Guest Essayist: Andrew Langer, President, Institute for Liberty

In his historical play, Henry V, Shakespeare talks about casting our glance back through history, and compressing the events of many years “into an hourglass.”  In the 21st Century, it is easy to think of the debates on the abolition of slavery as having taken place with the relative-rapidity of the passage of Obamacare, but in reality this debate happened over the course of nearly an entire century of the nation’s founding years.

So we come to a speech by South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun, delivered on February 6, 1837, nearly a quarter century before the start of the Civil War.  His “Speech on the Reception of Abolition Petitions” was prescient in its predictions of animosity and bloodshed between Northern and Southern states–so prescient that one might think it had been written in the mid-1850s, not the latter half of the 1830s.

But, just as one cannot take the historic actions of any modern legislator in isolation, one must understand not only the historic context of the speech (what had led to it), but the contemporary context as well.  Calhoun, who in this speech enunciates for the first time the Southern view that slavery was a positive social force, was responding not only to the social movements of the early part of the 19th Century, political pressures that were mounting over time, he was also responding to what was happening, on that same day, with his opposing counterparts in the US House of Representatives!

The First Amendment to the US Constitution guarantees a right to petition the federal government “for a redress of grievances.”  While the force and effect of this right is much-debated today, it had a very real manifestation in the politics of the first half of the 19th Century.  Congress had been, quite literally, besieged by anti-slavery petitions, hundreds of thousands of them, and between their overwhelming nature and the level of aggravation it was producing for legislators from slaveholding states, these members of Congress passed a rule forcing all such petitions to be immediately tabled–essentially a “gag rule” on abolition petitions.

Former President John Quincy Adams, at that point a member of the US House (and one of its leading voices on abolition), had been using his mastery of political tactics to sidestep these rules–he saw the idea that one could abrogate a guaranteed right simply through House procedure as a perversion of the very idea of constitutional governance.  One of these tactics was to literally read the rules so as to claim they were only meant to bar the petitioning of grievances by those who were able to vote (in other words, it would allow petitions from women, who at that time could not vote).

On February 6, 1837, Adams tried, again, to introduce a petition, this time claiming that it was from “nine abolitionist ladies from Fredericksburg, Virginia” (Virginia being a slaveholding southern state)–he was prevented from bringing it to the floor.  Adams then created chaos when he attempted to open discussion on a petition from twenty-two slaves.  This the House was not going to tolerate–members moved to try to punish President Adams with a formal censure, and initiated these proceedings (which ultimately ended with that motion being tabled… five years later).  The resolution to censure claimed that Adams’ actions would lead to an insurrection by southern slaves, and it is in this context that we should examine Calhoun’s remarks–being delivered on the same day, just across the Capitol.

As a political analyst of the modern era, there seems something almost desperate in Calhoun’s speech.  Himself a former Vice-President under two different administrations (one, ironically, being John Quincy Adams’ presidency), and no stranger to iconoclastic rhetoric, Calhoun launches into a defense of the South’s “curious institution and cherished way of life” that, for all its nuggets of prognostication, nevertheless goes over the top in its lauding of what all now see as an evil stain on the American story.

Calhoun not only foresaw the conflict which was to erupt between slaveholding and non-slaveholding states, he also foresaw the ultimate tossing of slavery as an American practice onto the “ash heap of history” (and rightly so).  His upbringing, his steadfast commitment to this cause, doomed by its abhorrent immorality is what brings him to this act of desperation.

What he failed to see, and this is where the prism of history is colored by modern perspective, is that no society which protects individual rights can deny the wholesale rights to individuals on the other.  Moreover, he cannot argue that the protection of his right to own slaves can be protected on the back of denying the First Amendment rights of his fellow citizens.

Yes, Calhoun was right in many of his predictions.  But that accuracy is forever tarnished by the context in which those predictions were made.

Read Sen. John C. Calhoun’s Speech on Reception of Abolition Petitions here:

Andrew Langer is President of the Institute for Liberty, and host of The Broadside, a weekly internet radio show, which can be found on

Friday, April 19, 2013 – Essay #45 

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