John C. Calhoun, who was secretary of state, secretary of war, a U.S. senator from South Carolina and twice vice president of the United States, was a revered statesman of the 19th century. Lake Calhoun, one of Minneapolis’ pre-eminent lakes, was named after him.

A slave owner himself, Calhoun was one of Congress’ most ardent defenders of slavery before the Civil War. With a recent growing sense in South Carolina and nationally that the Confederate flag symbolizes slavery, some locals think Lake Calhoun should be renamed.

What did Calhoun say about slavery? Here are some of his own words:

1831: Writing to a relative about Alick, one of his slaves, who was threatened with a severe whipping and ran away: “I am glad to hear that Alick has been apprehended … I wish you to have him lodged in Jail for one week, to be fed on bread and water and to employ some one for me to give him 30 lashes well laid on, at the end of the time. I hope you will pardon the trouble.” — Calhoun correspondence and “John C. Calhoun: A Biography” by Irving H. Bartlett

1834: Slavery, Calhoun told the Senate, is “an inevitable law of society, that one portion of the community depended on the labor of another … when two races of men of different color, and a thousand other particulars, were placed in immediate juxtaposition. The existence of slavery was good to both.” — John C. Calhoun and the Price of Union,” by John Niven

1836: “The relation which now exists between the two races,” Calhoun told the Senate, “has existed for two centuries. It has grown with our growth and strengthened with our strength. It has entered into and modified all our institutions, civil and political. None other can be substituted. We will not, cannot permit it to be destroyed … come what will, should it cost every drop of blood.” — Bartlett

1837: “I hold that in the present state of civilization where two races of different origin, and distinguished by color and other physical differences, as well as intellectual, are brought together, the relation now existing in the slaveholding States between the two, is, instead of an evil, a good — a positive good.” — speech to U.S. Senate

1844: Using dubious statistics, Calhoun supported keeping slavery in Texas following its annexation: “The number of deaf and dumb, blind, idiots and insane of the Negroes in the States that have changed the ancient relations between the races [and are no longer slaves] is one out of every ninety-six; while in the States adhering to it [slavery], it is one out of every six hundred and sixty-one; being nearly six to one against the free blacks in the same state.” — letter to Richard Pakenham, British ambassador to the United States

When Calhoun died in 1850, thousands of whites joined his funeral procession in Charleston, S.C. Blain Roberts and Ethan Kytle wrote in the Aug. 1, 2012, issue of the Journal of Southern History. While the mood of whites was somber, blacks appeared “enthused” by his death, according to Fredrika Bremer, a Scandinavian writer and reformer. She quoted Elijah Green, one of the slaves who dug Calhoun’s grave, stating, “I never did like Calhoun ’cause he hated the Negro; no man was ever hated as much as him by a group of people.”


Staff librarian John Wareham provided research for this article. Twitter: @randyfurst 612-673-4224