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Calhoun and the American Republic
Majority Rule versus Consensus: The Political Thought of John C. Calhoun by James H. Read

Fall 2010 - Vol. 52, No. 4

Richard M. Reinsch II is a fellow at Liberty Fund, Inc., and author of Whittaker Chambers: The Spirit of a Counterrevolutionary (ISI Books, 2010).

Majority Rule versus Consensus: The Political Thought of John C. Calhoun
by James H. Read (Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press, 2009)

Emerging from James H. Read’s impressive analysis of John Calhoun’s political thought is the notion that the Carolinian statesman, planter, and conservative theorist was profoundly at odds not just with the political and economic trajectory of the American republic of the second quarter of the nineteenth century but also with its very founding and the principles that undergirded it. Calhoun, in Read’s telling, was a profoundly innovative, hence unconservative, thinker and statesman within the American political experience. Through his state sovereignty and concurrent majority theories, Calhoun made two basic political moves to rationalize American constitutionalism and provide for it a more secure grounding in political liberty and human flourishing, or so he believed. In this regard, Read urges that Calhoun should be considered as both a modern political theorist and statesman, given that his concurrent majority theorizing lives on in contemporary legal blueprints like the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. However, as statesman, Calhoun is less interested in recovering the original experiences of constitutional ratification than in articulating a revised founding, focusing on certain of its political qualities as a basis for building a new constitutional order.

In isolating certain aspects of the American constitutional experience and then rigorously extrapolating from them, Calhoun articulated an impermeable constitutional defense of a social, political, and economic order whose edifice had fallen under immense pressure from a variety of religious, political, and business sources. Calhoun, however, insisted that his own political thought and statesmanship emanated from within the venerable South Atlantic Republican tradition as taught and lived by some of the most significant American Founders. Claimed by Calhoun as part of this shared memory and identity were the names of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, George Washington, and the significant lights of John Randolph of Roanoke and John Taylor of Caroline. All of these, Calhoun explained, understood the basis of strict constitutionalism and its corollary of a robust conception of reserved state powers. The federal government existed and acted as agent to its principals: the states. Accordingly, the former’s range of powers was sparse but significant. For while Calhoun contended for positive state action against the federal government when it overstepped its delegated powers, he never renounced the essential goodness of continental power, provided, of course, that such power remained consistent with Southern interests.

More than Madison and arguably Jefferson, Calhoun reached far into the notion of delegated federal powers and logically argued that the states, the sources of such powers, were perfectly sovereign. Curiously, notes Read, Calhoun maintained that the Articles of Confederation, in this respect, had not been eclipsed by the Constitution of 1787. The states retained their express sovereignty as provided in the Articles. The Union was, as specified in the Preamble to the Constitution, merely “a more perfect Union.” Further logical deductions followed from the Calhounian compact theory of the Constitution that would, in time, form the basis for the secession of the Southern states. In particular, the 1860 South Carolina Ordinance of Secession largely tracked the constitutional arguments made by Calhoun. The Ordinance of Secession declared that the state’s act of constitutional ratification in 1788 was now rescinded; South Carolina, it followed, as a full sovereign state resumed all powers formerly transferred by it to the federal government.

Read is nothing if not masterful in his thorough dissection of Calhoun’s claims to constitutional originalism. For against Calhoun’s seemingly logical compact theory is not just the compound nature of the federal government, as advanced by James Madison in Federalist 39, which makes great trouble for the coherence of this theory, but also the difficulties encountered in logically applying the strains of political reasoning in Calhoun’s concurrent majority. One must, however, be careful, and Read generally is, in refuting Calhoun’s Hobbesian notion of state sovereignty. The complex tastes the Founders had in political sovereignty produced a discriminating understanding of this concept that is reflected in the Constitution. Calhoun’s compact theory and accompanying notions of state nullification and secession were also positions held by significant politicians in both the North and the South in the antebellum period. Lincoln’s axe had not yet fallen on this disputed question.

At pains to prove that the states are the principals of the Constitution, Calhoun denies the claim made by Madison, Alexander Hamilton, James Wilson, and Justice John Marshall, among others, that the federal government was formed on the singular dignity of the human person. Calhoun’s argument was imperative to the concurrent majority thesis, and also to his belief that the prescriptive rights of communities were the only tangible political qualities that can be recognized. Unproved by human experience, the natural rights of the Declaration of Independence were both philosophically and historically wrong, Calhoun argued. As voiced by Calhoun in his 1848 speech on the Oregon Bill:

If we trace it back, we shall find the proposition differently expressed in the Declaration of Independence. That asserts that “all men are created equal.” The form of expression, though less dangerous, is not less erroneous. All men are not created. According to the Bible, only two, a man and a woman, ever were, and of these one was pronounced subordinate to the other. All others have come into the world by being born, and in no sense, as I have shown, either free or equal. But this form of expression being less striking and popular, has given way to the present, and under the authority of a document put forth on so great an occasion, and leading to such important consequences, has spread far and wide, and fixed itself deeply in the public mind.

Calhoun’s argumentation in the Oregon Bill speech makes it virtually impossible to ignore his thoughts on the moral normativity of slavery as an institution that was a “positive good” for the South and also the North. Calhoun contended that liberty was the patient work of communities, where persons found their measure in the institutions of enduring and fragile order. Accordingly, some were ready for political liberty as provided in the American system, and others, namely slaves, were not.

The distinctions made by Calhoun regarding liberty and responsibility were personal, social, and political. Each dimension had its own requirements that were placed on the person for the effective workings of a humane order. Consequently, for Calhoun, the abstract individualism of social contract theory wrongfully projected a univocal understanding of an atomistic and denatured man onto the social and political orders. The justice claimed by Calhoun accounted for the person by fitting him into a social and political community whose history and understanding thrived apart from his consent, made his existence humane and something worthy of being cherished, and, if properly cultivated, offered a way of life that would long outlive him.

Ironically, if we overlook slavery itself, Calhoun’s grounding of political philosophy in lived experience might well be credited with pointing the way toward a more humane and robust sense of liberal community than anything emanating from the pens of eighteenth-century Whiggery. Unfortunately, his understanding was marred by its association with human bondage and, as such, had to give way before the dynamism of an American Protestantism that set moral reform above any particular “way of life.” As it was, for most Americans and certainly Northerners, the Christian principle of the Incarnation set the lives of individual men over any earthly community, and as such, would not long tolerate the forceful expropriation of their lives and labor.

Calhoun’s understanding of the concurrent majority theory and of its requirement that each state might issue a minority veto to arrest federal action prompts the question, what interest or issue ultimately weighs enough to justify stopping government action? Calhoun’s response cited the states as historically and constitutionally positioned to make that decision. They were the instruments by which consensus rule could be exercised. This point is accurate, so far as it goes, but it also entails that the states themselves can punish, cajole, and ignore other minority interests within their own boundaries. Calhoun’s state of South Carolina is instructive because in addition to the low-country plantation class there was also a yeoman farmer class in the upcountry area and a merchant interest along the water routes. Not surprisingly, South Carolina’s interests vis-à-vis the federal government were conducted according to the interests of the plantation aristocracy. The peace amongst all three interests was preserved ultimately by the economic goods provided by slavery, which upcountry farmers and merchants believed benefited them as well. In removing the person as the basis and origin of government and replacing him with the states, other intractable difficulties also emerged for Calhoun.

In turn, the unification of Southern interests through slavery raises more problematic aspects of Calhoun’s constitutionalism. If unity within and across the Southern states was achieved by slavery, the institution had also become the single greatest point of division in the nation as a whole. In short, what stopped Massachusetts, under Calhoun’s consensus rule, from either issuing vetoes against the expansion of slavery in the territories or refusing to enforce federal fugitive slave laws? Calhoun’s basic contention was that governance by consensus equaled moderate and just government because the majority was stripped of its preternaturally illiberal powers. While this position is in itself highly debatable, Calhoun also assumed that in the operation of a consensus rule some elements—namely slavery, its expansion, and necessary legal and cultural supports—were untouchable by a veto of the actions of the free states. As Read remarks:

On slavery Calhoun was even more convinced that at stake was a clash of true and false principles: slavery was positively good, abolitionism deeply evil, and there could be no compromise between good and evil. Calhoun was no relativist when it came to political and moral truth.

In excluding slavery from the reach of free states’ vetoes, Calhoun was true to form. The free-trade political economy of the South that turned on plantation slavery was the superlative continental good that national power had to bow before. On this point there could be no hedging as far as Calhoun was concerned.

Calhoun never denied that political questions are inherently moral questions. The neutral forms and procedures of political liberalism must always bend and receive their imprint from prevailing conceptions of substantive justice. Therefore, coercion is unavoidable. In a sense, the issue for Calhoun may not be the resolution of majority versus consensus rule, but fulfilling the requirements of a life well lived in common with others. If the American Constitution enabled a humane society to flourish, then Calhoun pledged his loyalty. As he maintained, however, secession and exit from the order itself were always on the table. Not susceptible to sacrifice were the tangible goods he believed were impossible to duplicate in the same measure by the rising forces within America of both acquisitive individualism and industrialism. However, apart from political theory and constitutional thought one might also engage Calhoun as a highly embellished form of a now lost American character type.

In his beautiful essay “Two Diarists,” Richard Weaver explored the diaries of Massachusetts Puritan Rev. Cotton Mather and Virginia Anglican Rev. William Byrd to better understand the bifurcated meanings of social and political order that once characterized American life. Where Mather, the quintessential Calvin divine, is obsessed about what God thinks about Mather, Byrd, the Aristotelian Anglican, moves in more tranquil waters, faithful in his prayers, but conscious of his palate. Mindful of the spirit, Byrd is also acutely aware of his creatureliness and its requirements for physical experiences of beauty and love. The willed attempts to impose order on an unruly wilderness that Mather believed to be at the heart of an advancing Puritan civilization are nowhere to be found in Byrd’s diaries. Rather, with Byrd there is a deep, even Christian appreciation for culture, the mind, human achievements and failings, with life being lived in the space between divinity and pure animality. As Byrd reveals, there was something profoundly good in Anglican Virginia and its then burgeoning plantation system. Weaver observes that the beauty and love of this order came as a result of a ruling class whose Christianity had not dispensed with Greco-Roman and other pre-Christian cultural and philosophical achievements. The result was a broader and tenderer conception of the human person and the goods he required.

Weaver comments that the social, political, and economic order of the South Atlantic where Byrd was thriving differed in type from the order flourishing in Mather’s Massachusetts. More than a hundred years later these two orders were colliding with one another with increasing force. Impelled by energies innate to the opposed regional conceptions of social and political liberties, the time for choosing had arrived. The heir to and leader of an order that men like Byrd had contributed to almost a century before his birth, Calhoun came to believe in the particular justice of the South Atlantic region. The Carolinian exemplar, however, had gone beyond Madison, Jefferson, and Washington in its defense, declaring that its particular justice sufficed for any assertion or claim of universal justice. Slavery was no longer the moral failing to be overcome and confessed, but was now integral to the workings of America itself. Calhoun believed, in this regard, that he was at the forefront of nineteenth-century political, economic, and scientific advances.

This conception, by the middle of the nineteenth century, simply no longer sufficed for a variety of religious and commercial reasons. A nation that was, in part, conceived on the basis of propositions found in a Declaration that Calhoun could not abide had come to demand obedience to its high principles. What had been an exercise in politics and rhetoric became—owing to the challenges of abolitionism, the positive defenses of both slavery and atomistic constitutionalism by Calhoun and secessionist leaders, and the will of a corporate lawyer from Illinois—a conflict that ripped the nation apart and fundamentally altered its spirit and self-understanding. Swallowed up in the conflict, of course, was Calhoun’s South Atlantic way of life along with all other sections of the South. Read’s work analyzes the central ideas and issues of this crucial period, one surmises, for the purpose of learning from Calhoun’s failures in political reasoning and prudence. He has not failed in this regard. Moreover, to learn from Calhoun and his adversaries is also an act of intellectual recovery. To engage the mind of Calhoun is to reenter a time when liberty, the rule of law, and constitutional honor were at the forefront of public debates.