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Excerpt from
The Conservative Bookshelf
A Book by Chilton Williamson, Jr.


A Disquisition on Government

By John C. Calhoun
1853

In 1993, when President Clinton nominated Lani Guinier, a legal scholar at Harvard, to be the first black woman to head the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice, and again the following year when her book The Tyranny of the Majority was published, she was attacked by establishment conservative commentators such as George F. Will and Lally Weymouth for her supposed un-American radicalism in arguing that the political majority at times needs to be "disaggregated" in order to ensure minority interests. Hilariously, the firebrand youthful naïfs at National Review attempted to deliver the coup de grâce to Professor Guinier's argument by observing that her thought on the subject of minority vs. majority representation echoed that of.John C. Calhoun! To the neoconservative National Review editors, the name Calhoun signaled--besides a defense of slavery--disunionism, disloyalism, extremism, treason. In point of fact, John Calhoun was one of the most cogently original and genuinely conservative theorists in the American political tradition; one whose ideas, though indeed employed by their author in defense of the slave interest, are intellectually independent from it. Though acquainted with The Tyranny of the Majority only by hearsay, I suspect that whatever is valuable in the book derives, either entirely or in large part, from the writings of the distinguished gentleman from South Carolina, Senator John C. Calhoun (1782-1850).

His reputation as an un-American reactionary notwithstanding, Calhoun was in many ways a typically enlightened American of his day: an optimist and a positivist who believed in science, technology, and material progress, the eventual triumph of civilization over barbarism, and popular constitutional government, and who had faith that both the governing and the governed would, in time, "better understand the ends for which government is ordained, and the form best adapted to accomplish them under all the circumstances in which communities may be respectively placed." (His optimism, it needs to be added, pertained essentially to Western societes with a tradition making them fit for liberty and self-governance. "No people," Calhoun observes in A Disquisition on Government, ".can long enjoy more liberty than that to which their situation and advanced intelligence and morals fairly entitle them." It is a terrible error, he goes on to warn, to suppose all people equally entitled to liberty; while, "attempting to elevate a people in the scale of liberty above the point to which they are entitled to rise, must ever prove abortive and end in disappointment.")

Calhoun's understanding of those ends, however, and so of the "form" best suited to realize them, was very far from that of Alexander Hamilton and other avid centralizers of the founding era who helped to ratify and reify the Constitution of the United States. Though he had begun his political career in Congress as a nationalist and a War Hawk, Calhoun chastised the "nationalists" of his own time for their habit of applying the term "national" to "the general government of the Union" and "the federal government of these States." "It seems to be forgotten," he complains in his Discourse on the American Constitution,  that the term was repudiated by the [Constitutional] Convention after full consideration, and that it was carefully excluded from the Constitution and the letter laying it before Congress. Even those who know all this-and, of course, how falsely the term is applied-have, for the most part, slided into its use with - out reflection. But there are not a few who so apply it because they believe it to be a national government in fact; and among these  are men of distinguished talents and standing, who have put forth all their powers of reason and eloquence in support of the theory.

For Calhoun, the American system is "a system of governments," a compound of the separate state governments and of "one common government of all its members." In this way, it is "[f]ederal, on the one hand, in contradistinction to national; and, on the other, to a confederacy." The Constitution, he insists, was established as a compact between free, independent, and sovereign states, not a plan of government established over them. Were it otherwise, he argues, ratification would have amounted to radical thoroughgoing revolution in the social as well as in the political sphere, as a single national culture supplanted thirteen separate and discrete ones. (It is interesting that Calhoun's father, whose understanding of the Constitution apparently anticipated his own, opposed ratification even so, on the ground that the centralized power it envisaged would end by destroying American liberty.)

Yet Calhoun in maturity was not a state's rights man, a cause with which the South Carolina Ordinance of Nullification in 1832 (based on the earlier Exposition, drafted by himself) had disillusioned him. Instead, he became a sectionalist, convinced by the accelerating divergence of interest between the North and the South, and by the increasing power of the former unfairly to press its advantage, that only a rearrangement of the political balance could save the Union in the long run. James Madison had written in The Federalist (Number 51) that, "It is of great importance to a republic, not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers, but to guard one part of society against the injustice of the other part." The U.S. Constitution, in Calhoun's opinion, had signally failed to do this: That is to say, it failed to protect the minority interest against the majority one.

As a mechanism to rectify this wrong by establishing a fair and appropriate balance between them, Calhoun, in A Disquisition, suggests what he calls "the doctrine of the concurrent majority." Under the resulting plan, each sectional or special-interest majority ( both of them, in respect of the "numerical majority," a minority interest) would enjoy the constitutional power to veto acts of the federal government (as the agent of the numerical majority), when a majority of the minority interest(s) declared said acts to be contrary to their welfare. What Calhoun calls "taking the sense of" the people can not be accomplished by the suffrage alone, which does no more than tabulate, individually, the choice of the numerical majority. What is needed additionally is to take the sense of the community in all its parts; "to give to each interest or portion of the community a negative on the others," thus ceding each portion the power to act as its own guardian. This negative power, Calhoun claims, is necessary to any constitution, since, "It is, indeed, the negative power which makes the constitution and the positive which makes the government. The one is the power of acting and the other the power of preventing or arresting action. The two, combined, make constitutional government."

Calhoun expected priceless benefits from his doctrine, if realized constitutionally. By giving to each interest, or portion, the power of self-protection, all strife and struggle between them for ascendancy is prevented; and thereby, not only every feeling calculated to weaken the attachment to the whole is suppressed, but the individual and social feelings are made to unite in one common devotion to country. Each sees and feels that it can best promote its own prosperity by conciliating the good will and promoting the prosperity of others.

The "constitutional majority," furthermore, will work against the tendency of popular constitutional governments to degrade into governments of the numerical majority, and thence into absolute ones. Urging the practicality of his plan, Calhoun cites the constitutional history of Poland over several hundred years previous to the early eighteenth century; that of Rome in the Republican era when the Tribune possessed the negative power over the Senate; and of Great Britain, according to whose unwritten constitution the House of Lords, as the "conservative power of the government," holds the negative as between the royal, or executive, estate, and the Commons, or popular, one. He is candid, however, in recognizing and attempting to confront what he admits to be valid objections to the "doctrine" as well.

Of these, by far the most grave is the problem of identifying those interests that must be recognized in the sense-taking, while deciding also which are to be excluded from it. Calhoun argues that, the more advanced a society, the more complex it becomes; while, the more complex, the more interests it encompasses. Hence, the greater its need for the concurrent majority scheme. (Thus the United States, as a simple merchant-agrarian society, got on well enough for a time, despite the failure of its Constitution to allow for the negative veto.) The problem-and it was discernible already in Calhoun's day, to say nothing of our own-is that societies elaborate themselves in time to the point where identifying every significant interest, taking the sense of it, and balancing each against a multitude of others becomes not just impractical, but impossible. In 1850, the year Calhoun died, the United States was divided sectionally in two, with a third section, the West, developing rapidly as a distinct geographical, social, economic, and political interest. Today, the North is subdivided in the popular and political mind between the Northeast, Midwest, Upper Midwest, and Northwest; the South, between the Sunbelt and the Southwest. Similarly, in 1850, the contending "interests" during the several decades of controversy culminating in the War Between the States were the agricultural and slave on the one hand, on the other the manufacturing, shipping, and financial ones. Nowadays, however, we would have to subdivide among these historical interests, while adding a plethora of modern ones to the roster..Christian, post-Christian, Muslim, and atheist? Social conservative and New Age? Environmentalist and developmentalist? Anti-abortionist and pro-choice? Second Amendment and gun control? Rural, urban, and suburban? Consumer and producer? Immigrant and anti-immigrant?. Just how fine, in other words, can we afford to slice this business of interest? In today's hyper- selfconscious, highly organized, overly-diversified, and confirmedly activist society, interests abound and proliferate to the extent that interest itself becomes merely a unit of the overwhelmingly numerous numerical majority.

Calhoun failed to suggest a solution to the difficulty for his own age (while insisting over and again that the conservative principle in constitutional government is compromise, not force as it is in government of the absolute variety). What he might have proposed for ours is anyone's guess. Surely the question is strikingly relevant to the United States at the opening of the twenty-first century, when the country seems evenly divided between the Blue and Red parties, post-modernists and traditionalists, urbanites and rural people, whites and nonwhites (an application Lani Guinier perceived even before the 2000 election). In the decades before the War Between the States, minority versus majority was essentially a sectional dilemma, susceptible of resolution by the reestablishment of the balance between the state and national governments envisioned by the constitutional Framers-even if the answer proved to be secession. Today, with the various contending interests smeared across the country from top to bottom, one end to the other, making secession a physical impossibility, what might be described as Calhoun's "federalism within the form" seems, if anything, more relevant to our contemporary situation than it was to the one that obtained a century and a half ago.

However that may be, there is no denying the prophetic truth of one of A Discourse's wisest and most farseeing passages, in which Calhoun glimpses the twentieth-century mass-democratic political machine in action. "The numerical majority," he warns, ". should usually be one of the sole elements of a constitutional democracy; but to make it the sole element, in order to perfect the constitution and make the government more popular [italics added], is one of the greatest and most fatal of political errors."

 

The Liberal Mind, by Kenneth Minogue >>

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