ON A JANUARY DAY in 1844, the nation’s secretary of state described the condition of colored America. The 1840 Census showed that free Negroes in the North were dissolute and degraded, and prone to illness, lunacy, and suicide. The cause was clear, John C. Calhoun, who hailed from Charleston, said. Freedom made Negroes crazy.
Calhoun, the young nation’s emissary to an increasingly antislavery world, said the South’s 2.7 million slaves lived better than their 171,000 free Northern counterparts: Slaveholders provided shelter, a meal on the table, and a moral life. Statisticians doubted his claim. A black physician, James McCune Smith, said the census showed free Negroes outliving slaves by an average of seven years. Calhoun brushed these critics aside, insisting that Northern Negroes led lives of “vice and pauperism.”