John C. Calhoun’s Illiberal Political ThoughtAlex Graham
John G. Grove
John C. Calhoun’s Theory of Republicanism
Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2016
Recognized as a brilliant political mind during his time, today John C. Calhoun is generally caricatured as an apologist for slavery and Southern secession. Comparatively little attention is given to his political philosophy. John G. Grove’s John C. Calhoun’s Theory of Republicanism is a long-overdue appraisal of Calhoun’s worldview and makes the case for why he should be recognized as one of America’s great political thinkers.
Grove describes Calhoun’s political thought as “an attempt to understand and improve the American political community in conceptual terms derived from the classical republican tradition” (p. 7). Calhoun’s main influences were ancient political philosophers and statesmen such as Aristotle, Cicero, and Polybius. Aside from Burke, for whom he had high praise, Calhoun did not cite any contemporary thinkers as influences.
The tendency among many historians is to characterize early American political thought purely in terms of Lockean individualism and classical liberalism. This crude oversimplification is particularly misguided with regard to Calhoun, who, arguably more than any other American political thinker, systematically defended classical republican ideals and rejected “the natural equality of man, the state of nature, and the idea that society and government come about by free choice” (p. 9). Some scholars, like Harry Jaffa, acknowledge Calhoun’s illiberalism yet stubbornly view him through a classical liberal paradigm, portraying him as a failed or confused liberal. Grove argues that Calhoun emerges as a serious and consistent thinker once one ceases to view his ideas through a liberal lens.
Calhoun wrote two treatises on political philosophy: A Disquisition on Government and A Discourse on the Constitution and Government of the United States. The former outlines his philosophy from a theoretical standpoint, and the latter applies the framework described in the Disquisition to the context of American politics.
Calhoun’s best-known concept, which he outlines in the Disquisition, is that of the “concurrent majority.” To prevent the “tyranny of the majority,” he proposed the existence of a mechanism that would defend the interests of each sub-population within a nation against abuses of government power. The majority of each state in America, for instance, would have a say in policy decisions; at the very least, states would have the ability to “[interpose] for the purpose of arresting, within their respective limits, an act of the federal government in violation of the Constitution” (p. 46).
The ultimate purpose of Calhoun’s concurrent constitution was not to protect the “rights” of minority groups, as liberal-minded scholars have framed it, but to secure the common good and cultivate civic virtue. Like ancient political theorists, Calhoun was concerned with the task of creating a harmonious body politic. He believed a concurrent constitution would cultivate goodwill and fraternity and would prevent factionalism. Success in politics would be predicated upon one’s willingness to compromise and place the common good above factional interests.
To Calhoun, diversity was not a “strength,” but a source of conflict that threatened to tear societies apart and an obstacle to be overcome. Diversity should be minimized as much as possible. Absolute homogeneity, however, is impossible: there will always be a divide between elites and the general populace, for one. The task of governments is to mediate the conflicts that will inevitably arise through wise, public-spirited leadership and a constitution that rewards civic virtue. This is the basis for Aristotle’s idea of the mixed regime, which serves both the interests of the many and the few. Recalling Plato’s tripartite theory of the soul, Calhoun conceived of the common good as “justice among all sections” of society (p. 41).
Calhoun rejected social contract theory and the idea that governments are contractually obligated to secure “life, liberty, and property” for their subjects. Instead he argued that governments’ duties to their citizens, and citizens’ duties to each other and their country, arise from a moral imperative to exercise civic virtue. He made a distinction between the people’s best interests and their short-term desires: citing the examples of Cato, Phocion, and Aristides, he argued that statesmen should not be beholden to the whims of their constituents, but should base their decisions on reason and careful deliberation.
Following Aristotle, Calhoun saw man as a naturally political creature possessing a social telos. This is why it is mistaken to frame Calhoun’s concurrent majority as a defense of “rights” in the Lockean sense: “Any list of rights or duties derived from a state of nature, therefore, has no grounding in man’s truly natural environment — the social and political community into which one is born” (p. 24). At the same time, he saw man as naturally selfish. Governments must curb man’s selfish instincts and guard against the emergence of “perverted” constitutions, in Aristotle’s terminology, which secure the well-being of only one faction of the state instead of the common good.
Some scholars have labeled Calhoun a liberal individualist on account of his superficially Hobbesian characterization of man as (despite his natural sociality) frequently motivated by self-interest. This ignores the fact that Calhoun did not uphold the existence of human selfishness as a norm; the central question of his political philosophy is how to contain man’s self-interest and allow virtue to flourish.
As a young member of the House of Representatives, to which he was elected in 1810, Calhoun was a passionate nationalist and a proponent of a strong national government. He was initially optimistic that the differing interests of individual states would not pose a danger to national unity. However, the steep tariffs imposed upon the South, as well as the corruption he witnessed as Vice President under John Quincy Adams’s administration (1825-1829), convinced him that the future of the United States as a republic was under threat. Calhoun believed that citizens should be willing to make sacrifices for the common good — a recurring theme throughout his speeches as a representative — but that any country in which one segment of the population was forced to make disproportionate sacrifices was no longer a free republic. This led him to defend the right of states to protect themselves against federal overreach.
Calhoun’s principles remained consistent throughout his life, despite his political shift. His embrace of states’ rights, far from being a calculated political maneuver (as some have claimed), was an outgrowth of his earlier nationalism. An American nationalist ought to take the interests of each state into account. Henry Clay and John Quincy Adams, by contrast, “were not nationalists in Calhoun’s eyes; they were sectionalists using the strident trumpet tones of nationalism as a pretext for invidious special interest legislation” (p. 91).
Calhoun believed that America was founded upon the principles of the concurrent majority but had strayed from this ideal. In particular, he fiercely opposed the Force Bill of 1833, which prohibited South Carolina from “nullifying” the federal Tariffs of 1828 and 1832 and threatened to deploy the US Army if South Carolina did not comply.
Calhoun’s defense of nullification was not as revolutionary or disruptive as it might appear. As a Burkean conservative, Calhoun believed reforms should be informed by history and circumstance and should be confined to “specific [threats] to political stability” (p. 96). Interposition, the right of a state to oppose actions of the federal government, was hardly a marginal idea at the time; it was suggested in the Virginia and Kentucky resolutions of 1798, written by James Madison and Thomas Jefferson respectively. Calhoun’s proposed method of interposition — state conventions — similarly had a precedent in the ratification conventions of 1787 and 1788.
Contrary to the perception of Calhoun as the father of Southern secession, he defended the Union as much as Daniel Webster or Abraham Lincoln. He wanted to preserve the Union and only defended secession as a last resort. He saw nullification not as a prelude to secession, but as a means by which to promote dialogue among the states over constitutional matters and “to habituate a kind of civic virtue in all parts of the Union” (p. 105). He also accepted that if three quarters of the states rejected South Carolina’s nullification of the tariffs, South Carolina would be legally bound to comply with federal law, as outlined in the Constitution. When Congress passed the Force Bill, Calhoun began working on a compromise with Henry Clay that entailed a gradual reduction in tariff rates. He urged his fellow Carolinians not to respond with violence or threats to secede.
Calhoun saw the United States as a political compact among sovereign, pre-existing states and rejected the idea of the founding as a social contract that birthed a new nation. This conception of the American founding was shared by many of his contemporaries and has been advanced by some modern scholars. Twentieth-century Southern historian Forrest McDonald, for example, described the Constitution as “a compact among peoples of different political societies, in their capacities as peoples of the several states” (p. 110). If this is the case, then individual states can interpret the Constitution.
The states’ rights debate is often depicted as a conflict between state interests and national interests. This is misleading, as Calhoun saw the protection of state interests as compatible with — indeed, a necessary condition for — securing the common good. Furthermore,
. . . when Calhoun spoke of the sovereignty of the states, he spoke of the ultimate sovereignty retained by the people of each state, not a superiority of state governments over the the central government. . . . [H]e conceived of the state and national governments as coordinating governments both emanating from the people of the states. (p. 98)
Some of Calhoun’s detractors have argued that granting states the ability to interpret the Constitution would cause anarchy and render the Constitution meaningless. This represents a misunderstanding of the purpose of nullification as Calhoun saw it. Nullification was “not merely a mechanistic system by which each section of the country, looking to its own immediate, material interests, was able to balance against the others”; its purpose was to “prompt compromise and harmony” (p. 103). Calhoun also believed nullification should be a rare occurrence.
It is worth noting that despite his emphasis on the distinct identity of each state, Calhoun acknowledged that Americans were bound together by “ties of a common origin, identity of language, similarity of religion, laws, customs, manners, commercial and social intercourse, — and by a common danger” (p. 53). He believed “a bond of mutual affection and brotherhood” should be fostered among the states (p. 54).
Calhoun is mainly remembered today for his defense of slavery, and it is arguably for this reason that his political thought is neglected. But his opposition to abolitionism had little to do with the morality of slavery and instead arose from his commitment to preserving the Union. His primary objections were that it was unjust for one segment of the Union to impose its will on another and that the abolitionists’ divisive rhetoric posed a threat to the Union’s integrity: “As hatred begets hatred, and animosity animosity, these feelings would become reciprocal, till every vestige of attachment would cease to exist between the two sections, when the Union and the Constitution, the offspring of mutual affection and confidence, would forever perish” (p. 142).
Unlike Lincoln, Calhoun believed slave-holding states could coexist with the rest of the country, but only if political discourse was not dominated by the language of moral absolutes. He correctly pointed out that the Constitution accepted the existence of slavery and did not attempt to regulate it at the federal level. These arguments followed from the principles he had espoused throughout his career and were hardly the ravings of a demagogue.
Calhoun did infamously describe slavery as a “positive good,” but he only defended it within an American context, “where two races of different origin, and distinguished by color, and other physical differences, as well as intellectual, are brought together,” and not on an abstract level (p. 159). He warned that few abolitionists offered solutions as to how whites and blacks were to coexist and predicted that dismantling slavery would result in bloodshed. Calhoun’s concerns were shared by Lincoln himself, who acknowledged that racial differences would “forever forbid the two races living together upon terms of social and political equality” (p. 160). Such concerns were quite reasonable, even though one can find fault with Calhoun’s proposed solution.
Grove argues that Calhoun’s position on slavery was contradictory. He points out that Calhoun described liberty as “the noblest and highest reward for the development of our faculties, both moral and intellectual” and elsewhere spoke of the progress attained by blacks thanks to white civilization. It follows, according to Grove, that theoretically blacks would one day be worthy of liberty, but Calhoun does not countenance this possibility. This is not particularly convincing because Calhoun’s defense of slavery was rooted in his concern for the common good, which he prioritized above individual liberty, and nowhere does Calhoun claim that blacks have the potential to eventually meet white standards, even if they are edified by white civilization.
That quibble aside, Grove has written a nuanced, intelligent survey of Calhoun’s political thought. He approaches Calhoun’s ideas on their own terms and skillfully addresses the arguments advanced by his ideologically-driven detractors, revealing the internal consistency in his positions over the course of his career. His book is an important corrective to the dominant narrative about Calhoun.
Calhoun’s articulation of a worldview based thoroughly on classical republican ideals was unusual among American political thinkers. At the same time, one could argue that he simply formally elaborated upon principles that pervaded early American political thought. His thinking was grounded in American history and tradition, and his critique of American liberal individualism drew upon a strand of American politics as old as the nation itself. Calhoun should be studied by every modern American nationalist seeking to partake in an authentically American political tradition that offers a critique of classical liberalism.
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Thanks to the reviewer for calling attention to this book. Calhoun has become a leftist caricature; anything which reminds us that he was one of this country’s few original political thinkers is welcome. I would also recommend the study of Calhoun’s thought by the conservative scholar H. Lee Cheek.
I would have liked the reviewer to have elaborated on his final sentence. What, exactly, is the value of Calhoun’s thought to contemporary white nationalists? We know what we must have – a sovereign, territorially homogeneously white state (ethnostate). What will be the political form of that state? Is it too early to begin thinking about it? I believe that the Ethnostate, if our destiny (and not merely fantasy), is yet many decades away. Most of our theoretical work now must naturally be concerned with 1) elucidating why the Ethnostate is both moral and just, as well as preferable to the regnant regime (which, of course, includes delegitimating that regime); and 2) formulating the strategy by which we might eventually win our racial liberty and sovereignty.
But I strongly suspect that the instantiation of the Ethnostate will follow from a regime crisis and likely breakdown, and that the decades of intellectual and metapolitical work, and, eventually, open political struggle, that will precede the creation of the Ethnostate will reach their fruition with astonishing rapidity. I don’t think the Ethnostate will arise from any sort of long revolutionary war, in other words, but rather from an eventual near-overnight collapse in white modal conservative public support for the existing Diversity regime (I envision something like what happened with the fall of the Berlin Wall; a critical mass of people simply didn’t want to be part of the communist system any longer). I think one day a geographically concentrated majority of our people will just conclude they’ve had it, and want “out” (obviously, I mean out of the Union, not out of the territory of present day America).
When this happens, white preservationists, who might suddenly find themselves for once in the political vanguard, need to be prepared to offer up a set of political arrangements (that we believe will best serve long term white survival interests) that can be voted (or imposed) into place very quickly. What institutions are set up in times of revolutionary ferment (even when that ferment is mostly non-violent) can stabilize into a “new normal” very quickly, and then last a long time. That is what we should want – to be the ones best organized to take advantage of a collapse in public support for the regime whenever it arrives.
Thus, I don’t think it’s a waste of time, or even overly premature, to start thinking about the political form of the Ethnostate. And so back to my earlier question: what type of government do we want? To recreate the Old Republic (except that this time it will be written into the new constitution that only whites shall be residents)? Or do we need something dramatically different if white preservation is the telos of the Ethnostate?
Calhoun should be central to our thinking about political order in North America. We need to see the ways in which nullification and ‘a compact of sovereign states’ provides a template for bringing Whites to the point where racialized states are normalized through nullification of the many applications of ‘civil rights’ regulation.
I’ve been banging the Calhoun drum for a while because I think the man saw quite brilliantly how the constitutional republic of the United States of America would fall apart and what might be done to prevent it.
I think we have to take his ideas and work with them in our current context.
For example, I think that states engaging in active nullification of ‘federal’ mandates and regulation are not likely to willing to accept the outcome of national elections based upon multiple different electoral franchise arrangements. I foresee the end of the national franchise altogether with the system of federal elections being completely superseded by power-bloc politics of the sort Calhoun seems include within the scope of what I prefer to think of as ‘concurrent majorities’ (versus ‘concurrent majority’).
Constitutional republicanism is suitable for White people and the very tiny segment of ‘high performance’ non-Whites who can assimilate to Whiteness.
The liberals want to run away from Calhoun because of his views on slavery.
But Calhoun’s views on slavery are the perfect application of the often-repeated understanding on the part of classical republicanism that all peoples are not equal in their capacity for creating and sustaining constitutional republics. The slaves could not replicate the Republic on their own and their race had never created a republic on their own. Thus, they had no non-contingent place within the constitutional order. They certainly were not to be extended political power to affect the direction of the Republic. Could an individual Negro distinguish themselves sufficiently that Whites could have confidence in their prudent application of a franchise if extended to them? Yes. Does that mean that all Negros should be extended the franchise or be allowed to be ‘free persons’ and emancipated into White lands? No.
What I have found is that when liberals and the left say ‘If it weren’t for X, this thinker wouldn’t be so bad’, it means that X is probably very important to the reasons we should take such a thinker seriously.
As a matter of more immediate and quotidian interest, I do think we cannot hold back from articulating a political vision that neither requires or excludes White Identity Nationalism. We can get what we want by making the power of non-Whites and Jews over White politics devolve. And we can accomplish that devolution though nullificationist politics and para-secessionist sentiments. If we don’t want the outcome of a process to be a replay of the 30 years war, what we’ll need to leaven nullification with an ethos derived from ethnonationalism.
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