John C. Calhoun, Prophet

Yesterday I had the pleasure to read for the first time the American statesman John C. Calhoun’s little magnum opus A Disquisition on Government. Calhoun’s reputation has fallen on hard times of late as part of the general backlash against any leader or thinker associated with the antebellum, slave-owning American South. As is usual in such cases, some of the blame is deserved, some not; but the beautiful thing about ideas is that they maintain their intrinsic value and potential relevance regardless of the prejudices or motives of their propounder. So it is in Calhoun’s extraordinary Disquisition. There is nothing in its arguments that depends on the context and agendas of the antebellum South; just extraordinary insight into the innate tendencies of government, society, and constitutional structures.

This is particularly the case with Calhoun’s insightful and prescient diagnosis of the diseases of partisan politics that will afflict a democracy that seeks to run itself more or less on the principle of decision-making by numerical majorities—as the US has increasingly tilted toward over the past century. His remarks on this score are nothing short of astonishing in light of the sharp polarization of American politics in the last generation and the increasing paralysis of the party system.

Here are a few extended excerpts:

“The conflict between the two parties, in the government of the numerical majority, tends necessarily to settle down into a struggle for the honors and emoluments of the government; and each, in order to obtain an object so ardently desired, will, in the process of the struggle, resort to whatever measure may seem best calculated to effect this purpose. The adoption, by the one, of any measure, however objectionable, which might give it an advantage, would compel the other to follow its example. In such case, it would be indispensable to success to avoid division and keep united—and hence, from a necessity inherent in the nature of such governments, each party must be alternately forced, in order to insure victory, to resort to measures to concentrate the control over its movements in fewer and fewer hands, as the struggle became more and more violent. This, in process of time, must lead to party organization, and party caucuses and discipline; and these, to the conversion of the honors and emoluments of the government into means of rewarding partisan services, in order to secure the fidelity and increase the zeal of the members of the party. The effect of the whole combined, even in the earliest stages of the process, when they exert the least pernicious influence, would be to place the control of the two parties in the hands of their respective majorities; and the government itself, virtually, under the control of the majority of the dominant party, for the time, instead of the majority of the whole community—where the theory of the form of government vests it. Thus, in the very first stage of the process, the government becomes the government of a minority instead of a majority—a minority, usually, and under the most favorable circumstances, of not much more than one-fourth of the whole community.


But the process, as regards the concentration of power, would not stop at this stage. The government would gradually pass from the hands of the majoirty of the party into those of its leaders; as the struggle became more intense, and the honors and emoluments of the government the all-absorbing objects. At this stage, principles and policy would lose all influence in the elections; and cunning, falsehood, deception, slander, fraud, and gross appeals to the appetites of the lowest and most worthless portions of the community, would take the place of sound reason and wise debate. After these have thoroughly debased and corrupted the community, and all the arts and devices of party have been exhausted, the government would vibrate between the two factions (for such the parties will have become) at each successive election. Neither would be able to retain power beyond some fixed term; for those seeking office and patronage would become too numerous to be rewarded by the offices and patronage at the disposal of the government; and these being the sole objects of pursuit, the disappointed would, at the next succeeding election, throw their weight into the opposite scale; in the hope of better success at the next turn of the wheel….


The transition would be more or less rapid, according to circumstances. The more numerous the population, the more extensive the country, the more diversified the climate, productions, pursuits and character of the people, the more wealthy, refined, and artificial their condition—and the greater the amount of revenues and disbursements—the more unsuited would the community be to such a government, and the more rapid would be the passage….” (Disquisition on Government, pp. 30-32)


“That the numerical majority will divide the community, let it be ever so homogeneous, into two great parties, which will be engaged in perpetual struggles to obtain the control of the government, has already been established. The great importance of the object at stake, must necessarily form strong party attachments and party antipathies—attachments on the part of the members of each to their respective parties, through whose efforts they hope to accomplish an effort dear to all; and antipathies to the opposite party, as presenting the only obstacle to success.


In order to have a just conception of their force, it must be taken into consideration, that the object to be won or lost appeals to the strongest passions of the human heart—avarice, ambition, and rivalry. It is not then wonderful, that a form of government, which periodically stakes all its honors and emoluments, as prizes to be contended for, should divide the community into two great hostile parties; or that party attachments, in the progress of the strife, should become so strong among the members of each respectively, as to absorb almost every feeling of our nature, both social and individual; or that their mutual antipathies should be carried to such an excess as to destroy, almost entirely, all sympathy between them, and to substitute in its place the strongest aversion. Nor is it surprising, that under their joint influence, the community should cease to be the common centre of attachment, or that each party should find that centre only in itself. It is thus, that in such governments, devotion to party becomes stronger than devotion to country—the promotion of the interests of party more important than the promotion of the common good of the whole, and its triumph and ascendancy, objects of far greater solicitude, than the safety and prosperity of the community. It is thus, also, that the numerical majority, by regarding the community as a unity, and having, as such, the same interests throughout all its parts, must, by its necessary operation, divide it into two hostile parts, waging, under the forms of law, incessant hostilities against each other.” (Disquisition on Government, pp. 35-36)


That said, Calhoun is certainly far more effective and persuasive as a critic of what he calls the “numerical majority” approach to representative democracy, than he is as a proponent of his alternative notion, the “concurrent majority.” The premise of the latter is to construct the body politic so as to give formal representational voice to each of the many varied interests (social, economic, religious, etc.) in the society, with the agreement of each element being necessary to proceed on any important point of policy. That is to say, each interest wields a kind of veto power. This concept is often objected to on the basis that Calhoun conceived it in the context of the debate over “states’ rights,” and as an instrument to protect the interests of the slaveholding south. However, the concept itself is capable of application in many contexts, and in many ways can be seen as underlying some of the most successful multi-party parliamentary democracies. Its chief objective is to prevent majorities (usually merely nominal majorities, as the passages above show) from oppressing minorities in a representative democracy.

But does not “concurrent majority” allow minorities to oppress majorities? To be sure, Calhoun seeks to show that concurrent majority is much more practical than it sounds at first, noting that the necessity of action and the fear of anarchy will compel all elements to come to some kind of compromise. He gives as an analogy the requirement of unanimity in trial by jury—the necessity of reaching a unanimous verdict tends to force the jurors to ultimately come to an agreement about what must be done. However, the analogy seems to me naively optimistic. After all, in the case of a jury, ideally each of the jurors has the same amount of personal interest in the verdict—that is, none; or at least, merely the satisfaction of having helped do justice, which should be roughly similar. That is, the interests of the jurors are not at stake in the deliberation. But of course, protecting and giving voice to interests is exactly what Calhoun’s ideal constitution does. And although on the whole, no interest is well-served by an inactive government, there will certainly be any number of particular issues on which inaction suits one or more interests perfectly well, whereas it will be absolutely fatal to other represented interests. Thus some will have far greater incentive or need to compromise than others. This will allow one or two interests to wield their veto power as form of extortion to the detriment of other interests. Calhoun will no doubt say that this is short-sighted of them, since the other interests may retaliate in due course when they get opportunity, but people are short-sighted, and tend to forget when they are in a position of power that the roles may end up reversed before long. I think we see this sort of abuse of veto power (albeit in a structure that does not well represent Calhoun’s ideal) happening pervasively now in US congressional politics.


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