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.
* * *
Like all journals of dissident ideas, Counter-Currents depends on the support of readers like you. Help us compete with the censors of the Left and the violent accelerationists of the Right with a donation today. (The easiest way to help is with an e-check donation. All you need is your checkbook.)
For other ways to donate, click here.
Enjoyed this article?
Be the first to leave a tip in the jar!
Milton Friedman’s Free to Choose
Lamentations for a City
Jonathan Bowden’s The Cultured Thug
Counter-Currents Radio Podcast No. 561: An All-Star Thanksgiving Weekend Special
The Blacks Next Door
Are We (Finally) Living in the World of Atlas Shrugged? Part 2
The Suppression of the Maryland Moderates During the Civil War
Are We (Finally) Living in the World of Atlas Shrugged? Part 1