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John C. Calhoun’s Stance On Southern Succession

In 1828 John C. Calhoun had begun the protracted Nullification Crisis by asserting the constitutional right of states to nullify national laws that were harmful to their interests. Calhoun argued , as others have since, that the states’ rights doctorine protected the legitimate rights of a minority in a democratric system governed by majoruty rule. In 1847, Calhoun responded to the 1846 Wilmont Proviso with an elaboration of the states’ rights argument. In spite of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 and the Missourri Compromise, Calhoun argued that Congress did not have a constitutional right to prohibit slavery in the territories. The territories, he said, were the common property of all the states, north and south, and Congress could not discriminate against slave owners as they moved west. On the contrary, Calhoun argued, slave owners had a constitutional right to the protection of their property wherever they moved. Of course, Calhoun’s legally correct description of African American slaves as property enraged abolitionists. But on behalf of the South, Calhoun was expressing the belief-and the fear-that his interpretation of the Constitution was the only protection for slave owners, whose right to own slaves (a fundemantal right in southern eyes) was being attacked. Calhoun’s position on the territories quickly became southern dogma: anything less than full access to the territories was unconstitutional. lavery, Calhoun and other Southerners insisted, had to be national.


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