John C. Calhoun's "Disquisition on Government."

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Puritan Board Freshman
Many affiliated with the conservative movement today look at John C. Calhoun with utmost scorn and associate him with everything bad about American society. To followers of Lincoln apologist Harry Jaffa, Calhoun is basically the great Satan who denied that all men were created equal, defended slavery and tried to produce "anarchy." To Leftists, Calhoun is yet another sordid white, Southern racist who denied the federal government of its rightful supremacy over all political affairs. All of these readings, though, obscure or brush over the truth of Calhoun's value to the American political tradition. In no place is his value more clear than in his Disquisition on Government.

Social Man

In his opening, Calhoun considers human nature and begins with an unequivocal defense of Aristotle's republican thesis that man is social and political by nature:

In considering this, I assume, as an incontestable fact, that man is so constituted as to be a social being. His inclinations and wants, physical and moral, irresistibly impel him to associate with his kind; and he has, accordingly, never been found, in any age or country, in any state other than the social. In no other, indeed, could he exist; and in no other—were it possible for him to exist—could he attain to a full development of his moral and intellectual faculties, or raise himself, in the scale of being, much above the level of the brute creation. The assumption rests on universal experience. In no age or country has any society or community ever been found, whether enlightened or savage, without government of some description.

Thus, from the very onset, we have a good idea of what Calhoun believes is at stake. Classical liberals argued that man is not social or political by nature and that he only enters into society for the sake of protecting his individual rights. Calhoun, however, disagrees. That is an incomplete view of our political condition. Political life is not a necessary evil, it can be a positive good, because it is only when we are involved in social relations with others that we can "attain to a full development of our moral and intellectual faculties." Without society, we would be nothing more than an animal. With Calhoun no less than Aristotle, the end of government is not only bodily health, but the human happiness that could come only from a virtuous life.


This may sound abstract or devoid of significance for the American political context, but for Calhoun the doctrine of man's social nature was imminently practical. He believed that the essential problem with the classical liberal thesis is that, in perceiving only individuals and the state, it stripped man of all of the circumstances and social ties that provide meaning to his life. The rights of corporeal institutions such as the church and the family will be buried under the dogma of individual natural rights, because those social structures ultimately make claims on the individual that—according to classical liberalism—inhibit his freedom. Calhoun argues that this is nonsense. Far from limiting our freedom, local communities enrich and empower it. In Calhoun's thought, freedom is not, as for the liberal, merely the ability to do what we want. Freedom necessarily involves and even demands the possession of the virtues required for self-government:

Of these [criteria for self-government], the moral are, by far, the most influential. A community may possess all the necessary moral qualifications, in so high a degree, as to be capable of self-government under the most adverse circumstances; while, on the other hand, another may be so sunk in ignorance and vice, as to be incapable of forming a conception of liberty, or of living, even when most favored by circumstances, under any other than an absolute and despotic government.

Some would accuse him of merely apologizing for tyranny and slavery. The doctrine of universal human rights demands that we believe that all people everywhere are qualified for freedom and that, if they do not experience it, it is merely because of unjust usurpations of power that need to be overthrown. For Calhoun (as for Aristotle and classical thinkers), though, tyranny is the result of immorality in the citizen body. An immoral people deserves to have tyrants rule over them:

It is a great and dangerous error to suppose that all people are equally entitled to liberty. It is a reward to be earned, not a blessing to be gratuitously lavished on all alike—a reward reserved for the intelligent, the patriotic, the virtuous and deserving—and not a boon to be bestowed on a people too ignorant, degraded and vicious, to be capable either of appreciating or of enjoying it. Nor is it any disparagement to liberty, that such is, and ought to be the case. On the contrary, its greatest praise—its proudest distinction is, that an all-wise Providence has reserved it, as the noblest and highest reward for the development of our faculties, moral and intellectual. A reward more appropriate than liberty could not be conferred on the deserving—nor a punishment inflicted on the undeserving more just, than to be subject to lawless and despotic rule.

Notice that there is nothing necessarily racial about this doctrine. It is as applicable to whites as it is to blacks. Yet, his thought here is obviously dismissed by neoconservatives and Leftists as a mere rationalization for slavery. To be sure, there is no doubt that Calhoun rejected the idea that 19th century blacks were capable of self-government. But his doctrine did not preclude from them the possibility of achieving the qualities necessary for self-government at a later time and, indeed, his infamous "Positive Good" speech suggested that one positive quality of American slavery was that it was gradually improving the condition of blacks. While we can reject Calhoun's position on slavery, it need not lead us to embrace the liberal idea of the autonomous individual who derives his rights from the mythical state of nature.

Calhoun vs. The Federalist Papers

One last aspect of Calhoun's Disquisition that deserves mention is that, while I do approve of Calhoun's theory of republicanism, there is no dispute that he is in serious disagreement with the more liberal American Founders on absolutely vital points. We don't typically realize the extent to which The Federalist Papers--far from expositing conservative views--actually offers a vociferous defense of classical liberalism and a condemnation of the ideals of classical and Christian political thought. Calhoun's Disquisition implicitly repudiates many of the nationalist and liberal assumptions within The Federalist. For example:

Alexander Hamilton in Fed. 1 remarks that the American Constitution will be the first ever Constitution based upon pure reason. All prior governments were based upon "accident and force," but, if we ratify the Constitution, we will prove to the world that "reflection and choice" can prevail when we choose a government for ourselves. Calhoun believes this to be Enlightenment nonsense. All governments properly organized, he says, must account for the "accidents" of historical circumstance and the unique character of any given people. Constitutions can, and must, be created and later changed by prudent statesmanship acting within various circumstances. This is where the hysterical Jaffaites come in and accuse Calhoun of trying to overthrow the Founding because Hamilton/Madison/etc. supposedly based government upon pure reason whereas Calhoun believes that Constitutions are human contrivances that can be changed.

James Madison in Fed. 10 presents his famous argument for the compound republic and the extended sphere. The Anti-Federalists worried that, for republicanism to really survive, we need to have relatively small homogeneous communities so that people can better relate to each other and pursue the common good. Nonsense, says Madison; all we need is to "extend the sphere" and allow as many factions to vie for power as possible. Having more factions fighting each other will paradoxically ensure that no minority faction can take over the national government. Calhoun, however, returns to the Anti-Federalist skepticism of faction. As Calhoun puts it in the Disquisition: "...the more extensive and populous the country, the more diversified the condition and pursuits of its population, and the richer, more luxurious, and dissimilar the people, the more difficult is it to equalize the action of the government--and the more easy for one portion of the community to pervert its powers to oppress, and plunder the other." Calhoun believed that he had seen Madison's theory of faction utterly fail in his own day. Minority factions and interests constantly seemed to be able to take over the federal government because, according to the nationalist theory, all they needed to do was get more people to vote for them. An extended republic, far from offering security from the pox of faction as Madison promised, actually inflamed the issue and made it difficult to preserve and protect a harmonious political society.

Most importantly, Fed. 22 offers a striking defense of national, adversarial and numerical majoritarianism. Calhoun's entire Disquisition attempts to delegitimize and dispose the idea of the numerical majority and offer in its place a theory of concurrent majority. Hamilton argues:

The right of equal suffrage among the States is another exceptionable part of the Confederation. Every idea of proportion and every rule of fair representation conspire to condemn a principle, which gives to Rhode Island an equal weight in the scale of power with Massachusetts, or Connecticut, or New York; and to Deleware an equal voice in the national deliberations with Pennsylvania, or Virginia, or North Carolina. Its operation contradicts the fundamental maxim of republican government, which requires that the sense of the majority should prevail.

Obviously, Hamilton's theory here (and elsewhere in his thought) is the ancestor to modern Leftist arguments for disposing of equal suffrage of the states in the Senate (2 per state) and for abolishing the Electoral College. Both of these ideas, in Hamilton's theory, betray the idea of national, numerical majoritarianism. In his view, the only thing that matters is "King Numbers." If government represents the will of the majority of individuals in the country, then it is doing enough. Calhoun fundamentally repudiates this doctrine and offers up instead his theory of the concurrent majority. Republicanism properly organized cannot rely only upon numerical majoritarianism because this fails to account for the different interests of a society. As minority interests would be overwhelmed by a majority of individuals, there would be a failure to account for the different parts of society. The Senate, which provides states with two Senators regardless of population, represents Calhoun's theory of the concurrent majority because it assumes that the states represent distinct communities and interests. They are not, as Hamilton said, purely artificial constructs created to protect the rights of individuals. Calhoun would extend this principle of the concurrent majority to the federal government as a whole, which is where his theory of state's rights and nullification comes into play. In giving the states a veto over unconstitutional federal laws, he believes that he can promote deliberation and compromise and thus harmony. No law will be passed that will not take into account all of the different interests in society, regardless of whether or not it can achieve 50.1% of the vote.

Calhoun is worth reading not merely as a historical curiosity, but because his theory represents a limited government, republican and conservative alternative to the classical liberalism which found such expression in our Constitution. If we have no interest in Calhoun, it is not because his ideas are wrong, but because we have strayed so far from any genuinely classical conception of republicanism that his ideas seem alien to the American political tradition. No wonder schools do all that they can to write him out of history.
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