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 slaveowner. 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 pro-slavery 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’
Slavery’s defenders put forward a variety of justifications for the peculiar institution. One, commonly heard during the early decades of the republic, was that slavery was a necessary evil. As Rep. James Holland of North Carolina told the House of Representatives in 1806, “In the Southern States slavery is generally considered as a political evil, and in that point of view nearly all are disposed to stop the trade for the future.” Thomas Jefferson expressed a similar view in an 1820 letter to the politician John Holmes. “The cessation of that kind of property,” Jefferson wrote, referring to slavery, “would not cost me a second thought, if, in that way, a general emancipation and expatriation could be effected….But as it is, we have the wolf by the ears, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go.”
Nobody ever heard John C. Calhoun describe slavery as any kind of evil. “Let me be not misunderstood as admitting, even by implication, that the existing relations between the two races in the slave-holding States is an evil—far otherwise,” he declared. “The relation now existing in the slave-holding States between the two, is, instead of an evil, a good—a positive good.”
Unlike those members of the founding generation, such as the Virginia slaveowner George Mason, who acknowledged the practice’s debasing influence on both master and slave and therefore worked to limit slavery’s influence on the new national government, Calhoun claimed that the system was a blessing all around and even argued that the slaves should be grateful for their chains. “The existing relations between the two races,” Calhoun said, “is indispensable to the peace and happiness of both.”
As for the Constitution, Calhoun argued that it should never be used for any sort of anti-slavery purpose at all. “The North and South stand in the relation of partners in a common Union, with equal dignity and equal rights,” he maintained. In order to maintain the South’s equal dignity and rights, the argument went, slavery must be allowed to thrive with zero federal interference. Thus, in Calhoun’s view, Congress did not even possess the authority to regulate slavery in those areas that were under the exclusive control of the federal government. Nor did he think Congress had the right to recognize any new state that banned slavery within its own borders. Nor did he believe that the settlers of any would-be state had any anti-slavery powers in their own hands. Slavery, Calhoun declared, must be permanently shielded on every front.
And that was not all. The only way to avoid secession and save the Union, he told the Senate in 1850, would be for the North to agree “to cease the agitation of the slave question, and to provide for the insertion of a provision in the Constitution, by an amendment, which will restore to the South, in substance, the power she possessed of protecting herself, before the equilibrium between the two sections was destroyed.” Put differently, Calhoun wanted to rewrite the Constitution to permanently safeguard—in fact, to prioritize—the interests of the slaveholders.
Calhoun’s audacious constitutional scheme attracted the notice of Frederick Douglass. Writing in the North Star a few days after Calhoun proposed rewriting the Constitution, the former slave mocked the plan, labeling it an act of pure desperation. “The master-spirit of the South, the great champion of human bondage,” Douglass wrote, was now grasping at straws. Calhoun knew that “a deep conviction of the sin of slavery” was growing among the American people, and he also knew that this conviction “could not long rest under the restraints, nor long abide what are called the compromises of the Constitution.” As a result, “Mr. Calhoun proposes an amendment of the Constitution!” How “lame and impotent.” He “must amend, or rather deform,” if his side is to prevail.
Calhoun’s speech, Douglass argued, revealed that the slave power was finally being thrown back on the defensive. There were still many hard fights ahead, but “abolitionists can desire no stronger evidence of the efficiency of their measures,” Douglass concluded, “than is given them in the speech of the great South Carolinian.” Douglass was now going toe-to-toe with slavery’s preeminent champion, and the blows he delivered were leaving their mark.
‘All Men Are Created Equal’
There was also the Declaration of Independence to factor in. Was not the entire American system founded on the “self-evident” truth that “all men are created equal” and endowed with “certain unalienable rights,” such as “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”? Did not that noble language vanquish the case for slavery?
Calhoun had wondered about that too. In 1848, he finally followed his pro-slavery logic to its conclusion and denounced both the Declaration and its author, Thomas Jefferson. In fact, Calhoun went even further than that. He denounced the entire liberal tradition dating back to the English political theorist John Locke, who famously argued that government was instituted for the purpose of protecting humanity’s preexisting natural rights.
The notion that “all men are created equal,” Calhoun declared, is “the most false and dangerous of all political errors.” It originated with “certain writers on government who had attained much celebrity in the early settlement of these States.” The most prominent of those writers was Locke, who preached the virtues of “that unbounded and individual liberty supposed to belong to man.”
In Calhoun’s view, Locke’s liberal philosophy was dead wrong. “The quantum of power on the part of the government,” Calhoun wrote, “instead of being equal in all cases, must necessarily be very unequal among different people, according to their different conditions.” As for “individual liberty, or freedom,” it “must be subordinate to whatever power may be necessary to protect society against anarchy within or destruction without.” In short, Calhoun declared, “the safety and well-being of society” is necessarily “paramount to individual liberty.”
To Calhoun, the great mistake of the American Revolution was that Locke’s false theory of individual liberty “was inserted in our Declaration of Independence without any necessity. It made no necessary part of our justification in separating from the parent country.” The impact of this mistake was not immediately felt. “For a long time it lay dormant,” Calhoun wrote, “but in the process of time it began to germinate, and produce its poisonous fruits.”
Among those fruits was the rise of an abolitionist movement that took the language of the Declaration of Independence seriously and thus sought to overturn the slave system. Locke’s fallacious notion of liberty “had strong hold on the mind of Mr. Jefferson,” Calhoun complained, “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.”
Douglass did precisely what Calhoun feared: weaponize the principles of the Declaration of Independence and unleash them against slavery. “I am called, by way of reproach, a runaway slave,” Douglass would say. “As if it were a crime—an unpardonable crime—for a man to take his inalienable rights!”
Douglass would even enlist Jefferson’s ghost in the anti-slavery crusade. In his 1784 Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson had shuddered at the prospects of a slave revolt against the master class, of which he himself was a part. “The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest,” Jefferson admitted. “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever.” Douglass would quote those very words in an 1850 speech on the inhumanity of slavery. “Such is the warning voice of Thomas Jefferson,” Douglass observed. “Every day’s experience since its utterance until now confirms its wisdom and commends its truth.”
‘You Are a Man, and So Am I’
In 1854, the Virginia writer George Fitzhugh published the book that would make his name. Sociology for the South, or, The Failure of Free Society offered a sweeping historical, political, and economic defense of the slave system. “The ancients took it for granted that slavery was right,” Fitzhugh wrote, “and never attempted to justify it.” He attempted it, and his efforts made him an acclaimed author throughout the slaveholding states.
Fitzhugh was born in Prince William County, Virginia, in 1806. His principal line of work was that of a lawyer, but it was as a polemicist that he found his true calling. “For thirty years the South has been a field on which abolitionists, foreign and domestic, have carried on offensive warfare,” he wrote in Sociology for the South. “Let us now, in turn, act on the offensive, transfer the seat of war, and invade the enemies’ territory.”
Fitzhugh was unapologetically, unconditionally pro-slavery. “Men are not ‘born entitled to equal rights!'” he declared. “It would be far nearer the truth to say, ‘that some were born with saddles on their backs, and others booted and spurred to ride them’—and the riding does them good.”
Fitzhugh’s strident arguments quickly attracted notice throughout the United States. “It is very satisfactory to find the justification of the South is no longer limited to excuses, expediencies, dialectics, rhetoric, verbal quibbles and vain enactments,” raved the Southern Literary Messenger, “but is at length planted on the firm basis of philosophical reasoning, historical testimony, and social experience.” Abraham Lincoln, who was then practicing law in Illinois, also picked up a copy of Fitzhugh’s work. According to his law partner, William Herndon, it “aroused the ire of Lincoln more than most pro-slavery books.”
Like Calhoun, Fitzhugh sneered at Jefferson, denouncing him for penning “that bombastic absurdity in our Declaration of Independence about the inalienable rights of man.” Fitzhugh also sneered at Locke and the natural–rights tradition. “We believe no heresy in moral science has been more pregnant of mischief than this theory of Locke,” Fitzhugh wrote. Man, he insisted, “has no rights whatever, as opposed to the interests of society; and that society may very properly make any use of him that will redound to the public good.” Indeed, Fitzhugh insisted, “whatever rights he has are subordinate to the good of the whole; and he has never ceded rights to it, for he was born its slave, and had no rights to cede.”
In 1863, Fitzhugh argued that the Civil War sprang from the confrontation between two sets of fundamentally opposing principles, those of liberalism and of slavery. “The doctrines of Jefferson and of the illustrious fathers of the Republic, were being successfully employed to justify abolition,” he observed. That is what sparked “the Southern Revolution of 1861,” which Fitzhugh described as “a solemn protest against the doctrines of natural liberty, human equality and the social contract as taught by Locke and the American sages of 1776, and an equally solemn protest against the doctrines of Adam Smith…and the rest of the infidel, political economists, who maintain that the world is too much governed.“
Douglass also understood that slavery and liberalism were fundamentally incompatible. Locke had argued that “every man has a property in his own person. This nobody has any right to but himself.” Douglass did more than just take those words to heart; he used them as the foundation for an all-out attack on the slave system. In his writings and speeches, Douglass championed the liberal principles that Fitzhugh and Calhoun had spurned.
“Every man is the original, natural, rightful, and absolute owner of his own body,” Douglass argued, “and he can only part from his self-ownership, by the commission of a crime.”
Slaveholders relied on violence, theft, and intimidation to maintain their criminal control over the bodies of the enslaved. Such actions violated every principle of the natural-rights philosophy, and the slaveholders knew it. That was why Calhoun and Fitzhugh explicitly repudiated Locke, Jefferson, and the Declaration of Independence.
Douglass made the case for natural rights with particular force on September 3, 1848, when he wrote an open letter to his former master, the slaveholder Thomas Auld. Douglass began by stating “the ground upon which I justify myself…to mention your name in public.” Undoubtedly, he observed, some people “will be shocked by the extremely indelicate manner of bringing your name before” the eyes of the world. So why was Douglass doing it? “A man guilty of theft, robbery, or murder,” he told the slaveholder, “has forfeited the right to concealment and private life.”
Douglass then got down to business. Since escaping from Auld’s control 10 years earlier, he wrote, “I have often thought I should like to explain to you the grounds upon which I have justified myself in running away from you.” The justification was simple: “You are a man, and so am I….In leaving you, I took nothing but what belonged to me, and in no way lessened your means for obtaining an honest living. Your faculties remained yours, and mine became useful to their rightful owner.”
It was the natural-rights philosophy in a nutshell: self-ownership, personal liberty, individualism. He is not normally credited as such, but Douglass undoubtedly deserves to be ranked as one of the 19th century’s foremost proponents of Lockean liberalism.
Adapted from A Glorious Liberty: Frederick Douglass and the Fight for an Antislavery Constitution, by permission from Potomac Books, an imprint of the University of Nebraska Press.