Op/Ed

Victor Nuovo: The political thought of John C. Calhoun

Editor’s note: This is the 27th in a series of essays on the history and meaning of the American political tradition.
In studying the history of American politics from 1826 to the Civil War in search of persons who shaped it, I find that there are two who deserve special notice and warrant a place in this series: Andrew Jackson (1767–1845) and John C. Calhoun (1782–1850). Jackson led the nation “through force of personality,” rather than through his intellect. Calhoun excelled in intellect and was arguably the most eminent American political philosopher of the first half of the 19th century, as well as a most influential member of Congress, a statesman and distinguished public servant. He was also a creator of the politics and culture of the old South, and, as senator for South Carolina, a defender of slavery and staunch protector of Southern interests against what he came to regard as the ever growing aggressive power of the North, which surpassed the South in wealth and population. He epitomized the politics and culture of the old South.
Calhoun was born in South Carolina on March 18, 1782; he received little formal education, just enough to enable him to enter Yale College as a junior in 1802. He graduated with a B.A. in 1804 and continued his studies at Litchfield Law School, in Connecticut. He was admitted to the Bar in 1807 and practiced law for a while. In 1810, he was elected to the House of Representatives by his home district and served until 1817, when he was appointed Secretary of War by President James Monroe; he served for eight years. From 1825 until 1832 he served as Vice President under two presidents: John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. He resigned the office in 1832 to run for the U.S. Senate representing South Carolina; he was elected and served until his death in 1850.
Calhoun wrote two books on politics, A Disquisition of Government, and A Discourse on the American Constitution, but he chose not to publish them. They were published posthumously, in 1853. The latter is a commentary on the Constitution, the former presents a complete theory of government. It has become a classic. In scope and intelligence, it belongs in the same class with Hobbes’ Leviathan and Second Treatise of Government.
To acquire a proper understanding such works requires one approach them in two ways: first, by viewing them against the background of the long tradition of European political thought; second, by setting them in the context of their immediate political situation. Both are necessary. If the latter is ignored, then the ideas they present become floating abstractions, sublime perhaps but of no immediate relevance, mere objects of contemplation to be stored in the mind for future use; if the former, they are reduced to political slogans that do little more than incite the emotions, lacking insight, and intelligence — this often goes by the name of popular thought. An interpretation that is complete, rich, and ennobling, and yet also practical must treat both together: context and tradition. Calhoun’s Disquisition is very short, but this was possible only because he was able to draw upon tradition, which allowed him to be brief but also comprehensive.
He begins with the observation that all human animals are social beings, and are inclined by nature and circumstance to live with others in society. Necessity motivates them, for they cannot hope to survive without the assistance of others. They are also incited by feelings of sympathy for others; of empathy and a desire to unite with them. They soon learn that many more benefits accrue to them only by joining together: society becomes the seedbed for human creativity, for the forward movement of civilization, for fulfillment, and even transcendence: the arts and sciences are its products, along with domestic tranquility.
Yet, individual feelings of sympathy for others are counteracted by a far stronger personal self interest, which leads to conflict between the members of a society; suspicions and resentments increase among them and often lead to violence unless unchecked. To counteract this tendency, force and law, the instruments of government, are necessary to maintain order and create peace. Thus we find that all human beings seek to live together in society, but a stable society requires the force of law.
Yet, no matter how forceful the power of government, it will not easily accomplish its purposes unless some means be found to moderate a volatile society, means that are both just and effective. Only a sense of unanimity will achieve this. Here, Calhoun provides his most ingenious and constructive proposal. This is his idea of a concurrent majority.
As Madison and Hamilton warned, in every political society factions are inevitable, because of the manifold interests of the people, these may be ideological, regional, social, economic, religious, even philosophical. Everyone is a partisan for something, and the deep and inherent motive for self-preservation only exacerbates differences, and the people divine into rival parties, each promoting its own interest at the expense of all others. Majority rule is no solution; from the situation of the minority, it is just another form of tyranny. What is needed is unanimity.
Calhoun would have us imagine a government made up of representatives of all the parties existing in society, each party representing some particular constituency or special interest. In legislating or enacting some government policy every party would have a veto. Deliberation must be ongoing, a constant activity, aiming at a common good, until through a long series of compromise, unanimity or concurrence were achieved. It is government by majority rule, but not the rule of a numerical majority but of a “concurrent majority,” by policies in which each party concurs, or at least agrees not to exercise its veto, which is concurrence in the lowest degree, like when a chief executive chooses not to exercise the veto, but nevertheless allows a bill to become law without her signature.
Calhoun admits that this would be a very slow process of government. In this respect, he seems to have anticipated the very idea of slow democracy.
It is easy to see how Calhoun’s idea of government by concurrent majority could be used by him to negotiate in behalf of southern interests, to compensate the fact that the south was becoming more and more a minority region. It should also be noted, however, that Calhoun was also a staunch unionist, and although his activity became increasingly regional, he never abandoned his loyalty to the nation; he wanted both. And it is just possible, if his idea of a concurrent majority had been taken seriously, and practiced by all, that slavery might have been abolished sooner by a far less violent process. But this is only conjecture.
Postscript: There are echoes of Hobbes in Calhoun’s political thought, and a slighter echo of Locke but he departs from both by ignoring the idea of a social contract. Perhaps this was intentional for implicit in the idea of a social contract is the rule that government must be by consent of free and equal persons, which in the old South included only white males; Blacks did not count as persons.

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