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[Detail] North Star, June 2, 1848. Edited by Frederick Douglass.

Historical Analysis and Interpretation: Comparing the Perspectives of John C. Calhoun and Frederick Douglass

John C. Calhoun was a politician from South Carolina, one of the leading defenders of the institution of slavery. While many apologists for slavery referred to it as a “necessary evil,” Calhoun, in an 1837 speech in the U.S. Senate, termed it a “positive good.”  Given this position, what hypothesis would you make about Frederick Douglass’ opinion of Calhoun?

Calhoun held a number of high offices in the U.S. government; at the time of the Mexican-American War, Calhoun was a member of the U.S. Senate. In the January 14, 1848, edition of The North Star, Douglass reported on a speech by Senator John C. Calhoun in which the South Carolina senator voiced opposition to the continuation of the Mexican War because the defeat of Mexico would result in “the incorporation of her people with those of the United States, would be a death-blow to our ‘free institutions.’”  In February Douglass wrote of the war, “…Pride and ambition, when once in full possession of the nation’s heart, and roused to action, cannot be easily expelled, by any means this side of national ruin.  We have given ourselves to the blind spirit of mad ambition….”

  • How did Douglass characterize Calhoun?
  • How did Douglass respond to Calhoun and his call for the end of the war with Mexico?
  • How do these two articles in The North Star reflect conflicting values held by Calhoun and Douglass?  Can you identify any points on which they agreed?