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Dr. Adam Carrington On The Missouri Compromise, the Compromise Of 1850, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and Dred Scott

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HH: It is the last radio hour of the week. That means it’s time for our weekly Hillsdale Dialogue. All of the Hillsdale Dialogues I’ve been doing for more than three years now are available at Everything that Hillsdale does online, including their new Constitution 101 course, which has reopened for free signups available at And you should absolutely sign up for Imprimis. I’m normally joined by Dr. Larry Arnn, the president of Hillsdale College. But it’s commencement week, and so he’s a little bit stressed and a little bit busy And besides, he doesn’t like John Calhoun very much. And so I decided before we went to the Lincoln-Douglas debates, we really needed to dive deeper into John Calhoun. I asked him for a victim, I mean guest, and he offered up Professor Adam Carrington, who’s an assistant professor of politics at Hillsdale College. Dr. Carrington, welcome, it’s great to have you on the program.

AC: Glad to be here. I’m staring at the short straw I drew to talk about Calhoun.

HH: You know, I’m glad it’s you, though, because I know you’re an Ashland College graduate, and you got your Masters and PhD from Baylor. Now we love Dr. Ken Starr. He’s a friend of mine down at Baylor. But Ashland just got taken over by Dr. Carlos Campo, who is the new Larry Arnn of Ashland University. And I actually went long ago and far away to debate camp at Ashland University. And I think you’re my first Ashland University alum to have on the program.

AC: Really?

HH: Yeah.

AC: I consider that an honor. I hope I’m not the last.

HH: Well, given that you’re defending Calhoun today, or not defending, attempting to explaining him. It may turn out that way. I’ve got to tell you, this is the coincidence of the week, yesterday I was taking a tour of the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and I went down the row where the secretaries of war are located, now secretary of defenses, the hallway, and there, I stopped, because there was the portrait of John Calhoun, who I did not realize before he had become vice president, had been the secretary of war. And I thought to myself, I’ll be you most Americans don’t know much about John Calhoun to begin with. Do you think I’m right about that?

AC: I would say so. I think that he is certainly someone who is occasionally spoken of in your history classes, but no, certainly not of the stature of a Lincoln, a Douglas, or many of the other men that were in the same time period as he was.

HH: Well, in order to understand what his role is, and how important do you rate him in terms of what happened in America? And I don’t mean, it’s sort of like saying I’m not asking you to praise him or damn him, just level of significance like Time Magazine’s man of the year. Would he have ever been that?

AC: I think so. I think certainly he would have been. In fact, I believe that his understanding, even though he died before the Civil War really informed the Southern position on the nature of slavery, and particularly on what to do about that issue when the North and South came to loggerheads over it. The idea of secession itself, I think, really comes out of it, and I think certain notions, not all, but certain notions of states’ rights even to this day borrow often unknowingly from his thoughts.

HH: He was born in 1782, America. He died in 1850. As Professor Carrington of Hillsdale College just referenced, he did not live to see the Civil War consume 600,000 plus Americans in its wake. But he’s got one of those visages. You really wouldn’t want to meet him on a street at night. I mean, the guy is a scary looking character, Professor Carrington.

AC: Yes, yes, I actually point that out to my students. And maybe that’s a little bit of stacking the deck against him. But I say that if you want to have nightmares, or if you want to give a younger sibling nightmares, just show him a couple of the pictures of him. Some are very, very not flattering. He has quite the almost ghoulish scowl.

HH: No, he really, he could play Dracula.

AC: Yes, actually, I thought about that. I had, actually, I’ve mentioned that in class before. I’m glad that you’re not, I’m glad I’m not the only one that’s thought of that.

HH: No, his portrait in the Pentagon, by the way, is much more flattering than the Matthew Brady portrait that one can find at Wikipedia. So Professor Carrington, knowing that he was a senator and then a secretary of war and then the vice president, what was his theory that became such an anchor around the neck of the Union? Where did it come from?

AC: Well, I think it came from a couple things, but I think the most fundamental concept it came from was his interacting with the claims of the American founding, about particularly the claims of equality and how did that mesh with his commitment to slavery, and really his commitment to rejecting those ideas. And I think out of that comes not only a defense of slavery, but a defense of, theoretically, but also a defense of it from a Constitutional angle. What do you do as, if you’re the South and you want to defend this institution and protect it? And he comes up with a fairly elaborate theory that culminates in the possibility of secession and allows for an interest such as slavery to be defended by a minority if the South were to become a minority even against an encroaching and growing Northern populace.

HH: Now the question I have, that I’ve always had about Calhoun, and it’s almost impossible to answer, and it’s pretty hard to ask, so I’ll try to put this out here slowly. It’s a chicken and egg question. Did Calhoun develop his theories because he was born into and was emotionally attached to the institution of slavery, and needed to find a way to defend it? Or did his theories lead him to embrace the institution of slavery as a necessary part of the natural order of the natural law? And obviously, I can’t imagine how anyone would do that without the emotional edifice that growing up as a slave owner in a slave-owning society would provide an otherwise, as Lincoln discussed at great length, obviously stupid position? But what do you think?

AC: That’s, well, you’ve caught me, because I’ve gone around and around that myself. And I do think that when you come to certain, especially such fundamental conclusions, even axioms for him, that it’s a combination. It really is, and I think he has, I think, certainly, we often see before we understand. So he grew up in an atmosphere of seeing the institution, and seeing its effects, seeing what the culture was of the South at the time built around that institution. But I mean, in his modest defense, he, his theory is very thoughtful. His theory is worked out, and he is, one thing that makes him notable is most political theories, the way we’re able to put them together in America is not through treatises, but through speeches. There just aren’t that many treatises written by American politicians. And Calhoun’s an exception. He actually wrote two, a disquisition on government, and then a commentary on the Constitution of the Unites States that lay out his theory of justice of the good and how that applies to America. So you know, in that sense, I don’t think he’s merely doing something like what Hobbes said, that where Hobbes talks about reason and says that what is reason, it’s a scout for the passions. It just justifies what you want to do. I wouldn’t accuse Calhoun of that. I think he does have a deeply worked out system that culminates in flavor even if maybe that was the conclusion he wanted to reach for other reasons.

HH: You know, it’s interesting, as I was preparing the Calhoun stuff, I was calling to mind the current debate before the United States Supreme Court over same sex marriage. And I believe people are reasoning their way to a defense of same sex marriage against the obvious arguments for it. The obvious arguments made by, for example, the Chief Justice of the United States said every dictionary in the world until 12 years ago defined marriage as between a man and a woman. And so people who have a desire for same sex marriage have to reason their way to it. I’m not comparing same sex marriage to slavery. I’m talking about the emotional need to justify what you want. And that’s what you’re referencing Hobbes as saying, right?

AC: Yes, and I’m not sure that he entirely, of course, his work is very logical in that sense, but I think your connection does work. It is an interesting thing that we are not disembodied brains. We are reasoning and feeling beings. And you know, I think part of, you know, I’ll just put a plug in for the college here. I think a great part of the education here is to try to say that recognize that part of humanity, that all of that is part of humanity, but that, you know, as Aristotle says, that the reason should rule, and that we should look for justice wherever it’s found, however it’s found, not say this is my self-interest, this is my preference, and then I’ll find a way to justify it.

HH: And of course, the proponents of same sex marriage would rebuke me and say there is no cruelty in advocacy for same sex marriage. There was enormous cruelty and evil in slavery. So the question would be what did Calhoun say about the obvious cruelty? Those of us in America who saw 12 Years A Slave last year, or any of the other great things, we’ll come back to this, we have a minute to the break. Did he write about the obvious barbarity of the institution?

AC: No, but I think he certainly anticipated it being fine, because of how he viewed liberty. Maybe we could get into this after the break. But he views liberty not as an inherent right of being human, but as a gift or a prize to be won, meaning that there are some people due to their development or lack thereof, both lack of intellectual development and lack of moral development that don’t deserve liberty at all. In fact, they, for their own benefit, should be enslaved.

HH: That is just remarkable.

— – — –

HH: And we are talking about John Calhoun today, which I don’t think actually ever happens on talk radio except on the Hugh Hewitt Show, because last week, we were talking about the framers, which does happen a lot on talk radio, about the Constitution with Dr. Arnn. And the question I raised was how in the world did we go from all men are created equal, and a number of framers, some of whom were slave owners, but understood the institution to be evil and necessarily to be ended over time, to a Civil War fought by proponents of forever slavery? And the answer then was John Calhoun. That’s shorthand for an entire body of thought in this institution. Discussing that with me right now is Professor/Dr. Adam Carrington from Hillsdale, and when we went to break, you said when we come back, we would talk about how they developed their avoidance theory, their cognitive dissonance that even if you’re going to say there are different orders of human being, and you’re going to try to reason to Aristotle, there’s no excuse for cruelty. You don’t, as Lincoln said, you don’t hang a horse, right?

AC: Sure. And I think that to the degree that maybe Calhoun would allow for some restraint, it would be in the way you treated a horse. But that would be about it, because as an inferior order of beings, he says at one point that you need as much security, and therefore as much force as possible to protect society. And I think in the case of African-Americans, he believed that that needed to be cruel based on the inherent inequality that he saw in them.

HH: Now I’m talking with him about John Calhoun, and for those of you just joining late, John Calhoun is a pivotal figure in American history. He was the secretary of state, he was the secretary of war, he was the vice president. But he’s really the intellectual armorer of the Confederacy. He built the edifice, and he had to build it after the Declaration of Independence. So what did he say specifically, Dr. Carrington, about the Declaration, written by a fellow slave owner?

AC: Yes, he actually calls, singles out the phrase all men are created equal, and along with a similar phrase in the Massachusetts Constitution preamble that all men are born free and equal, he calls those, I believe, the most false and dangerous of political doctrines. He says they’re just false. He says, for example, all men are created equal. They’re not created. They’re not created. Only the original Adam and Eve were created. And not only that, they’re not equal. In fact, I tell this to my students. He really weaves the fabric of inequality into the entire cosmos. Man and woman were created unequal. The woman was unequal to the man. Parents and children are created unequal. And you know, master and slave, therefore, fits into just how the rest of the world works, that we are inherently unequal, qualitatively, not just quantitatively, and that that should be reflected in the political society that we form, if they’re going to be formed based on, well, in his understanding of reality.

HH: Now did he see the gathering storm around him, because obviously, Wilberforce and others are working to extinguish the slave trade. He sees the abolitionist movement growing stronger and stronger. He sees rising up the Jeffersonian rhetoric in front of him. Is this what the treatises, is this an attempt to head that off at the pass?

AC: Well, certainly to refute it. He actually says in a speech while he was in the Senate in the late 1840, so just a couple of years before his death, that he did believe that this issue, the issue of slavery and the misunderstanding that he attributes to the North about, that underlies their opposition to it as the, as what will destroy the Union. And it will destroy it, and it will be the North’s fault for being wrong, and the South’s fault for not adequately, both intellectually and with muscle, defending what he believes to be the just understanding of the world, and therefore the United States.

HH: Now let me introduce as well one more intellectual term that Calhoun is responsible for before we walk people through the history of how we ended up at Dred Scott and the Civil War and the Lincoln-Douglas debates, which I’m talking about with Dr. Arnn the next couple of weeks, and that is the theory of nullification, because if anyone knows anything about John Calhoun before today, they probably associate him with nullification. And we hear that term thrown around a lot, anyway. Would you explain what Calhoun thought nullification meant and how it would operate?

AC: Yes, he, nullification was the answer to the problem of tyranny when you don’t believe in human equality. And what I mean by that is the right to revolution, or the right of the people to assert themselves comes out of a claim to human equality. But how do you create that? How do you, if that’s not an option, which it’s not for him, how do you create checks and balances within a system that has, that doesn’t allow for human equality? And he thinks that state equality is the real answer.

HH: And let’s pause here for a moment. I want people to understand. The Declaration of Independence, which allows the American Revolution to proceed, is necessitated by the demand that all men are created equal. And it’s a legal brief that the framers write in 1776. He can’t believe that, so he has to come up with some other argument to defend the existence of states. So tell us about that.

AC: Yes, and what nullification comes out of is this idea of what are called concurrent majorities. And what that really argues is that the founders are wrong about faction, about the idea of faction, which are groups, whether majorities or minorities, that will attack the rights of others, and attack the common good. And so what you really need is to understand that the small minorities, or even the larger minorities, need to have basically the ability to veto any provision that might affect them, that might affect them, and might hurt their interests as they understand them, and that the only way you can therefore get a majority that is concurrent is by getting all of those groups to agree. And the original way this comes up with nullification, and nullification is a way of understanding that, where what happens in the nullification crisis is that there’s a fight between the North and the South actually not over slavery, but over tariffs. The North wants tariffs, taxes, placed on imports from other countries, because it protects Northern industry, and therefore makes people buy American. The South doesn’t like this, because they’re the ones paying. They’re the ones not producing, but paying, and they don’t like all of the costs that they have to ring up either buying foreign goods that have been tariffed, or buying American goods that have been raised due to the tariff, too. And the idea is that a state can step in and if it affects them, the way to stop majority tyranny at the national level is to say that they can nullify it. They can say this act does not apply to us. It is not enforced against us as a sovereign state.

— – — –

HH: And I hope you understand why we paused on John Calhoun, because we have to get from the War of 1812 to the Dred Scott decision and the Lincoln-Douglas debates, and that really requires you understand what happened when the tariffs and then slavery divided the Union, and especially, I guess, Adam Carrington, when the Louisiana Purchase came on the scene and required us to think about what will we do when we expand.

AC: Exactly, and that goes all the way back to 1803, the Louisiana Purchase. But it reopens the question of slavery, because prior to that, there was a fairly worked out settlement between the Northwest Ordinance that declared basically Big Ten country to be, current Big Ten country to be a non-slave, to be free, but then allowed a lot of the other territories that were basically extensions of the 13 colonies to decide for themselves. But when you introduce the North, the Louisiana Purchase, massively increasing the size, there’s not a settlement for that. There’s not a settlement for what will be the status of slavery there. And that becomes an increasingly contentious idea, especially as we move from the founders’ idea that slavery is sort of a necessary evil, but an evil even to many of the ones who had it, to a Calhoun-like argument that says no, this is actually a positive good. This is good for not only the slave owner, but the slave, him or herself.

HH: Then enters on the stage Henry Clay, whom the Steelers fan will not know is from Kentucky, and who is nicknamed the Great Compromiser. What does Clay wrought? And what is Clay’s role?

AC: Yeah, Clay, actually, was declared by Lincoln, I believe President Arnn said this in a previous discussion, his beau ideal of a statesman. And Clay, as the Great Compromiser, one thing that, one of this compromises was in 1820, known as the Missouri Compromise, and this was, this came about when parts of Louisiana territory are being turned into states, going from territories to states, and there’s a question about the status of Missouri. Is it going to come in as a slave state? As a free state? Who decides and how? And this becomes a matter, this really is the beginning of the really intense battle over the status of slavery. It’s really over its expansion. And what Clay is able to do is to work out a lasting, what ended up being a lasting compromise, and that is to say we will let in Missouri as a slave state. We will let in Maine, which before had been not its own state, and as a free state, therefore keeping a balance in the U.S. Senate between slave and free interests. And then we’re going to draw a line. We’re going to draw a line around, I believe, it’s the 36th latitude, and say everything north of this line, Missouri excepted, will not have slavery. And we’re all going to agree to that. Everything south of this line of territory the U.S. acquires will be open to the decision of the people there or to Congress in establishing it. And this is meant as a way to adjudicate and keep both sides from really coming to a bloody response even as early as 1820.

HH: End of discussion, we’re done, this will last. And Thomas Jefferson, who is alive at the time of the Missouri Compromise, you sent me this note, and I remembered it when I saw it, it was sort of chilling, actually, tell people what Jefferson thought about the Missouri Compromise.

AC: Yeah, he writes in a letter, and he was still alive at this time, 1820, and he writes to a gentleman named John Holmes, and he says, I actually have it here, but this momentous question about slavery and how it’s answered in Missouri like a fire bell in the night awakened and filled me with terror. I considered at once as the knell of the Union, it is hushed indeed for the moment, but this is a reprieve only, not a final settlement. And the idea he goes on to say is that drawing this geographical line that will only more deeply imprint the differences between North and South by allowing an increasing slave interest on one side, and increasing free interests on the other.

HH: You know, when he says the knell of the Union, and I read that, and for the benefit of the Steelers fans, that’s spelled knell. I wonder if it’s the bell tolling for thee. It means the doom of the Union. Did he, had he deluded himself up until that point? We’ve got 20 seconds to the break, Adam Carrington. Do you think Jefferson was genuinely surprised?

AC: I think no. I think he always said, as he says in this same letter, that we had the wolf by the ears, and that this was a problem that the founders, by the time you get to the 1820s, didn’t know, it did not work out the way they wanted. It was not going away quietly.

— – – —

HH: We’ve got you up to 1820 and the Missouri Compromise. But now we’ve got to cover three things in eight minutes, and that is the Compromise of 1850, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and the Dred Scott decision. So walk us through this, Professor Carrington. How does the country actually go to hell? And it became what Drew Faust Gilpin calls a republic of suffering as a result of these compromises which could not last, and a Court that could not be quiet.

AC: Sure, well, in 1850, you have the Compromise of 1850. I guess they were running out of names, so they just gave the year. And what that does is deals with the newly-acquired territory from Mexico after the Mexican War. And it comes along some similar lines to the Missouri Compromise, and gives both sides a little bit. California enters as a free state. There’s a much stronger fugitive slave law, which the South likes. And the new territories of Utah and New Mexico are allowed to decide for themselves what to do about slavery, among other things. And this, once again, is a great compromise that’s worked out, but it very quickly, it and Missouri unravel only about four years later with the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Now if you look at a map and look at the line drawn in Missouri, Kansas and Nebraska are both north of the Missouri Compromise line. So they are supposed to be free without any debate or question. There is no option for slavery. What happens with the Kansas-Nebraska Act is it effectively repeals the Missouri Compromise by basically saying that Kansas and Nebraska can decide for themselves whether to have slavery or not. And this is such a massive, earthshattering event that it really precipitates the formation of the Republican Party, and the reentry of Lincoln into politics after he had stepped out.

HH: And meanwhile, what we began the hour talking about, Calhoun is thundering away in the background arguing that if in fact these compromises are not forged, if anyone attempts to take away the peculiar institution, the states of the South have the right to walk, correct?

AC: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely, and if they find it in their interest that that is the way they can protect those interests, then absolutely.

HH: Okay, let’s go then to the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The Missouri Compromise, remember, is 1850, and in four short years, they have to confront what to do about Kansas.

AC: Yes, and it becomes bloody Kansas, where John Brown and both sides are basically killing each other over what the status will be. And Lincoln, and what’s interesting about this is Douglas believes he’s found a cure for the issue of slavery. He’s found a better answer than these compromises, and that is to say all right, we are a popular government. What would be the answer, what’s the answer, how do popular governments solve questions? They vote on them. So why not have all the territories and localities vote on slavery? And this opens up a massive difference between he and Lincoln. Lincoln comes in and says no, you’re getting things wrong. It’s the wrong order. You’re saying that popular will, or the will of a majority defines justice. I say the opposite is the case. The entire reason that we have popular will is a claim to the equality of human beings. So how could you ever vote for slavery? How could you ever exercise your inherent right of equality to declare people unequal?

HH: Right. Oh, it’s amazing.

AC: And that that’s a massive difference…then that’s a massive difference that even goes on today. Does justice define and enable consent and equality? Or do those principles define justice for us?

HH: Well now, the very practical result of this is, of course, gridlock and death. People are killing each other in Kansas, and the country is on the brink, and John Brown, of course, is going crazy. There’s just all sorts of violence into which steps, of course, in the worst Court decision in the history of the Supreme Court, the Supreme Court in the Dred Scott V. Sanford case. What is that about? And how does a historian teach this as opposed to a Con Law professor? I just told you I teach it. I teach it as the worst decision in the history of the Supreme Court. How do you teach it?

AC: Well, I try to be as fair as I can, but I will say that I find it to be really, to be honest, despicable on many levels. And you know, I try to be as fair as I can to the case, but it really is the Court trying to fix the slavery problem, and only fixing, really, that we’re going to have to go to war over this.

HH: Would you give the background facts? It involves a slave who is taken by his master from a slave state, Missouri, to the free regions for extended period of time. Then the master dies, and Scott, the slave, sues for his freedom, in essence.

AC: Yes, he does. He sues when they get back to the South. He was both in a free territory and in a free state, Illinois. And he sues for his freedom and says by the fact that I, and actually my family, were taken to a free territory, I have gained my freedom. Slavery had no power in that area, therefore I was not a slave there. You can’t re-enslave me. And what, when it gets to the Supreme Court, it really, one of the sticking points is jurisdiction. Can the Court actually even hear this case? But what that depends on is in Article 3 of the Constitution, it says that you know, that you can, the Court only, a federal court only has jurisdiction if there is a dispute between citizens of different states. Is Dred Scott a citizen? Can Dred Scott even be a citizen? And often, original intent gets bashed through this case, because what Taney says is well, look at these…

HH: Chief Justice Roger Taney, and that’s spelled Taney.

AC: Yeah.

HH: He is the brooding presence of Harvard Law, according to Scalia.

AC: Yes.

HH: But the Chief Justice at the time writes the opinion, and it’s Roger Taney.

AC: Yes, I’m sorry, I should have prefaced with that.

HH: We have one minute left.

AC: Yeah, and he says essentially, no. And the founders never were entirely pro-slavery, otherwise they would be hypocrites. The Declaration of Independence doesn’t mean anything but the rights of white Englishmen, really, and that therefore the black man has no rights the white man is bound to respect, and the founding therefore denies even the capacity for African-Americans to be citizens of the United States.

HH: But when we come back next week, and I think we have to pick it up there, we’ll talk about the true injustice of this case, which is that it went much farther than it even had to just to basically start the Civil War. Adam Carrington, thank you, Professor, what a great introduction to the Lincoln-Douglas debates, which we’ll return to next week on the Hillsdale Dialogue here on the Hugh Hewitt Show.

End of interview.


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