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This is an updated version of our episode from July 3, 2018. We discuss how John C. Calhoun led the charge in believing slavery to be a “positive good”.

This is a updated version of “There’s No Excuse for Slavery” which was released on July 3rd, 2018. Enjoy!

The planters of the South believed that slavery had grown up with American society and its’ institutions. John C. Calhoun argued that slavery was a “positive good” because he believed that no well‐​off society existed in which “one portion of the community did not in point of fact, live on the labor of the other”. How did beliefs like these and those of Calhoun’s followers further split the Union?

How could a man like Jefferson at once declare all humanity’s equal, natural rights and yet hold hundreds of people in bondage? What was state‐​made racism? Who were the beneficiaries of slavery? Who were the Quakers and how did they influence the anti‐​slavery movement? What is the argument of slavery as a “positive good”? Who really was John C. Calhoun?

Further Reading:

John C. Calhoun and Slavery as a “Positive Good:” What He Said, written by Clyde Wilson

John C. Calhoun: He Started the Civil War, written by Civil War Times

Music by Kai Engel


00:01 Anthony Comegna: Slavery has existed forever, or at least it seems reasonable to think so, and it has existed just about everywhere. It is without a doubt, a complicated subject, but this does not mean it was ever acceptable or ever right. For most of us, I hope, slavery is now and always has been so appallingly wrong, so contrary to our most deeply held convictions and values that we have to stretch and strain to understand it. How could a man like Jefferson at once declare all humanities equal, natural rights and yet hold hundreds of people in bondage?

00:43 Anthony Comegna: For decades now, there has been an increasingly popular tendency to deal with the legacy of racial slavery in America by trying to ignore it entirely or explain it away. These… Oh, let’s just go ahead and call them neo‐​confederates, have either tried to outright deceive their audiences about the history of slavery, or they have been guilty of chronic professional malpractice.

01:10 Anthony Comegna: No doubt, listeners have heard these interpretations over and over, the idea that slavery was not so bad or that Northern free blacks had it off worse. Or that race had nothing to do with it, because white people were indentured or some black people also owned slaves. Or that Southerners absolutely disagreed with slavery in the abstract, and so of course secession was really all about tariffs. The list of myths goes on and on, and so shall we, because libertarianism and abolitionism have always been one and the same thing, but we won’t know that for real unless we start telling the whole truth about slavery, slave holders and their millions of voting accomplices.


02:05 Anthony Comegna: Welcome to Liberty Chronicles, a project of lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org. I’m Anthony Comegna. We have covered the origins of racial slavery before, after Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676, the Virginia legislature steadily implemented a series of slave codes which became the model for all other British colonies there after. The codes define slaves as people of African descent, and forbade any other peoples from being held as chattel. The codes restricted black and white liberties alike, all in the name of preventing slave rebellion. Now that only blacks could be enslaved and only whites had civil rights, people who might otherwise be natural allies in radicalism were driven apart by the great wedge of state‐​made racism. North American slave society found allies in enlightenment intellectuals who scientifically determined racial classifications and ranks. Scientific racists were usually closely tied to imperial interests one way or another, and many of them were the actual hired guns of the government, like John Locke. Others were direct private beneficiaries of slavery like… Well, again, John Locke.

03:25 Anthony Comegna: Despite the trickle of anti‐​slavery sentiment that also came out of the enlightenment, both slavery and the slave trade reached their peaks across the Atlantic world at the turn of the 19th century. And what did the great American revolutionaries do about all of this injustice and falsehood? Well, actually, they did do a lot, but we have to carefully distinguish between the different states, their political classes, their economic interests and their purposes in joining the revolution.

03:56 Anthony Comegna: In the decades immediately following independence, Northern states, one after another, abolished slavery, some did so outright, without delay and without compensation. Others employed some compensated emancipation, usually in the form of gradual timeframes that freed younger generations and kept their parents in chains. But the farther South one went and the more slaves there were in that state, the more committed political elites remained to protecting the source of their wealth and power.

04:27 Anthony Comegna: Southern politicians fought abolitionism in all its forms for the next eight to nine decades. And their commitment only intensified over time, especially once cotton became so important to the global economy. For the most part though, abolitionism stayed contained. Once Northerners abolished slavery in their own societies, their own states, that was usually enough for them. Most Northerners were happy to have all those Africans confined to the South anyways.

04:58 Anthony Comegna: What abolitionist movement there was, began with isolated revolutionary individuals like Benjamin Lay, the Quaker little person. From his private residence, a cave in the Pennsylvania countryside, Benjamin Lay plotted acts of street theater, calculated to shame Quakers into anti‐​slavery. For a solid 50 years, through revolution and counterrevolution, the Quakers were the only significant block of anti‐​slavery political actors, and by 1816, a friend named Benjamin Lundy made it his life’s purpose to found a national anti‐​slavery society. With his Baltimore paper, ‘The Genius of Universal Emancipation’, Lundy helped convert key figures like William Lloyd Garrison. Under Garrison’s influence, anti‐​slavery became a true movement with the kind of moral force that would have made old Benjamin Lay very proud. Garrison began publishing his own paper, ‘The Liberator’ in early 1831.

06:00 Anthony Comegna: Later that year, Virginia slave Nat Turner rose in bloody rebellion, and some said he was influenced by Garrison himself, though there’s no evidence of this. For decades at this point, the Southern economy had become hyper‐​dependent upon the coerced labour of black slaves, the entire social system, the individual planters capital stock, the value of his assets and his balance sheet, the very fabric of Southern social life, all of it depended upon slavery’s continued existence. And the simple fact is, that vanishingly few Southern political leaders ever tried to end slavery or even enact something approaching abolition.

06:39 Anthony Comegna: Instead, the old tobacco planters gladly sold slaves further West to take advantage of the cotton boom. The cotton planters meanwhile, increasingly thought of themselves as a masters of the whole country along with their hundreds of slaves. The Southern cotton crop drove so much of the national economy and slaves made so much money for their masters. It was all enough to make a planter punch drunk with self‐​importance.

07:08 Anthony Comegna: But it wasn’t just the planters, the vast and always growing coalition of pro‐​slavery agents included newspaper editors, business interests, commercial interest in both sections, politicians, preachers, professors and common people right the way down to the average slaveless poor farmer who lusted after nothing so much as joining the ranks of great planters. But to be a planter you needed slaves, and by the 1830s, Southerners of all sorts were crying out that Abolitionists were getting them all wrong. The slaveholder was no necessary evil, no one fortunate inheritor of a wicked system, they were in fact, the great benefactors of all mankind by capturing the barbaric African, transporting him to the productive ground of America, introducing them to the light of Christianity and teaching them to be even more productive than the most extreme Calvinist. Planters were actually doing Africans a great service. Slavery was a positive good, an actual benefit for the slave and certainly for the rest of us too.

08:20 Anthony Comegna: This positive good argument was not at all new, it goes back to people like John Locke or the slave trader, William Snelgrave. The fact is that slave holders always consider their institution a positive good. It just took a couple hundred years, a new mega cash crop like cotton and the political cover of union fetishism, for them to embrace the case publicly. “Slavery,” they said, “is in fact, morally superior to free society.” There is no clearer or more important expression of this positive good school than John C. Calhoun’s speech before the Senate, in reaction to floods of abolitionist petitions.

09:04 Speaker 1: “Slavery, a Positive Good” a speech by John C. Calhoun, February 6, 1837. “I do not belong to the school which holds, that aggression is to be met by concession. Mine is the opposite creed which teaches that encroachments must be met at the beginning, and that those who act on the opposite principles are prepared to become slaves. In this case, in particular I hold concession or compromise to be fatal. If we concede an inch, concession would follow concession, compromise would follow compromise until our ranks would be so broken that effectual resistance would be impossible. We must meet the enemy on the frontier with a fixed determination of maintaining our position at every hazard. Consent to receive these insulting petitions and the next demand will be that they be referred to a committee in order that they may be deliberated and acted upon.

10:13 Speaker 1: At the last session we were modestly asked to receive them, simply to lay them on the table without any view to ulterior action. I then said that the next step would be to refer the petition to a committee. And I already see indications that such is now the intention. If we yield, that will be followed by another, and we will thus proceed step by step to the final consummation of the object of these petitions. We are now told that the most effectual mode of arresting the progress of abolition, is to reason it down. And with this view, it is urged that the petitions ought to be referred to a committee. The most unquestionable right may be rendered doubtful if once admitted to be a subject of controversy, and that would be the case in the present instance.

11:08 Speaker 1: The subject is beyond the jurisdiction of Congress, they have no right to touch it in any shape or form, or to make it the subject of deliberation or discussion. As widely as this incendiary spirit has spread, it has not yet infected this body or the great mass of the intelligent and business portion of the North. But unless it be speedily stopped, it will spread and work upwards till it brings the two great sections of the union into deadly conflict. This is not a new impression with me. Several years since in a discussion with one of the senators from Massachusetts, Mr. Webster, before this fell spirit had showed itself, I then predicted that the doctrine of the proclamation and the Force Bill, that this government had a ride in the last resort to determine the extent of its own powers and enforce its decision at the point of the bayonet, which was so warmly maintained by that senator, would at no distant day arouse the dormant spirit of abolitionism?

12:25 Speaker 1: I told him that the doctrine was tantamount to the assumption of unlimited power on the part of the government, and that such would be the impression on the public mind in a large portion of the union. The consequence would be inevitable. A large portion of the Northern states believe slavery to be a sin, and would consider it as an obligation of conscience to abolish it if they should feel themselves in any degree, responsible for its continuance, and that this doctrine would necessarily lead to the belief of such responsibility. I then predicted that it would commence as it has with this fanatical portion of society, and that they would begin their operations on the ignorant, the weak, the young and the thoughtless, and gradually extend upwards till they would become strong enough to obtain political control, when he and others holding the highest stations in society would however reluctant, be compelled to yield to their doctrines or be driven into obscurity.

13:38 Speaker 1: But four years have since elapsed, and all this is already in a course of regular fulfillment. They who imagine that the spirit, now abroad in the North will die away of itself without a shock or convulsion have formed a very inadequate conception of its real character. It will continue to rise and spread unless prompt and efficient measures to stay its progress be adopted. Already it has taken possession of the pulpit, of the schools and to a considerable extent, of the press. Those great instruments by which the mind of the rising generation will be formed.”

14:29 Anthony Comegna: I’m hard‐​pressed to think of many more awful figures in American history than John C. Calhoun. And yet, even today, even after endless evidence to the contrary, there are still those who would have us believe Calhoun was some sort of early libertarian. If you’ve heard of Calhoun from these Neo‐​Confederate historians, chances are you’ve heard he was a great champion of states’ rights, that he was a great free trader, that he cherished a small and inactive government, that he had a backbone made of equal parts principle and steel. Well, none of that is true. For his entire career, Calhoun was a devout unionist, and his support for states’ rights was always part of a calculated maneuver, a power play against Northern politicians to both hold the union together and keep slavery safe. In his lifelong pursuit of the presidency, Calhoun was perfectly willing to regulate trade if it worked to the South’s benefit, much the same with the size of government, so long as federal bigness was employed to support slaveholding, it was perfectly fine with him. And all that supposed principle was in fact, a very well considered plan for winning office, by appealing to the Southerners fear of slaves and the Northerners fear of disunion.

15:49 Speaker 1: However sound the great body of the non‐​slave holding states are at present, in the course of a few years, they will be seceded by those who will have been taught to hate the people and institutions of nearly one half of this union, and with a hatred more deadly than one hostile nation has ever entertained towards another. It is easy to see the end by the necessary course of events if left to themselves, we must become finally two people. It is impossible under the deadly hatred which must spring up between the two great nations. If the present causes are permitted to operate unchecked, that we should continue under the same political system, the conflicting elements would burst the union asunder, powerful as all the links which hold it together.

16:49 Speaker 1: Abolition and the union cannot coexist. As the friend of the union, I openly proclaim it, and the sooner it is known, the better. The former may now be controlled, but in a short time it will be beyond the power of man to arrest the course of events. We of the South will not, cannot surrender our institutions to maintain the existing relations between the two races inhabiting that section of the union, is indispensable to the peace and happiness of both. It cannot be subverted without drenching the country in blood, and extirpating one or the other of the races.

17:34 Speaker 1: Be it good or bad, slavery has grown up with our society and institutions, and it is so interwoven with them that to destroy it, would be to destroy us as a people. But let me not be understood as admitting even by implication, that the existing relations between the two races and the slaveholding states is an evil. Far otherwise, I hold it to be a good… I appeal to the 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. In the meantime, the white or European race has not degenerated, it has kept pace with its brethren in other sections of the union where slavery does not exist.

18:31 Speaker 1: It is odious to make comparison but I appeal to all sides whether the South is not equal in virtue, intelligence, patriotism, courage, disinterestedness, and all the high qualities which adorn our nature. But I take higher ground, I hold in the present state of civilization, we are 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.

19:23 Speaker 1: 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. Broad and general as is this assertion, it is fully born out by history. This is not the proper occasion but if it were, it would not be difficult to trace the various devices by which the wealth of all civilized communities has been so unequally divided and to show by what means so small a share has been allotted to those by whose labour it was produced and so large a share been given to the non‐​producing classes.

20:11 Speaker 1: The devices are almost innumerable, from the brute force and gross superstition of ancient times, to the subtle and artful fiscal contrivances of modern. I might well challenge a comparison between them and the more direct, simple and patriarchal mode by which the labor of the African race is among us commanded by the European. 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.

20:52 Speaker 1: Compare his condition with the tenants of the poorhouses 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. But I will not dwell on this aspect of the question, I turn to the political. And here, I fearlessly assert that the existing relation between the two races in the South against which these blind fanatics are waging war, forms the most solid and durable foundation on which to rear free and stable political institutions.

21:41 Speaker 1: It is useless to disguise the fact there is and always has been an advanced stage of wealth and civilization, a conflict between labor and capital. The condition of society in the South exempts us from the disorders and dangers resulting from this conflict, and which explains why it is that the political condition of the slaveholding states has been so much more stable and quiet than that of the North, surrounded as the slaveholding states are with such imminent perils.

22:19 Speaker 1: I rejoice to think that our means of defense are ample if we shall prove to have the intelligence and spirit to see and apply them before it is too late. All we want is concert, to lay aside all party differences, and unite with zeal and energy and repealing approaching dangers. Let there be concert of action, and we shall find ample means of security without resorting to secession, or disunion. I speak with full knowledge and a thorough examination of the subject. And for one, see my way clearly, I dare not hope that anything I can say will arouse the South to a due sense of danger. I fear, it is beyond the power of moral voice to awaken it in time from the fatal security into which it has fallen.


23:33 Anthony Comegna: Calhoun was a politician, just like virtually any other, especially those who seek out and actually obtain high office. He was a schemer, an insider, he was a crummy capitalist who depended upon government for his own livelihood, every step of the way through his life. This man was a representative, a senator, vice president for two different presidents of two different parties who hated each other. He was secretary of war for Monroe and secretary of state for Tyler, and Polk. Texas annexation was his pet project. And though he paid lip service to the antiwar sentiment, it was only because he feared it might upset the balance of power that protected slavery, and once the war was on, he felt no problem voting to fund it from the Senate. But he was hardly alone.

24:23 Anthony Comegna: I wrote my master’s thesis on the subject, and let me tell you from firsthand experience, the positive good school included a very, very wide segment of Southerners. Virtually every single newspaper parroted these ideas. Letters to the editor from readers were more violent sometimes in pro‐​slavery than the paper’s staff. And everywhere, vigilance committees and mobs stifled abolitionist speech, they banned abolitionist literature, lynched incendiaries and would‐​be slave rebels. They lynched free blacks and people guilty of breaking the slave codes.

24:57 Anthony Comegna: I could give you quote after quote about how Southerners came to think of slavery as a very positive, very good, universally beneficial institution, the basis of Southern civilization. And as the show goes on, I will, but for now, let me close by saying, enough is enough already. Let’s put an end to worshipping awful heroes like Calhoun. Let’s stop all of this prattling on about how he and people like him, were products of their time. There are way better products of the time out there to choose from, and we have met many of them on this show. Thanks to just a little history from below. The fact is that all Americans could have been like Benjamin Lay, Lundy, Garrison, Leggett, and all the other anti‐​slavery luminaries. But most people chose otherwise, most people, in the South made a real choice to positively support and protect slavery, even at the expense of their own white liberties. Most people in the North chose to let well enough alone, and profit from slavery regardless.

26:10 Anthony Comegna: People of both sections chose to ignore the slaves cries for liberty, they chose to break up slaves families and ship them around the country, they chose to represent themselves with people who supported the whole dirty business, and they only emancipated slaves begrudgingly after decades of abolitionist agitation. And now, we libertarians of the 21st century, we, too face the choice to either ignore the truth in service of personal purposes, or to once again boldly proclaim ourselves on the sides of the abolitionists, the radicals, the constant and tireless agitators who gave birth through our own modern conceptions of personal freedom.

27:01 Anthony Comegna: But as we have seen and we will continue seeing it, the hard truth is that there have always been factions willing to sell out people of other cultural or ethnic groups, if it means easier routes to political victory. Modern libertarianism was born in the abolitionist crucible, in this battle between principled abolitionists and political compromisers. And if we, in the modern day, choose to ignore the true history of slavery, racism and those many, many people who justified it all, our ignorance will be its own sort of violence. It’s about time we put an end to it.

27:49 Anthony Comegna: Liberty Chronicles is a project of lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org. It is produced by Tess Terrible. If you’ve enjoyed this episode of Liberty Chronicles, please rate, review and subscribe to us on iTunes. For more information on Liberty Chronicles, visit lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org.