A tarnished environmental saint

August 14, 2012

 Modern environmentalists should pay attention to 19th century statesman John C. Calhoun. Homage to Calhoun, who came close to the presidency, may seem surprising because he was a fierce and articulate defender of slavery.

Calhoun’s story is one of how a principle—right or wrong—can be left behind, not because of its merits but because power and consensus hold the opposing view. In making his case for slavery, he pointed out a fact we must consider in the post-peak oil economy.

Calhoun was born on the frontier of western South Carolina and lived from the end of the Revolutionary War until he could not mistake the approaching drumbeat of the Civil War.

His father, Patrick, a Scotch-Irish immigrant, was a member of the state legislature at a time when people in Charleston ignored and belittled “backcountry” planters.

Patrick was a hard worker who died when his son was 13. John interrupted his schooling to run the plantation—planning, buying and selling, overseeing slaves, and walking behind the plow.

At 20, he resumed his education, graduating from Yale with honors, then studying law. He served in both houses of Congress and as Secretary of War for James Monroe, Vice President to John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, and Secretary of State for John Tyler.


Calhoun was a conservative republican who believed he was elected to guide the United States, rather than to act as the fickle majority’s cat paw. “Politics is not a scramble between eminent men...but a science by which the lasting interest of the country may be advanced.”

In a letter to his wife, Calhoun wrote that law made him feel “almost as a slave chained down to a particular place and course in life.”

And yet he enslaved thousands, believing “never before has the black race...attained a condition so civilized and so improved.”

He felt Africans were morally and intellectually inferior, the beneficiaries of forced transport and slavery. Somehow he missed that his slaves’ diffidence had been cultivated and that, as enforcer of their subjugation, he was responsible for their ignorance.

Calhoun was an ardent nationalist, a “Warhawk” during the War of 1812. He advocated tariffs as a way to pay for the war as well as for roads, bridges, and canals to build commerce and industry.

These tariffs amounted to a transfer of wealth from the South to the North. As the costs borne by the exporting South and the new infrastructure accruing to the North became apparent, Calhoun changed his mind.

More than 30 years before the Civil War, tariffs made the end of the Union a possibility. Calhoun believed slavery had to be preserved to keep the South from poverty and the unfair tariffs had to end.

But his presidency was not to be. His opposition to the government’s chief revenue stream and his uncompromising advocacy of slavery were anathema to Northern leaders and voters.

When it looked as if tariffs were about to be controlled in the early 1840s, Congress restored them. Calhoun’s hopes for the presidency were gone with the wind and slavery was about to go. Calhoun feared the Union was doomed.

In March 1850, four weeks before his death from tuberculosis, Calhoun spoke to the Senate through a representative. Too feeble to speak himself, he had to be helped from the chamber.


While pleading for what he saw as justice and the Union’s preservation, he gave environmentalists the historical conundrum we need to solve: “I hold then that there never has existed a wealthy and civilized society in which one portion of the community did not, in point of fact, live on the labor of the other.”

In our time, abundant high quality fuel has made this grim statistic seem obsolete, but as fuel burns off and takes extraordinary measure to obtain, who will live on whose labor?

Please reload

More from this Author

Archives by Date

Please reload

Archives by Title or Author