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Oregon Bill Calhoun Analysis Essay

Presumptions of racial inequality and debates over the expansion of slavery intensified in Congress following the period of westward expansion in the United States. In 1830 during the Second Great Awakening activists like William Loyd Garrison increased their efforts to abolish slavery and prevent its expansion as the nation gained more territory. At the Philadelphia National Antislavery Convention Garrison and his followers avowed slavery was a violation of the founding principles of natural rights and contradicted the Bible. (Garrison, Declaration of the Antislavery Convention, 1833).

Oregon’s application for statehood like other requests from new western territories deepened the growing strife. Proslavery and antislavery political leaders jockeyed for political power to try to control the future course of slavery in the nation. Senator John C. Calhoun was one the most ardent advocates of protecting the institution of slavery of his time. His political philosophy viewed slavery not only as a positive good but a necessary constitutional license of white men. As such Calhoun fervently challenged the premise of natural law and the revolutionary principles of inalienable rights.

Calhoun contended abolitionists’ statements that ““all men are born free and equal. ”…[was] a hypothetical truism, but which,…[was] the most false and dangerous of all political errors…” (Calhoun, Oregon Bill, 1948). Concessions to the free soil provision of the Oregon territory bill were the path to the dissolution of the union in his view. Thus, John C Calhoun defended the institution of slavery by outright rejecting the political premises of natural equality, natural freedom and the establishment of government to protect one’s natural rights as inherently false interpretations of the Declaration of Independence.

Instead Calhoun defined liberty as a privilege earned only by the most civilized of races as a means to prevent the decline of the nation into anarchy and to justify a political hierarchy of racial subjugation. To begin his attack on Natural Law in defense of racial subjugation Calhoun disputed the very notion that men and women were born with natural freedom and natural equality. Calhoun started by breaking the proposition down into its most literal terms. First he asserted that “men are not born, infants are born. ” (Calhoun, Oregon Bill, 1948). Then he insisted that infants like men were not born free or equal.

According to Calhoun natural freedom and natural equality were a political error because infants could not be born free or equal as a result of the dependent state in which they were born. Calhoun maintained freedom required “…[the] capacity of thinking and acting, without which [he declared] there can be no freedom” (Calhoun, Oregon Bill, 1948). By connecting freedom to one’s growth and the facility to make decisions Calhoun was laying the foundations to his argument that liberty was not an inherent right. Rather he claimed liberty was something man achieved in time through his development to form rational thoughts and actions.

He elaborated on this argument by contended men were “…born subject to their parents [authority], and remain so among all people, savage and civilized, until the development of their intellect and physical capabilities enable them to take care of themselves. ” (Calhoun, Oregon Bill, 1948). Calhoun further implied that man was not born with an inalienable right to liberty and equality but instead he was born needing to be governed. Specifically, he claimed this authority over dependents was necessary for the good of the community until one could achieve the appropriate enlightened state required to obtain liberty.

In addition, Calhoun denied the existence of natural equality by proclaiming liberty must both be earned and rewarded to the elite group of men capable of achieving it. “…instead of all men and all classes and descriptions being equally entitled to [liberty and equality]…they are high prizes to be won…” (Calhoun, Oregon Bill, 1948). This interpretation of liberty created a sliding scale where the amount of liberty man was endowed was not equally dispersed from God. Instead, liberty was granted to man based on how civilized he was deemed by those who had been rewarded with political power.

Calhoun not only rejected the idea that man was born with natural rights but also denied the belief that every man was entitled to those rights once he reached adulthood. “all people savage and civilized…grow to all the freedom of which the condition in which they were born permits” (Calhoun, Oregon Bill, 1948). His statement signified his belief that nonwhites were both born into a natural position of inequality and did not possess the facility to earn their freedom. Therefore the need for nonwhites to be governed by the civilized justified the inequality of slavery.

Slavery in his view became the necessary consequence of the inequity that existed among different groups of people in their natural conditions. Whereas white men in his estimation were the more civilized people and deserved the most liberty. As such whites were granted freedom and political power as “… the highest reward that can be bestowed [on civilized men]…” (Calhoun, Oregon Bill, 1948). Moreover, John C. Calhoun dismissed natural law by redefining the necessity of government and repudiating social compact theory to endorse the extension of African slavery.

According to Calhoun government was necessary to create order in society and to prevent anarchy. In his view anarchy was the biggest threat to society and the individual. “…[I]ndividual liberty, or freedom, must be subordinate to whatever power may be necessary to protect society against anarchy…” (Calhoun, Oregon Bill, 1948). Calhoun insisted that to prevent the tyranny of anarchy, man was required to be governed and his liberty depended on the communities necessity to establish order.

Under this premise the establishment of order to maintain civilized society would always supersede individual freedom. Calhoun went on to assert that the degree to which man had to be governed depended on his heightened awareness of the necessity and purpose of government. “…[T]he more perfectly they become acquainted with the nature of government, …the less tendency to violence and…the power necessary for government becomes less and…individual liberty greater…” (Calhoun, Oregon Bill, 1948). Thus tension was created between the individual and liberty by creating a scale of worthiness to obtain freedom.

However along this scale he reaffirmed his previous contention that nonwhites were “utterly unqualified to [ever] posses liberty” (Calhoun, Oregon Bill, 1948). Consequently individual consent to government under the social compact is eliminated in the interest of establishing order and union through a political hierarchy based on white superiority. Government then instead bestowed a license to the worthy white race the right to govern over the others. Thus, Calhoun’s form of government established a racial oligarchy or tyranny by the white elite as viewed by compact theory and natural law.

Finally, John C. Calhoun depicted these so called false axioms of natural rights as misinterpretations of the founding principles. To further discredit the principles of natural law he attempted to diminish its contribution to the American understanding of constitutionalism. He asserted the colonists dissolved their ties with Britain because of violations to their long established rights as Englishmen. “…[B]reach of our chartered privileges, and…well-established rights by the parent country, were the real causes [of the separation]…. (Calhoun, Oregon Bill, 1948). These rights he stated were not derived from natural law but instead bestowed through the English Constitution and colonial patents. Calhoun disregarded the connection that natural law fused between the rights colonists believed they were entitled to as Englishmen and their right to revolution in defense of those rights. Calhoun’s argument specifically ignored the opening references to natural law in the Declaration of Independence as nothing more than the personal poetic license of Thomas Jefferson.

He adamantly maintained that “ [Natural law] made no necessary part of our justification in separating from the parent country…” (Calhoun, Oregon Bill, 1948). He further insisted the statement that all men were created equal was never intended by the founders to extend natural rights to nonwhites. To illustrate his point he contended the {maybe add =- concept of – to make clearer the connection to “it” in the next sentence? } inalienable rights played no role in the formation of state constitutions. Nor had it any weight in constructing the governments which were submitted in the place of the colonial [charters]. ” (Calhoun, Oregon Bill, 1948). To conclude John C Calhoun portrayed these misunderstandings of natural law as dangerous barriers to the extensions of slavery that would lead to bloody civil insurrection and anarchy. Calhoun believed Jefferson had been influenced by these principles of inalienable rights. As a result, according to Calhoun, Natural law “…caused him to take an utterly false view of the subordinate relationship of the black to the white race” (Calhoun, Oregon Bill, 1948).

In particular he blamed Jefferson for the application of natural liberty to national policies of westward expansion. He criticized Jefferson for authoring the North West Ordinance which banned slavery in the Ohio territories which Calhoun saw as a byproduct of his subscription to natural rights. “To this political error, his proposition to exclude slavery from territory northwest of the Ohio may be traced…and through it the deep and dangerous agitation which now threatens to engulf [the nation]…”(Calhoun, Oregon Bill, 1948).

Calhoun attributed the North West Ordinance as setting a national precedent for the exclusion of slavery in northern territories. Consequently this precedent then impacted the tradition of admitting new states formed by the Missouri Compromise and led to antislavery provision in the Oregon Bill. In Calhoun’s view preventing the extension of slavery and encouraging natural rights would disrupt the political order and lead to anarchy. To illustrate his point he argued that events like the French Revolution and Haitian Revolution were proof that granting liberty to everyone leads to chaos and terror. [Natural rights] is the leading cause among those which have placed Europe in its present anarchical condition…Nor are we exempt from its disorganizing effects” (Calhoun, Oregon Bill, 1948). Calhoun also used thinly veiled references to American conflicts overly slavery like the rebellion led by Nat Turner to emphasis his point. By hinting at the future prospect of war between the races Calhoun tried to vindicate the institution of slavery as a necessary component of government to maintain order and liberty for the good of the union as a whole.

Ultimately Calhoun attempted to justify the extension of slavery by misrepresenting the founding principles of natural law and manipulating the necessity of government to justify a political hierarchy of racial subjugation. He conveniently denied the existence of natural rights because he could not vindicate slavery without attacking the premise of its immorality. Calhoun’s arguments that dismissed blacks as unqualified to obtain liberty were based solely on racism and pseudosciences that promoted white superiority not scientific evidence.

In reality, the failure of slaves to advance as a people was due to the condition of servitude they were forced to endure and not as a result of the lack of their physical abilities. Calhoun’s premise of liberty also failed to recognize that by governing man without his permission the very anarchy which he sought to prevent was more likely to ensue. The more liberty people were granted the less people there would be that were oppressed and therefore less people would be need to rebel. Furthermore, Calhoun ignored the cornerstone of the founding principles that helped develop the American understanding of constitutionalism.

While the colonists did in fact believe their rights as Englishmen had men violated. The ultimate point of contention that led to the separation from Britain was their refusal to accept the absolute sovereignty of Parliament over the colonies. Consent became the sticking point for the founding generation which was expressed in both the Declaration of Independence and State Constitutions. In addition natural law bestows upon government only the power needed to protect individual liberty. This creates harmony between governmental power and individual freedom.

However, Calhoun’s form of government puts order and the governance of man over individual liberty and consent. Calhoun’s form of government was the founding generation’s definition of tyranny by the few. Thus what Calhoun’s failed to realize is that his own definition of liberty and the necessity of government could work against him as well. Antislavery politicians saw slavery as uncivilized and the threat of secession as anarchy. By Calhoun’s own definition the need to govern others in order to establish order and prevent anarchy was used as an argument by the North to justify the civil war and military reconstruction.

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