America’s enduring embrace of white supremacy
After months of discussion and debate, on Sept. 17, 1787 the Continental Congress approved the United States Constitution for ratification by nine states, and it became operational one year later. The first 10 amendments were submitted in 1789 and were ratified on Dec. 15, 1791. The Founding Fathers’ views essentially then became the political business of the nation. Enslavement of Blacks and the power of the ruling white class were very much part of the agenda.
John C. Calhoun was only 9 years old at the time, but he was destined to become the indomitable U.S. senator from South Carolina and the outspoken advocate of slavery and white supremacy. Although Sen. Calhoun died in 1850, his views still influence the racial conflict today.
Calhoun had a distinguished career. He served as the nation’s seventh vice president — first under John Quincy Adams and then under Andrew Jackson – but he resigned in order to become a U.S. senator, a position that enabled him to propagate his views without considering the position of the president.
While abolitionists asserted that slavery is immoral, Calhoun insisted with an articulate presentation, polished in his education at Yale College, that slavery was “a good — a positive good” that was “indispensable to the peace and happiness of both whites and blacks.” This view was based on a doctrine of white supremacy.
His argument was simple. “There never has yet existed a wealthy and civilized society in which one portion of the community did not … live on the labor of the other.” He then insisted that Blacks had benefitted from slavery, and “from the dawn of history to the present day, attained a condition so civilized and improved” from the “low, degraded and savage condition” they were in when they first came as slaves.” Therefore, slaveholding was demonstrably not an evil.
Consequently, slaveholders could not believe that everyone was equally entitled to liberty. It was “a reward to be earned” that was “reserved for the intelligent, the patriotic, the virtuous and deserving.” It was “not a boon to be bestowed on a people [such as Black slaves] too ignorant, degraded and vicious, to be capable either of appreciating or of enjoying it.”
In a Senate speech about six months before his death in 1850, Calhoun said:
“With us the two great divisions of society are not the rich and poor, but white and black; and all the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class, and are respected and treated as equals…”
That is the doctrine of white supremacy that was enunciated by Sen. Calhoun on Aug. 12, 1849. It was not until Feb. 13, 2017 that Yale responded with disdain and agreed to rename the student college that had been established in Calhoun’s honor. And it was not until June 24, 2020 that Calhoun’s statue was removed from a place of honor in Columbia, South Carolina.
Some argue that such ideas as white supremacy have an abbreviated life, but Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973) is reported to have said while serving as president, “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket.” This was more than a century after Calhoun’s speech.
However, current references in support of white supremacy seem to be enough to inspire many of Trump’s supporters. He has failed to provide much of anything else. It should be clear that racism has survived in America from the early days of the nation’s establishment.