John C. Calhoun

John C. Calhoun

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Put aside this literal biblical history. A man abstracted from a community and from history, Calhoun believed, in the vein of Aristotle, is not a man at all, but a mere animal. All men, Calhoun argued, are born into varying states of authority—the authority of ethnicity, race, culture, language, family, religion, etc.—and into historical, social, and cultural contexts. Far from being a voluntary social compact, society is organic and evolves slowly over and through time. The fundamental social unit, therefore, is not the autonomous individual, but the family and its natural social ecology.

Because of the Fall, men tend toward “a universal state of conflict, between individual and individual; accompanied by the connected passions of suspicion, jealousy, anger, and revenge—followed by insolence, fraud and cruelty—and, if not prevented by some controlling power, ending in a state of universal discord and confusion, destructive of the social state and the ends for which it is ordained,” Calhoun wrote. Something, then, must have a final authority over fallen man. Community, by its very nature, can attenuate the brutal and passionate side of man, but only to a certain degree. He must be controlled. “This controlling power,” Calhoun argued, “wherever vested, or by whomsoever exercised, is GOVERNMENT.”[1] While liberty is a powerful good, Calhoun believed, protection and perpetuation of the community are higher goods. Government, then, must first protect life and establish a strong order. Only then should government protect liberty. “Liberty must, and ever ought, to yield to protection; as the existence of the race is of greater moment than its improvement,” Calhoun wrote.[2] Furthermore, liberty ought to be regarded as a “a reward to be earned, not a blessing to be gratuitously lavished on all alike.” It is “a reward reserved for the intelligent, the patriotic, the virtuous and deserving.”[3]

Because men behave poorly and because power almost always corrupts the human soul, checks must be placed on those running the government. Such checks on power, Calhoun contended, are called “constitutional.” “Having its origin in the same principle of our nature, constitution stands to government, as government stands to society,” he explained.[4] “Constitution is the contrivance of man,” Calhoun wrote, “while government is of Divine ordination. Man is left to perfect what the wisdom of the Infinite ordained, as necessary to preserve the race.”[5] No real harmony or progress can exist without an effective constitution, for government without checks easily becomes disordered and despotic. A constitution, or “organism” as Calhoun sometimes called it, can only be effective if power opposes power and tendency opposes tendency.

For a constitution to work properly, therefore, it must take into account not only the varying gifts and follies of individuals, it must, even more importantly, take into account the varying interests and manifestations of communities. A constitution cannot treat all individuals or communities equally, for individuals and communities are each unique and particular in their talents and expressions. A constitution must also prevent one community or collection of communities from gaining the levers of power and oppressing those communities not in power. Suffrage alone will not protect the minority from the majority, for the winning of the vote might easily be seen as a justification to oppress the powerless. “This radical error,” as Calhoun labeled it, has been the downfall of popular government throughout the history of Western civilization. Instead, a proper constitution must combine suffrage with the “sense of the each interest.” This, in effect, would be the constitution working properly against the government. The sense of the each interest “is neither to supersede nor diminish the importance of the right of suffrage; but to aid and perfect it.”[6] Out of necessity, Calhoun wrote,

It is manifest, that this provision must be of a character calculated to prevent any one interest, or combination of interests, from using the powers of government to aggrandize itself at the expense of the others. Here lies the evil: and just in proportion as it shall prevent, or fail to prevent it, in the same degree it will effect, or fail to effect the end intended to be accomplished. There is but one certain mode in which this result can be secured; and that is, by the adoption of some restriction or limitation, which shall so effectually prevent any one interest, or combination of interests, from obtaining the exclusive control of the government, as to render hopeless all attempts directed to that end. There is, again, but one mode in which this can be effected; and this is, by taking the sense of each interest or portion of the community, which may be unequally and injuriously affected by the action of the government, separately, through its own majority, or in some way by which its voice may be fairly expressed; and to require the consent of each interest, either to put or to keep the government in action.[7]

By community, Calhoun here means state. Each state, through its conventions, ratified the U.S. Constitution. Should it so choose, a state, according to Calhoun, has the right to exit the United States, if it believes its interests are oppressed or even threatened.

Because the numerical majority will do almost anything—sometimes out of habit, sometimes out of ignorance, and sometimes maliciously—to protect itself and avoid restriction, the minority community or communities must have power to oppose the majority power. A proper constitution must “give to each interest or portion of the community a negative on the others,” Calhoun argued. “It is this mutual negative among its various conflicting interests, which invests each with the power of protecting itself—and places the rights and safety of each where only they can be securely placed, under its own guardianship.” Such a negative would be a “veto, interposition, nullification, check, or balance of power.” Without such a negative power to work against it, a government will replace the constitution, resulting in an unnatural and improper consolidation of society. And, with the consolidation of the unchecked government, the only form of resistance left to any opposition is violence.[8] The ultimate result of rule by suffrage alone, Calhoun concluded, is chaos and division, while the constitution that embraces the numerical majority as well as the sense of the community—what Calhoun labeled the “concurrent majority”—leads to compromise, harmony, and social stability. “The concurrent majority. . . tends to unite the most opposite and conflicting interests, and to blend the whole in one common attachment to the country,” he concluded. “By giving to each interest, or portion, the power of self-protection, all strife and struggle between them for ascendancy, is prevented” and the society as a whole works for “patriotism, nationality, harmony, and a struggle only for supremacy in promoting the common good of the whole.”[9]

* * * * *

Three points must be kept in mind about Calhoun’s thought. First, his ideas are deeply republican and Western. They are not, as some have suggested, merely an excuse for the peculiar institution of slavery. It would be difficult to doubt that the oppressive institution did not benefit in a very significant way from Calhoun’s arguments. But it would be more appropriate to say that slavery accompanied much of Calhoun’s argumentation, rather than that it drove it. We can surely condemn the state of South Carolina by its own, Christian standards for the way slavery violated the dignity and uniqueness of the human person. We cannot so easily dismiss the republican longings of South Carolina as merely a cover for an opportunistic and exploitative labor system. Second, we must recognize that the South Carolinians in 1860 were not merely reactive. As a people, they believed profoundly in a harmonious republic based on tolerance for a variety of interests and communities. Finally, one cannot exaggerate Calhoun’s importance to the South Carolinian mind. His are the thoughts men carried with them as they walked into the South Carolina Convention of December 1860 and declared South Carolina a free and independent republic.

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1. Calhoun, Disquisition on Government.

2. Calhoun, Disquisition on Government.

3. Calhoun, Disquisition on Government.

4. Calhoun, Disquisition on Government.

5. Calhoun, Disquisition on Government.

6. Calhoun, Disquisition on Government.

7. Calhoun, Disquisition on Government.

8. Calhoun, Disquisition on Government.

9. Calhoun, Disquisition on Government.

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