H105, American History I

John C. Calhoun, speech on Oregon (June 27, 1848).

....Has the northern States the power which they claim, to exclude the southern from emigrating freely, with their property, into Territories belonging to the United States, and to monopolize them for their exclusive benefit?....

Now, let me say, Senators, if our Union and system of government are doomed to perish, and we to share the fate of so many great people who have gone before us, the historian, who, in some future day, may record the events tending to so calamitous a result, will devote his first chapter to the ordinance of 1787, as lauded as it and its authors have been, as the first in that series which led to it.  His next chapter will be devoted to the Missouri compromise, and the next to the present agitation.  Whether there will be another beyond, I know not.  It will depend on what we may do.

If he should possess a philosophical turn of mind, and be disposed to look at more remote and recondite causes, he will trace it to a proposition which originated in a hypothetical truism, but which, as now expressed and now understood, is the most false and dangerous of all political error.  The proposition to which I allude has become an axiom in the minds of a vast majority on both sides of the Atlantic, and is repeated daily, from tongue to tongue, as an established and incontrovertible truth; it is, that “all men are born free and equal.”  I am not afraid to attack error, however deeply it may be intrenched, or however widely extended, whenever it becomes my duty to do so, as I believe it to be on this subject and occasion.

Taking the proposition literally, (it is in that sense it is understood,) there is not a word of truth in it.  It begins with “all men are born,” which is utterly untrue.  Men are not born.  Infants are born.  They grow to be men.  And concludes with asserting that they are born “free and equal,” which is not less false.  They are not born free.  While infants they are incapable of freedom, being destitute alike of the capacity of thinking and acting, without which there can be no freedom.  Besides, they are necessarily born subject to their parents, and remain so among all people, savage and civilized, until the development of their intellect and physical capacity enables them to take care of themselves.  They grow to all the freedom, of which the condition in which they were born permits, by growing to be men.  Nor is it less false that they are born “equal.”  They are not so in any sense in which it can be regarded; and thus, as I have asserted, there is not a word of truth in the whole proposition, as expressed and generally understood.


Such being the case, it follows that any, the worst form of government, is better than anarchy; and that individual liberty, or freedom, must be subordinate to whatever power may be necessary to protect society against anarchy within or destruction from without; for the safety and well-being of society are as paramount to individual liberty as the safety and well-being of the race is to that of individuals; and in the same proportion, the power necessary for the safety of society is paramount to individual liberty.  On the contrary, government has no right to control individual liberty beyond what is necessary to the safety and well-being of society.  Such is the boundary which separates the power of government and the liberty of the citizen or subject in the political state, which, as I have shown, is that natural state of man — the only one in which his race can exist, and the one in which he is born, lives, and dies.

It follows from all this, that the quantum of power on the part of the government, and of liberty on that of individuals, instead of being equal in all cases, must necessarily be very unequal among different people, according to their different conditions.  For just in proportion as a people are ignorant, stupid, debased, corrupt, exposed to violence within and danger from without, the power necessary for government to possess in order to preserve society against anarchy and destruction, becomes greater and greater, and individual liberty less and less, until the lowest condition is reached, when absolute and despotic power becomes necessary on the part of the government, and individual liberty extinct.  So, on the contrary, just as a people rise in the scale of intelligence, virtue, and patriotism, and the more perfectly they become acquainted with the nature of government, the ends for which it was ordered, and how it ought to be administered, and the less the tendency to violence and disorder within, and danger from abroad, the power necessary for government becomes less and less, and individual liberty greater and greater.  Instead, then, of all men having the same right to liberty and equality, as is claimed by those who hold that they are all born free and equal, liberty is the noble and highest reward bestowed on mental and moral development, combined with favorable circumstances.  Instead, then, of liberty and equality being born with man; instead of all men and all classes and descriptions being equally entitled to them, they are high prizes to be won, and are in their most perfect state, not only the highest reward that can be bestowed on our race, but the most difficult to be won, and when won, the most difficult to be preserved.

They have been made vastly more so, by the dangerous error I have attempted to expose, that all men are born free and equal, as if those high qualities belonged to man without effort to acquire them, and to all equally alike, regardless of their intellectual and moral condition.  The attempt to carry into practice this the most dangerous of all political error, and to bestow on all, without regard to their fitness either to acquire or maintain liberty, that unbounded and individual liberty supposed to belong to man in the hypothetical and misnamed state of nature, has done more to retard the cause of liberty and civilization, and is doing more at present, than all other causes combined.  While it is powerful to pull down governments, it is still more powerful to prevent their construction on proper principles.  It is the leading cause among those which have placed Europe in its present anarchical condition, and which mainly stands in the way of reconstructing good governments in the place of those which have been overthrown, threatening thereby the quarter of the globe most advanced in progress and civilization with hopeless anarchy, to be followed by military despotism.  Nor are we exempt from its disorganizing effects.  We now begin to experience the danger of admitting so great an error to have a place in the Declaration of our Independence.  For a long time it lay dormant; but in the process of time it began to germinate, and produce its poisonous fruits.  It had strong hold on the mind of Mr. Jefferson, the author of that document, which caused him to take an utterly false view of the subordinate relation of the black to the white race in the South, and to hold, in consequence, that the latter, though utterly unqualified to possess liberty, were as fully entitled to both liberty and equality as the former, and that to deprive them of it was unjust and immoral.  To this error his proposition to exclude slavery from the territory northwest of the Ohio may be traced, and to that the ordinance of 87, and through it the deep and dangerous agitation which now threatens to ingulf, and will certainly ingulf, if not speedily settled, our political institutions, and involve the country in countless woes.