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JOHN C. CALHOUN.
John C. CALHOUN was of Irish Presbyterian descent, born in the Abbeville District, South Carolina, March 18, 1782. His father died while he was yet young. His boyhood and youth were spent with his mother on the plantation, and without any regular schooling until he was eighteen years old. It is a striking proof of the intensity and power of his mind, that after only two years of study under private instruction he was able to enter the Junior class in Yale College. Two years later he. was graduated with honors. Three years more he devoted to the study of law. Not long after this he was elected to the legislature of his State, and in 1811 he was sent to Congress, taking at once a prominent place as a supporter of the measures which brought on the war with England. He was of the same age as Daniel Webster, and but little younger than Henry Clay — men with whom he was so incessantly brought in contact in public life, that, in spite of the fact of their almost constant antagonism, the three are often spoken of as “the great triumvirate” of American statesmen. Mr. Calhoun had the qualities of a born leader of men high intellectual force, albeit somewhat narrow, unflinching determination, fiery earnestness, and splendid oratorical powers. During the early part of his career he was broadly and generously national in the policies he supported, as is seen in Mr. Webster's sketch (pp. 204–207 of this volume). He filled successively many high positions, becoming Vice-President under John Quincy Adams, and again under Jackson in 1829. About this time his attitude seemed to change. His view was more and more concentrated upon the institutions and interests of the South. Henceforward he stood as the champion of State-Rights, and of whatever that doctrine finally involved nullification and the extension of the slave-holding power. As such he was frequently opposed to Mr. Webster and Mr. Clay (see concluding note to Mr. Webster's speech, p. 365). As time went on, and troubles gathered about the nation, Mr. Calhoun set himself with unflinching determination against all compromise, and used his utmost endeavor to make the whole South a unit for what he believed to be its right and its duty. He did not live to see the direful harvest which sprang up from the dragon's teeth he had sown. He died March 31, 1850.
SPEECH ON THE SLAVERY QUESTION.
At the conclusion of the Mexican War the country was thrown into a ferment over the question whether slavery should be admitted into the newly acquired territory, which under Mexican rule had been free. Southern men felt that their social and economic system would not be secure, even in its own home, unless it could maintain its equality of power in the general government, and particularly in the Senate. To accomplish this, a new slave State must be organized to match every new free State admitted into the Union. Now, the ordinance of 1787 and the Missouri Compromise had left very little territory out of which slave States could in future be formed. The Mexican War, therefore, had been supported by the South, mainly with a view to provide such territory. But before the war was over this design came very near being thwarted by the Wilmot Proviso (for which see below, note to page 293); and though the proviso failed at that time, there was every indication that it would be revived later, and that it might eventually succeed. At this juncture the inhabitants of California, without waiting for an "enabling act,” met in convention, drafted for themselves a State Constitution prohibiting slavery, ratified it by an overwhelming popular vote, and applied to Congress to be received into the Union. It seemed that the territorial acquisition which the slave-holding interest had counted on so confidently as its own was already slipping out of its grasp. The South was greatly roused. Its more fiery spirits denounced in unmeasured terms this violation of what
they thought their rights, and threatened more fiercely than ever to break up the Union. More thoughtful men regarded the crisis with profound distress and alarm. Among these, Henry Clay, then seventy-three years old, and retired from public life, felt called upon to come forward once more to avert, if possible, the impending ruin. His scheme for restoring harmony was presented to the Senate, Jan. 29, 1850, in a series of resolutions, and was supported by him in a great speech on Feb. 5 and 6. The debate which followed brought out, we are told, every man of note in the Senate, not merely its great leaders of the past, – Webster, Calhoun, and Clay, — whose race was almost run, but those who were to shape the future of the country — Seward, Chase, and Jefferson Davis.
The speech we have chosen from this great debate is specially memorable as being the last great utterance of Mr. Calhoun on the subject to which he had given the strength and force of his life. Of the purity of his purpose and of his profound sincerity there could be no question. His intellect was as bright and keen as ever, though the hand of death was visibly upon him. The speech, which he had carefully prepared, he was unable to deliver; it was read for him by a friend while he sat by. “Every senator listened with profound attention and unfeigned emotion; the galleries were hushed into the deepest silence by the extraordinary scene, which had something of the impressive solemnity of a funereal ceremony.” But apart from the interest arising out of the occasion, the speech has a profounder interest of its own, as being one of the frankest, clearest, and calmest statements ever made of the fundamental question at issue, as viewed from the Southern side, — a statement in which all subsidiary matters are brushed aside, and the central and naked issue is confronted with an unerring aim and an unflinching logic which is Calhoun's own.
TEXTUAL NOTES. PAGE 274, 13. federal numbers — that count of population upon which representation in Congress is apportioned.
PAGE 277, 14. Louisiana — not the limited area now embraced by the State of that name, but the immense territory
between the Mississippi and the Rocky Mountains purchased from France in 1803.
25 ff. By some inadvertence “the portion lying south of 36° 30°” is enumerated twice in this statement. The sense will be clear if we omit the first mention altogether, and read, “ To the South was left . . . the portion of Louisiana lying north of 36° 30' included in the state of Missouri, with ” etc.
PAGE 284, 25. I then so expressed myself, notably in the debates of 1836-1837.
PAGE 288, 7 ff. The rupture between the Northern and Southern wings of the Methodist and Baptist Churches occurred in 1845. That in the Presbyterian Church, which the speaker foresaw, occurred shortly after the outbreak of the war, in 1862. The schism in all these cases still exists.
PAGE 289, 31. The reader will recall in point such utterances as the peroration of Mr. Webster's speech of twenty years before.
PAGE 292, 25. The distinguished senator was Henry Clay. His plan, the Compromise of 1850, was this : “ The admission of California was to be made acceptable to the South by giving slavery a chance in Utah and New Mexico, and by the enactment of a more efficient fugitive slave law. The Northern people were to be reconciled to the abandonment of the Wilmot Proviso [for which see just below], as to Utah and New Mexico, and to a more efficient fugitive slave law by the admission of California as a free State and by the abolition of the slave-trade in the District of Columbia.” — Carl Schurz, in his Henry Clay, ii., p. 332.
PAGE 293, 9. The Wilmot Proviso was a rider attached to a bill providing for the settlement of difficulties with Mexico by a purchase of territory. It stipulated that neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall ever exist in any part of said territory.” This proviso passed the House, but was defeated in the Senate. Its principle, however, was affirmed by nearly all the Northern legislatures, and was taken as the foundation of the Free Soil party.
Page 297, 7 ff. “ These were the last words of the last speech of the great and honest nullifier. He could no more support himself. Two friends had to lead him out of the Senate chamber. Slowly and heavily the curtain rolled down to shut from the public gaze the last scene of the grand tragedy of this brilliant life. For nearly twenty years the suspicion, and even the direct accusation, had weighed on his shoulders that he was systematically working at the destruction of the Union. By doing more than any other single man towards raising the slavocracy to the pinnacle of power, he had actually done more than any other man to hasten the catastrophe and to determine its character; and yet he labored to the last with the intense anxiety of a true patriot to avert the fearful calamity. But the last efforts of his powerful mind were a most overwhelming refutation of all the doctrines whose foremost champion he had been ever since the days of nullification. It would have been impossible to pass a more annihilating judgment on them than he himself did in his speech of March 4, 1850.” — Von Holst in his John C. Calhoun, page 348.