ON MARCH 9, 1836, Sen. John C. Calhoun rose, not for the first time, to sing the praises of human bondage.
Two months earlier, an Ohio senator had presented a pair of petitions sent by citizens of his state “praying for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia.” Calhoun had promptly moved that the petitions be rejected. “Congress had no jurisdiction on the subject,” the South Carolina Democrat insisted, “no more in this district than the state of South Carolina.” Weeks of debate ensued.
In his March speech, Calhoun argued that Congress possessed no lawful power to limit slavery anywhere, not even within the geographical confines of Washington, D.C. He held fast to this view despite the inconvenient fact that Article I of the Constitution granted Congress the authority “to exercise exclusive legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over...the seat of the Government of the United States.” Calhoun’s principal argument was not so much legal as it was political. If the abolitionists succeeded in getting Congress to debate the merits of abolishing slavery in the District of Columbia, he reasoned, it would be only a matter of time before Congress got around to debating the merits of abolishing slavery in the states. And for Calhoun, that outcome was to be prevented at all costs.
“No one can believe that the fanatics, who have flooded this and the other House with their petitions, entertain the slightest hope that Congress would pass a law at this time to abolish slavery in the District,” Calhoun observed. So “what then do they hope?” Simply this: that Congress should “take jurisdiction of the subject” and “throw open to the abolitionists the halls of legislation and enable them to take a permanent position.” At that point, “the subject of slavery would be agitated session after session” in Congress, “and from hence the assaults on the property and institutions of the people of the slaveholding States would be disseminated, in the guise of speeches, over the whole Union.”
Calhoun recognized the danger that the abolitionist message posed for the slave system. “The war which the abolitionists wage against us is of a very different character, and far more effective” than merely shouldering a rifle and firing a shot, he argued. “It is a war of religious and political fanaticism...waged not against our lives but our character. The object is to humble and debase us in our own estimation, and that of the world in general; to blast our reputation, while they overthrow our domestic institutions.” The mere act of debating slavery, he feared, would be a deadly loss for his side.
Frederick Douglass and John C. Calhoun disagreed about a great many things, to say the least. Yet on this particular point, the two men reached remarkably similar conclusions. Both recognized the explosive force of abolitionist ideas, and both believed that the abolitionist message, if allowed to spread far and wide, would do lasting damage to both the institution of slavery and to the standing of the slaveholding class. The difference was that Douglass welcomed those results and did everything in his power to bring them about.
“Mr. John C. Calhoun, the great Southern statesman of the United States,” Douglass scoffed, “stands upon the floor of the Senate, and actually boasts that he is a robber!” Indeed, Calhoun “positively makes his boast of this disgraceful fact, and assigns it as a reason why he should be listened to as a man of consequence—a person of great importance. All his pretensions are founded upon the fact of his being a slave owner. The audacity of these men is actually astounding.”
From the outset of his career as an abolitionist, Douglass had made it his mission to undermine the slaveholders and to expose the rank inhumanity of their system. Throughout his speeches and writings, for example, he would describe not only the places where he was held in bondage but also the people who kept him there. But as time wore on, he began yearning to do much more than that. Douglass wanted not only to lay bare the slaveholders’ villainous behavior but to dissect and refute their flawed justifications. He wanted to destroy slavery while making the case for liberty.
Once he got started, Douglass excelled at the job. In response to the elaborate rationales offered by Calhoun and other proslavery intellectuals, he presented a stirring defense of freedom, rooting his arguments in the bedrock liberal principle of self-ownership. “Would you have me argue that man is entitled to liberty? That he is the rightful owner of his own body?” Douglass would insist. “There is not a man beneath the canopy of heaven, that does not know that slavery is wrong for him.” At the same time, Douglass would deliver a cutting legal analysis, as when he forcefully rebutted Dred Scott v. Sandford.
Armed with the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the far-reaching guarantees of liberty and equality that they contained, Douglass took the fight directly to the slaveholders.
‘A POSITIVE GOOD’
Continue reading your story on the app
Continue reading your story in the magazine
‘HERO PAY' FOR GROCERY WORKERS IS TERRIBLE FOR GROCERY WORKERS
“HERO PAY” LAWS, which require big wage increases for grocery store workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, are sweeping the West Coast. Store closures, unemployment, and lawsuits have followed in their wake.
THE PANDEMIC WILL MAKE KIDS OR BREAK THEM
THE COVID-19 ERA has worked as a stress test for parents and kids alike, breaking some while bringing out reserves of strength and resilience in others.
The Era of Small Government Is Over
IS THERE ANY HOPE TO CHECK THE GROWTH OF THE STATE?
Grant McCracken on How To Reengineer the Honor Code
IN THE NEW Honor Code: A Simple Plan for Raising Our Standards and Restoring Our Good Names (Tiller Press), anthropologist, brand consultant to the stars, and past Reason contributor Grant McCracken explores the history and use of the honor code, arguing for its relevance to our private and public lives today.
When the Government Makes Wildfires Worse
FEDERAL POLICIES ARE SUBSIDIZING PEOPLE’S CHOICES TO BUILD HOMES IN HARM’S WAY.
IS THIS A NEW AGE OF CULTISM— OR A NEW CULT PANIC?
THERE'S NOTHING MODERN ABOUT MMT
MODERN MONETARY THEORY (MMT) tells us that governments should finance public spending by creating money.
AN $86 BILLION MORAL HAZARD
THE $1.9 TRILLION emergency spending bill Congress passed in early March was full of items that had little to do with the COVID-19 pandemic, the ostensible justification for the package.
'THE INTELLECTUAL JOHNNY APPLESEED OF THE COUNTERCULTURE'
A conversation with Whole Earth Catalog founder, Merry Prankster, and woolly mammoth de-extinctionist Stewart Brand
Scott Wiener Is California's ‘YIMBY' State Senator
IN NOVEMBER, VOTERS in San Francisco reelected California Sen. Scott Wiener, a Democrat, over his opponent, democratic socialist Jackie Fielder.
Go Big or Go Home
Joe Biden tackled Covid and an economic crisis in his first 100 days. It won’t get easier from herea
Does Congressman Andy Harris represent the future or end of the Maryland GOP?
Fear of a Digital Dollar
Central bankers are looking at virtual currencies that could work without banks
CONGRESS TO PRESS BIG TECH CEOS OVER SPEECH, MISINFORMATION
The CEOs of social media giants Facebook, Twitter and Google face a new grilling by Congress Thursday, one focused on their efforts to prevent their platforms from spreading falsehoods and inciting violence.
Federal Debt: A Heavy Load
The debt continues to grow, but record-low interest rates could ease the long-term damage.
GOLD CUP: NORTHWEST CALDWELL, ID
Caldwell BMX was first built in the mid-80’s and moved around to different locations until finally landing a permanent home nestled behind Pipe Dreams Skate Park.
Pack the Supreme Court, Or Strip Its Powers?
A proposal to restrict the court’s authority over certain laws stirs interest on the left
DOES MY EMPLOYER HAVE TO SAY IF A COWORKER HAS THE VIRUS?
Does my employer have to say if a coworker has the virus?
Stay on Course With Student Loans
Stitching History Together