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A Great and Fatal Mistake

Personalities AE  6As I was doing some research for a new essay assignment I am working on in my US History I (to 1877) classes I ran across an address in opposition to the proposition of acquiring all of Mexico after the Mexican-American War by then Senator from South Carolina John C. Calhoun. Calhoun was an unabashed racist, white supremacist, and supporter of State’s rights over Federal power and he is mostly known for these things. In his speech he cited as one of his reasons:

Nor have we ever incorporated into the Union any but the Caucasian race.  To incorporate Mexico, would be the first departure of the kind; for more than half of its population are pure Indians, and by far the larger portion of the residue mixed blood.  I protest against the incorporation of such a people.  Ours is the Government of the white man.  The great misfortune of what was formerly Spanish America, is to be traced to the fatal error of placing the colored race on an equality with the white.[1]

His speech is mostly remembered for this, more to our shame than his I think because he was reflecting a commonly held belief of the time. But I found in the speech an observation about liberty that I think is pertinent and worth considering, and I am including it here only for that consideration. I do not endorse Calhoun or his racist ideas (nor, in fact, do I long for secession), but I think he makes a valid point here in terms of our own estimation of liberty and our foreign adventures.

But of the few nations, who have been so fortunate as to adopt a wise Constitution, still fewer have had the wisdom long to preserve them.  It is harder to preserve than to obtain liberty.  After years of prosperity, the tenure by which it is held, is but too often forgotten; and I fear, Senators, that such is the case with us.  There is no solicitude now about liberty.  It was not so in the early days of the Republic.  Then it was the first object of our solicitude.  The maxim then was, that “power is always stealing from the many to the few”; “the price of liberty is perpetual vigilance.”  Then no question of any magnitude came up, in which the first inquiry was not “is it constitutional” — “is it consistent with our free, popular institutions” — “how is it to affect our liberty.”  It is not so now.  Questions of the greatest magnitude are now discussed without reference or allusion to these vital considerations.  I have been often struck with the fact, that in the discussions of the great questions in which we are now engaged, relating to the origin and the conduct of this war, their effect on the free institutions and the liberty of the people have scarcely been alluded to, although their bearing in that respect is so direct and disastrous.  They would, in former days, have been the great and leading topics of discussion; and would, above all others, have had the most powerful effect in arousing the attention of the country.  But now, other topics occupy the attention of Congress and of the country — military glory, extension of the empire, and the aggrandizement of the country.  To what is this great change to be attributed?  Is it because there has been a decay of the spirit of liberty among the people?  I think not.  I believe that it was never more ardent.  The true cause is, that we have ceased to remember the tenure by which liberty alone can be preserved.  We have had so many years of prosperity — passed through so many difficulties and dangers without the loss of liberty — that we begin to think that we hold it by right divine from heaven itself.  Under this impression, without thinking or reflecting, we plunge into war, contract heavy debts, increase vastly the patronage of the Executive, and indulge in every species of extravagance, without thinking that we expose our liberty to hazard.  It is a great and fatal mistake.  The day of retribution will come; and when it does, awful will be the reckoning, and heavy the responsibilities somewhere.[1]

[1] John C. Calhoun, Speech in the United States Senate January 4, 1848 in Richard K. (Richard Kenner), 1800-1864. Crallé, The Works of John C. Calhoun, vol. IV (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1888), 396ff.


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