Calhoun's Views Of Slavery, His Character, And His Personality
Calhoun's Views Of Slavery, His Character, And His Personality
BY JOHN S. JENKINS
Calhoun's view was that slavery ought not to be considered, as it exists in the United States, in the abstract; but rather as a political institution, existing prior to the formation of the government and expressly recognized in the Constitution. The framers of that instrument regarded slaves as property, and admitted the right of ownership in them. The institution being thus acknowledged, he contended that the faith of all the States was pledged against any interference with it in the States in which it existed; and that in the District of Columbia, and in the territories from which slavery had not been excluded by the Missouri Compromise, being the common property of all the States, the owner of slaves enjoyed the same rights and was entitled to the same protection, if he chose to emigrate thither, or if already a resident, as if he were in one of the slave States—in other words, that upon common soil his right of property should be respected. Any interference with it, therefore, direct or indirect, immediate or remote, he felt bound to oppose, and did oppose to the very close of his life.
He held, too, that it was desirable to continue the institution at the South; that it had been productive of more good than harm; and that "in no other condition, or in any other age or country, [had] the negro race ever attained so high an elevation in morals, intelligence, or civilization." Slavery, he was accustomed to say, existed in some form or another, in all civilized countries; and he was disposed to doubt the correctness of the sentiment contained in the Declaration of Independence, that all men are born free and equal. Natural rights, indeed, in every ate, in every country, and under every form of government, have been, and are, regulated and controlled by political institutions. He considered the colored population as constituting an inferior race, and that slavery was not a degradation, but had the direct tendency to improve their moral, social, and intellectual condition. The situation of the slaves was an enviable one in comparison with that of the free negroes at the North, or with that of the operatives in the manufactories and the laboring classes generally in Great Britain. Of what value, except relatively he asked—and asked, too, with a great deal of pertinence— were political rights, when he saw thousands of voters, in the Northern States, in the service of powerful monopolies or employed on public works, fairly driven to the polls with ballots in their hands?
The negro slave, he contended, felt and acknowledged his inferiority, and regarded his position as a proper and natural one. The two races in the Southern States were almost equal in numbers. They could not live upon terms of equality. "It may, in truth, be assumed as a maxim," was his language, "that two races differing so greatly, and in so many respects, can not possibly exist together in the same country, where their numbers are nearly equal, without the one being subjected to the other. Experience has proved that the existing relation, in which the one is subjected to the other, in the slaveholding States, is consistent with the peace and safety of both, with great improvement to the inferior; while the same experience proves that . . . the abolition of slavery would (if it did not destroy the inferior by conflicts, to which it would lead) reduce it to the extremes of vice and wretchedness. In this view of the subject, it may be asserted, that what is called slavery is in reality a political institution, essential to the peace, safety, and prosperity of those States of the Union in which it exists."
Entertaining these views, it is not strange that Mr. Calhoun regarded the movements of the Abolitionists as being dictated by a false philanthropy, and that he thought them calculated, if persisted in, to jeopard the happiness and tranquillity of the slave States, and to endanger the peace of the Union; nor that he so often warned his fellow citizens of the Southern States against the designs openly avowed, or secretly cherished, which, if not early opposed or counteracted, would prove highly prejudicial to their interests and their welfare. Where so much was at stake, he thought it well to be wise in time. . . .
No one ever saw Mr. Calhoun for the first time without being forcibly imprest with the conviction of his mental superiority. There was that in his air and in his appearance which carried with it the assurance that he was no common man. He had
not Hyperion's curls, nor the front of Jove. Miss Martineau termed him, in her "Travels in America," the cast-iron man, "who looked as if he had never been born." In person he was tall and slender and his frame appeared gradually to become more and more attenuated till he died. His features were harsh and angular in their outlines, presenting a combination of the Greek and the Roman. A serene and almost stony calm was habitual to them when in repose, but when enlivened in conversation or debate, their play was remarkable— the lights were brought out into bolder relief, and the shadows thrown into deeper shade.
His countenance, when at rest, indicated abstraction or a preoccupied air, and a stranger on approaching him could scarcely avoid an emotion of fear; yet he could not utter a word before the fire of genius blazed from his eye and illuminated his expressive features. His individuality was stamped upon his acute and intelligent face, and the lines of character and thought were clearly and strongly defined. His forehead was broad, tolerably high, and compact, denoting the mass of brain behind it. Until he had passed the grand climacteric, he wore his hair short and brushed it back, so that it stood erect on the top of his head, like bristles on the angry boar, or "quills upon the fretful porcupine," but toward the close of his life he suffered it to grow long, and to fall in heavy masses over his temples. But his eyes were his most striking features: they were dark blue, large and brilliant; in repose glowing with a steady light, in action fairly emitting flashes of fire.
His character was marked and decided, not prematurely exhibiting its peculiarities, yet formed and perfected at an early age. He was firm and prompt, manly and independent. His sentiments were noble and elevated, and everything mean or groveling was foreign to his nature. He was easy in his manners, and affable and dignified. His attachments were warm and enduring; he did not manifest his affection with enthusiastic fervor, but with deep earnestness and sincerity. He was kind, generous and charitable; honest and frank; faithful to his friends, but somewhat inclined to be unforgiving toward his enemies. He was attached to his principles and prejudices with equal tenacity; and when he had adopted an opinion, so strong was his reliance upon the correctness of his own judgment, that he often doubted the wisdom and sincerity of those who disagreed with him. He never shrank from the performance of any duty, however painful it might be—that it was a duty, was sufficient for him. He possest pride of character in no ordinary degree, and, withal, not a little vanity, which is said always to accompany true genius. His devotion to the South was not sectional so much as it was the natural consequence of his views with reference to the theory of the government; and his patriotism, like his fame, was coextensive with the Union.
In private life he was fitted to be loved and respected. Like Jefferson, Madison, Marshall, and the younger Adams, he was simple in his habits. When at home, he usually rose at daybreak, and, if the weather admitted, took a walk over his farm. He breakfasted at half-past seven, and then retired to his office, which stood near his dwellinghouse, where he wrote till dinner time, or three o'clock. After dinner he read or conversed with his family till sunset, when he took another walk. His tea hour was eight o'clock; he then joined his family again, and passed the time in conversation or reading till ten o'clock, when he retired to rest. As a citizen, he was without blemish; he wronged no one; and there were no ugly spots on his character to dim the brilliancy of his public career. His social qualities were endearing, and his conversational powers fascinating in the extreme. He loved to talk with the young; he was especially animated and instructive when engaged in conversation with them, and scarcely ever failed to inspire a sincere attachment in the breasts of those who listened to him. He frequently corresponded, too, with young men, and almost the last letter he wrote was addressed to a protege attending a law school in New York, and was replete with kind advice and with expressions of friendly interest.
He conversed, perhaps with too great freedom. He prided himself on being unreserved in the expression of his opinions, and yet this was a fault in his character; for in the transaction of business, and in deciding and acting upon important political questions, he was ordinarily cautious and prudent. To his very frankness, therefore, may be attributed, not the misrepresentations, but the occasion of the misrepresentations, of which he was a victim. He often complained that he was not understood, but he sometimes forgot that those who could not comprehend him, might have been already prejudiced by some remark of his, made at the wrong time, or in the wrong presence.
This disposition was reflective, and he spent hours at a time in earnest thought. But he was exceedingly fond of reading history and books of travel.
Works on government, on the rise and fall of empires, on the improvement and decline of the races of mankind and the struggles and contests of one with another, always attracted his attention. Indeed, his whole life was one of study and thought.
In his dress he was very plains and rarely appeared in anything except a simple suit of black. His constitution was not naturally robust; but notwithstanding the ceaseless labors of his mind, by a strict attention to regimen and the avoidance of all stimulants, his life was prolonged almost to the allotted three score and ten.
To say that he possest a great mind would be only repeating a trite remark. It was one of extraordinary compass and power. His rivals and compeers were intellectual giants, and among them he occupied no subordinate position. The most prominent characteristics of his mind were its massiveness and solidity, its breadth and scope, the clearness of its perceptions, and the directness with which they were express It was well balanced, because it was self-poised and he did not often "o'erstep the modesty of nature."
He was neither metaphysical nor subtle, in the sense in which mere schoolmen use those terms. He had studied the philosophy as well as the rules of logic; or, if not that, the faculty of reasoning with accuracy was natural to him. He was capable of generalizing and of drawing nice distinctions. He was shrewd in argument, and quick to observe the weak points of an antagonist. Of dialectics he was a complete master, whether synthetically or analytically considered. But his great power lay in analysis. He could resolve a complex argument or an idea into its original parts with as much
facility as the most expert mechanic could take a watch in pieces; and it was his very exquisiteness in this respect, that caused him to be regarded by many as sophistical and metaphysical.
He was fond of tracing out the causes which led to an effect, and of considering the vast combinations of circumstances that produced a certain result, or what in politics he called a juncture or a crisis. In the readiness and rapidity with which he analyzed and classified his thoughts, he had no superior, if he had an equal, among the public men of his day. While at the law school in Litchfield2, he accustomed himself to arrange the order of his thoughts, before taking part in a debate, not upon paper but in his mind, and to depend on his memory, which was peculiarly retentive. In this manner both his mind and memory were strengthened, and the former was made to resemble a storehouse full to overflowing, but with everything in its appropriate place
Like his life, his style was simple and pure, yet, for this very reason, often rising to an elevation of grandeur and dignity, which elaborate finish can never attain. It was modeled after the ancient classics, and distinguished for its clearness, directness, and energetic earnestness. His words were well chosen, and showed severe discipline in his early studies; but he never stopt to pick or cull them in the midst of a speech, for at such times his ideas seemed to come forth full draperied, like
2 Litchfield, Conn., where flourished a well known law school of the period. Litchfield in 1810 became the home of Dr. Lyman Beecher, and there soon afterward were born Henry Ward Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Calhoun was a student there a few years before Dr. Beecher arrived.
Minerva from the brain of Jupiter. He occasionally made use of a startling figure, or an antithetical expression, but there was no redundancy of ornament, tho—if that could be a blemish—there was a redundancy of thought.
As a statesman, his course was independent and high-minded. Principles he regarded as practical things, and he was firm in adhering to them, and bold and fearless in attacking error. He united the fiery ardor of Mirabeau to the steadiness of Malesherbes—the daring of Canning to the moderation of Liverpool. Few men possest a more happy faculty of ingratiating themselves into the favor of new acquaintances; but he never practiced the arts of the demagog, and, as he used to say, he was "an object of as great curiosity to people outside of a circle of five miles in this State [South Carolina] as anywhere else." He was ambitious, but his ambition was of a lofty character. He was not indifferent to party obligations, but he thought they ought to be limited to matters of detail and minor questions of policy, and not extended to important principles.
"People do not understand liberty or majorities," he remarked. "The will of a majority is the will of a rabble. Progressive democracy is incompatible with liberty. Those who study after this fashion are yet in the hornbook, the a, b, c of governments. Democracy is leveling—this is inconsistent with true liberty. Anarchy is more to be dreaded than despotic power. It is the worst tyranny. The best government is that which draws least from the people, and is scarcely felt, except to execute justice, and to protect the people from animal violation of law."
These opinions undoubtedly indicate the existence of a morbid melancholy in the breast of their author—of a proneness to look upon the dark side of human nature—yet they were uttered in all sincerity.
Possessing such exalted talents, the question may be asked, why Mr. Calhoun did not reach the Presidency; for his aspirations were often turned in that direction, tho he would sacrifice no principle to reach that high station. A late writer has enumerated three obstacles—his unconquerable independence, his incorruptible integrity, and the philosophical sublimity of his genius. That the first two contributed to this result is highly probable, but if by that other quality is meant an elevation of his genius entirely above the comprehension of the multitude, it is unjust to his character. He possest no such transcendental faculty or attribute. Truth, in its simplicity and beauty— as Mr. Calhoun presented it—goes home to every heart.
The death of Mr. Calhoun was a loss to the Union but to South Carolina the blow was peculiarly severe. For more than forty years she had trusted and confided in him, and she never found him faithless or remiss in his duty. He had received many honors at her hands, but not one was undeserved she owed him a debt of gratitude which she could never repay. She has produced many distinguished men; yet his memory and fame will be dearer than those of her Lawrences, her Gadsdens, her Pinckneys, her Rutledges, or her Haynes. Her soil contains no nobler dust than that of John Caldwell Calhoun.