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The War of Southern Aggression

John C. Calhoun and the Price of Union: A Biography

by John Niven
Louisiana State University Press, 367 pp., $24.95

Origins of Southern Radicalism: The South Carolina Upcountry, 1800–1860

by Lacy K. Ford Jr.
Oxford University Press, 414 pp., $39.95

South Carolina,” wrote one of the state’s few opponents of secession in 1860, “is too small for a republic, but too large for an insane asylum.”1 In earlier years most southerners outside the Palmetto State would have agreed. In 1832 no other state joined South Carolina in its “nullification” of a national tariff law that Carolina planters viewed as discriminatory against plantation agriculture. On that occasion the Carolina planters and their allies backed down rather than face the wrath of President Andrew Jackson, who vowed to send in the army and hang the ringleaders of nullification. Again in 1851 they had to contain their zeal for a separate slaveholding republic when other southern states refused to secede in protest against the Compromise of 1850, which had admitted California as a free state. But on their third try, in 1860, South Carolina’s Southern Rights radicals pulled ten other slave states into secession.

The catalyst that turned what some called the Palmetto insane asylum into the Confederate States of America was the election of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency. This “Black Republican” had pronounced slavery “a moral wrong and injustice,” and had called upon Americans to restrict its further expansion as a first step toward its “ultimate extinction” sometime in the twentieth century. To escape this fate, the South declared its independence and fired on American soldiers at Fort Sumter in the Charleston harbor, thereby provoking a war that cost more American lives, soldier and civilian, than all of the country’s other wars combined.

To a good many southerners the events of 1861–1865 have been known as “The War of Northern Aggression.” Never mind that the South took the initiative by seceding in defiance of an election of a president by a constitutional majority. Never mind that the Confederacy started the war by firing on the American flag. These were seen as preemptive acts of defense against northern aggression. The election of Lincoln by northern votes was “a deliberate, cold-blooded insult and outrage” to southern honor, a New Orleans newspaper declared, while a committee of the Virginia legislature declared that “the very existence of such a party [Republican] is an offense to the whole South.”2 As for the firing on Sumter, it was merely a response to provocation by the Lincoln administration, which kept Union troops there after the Confederacy had warned them to leave. “The aggressor in a war,” explained Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens, “is not he who strikes the first blow…but the first who renders force necessary.”3

Secession and the firing on Sumter were, in southern eyes, the culmination of decades of aggression by a growing northern majority that was becoming increasingly antislavery. But southern leaders knew that the best defense was a good offense. When Yankee citizens harbored fugitive slaves, southerners in Congress passed a fugitive slave law that gave the national government greater powers than it had ever before possessed to reach into northern states and capture the fugitives (so much for southern commitment to states’ rights). When Republicans called for the exclusion of slavery from new territories, the southern majority on the Supreme Court ruled, in the Dred Scott case, that Congress had no power to prevent slaveholders from taking their human property into any territory they wished. When the antislavery majority of settlers in Kansas territory made bondage insecure there, southerners demanded a federal slave code enforced by the US Army to protect their “rights” in such territories. When northern Democrats refused to endorse this demand, southerners in 1860 split the party in two, thereby insuring the election of Lincoln, which in turn provoked secession.

Not all of the architects of this offensive-defensive strategy were South Carolinians. But as the three books reviewed here make clear, a large number of them lived in the Palmetto State. During the height of John C. Calhoun’s power it was said that when Calhoun took snuff, South Carolina sneezed. It could also be said that when South Carolinians took snuff, the South sneezed. Calhoun led the Southern Rights wing of the Democratic party until he died in 1850. His theory of slavery as a “positive good” and his doctrine of state sovereignty as a buttress of slavery lived on as the rationale for secession. Consumed by ambition for the presidency, an office that for thirty years he sought in vain, Calhoun dedicated his career to constructing elaborate methods to sustain southern political power despite the region’s shrinking minority of the American population. These methods included at one time or another state “interposition” or nullification of federal laws, southern control of the Democratic party, a Southern Rights party that would dominate a divided North, and a “concurrent majority” whereby either section would have a veto power over legislation passed by a national majority.

In the first full-scale biography of Calhoun to appear in almost forty years, John Niven of Claremont Graduate School describes these ideas as part of Calhoun’s “defensive posture” against the North’s “aggressions and encroachments on our rights.” Calhoun’s position had not always been defensive. Born during the final year of America’s war of independence, Calhoun inherited the driving energy of his father, a pioneer of Scotch-Irish descent whose slaves had carved a two-thousand-acre plantation out of the upcountry South Carolina wilderness. Calhoun graduated from Yale College and studied law with a leading Connecticut judge before returning home to marry his cousin, heiress of a well-to-do low-country planter. Elected to Congress in 1810, Calhoun began a career of forty years in politics that included six years in the House, eight as secretary of war, eight as vice-president, one as secretary of state, and fifteen as a senator. During the first decade of this remarkable career, Calhoun was an expansive nationalist advocating government intervention to promote commercial and industrial growth. In the 1820s he reversed his views, fearful that all such growth would benefit only the North, leaving his beloved South vulnerable to the Yankee colossus. Increasingly dour and sour, Calhoun devoted himself to the long campaign to thwart northern aggressions.

These aggressions consisted mainly of antislavery rhetoric and economic policies favoring free-labor capitalism over slave-plantation agriculture. But, as Niven shows, Calhoun’s “defensive mode” could become quite aggressive in its own right. He would deny first amendment rights to opponents of slavery by excluding their literature from the mails and refusing to receive their petitions to Congress. Calhoun’s favorite tactic was to profess a desire to preserve the Union but to predict disunion if the North refused concessions to southern rights, thus placing the blame on the North for imperiling the Union.

Calhoun claimed to see aggression from far off. In 1826, as vice-president, he foresaw dire consequences if the government extended diplomatic recognition to Haiti. This “would in the present tone of feelings to the south lead to great mischief,” he wrote.

It is not so much recognition simply, as what must follow it. We must send and receive ministers, and what would be our social relations to a Black minister in Washington?… Must his daughters and sons participate in the society of our daughters and sons?… Small as these considerations appear to be they involve the peace and perhaps the union of the nation.

To placate the South, the US government refused to recognize Haiti until 1862—after the South had seceded.

Southern threats to secede served the section well in the crisis that led to the Compromise of 1850. If Congress insisted on admitting California with the free-state constitution written by gold rush settlers, Calhoun told the Senate, slave states could not “remain in the Union consistently with their honor and safety.” To a friend Calhoun wrote: “You will see that I have made up the issue between North and South. If we flinch we are gone, but if we stand fast on it, we shall triumph either by compelling the North to yield to our terms, or declaring our independence of them.”4 Other southern leaders were less subtle than Calhoun. “We ask you to give us our rights” in California, Congressman Albert G. Brown of Mississippi said. “If you refuse, I am for taking them by armed occupation.” James H. Hammond of South Carolina told Calhoun that if the North got California, thereby robbing the South of equal representation in the Senate (fifteen free states and fifteen slave states before California came in), “we should…kick them out of the Capitol & set it on fire.”5

These tactics did not prevent the admission of a free California, but they did win access for slavery to the rest of the region conquered from Mexico (the territories of New Mexico and Utah enacted slave codes, though few slaves were taken there). So the South pursued the same tactics throughout the 1850s, winning repeal of the Missouri Compromise ban on slavery north of 36° 30’ in the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, warning northern conservatives not to vote for the first “Black Republican” presidential candidate, John C. Frémont, in 1856 (if Frémont was elected, said the governor of Virginia, slave states would “proceed at once to ‘immediate, absolute and eternal separation’ “), and forcing President James Buchanan in 1858 to support the admission of Kansas as a slave state—if he had refused, Buchanan explained, southern states would “secede from the Union or take up arms.”6

Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina showed that the South meant business. When Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts made unflattering remarks about Brooks’s cousin Senator Andrew Butler in 1856, Brooks walked into the Senate and bludgeoned Sumner with a heavy cane until he fell unconscious. Censured by the House, Brooks was unanimously reelected by his constituents; from all over the South he received gifts of new canes bearing such inscriptions as “Use Knock-Down Arguments.” During a bitter contest to elect a speaker of the House in 1859, which pitted northern and southern representatives against each other, the governor of South Carolina wired one of the state’s congressmen: “If you upon consultation decide to make the issue of force in Washington, write or telegraph me, and I will have a regiment in or near Washington in the shortest possible time.”7

In 1860 southerners again threatened to secede if a Republican was elected president. Lincoln was fed up with their protestations that they were merely trying to protect themselves from northern aggression. “You say, you will destroy the Union,” said Lincoln on February 27, 1860, in a speech in New York City intended to be read by southerners; “and then, you say, the great crime of having destroyed it will be upon us! That is cool. A highwayman holds a pistol to my ear, and mutters through his teeth, ‘Stand and deliver, or I shall kill you, and then you will be a murderer!’ “8 This time the South made good its threat. And Lincoln opposed the last-minute attempts to woo them back with the Crittenden Compromise, which opened future territories south of 36° 30’ to slavery. The South had long had an eye on annexation of Cuba, where slavery existed, and portions of Central America, where it could be introduced. “We have just carried an election on principles fairly stated,” Lincoln wrote to a Republican congressman in January 1861.

  1. 1

    James L. Petigru to Benjamin F. Perry, December 8, 1860, quoted in Ford, Origins of Southern Radicalism, p. 371.

  2. 2

    New Orleans Crescent, November 9, 1860; Report of the Joint Committee of the General Assembly of Virginia on the Harper’s Ferry Outrage, Jan. 26, 1860, Virginia State Papers (1859–1860), Doc. 31.

  3. 3

    Alexander H. Stephens, A Constitutional View of the Late War Between the States, 2 vols. (Chicago, 1868–1870), Vol. II, p. 35. Italics in original.

  4. 4

    Congressional Globe, 31st Congress, 1st Session, Appendix, pp. 451–455; Calhoun to Henry W. Conner, February 14, 1847, quoted in Chaplain W. Morrison, Democratic Politics and Sectionalism: The Wilmot Proviso Controversy (University of North Carolina Press, 1967), p. 35.

  5. 5

    Congressional Globe, 31st Congress, 1st Session, p. 261; Hammond to Calhoun, March 6, 1850, quoted in Holman Hamilton, Prologue to Conflict: The Crisis and Compromise of 1850 (University of Kentucky Press, 1964), p. 74.

  6. 6

    Governor Henry A. Wise quoted in Roy F. Nichols, The Disruption of American Democracy (Macmillan, 1948), p. 44; Buchanan quoted in George Fort Milton, The Eve of Conflict: Stephen A. Douglas and the Needless War (Houghton Mifflin, 1934), p. 271.

  7. 7

    Quoted in Allan Nevins, The Emergence of Lincoln (Scribner’s, 1950), Vol. 11, p. 122.

  8. 8

    Roy P. Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (Rutgers University Press, 1953–1955), Vol. II, pp. 546–547.

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