As a defender of slavery, John C. Calhoun made arguments explicitly opposed to the Founders’ conception of individual rights. Calhoun, in his Disquisition on Government, denied the existence of a state of nature in which people are born free and equal. For Calhoun, this state of nature never did nor can exist; all men are born subject to social and political authority, and man’s natural state is the social and political one. Calhoun also insisted in his 1837 Speech on Abolition Petitions that the Southern states could not possibly surrender their institutions of slavery—which Calhoun claimed were beneficial to both races.
Calhoun believes that under slavery, the black race has attained a condition of unprecedented civilization and moral, physical, and intellectual improvement, a state vastly superior to its “initially low, degraded, savage conditions.” Furthermore, Calhoun claims that “there has never yet existed a wealthy and civilized society in which one portion of the community did not live on the labor of the other,” and in the South the conditions of the laborer were allegedly superior to those of the tenants of European poorhouses or the factory workers in the North; the slave is always in the midst of his family and taken care of by his master, whereas the poor outside the South have no such recourse. The Southern slave system, according to Calhoun, does not exhibit the destabilizing conflicts between capital and labor observed in the North.
Calhoun furthermore views slavery as protected by the Constitution; in delegating a portion of their rights to be exercised by the federal government, the states retained the exclusive right over their own domestic institutions—including slavery. Therefore, any intermeddling of one or more states with the domestic institutions of the other states under any pretext whatsoever is subversive of the Constitution (1838 speech). Any attack on slavery for Calhoun amounts to an attack on the states’ mutual constitutional pledge to protect and defend each other.
Calhoun’s arguments are mistaken in theory and have justified the horrendous enslavement of millions of human beings in practice. A Lockean case for natural rights and some logical argumentation can show all the flaws in Calhoun’s doctrines. I refute his pro-slavery claims in “Locke versus Calhoun on Natural Rights.”
Yet ultimately, the Union’s division had to be resolved not through argumentation, but through a bloody Civil War, which ended the division and led to the abolition of slavery via the Thirteenth Amendment. The Fourteenth Amendment granted U.S. citizenship to all persons born or naturalized within the United States and put in place protections for the rights of U.S. citizens against the states. The Fifteenth Amendment made it illegal to deny persons the right to vote on account of their race or previous condition of servitude. The Civil Rights Act of 1866 sought to protect all U.S. citizens in their rights to make and enforce contracts, sue, be parties, give evidence, inherit, purchase, lease, sell, hold, and convey real and personal property; this act sought to place ex-slaves on an equal footing with whites regarding the security of their person and property, thereby attempting to give all men as near an equality as possible with regard to their inalienable rights.
G. Stolyarov II is a science fiction novelist, independent philosophical essayist, poet, amateur mathematician, composer, contributor to Enter Stage Right, Le Quebecois Libre, Rebirth of Reason, and the Ludwig von Mises Institute, Senior Writer for The Liberal Institute, weekly columnist for GrasstopsUSA.com, and Editor-in-Chief of The Rational Argumentator, a magazine championing the principles of reason, rights, and progress. Mr. Stolyarov also publishes his articles on Helium.com and Associated Content to assist the spread of rational ideas. His newest science fiction novel is Eden against the Colossus. His latest non-fiction treatise is A Rational Cosmology. Mr. Stolyarov can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.