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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.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore


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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1 reply to this post
  1. As I read this letter by Calhoun, I do not see a man standing on any republican principle. Rather I see a man who would accept the Union as long as the Union accepted slavery. Abolition is the evil, not the South’s “peculiar institution.”

    “A large portion of the Northern States believed slavery to be a sin, and would consider it as an obligation of conscience to abolish it if they should feel themselves in any degree responsible for its continuance, and that this doctrine would necessarily lead to the belief of such responsibility. I then predicted that it would commence as it has with this fanatical portion of society, and that they would begin their operations on the ignorant, the weak, the young, and the thoughtless –and gradually extend upwards till they would become strong enough to obtain political control, when he and others holding the highest stations in society, would, however reluctant, be compelled to yield to their doctrines, or be driven into obscurity. But four years have since elapsed, and all this is already in a course of regular fulfilment.

    Standing at the point of time at which we have now arrived, it will not be more difficult to trace the course of future events now than it was then. They who imagine that the spirit now abroad in the North, will die away of itself without a shock or convulsion, have formed a very inadequate conception of its real character; it will continue to rise and spread, unless prompt and efficient measures to stay its progress be adopted. Already it has taken possession of the pulpit, of the schools, and, to a considerable extent, of the press; those great instruments by which the mind of the rising generation will be formed.

    However sound the great body of the non-slaveholding States are at present, in the course of a few years they will be succeeded by those who will have been taught to hate the people and institutions of nearly one-half of this Union, with a hatred more deadly than one hostile nation ever entertained towards another. It is easy to see the end. By the necessary course of events, if left to themselves, we must become, finally, two people. It is impossible under the deadly hatred which must spring up between the two great nations, if the present causes are permitted to operate unchecked, that we should continue under the same political system. The conflicting elements would burst the Union asunder, powerful as are the links which hold it together. Abolition and the Union cannot coexist. As the friend of the Union I openly proclaim it–and the sooner it is known the better. The former may now be controlled, but in a short time it will be beyond the power of man to arrest the course of events. We of the South will not, cannot, surrender our institutions. To maintain the existing relations between the two races, inhabiting that section of the Union, is indispensable to the peace and happiness of both. It cannot be subverted without drenching the country or the other of the races. . . . But let me not be understood as admitting, even by implication, that the existing relations between the two races in the slaveholding States is an evil:–far otherwise; I hold it to be a good, as it has thus far proved itself to be to both, and will continue to prove so if not disturbed by the fell spirit of abolition. I appeal to facts. Never before has the black race of Central Africa, from the dawn of history to the present day, attained a condition so civilized and so improved, not only physically, but morally and intellectually. …

    But I take higher ground. I hold that in the present state of civilization, where two races of different origin, and distinguished by color, and other physical differences, as well as intellectual, are brought together, the relation now existing in the slaveholding States between the two, is, instead of an evil, a good–a positive good. I feel myself called upon to speak freely upon the subject where the honor and interests of those I represent are involved. I hold then, that there never has yet existed a wealthy and civilized society in which one portion of the community did not, in point of fact, live on the labor of the other. Broad and general as is this assertion, it is fully borne out by history. This is not the proper occasion, but, if it were, it would not be difficult to trace the various devices by which the wealth of all civilized communities has been so unequally divided, and to show by what means so small a share has been allotted to those by whose labor it was produced, and so large a share given to the non-producing classes. The devices are almost innumerable, from the brute force and gross superstition of ancient times, to the subtle and artful fiscal contrivances of modern. I might well challenge a comparison between them and the more direct, simple, and patriarchal mode by which the labor of the African race is, among us, commanded by the European. I may say with truth, that in few countries so much is left to the share of the laborer, and so little exacted from him, or where there is more kind attention paid to him in sickness or infirmities of age. Compare his condition with the tenants of the poor houses in the more civilized portions of Europe–look at the sick, and the old and infirm slave, on one hand, in the midst of his family and friends, under the kind superintending care of his master and mistress, and compare it with the forlorn and wretched condition of the pauper in the poorhouse. But I will not dwell on this aspect of the question; I turn to the political; and here I fearlessly assert that the existing relation between the two races in the South, against which these blind fanatics are waging war, forms the most solid and durable foundation on which to rear free and stable political institutions. … ”

    I am not seeing in this letter slavery merely “accompanying” Calhoun’s argument. I see slavery driving it since, as Calhoun writes, slavery “is a good” and “the South will not, cannot, surrender our institutions.” This letter was written 30 years after England abolished trading of slaves throughout the British Empire. Surely Calhoun was not ignorant of that fact. Did Calhoun think all of England no longer had a place among “civilized communities” because it abolished slavery? Apparently so since, in this letter Calhoun asserts that slavery was preferable to other sort of economic arrangements.

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