Faces From The Past-XXII

The session of Congress that opened on December 3, 1849, was regarded by men of the day as the most important ever held, for it was one that could well decide if the Union would endure. The unhappy factionalism caused by territorial expansion had come to a head over the question of California and whether it would be admitted as a free or slave state. Once again, the festering problem of slavery was out in the open, to arouse the worst passions of which the nation was capable. In this situation, the House of Representatives required three weeks and sixty-three ballots to elect a Speaker, and it was apparent that neither that body nor President Taylor was equal to the mounting crisis. The eyes of the country turned, as they had so often in recent years, to the Senate, and in particular to the great triumvirate of Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and John C. Calhoun.

Clay, the most respected and beloved man in America, began the debate in January with an impassioned plea for moderation and compromise, and as he spoke, men watching John C. Calhoun wondered if the southerner would be able to rally his strength to reply. Wrapped in flannels, the Carolinian was “so pale and thin” that he “looked like a fugitive from the grave.” Once he had been called a “cast-iron man who looks as if he had never been born and could never be extinguished,” but for over a year now his health had been declining; he had fainted three times in the Senate lobby during the previous session, and these days he kept mostly to his room at Hill’s boardinghouse, in pain, racked with coughing, trying desperately to prepare for the ordeal ahead. During the last days of February, 1850, as the breaking point between North and South loomed closer, Calhoun decided that the only way he could present his views was to write them out and have an associate deliver the speech for him.

On Sunday, March 3, word flew through the capital that the South’s great spokesman would come to the Senate chamber the following day for what must surely be his final appearance. Long before the session was called to order, “a brilliant and expectant audience” crowded the galleries and floor of the Senate, awaiting the grim, powerful southerner who was at the very apogee of his fame, the man one southern newspaper called “the moral and intellectual colossus of the age.” Finally there was a stir at the door, and the great, gray-maned head of Calhoun was seen. A hush fell as he entered the chamber and was helped to his seat by friends. As he sank into it, his head was lowered in pain, and his bony, clawlike hands clutched the arms of the chair while he gathered his strength. Then he rose to his feet and stood erect, the wild eyes burning, the mouth a harsh slash across his jaw, and in a strong, clear voice he thanked the Senate for its courtesy, begging its indulgence while a colleague, James Mason of Virginia, read his speech. As Mason read, Calhoun sat “like a disembodied spirit,” his long, black cloak pulled around him, his face drawn and white, and there were those who listened to his words who saw death written upon the South and upon the Union as it was on Calhoun’s face. For it was immediately clear that he had no concessions to make, no compromise to offer. A realist, he knew that compromises are possible only between equals, and the South was no longer the equal of the North, either in economic or political strength.

His address traced the causes of the South’s discontent, spoke of the growing concentration of power in the central government, described how the rights of the states had been swept away and control of the central government seized by the North, and bemoaned the fact that even spiritual ties between the sections—those represented by churches and political parties—were breaking up. Unless the North would concede the South equal rights in the new territories, he said, give up the fugitive slaves it was protecting, cease the “agitation of the slave question,” and restore “the original equilibrium between the two sections,” the North and South should agree to part in peace.

A more than most of his contemporaries, Calhoun knew that time was running against the South; he perceived the significance of the North’s population growth, of its material strength, of its deep popular feeling against any extension of slavery. In urging the South to secede, he was prompted by a belief that it must do so at once, acting while it had the strength to get out of the Union and stand alone. To compromise now was only to patch up the burning issue temporarily, for the Union could not endure. Calhoun argued, when the Constitution was used to defeat the very ends it was written to maintain. He believed that the goal of democracy is equity, not equality, and that it was not democracy when “fifty-one per cent of the people have a moral right to coerce forty-nine per cent.” If popular majority became the ultimate law, he argued, the Constitution would be so much scrap paper.

Even as his last words were heard in the Senate, Calhoun knew that he had failed, and four weeks later, on March 31, he was dead. Bells tolled the news that the South’s champion was gone, causing one man to observe that his philosophy had summed up “a whole people and a whole civilization.” A similar thought crossed the mind of a Yankee soldier, some fifteen years later. As he stood amid the ruins of Charleston, South Carolina, and looked down upon Calhoun’s tomb, it occurred to him that “the whole South is the grave of Calhoun.”