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Rejecting the Founding: Assessing John C. Calhoun’s “Positive Good” Argument for Slavery

This eLesson was written by Shannon Jones, a member of BRI’s Teacher Council.


In the midst of the 1830s, Congress was not only stymied by the ongoing tariff debate and the sectional division created by this debate, but it also began to see a rise in anti-slavery petitions from abolitionists. In response to public calls for the restriction or abolition of slavery by the federal government, John C. Calhoun offered his opinions on the question of slavery, states’ rights, and the Constitution. Calhoun and other southerners adopted a defensive stance regarding slavery because of the increased attacks on the institution by northern abolitionists. The ideas he expressed in his Revised Report to Congress grew in popularity in the South during the lead up to the Civil War to justify the institution of slavery.


  • Students will identify the constitutional arguments supplied by Calhoun in regards to slavery and the federal government.
  • Students will identify and discuss the “positive good” argument.
  • Students will assess Calhoun’s arguments about slavery and compare them to the Declaration of Independence


Directions: Have the students read Handout A and the Preamble of the Declaration (the first two paragraphs of Handout B). Then, use the following questions to guide a classroom discussion on the readings.

  1. What was Calhoun’s original complaint regarding petitions being read in Congress?
  2. Why did Calhoun not want Congress to consider any petitions received from abolitionists?
  3. What constitutional arguments did Calhoun provide for the protection of slavery against Federal legislation?
  4. In this report, Calhoun laid out his argument for why slavery is “good”. Based upon Calhoun’s arguments, what was the “positive good” school of thought concerning slavery in the United States and what language did Calhoun use to espouse that school of thought?
  5. How did Calhoun believe the Force Bill would impact the institution of slavery?
  6. Do you think that the “positive good” school is compatible with the sentiments expressed in the “Preamble” of the Declaration of Independence? Explain your answer.