Nat Turner believed that God had chosen him, a Virginia slave preacher, to lead a black rebellion through the plantation South. On 22 August 1831, he and dozens of slaves stormed a string of farms, attacking the white inhabitants within. The state's militia eventually captured Turner and his followers, but not before the rebels had killed over 50 people, mainly women and children. (Most adult men had been attending an out-of-town religious revival.) The trials that followed the uprising led to dozens of deportations and executions, including the hanging of Turner, who displayed no remorse for his actions.
Turner's slave rebellion and his death aroused antislavery radicals in the North to take concerted action to emancipate slaves and to aid and protect the nation's free black population. In 1832, William Lloyd Garrison organized the New England Antislavery Society in order to channel the efforts of northern abolitionists—black and white—into an effective and unified voice. In the following year, inspired by the decision of the British Parliament to outlaw slavery throughout the British Empire, Garrison and a number of abolitionist leaders in the United States formed a nationwide organization to eliminate slavery: the American Antislavery Society. Abolitionists remained a minority within the northern population, but through the publication of hundreds of thousands of incendiary (and illustrated) pamphlets and the submission of copious antislavery petitions to leaders in Washington, they managed to pique the ire of the South and inflame sectional tensions surrounding the issue.
Nat Turner's large-scale slave revolt—carried out in the very heart of the plantation South—and the abolitionist movement it helped inspire spurred southern leaders to pursue new, merciless policies toward slave insurrection. They strengthened state militias, promoted the organization of aggressive local patrols, and passed laws prohibiting blacks from acting as preachers. Southern statesmen also agreed that bipartisan federal support for these efforts would be imperative for the protection of the agricultural South and, ultimately, the national economy (which depended upon the production of raw products that thrived in the South, such as cotton, tobacco, and hemp). As a result, the tone of government debates over slavery and the rising abolitionist movement assumed a new urgency in the 1830s.
On 6 February 1837, John C. Calhoun of South Carolina stood before the United States Senate and read aloud two antislavery petitions sent to Congress by abolitionist groups. He then proceeded to deliver a warning. "As widely as this incendiary spirit has spread," he said of the abolitionist crusade, "it has not yet infected this [federal government]...but unless it be speedily stopped, it will spread and work upwards till it brings the two great sections of the Union into deadly conflict."23
Just one year before, southern statesmen had demanded a thorough rejection of all antislavery petitions addressed to Congress. Both houses resolved to table discussion on existing petitions and to censor all discussion of emancipation on the floor of the Congress, This "gag rule," as the agreement came to be known, passed, with most northern Whigs voting against it, but most northern Democrats siding with their southern counterparts.
In direct response to the congressional "gag rule," abolitionist organizations—including Garrison's American Antislavery Society—sent hundreds of thousands of petitions to the House of Representatives and the Senate. Though they represented a small segment of the total northern population, abolitionists such as Garrison and Wendell Philips wielded enough influence to force the most powerful men in the country to take notice. And in their widely distributed publications and petitions, they spoke of slavery as much more than an urgent moral issue; they declared that human bondage was political, for it threatened to destroy the foundation upon which the nation was built.
But Senator Calhoun did not accept such a bold justification for the destruction of slavery. In an 1837 speech that would come to represent the political and racial ideology of the South throughout the following tumultuous years, Calhoun proclaimed that slavery—not freedom for all—defined the Union. Calhoun argued that slave labor, peculiar as it had become to the American South, had formed "the most solid and durable foundation on which to rear free and stable political institutions."24 In other words, Calhoun and many other southerners believed that the enslavement of black people provided for a more just and democratic society for white people. A seemingly weak argument, perhaps, but the South Carolinian cited history as proof and noted that the relationship between master and servant is one that had characterized all "civilized" societies dating back to ancient Greece and Rome.
In fact, the Senator was correct in his claim that slavery underpinned the development of the American nation. Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, slave labor provided the basis for the colonial economy and early American political and social structures. The right to own slaves, most colonists believed, provided men with a route to economic autonomy, the earliest of "American Dreams." After the Revolutionary War, this remained the case in the South, where staple agriculture thrived. Cotton, in particular, became the most important cash crop in the region, boosted by demands in textile industries in the North and abroad for raw materials. With slave labor, southerners profited and expanded the growing plantation empire. But the North, never as dependent upon slavery as the South, had gradually abolished the institution in the years following the creation of the republic. Like Calhoun, leaders of slaveholding states were under increasing pressure to defend the institution against northern detractors, particularly abolitionists, who threatened to inflame sectional tensions.
Senator Calhoun refuted the antislavery advocates who claimed that human bondage was "an evil" that degraded and ruined whole societies. Instead he declared bondage "a good—a positive good" for both slave and master.25 The black race, Calhoun said, was innately barbaric, inferior to the white races of Europe physically, morally, and intellectually, but "under the fostering care of our institutions," with clothing, food, shelter, and medical care, a people that had once been "savage" became civilized. He implored his colleagues to take note of the flourishing slave population for further proof of the "general happiness of the race, in spite of all the exaggerated tales to the contrary."26 Though it is true that the slave population of the United States was the only naturally reproducing slave population in the western hemisphere, Calhoun failed to mention that American masters encouraged slaves to marry or, more often, forced them to "breed" with one another in order to supplement their enslaved populations. It is also impossible to determine the number of children born to black female slaves raped by white masters and their sons.
Incidentally, in the early twentieth century, many historians of "the peculiar institution" would argue, much like Calhoun, that slavery was essentially a benevolent system of labor in which both master and slave benefited. Revered scholars, most notably Ulrich Phillips, who wrote American Negro Slavery in 1918, asserted that plantations functioned much like schools in which uncivilized, childlike Africans became more refined, religiously enlightened, and better equipped for skilled labor. Phillips, perhaps borrowing from Calhoun's theory, also noted that slaves were generally content, well cared for, and loyal to their masters.27
Senator Calhoun concluded his speech, determined to garner the support of all his colleagues—northern and southern—against what he called a "crusade against us and our institutions."28 He called on his fellow statesmen to be assured that any concession or compromise made with antislavery factions would jeopardize racial hierarchies. Emancipation, he warned, would lead to the enslavement of whites by blacks and their northern allies. "To destroy [slavery]," he preached, "would be to destroy us as a people."29
Unlike his first prediction, Calhoun's second prediction did prove true. If the current antislavery trends were left unchecked, he forewarned, "we must become, finally, two people."30 He implored the free states to lay aside their political disputes with the South. If they agreed to do so, the Senator promised, disunion could be avoided. In essence, South Carolina's senator threatened secession—a prescient hint of events to come.