February, 1837 – Senator John C. Calhoun Explains Why Slavery is a Positive Good, Taking the “High Ground”

Following his presidency, John Quincy Adams returned to Washington as a U.S. Congressman from Massachusetts. The voters who elected him produced many antislavery petitions, which he duly attempted to present. When Southern congressmen attempted to ban the presentation of antislavery petitions, Adams found himself engaged in constant battles with Congress, where he was eventually subject to a resolution known as “the gag rule” which cut off the possibility even of debate of such petitions.

John Quincy Adams. Copy of 1843 Daguerreotype by Philip Haas

John Quincy Adams. Copy of 1843 Daguerreotype by Philip Haas

Senator John C. Calhoun urged the Senate to institute its own gag rule. In a famous speech delivered on February 6, 1837, Senator Calhoun maintained that Congress was in effect waging war on representatives of twelve of the states, and he could not sit by in silence:

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. It came among us in a low, degraded, and savage condition, and in the course of a few generations it has grown up under the fostering care of our institutions, reviled as they have been, to its present compara­tively civilized condition. This, with the rapid increase of numbers, is conclusive proof of the general happiness of the race, in spite of all the exaggerated tales to the contrary.”

John C. Calhoun by Mathew Brady, 1849

John C. Calhoun by Mathew Brady, 1849

He asserted further:

. . . 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 feel myself called upon to speak freely upon the subject where the honor and interests of those I represent are involved.”

You can read the entire speech here.

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