of universal emancipation” and further warns that it would “blow up the constitution.” If there ever should be disunion, he prophesies, the line would be drawn between the states that did and those that did not hold slaves

States continued to enter the Union with an alternating pattern of slave states and free states. This was done in order to maintain a balance and keep the opponents and proponents of slavery satisfied that their particular interests were being preserved.

The War of 1812 was fought over issues entirely unrelated to slavery but one offshoot of the conflict was the Hartford Convention. With delegates from Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island and unofficial delegates from New Hampshire and Vermont who met between December 15, 1814 and January 4, 1815, they made their unhappiness known about New England’s opposition to the War of 1812 and the trade embargoes.

The convention report said that New England had a “duty” to assert its authority over unconstitutional infringements on its sovereignty, a position similar to the later nullification theory put forward by South Carolina. The war soon ends and the convention and the Federalist Party which had supported it fell out of favor. This was especially true in the South although leaders there would later adopt the States’ rights concept for their own purposes.

The events that precipitated the Missouri Compromise began when the territory of Missouri petitioned the Congress to enter the Union in 1818. The admission of Missouri as a slave state threatened the balance of 11 free states and 11 slave states. Three years of debate ensued.

A period of maneuvering began in the Congress when Representative James Tallmadge, Jr. of New York submitted an amendment to the Missouri legislation which would have prohibited further introduction of slaves into Missouri. The proposal also would free all children of slave parents in Missouri when they reached the age of twenty-five. The measure passed in the House of Representatives but was defeated in the Senate.

Representative Thomas W. Cobb of Georgia threatens disunion if Tallmadge persists in attempting to have his amendment enacted. Southern Senators delay a bill to admit Maine as a free state in response to the delay of Missouri’s admission to the union as a slave state.

Henry Clay, the Speaker of the House, proposed a compromise to alleviate the Missouri and Maine admissions. He proposed that Missouri be admitted to the Union as a slave state (which it was on August 10, 1821) and the northern counties of Massachusetts would be admitted as a free state, the State of Maine (which occurred on March 15, 1820).

In the west, slavery would be prohibited north of 36°30′ of latitude, which was approximately the southern boundary of Missouri. Many Southerners argued against exclusion of slavery from such a large area of the country. The restriction of slavery north of the 36° 30′ line of latitude would later be abrogated by the popular sovereignty voting provision of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854.

Many historians say that the Missouri Compromise helped to postpone the outbreak of the Civil War by setting up a free slate-slave state framework for the further expansion of the United States across the continent. But Following Maine’s 1820 and Missouri’s 1821 admissions to the Union, no other states were admitted until 1836, when Arkansas was admitted.

But Thomas Jefferson in a letter to Senator John Holmes of Maine said in part:

…but this momentous question, like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union. it is hushed indeed for the moment. but this is a reprieve only, not a final sentence. A geographical line, coinciding with a marked principle, moral and political, once conceived and held up to the angry passions of men, will never be obliterated; and every new irritation will mark it deeper and deeper.

Jefferson believed that a country divided by the Compromise Line would only lead to further divisions and eventually the destruction of the country that he had helped to create.

The Missouri Compromise would last until the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 and the Dred Scott Decision of 1857. By then pitched battles were taking place along the Kansas-Missouri border and the rise of men like John Brown would eventually light the spark of Disunion and Civil War.


What came before Fort Sumter

This entry is part 1 of 18 in the series The Roots of the Civil War

What came before Fort SumterFor many the firing on Fort Sumter was the cause of the American Civil War. But before Confederate artillery fired on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861 there were over 70 years of historical events that formed the narrative that created the American Civil War. Over the course of the next several posts we’ll examine those events, starting with the founding of the country and the Constitution of the United States.

Let’s get this point out of the way at the start. The primary cause of the American Civil War is slavery, pure and simple. Every secession document attests to that fact. The Cornerstone Speech of Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens is very clear about their beliefs:

“Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.”

Yes, the South complained about the tariff system in the United States but the impact of tariffs on the Southern states was exacerbated by the institution of slavery. The Southern planter economy was based on slavery and never really diversified in the antebellum period. Every part of the Southern economy was subordinated to the institution of slavery and its products: cotton, tobacco, rice and peanuts.

The Southern states claimed that states’ rights was a primary cause of the war but the root cause of this was slavery. Without slavery the Southern states would not have complained so loudly about state’s rights. Without slavery there would have been no need for nullification.

Let’s start at the beginning then. In 1619, a Dutch ship brought about twenty black Africans to the Colony of Virginia as indentured servants. From this beginning, slavery will be introduced to the future United States. From 1619 until 1865 and even to today, all of American history has been impacted by that one event.

By 1671 about 2,000 of the 40,000 inhabitants of colonial Virginia are imported slaves. White indentured servants working for five years before their release are three times as numerous and provide much of the hard labor. But that would change as more and more black slaves replaced white indentured servants.

By 1719, non-slaveholding farmers in Virginia think slave labor threatens their livelihoods. They persuade the General Assembly to discuss a prohibition of slavery or a ban on importing slaves. In response, the assembly raises the tariff on slaves to five pounds, which about equals the full price of an indenture, so as not to make importation of slaves as initially attractive or preferable to a mere indenture for a term of years.

In 1774, on the eve of the American Revolution, Quakers, under the leadership of James Pemberton, and those of other faiths including Dr. Benjamin Rush, organize the first anti-slavery society in the colonies soon to become the United States, The Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery, in Philadelphia.

In 1776, the United States Declaration of Independence declares “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Written by a slave-owning Virginian, Thomas Jefferson, it allows slavery to remain legal in the colonies.

In 1778, the Virginia legislature passes a law, with Thomas Jefferson’s support and probably authorship, that bans importing slaves into Virginia. It is the first state to ban the slave trade, and all other states eventually followed.

On July 13, 1787 the Continental Congress under the Articles of Confederation passes the Northwest Ordinance to govern territory north of the Ohio River and west of Pennsylvania. The territory will become the states of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin and Minnesota.

In the ordinance, Congress prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude in the territory and requires the return of fugitive slaves found in the territory to their owners. The law no longer applies as soon as the territories become states.

Anti-slavery Northerners cite the ordinance many times over the years as precedent for the limitation, if not the abolition, of slavery in the United States. Despite the terms of the ordinance, Southern-born settlers will try and fail to pass laws to allow slavery in Indiana and Illinois.

Following the collapse of the Articles of Confederation the Continental Congress convenes to rewrite the Articles. But in attempting to do so they realize that a new document must be framed in order to govern the 13 colonies that are now the United States.

In the next post, we’ll look at the Constitution of the United and the debate over slavery and federalism.