Review of Disquisition on Government

Author: John C. Calhoun

Publisher: St. Augustine’s Press

The consummation of all political theory, Calhoun’s argument for the “concurrent majority”–formed when all the diverse and competing interests in a nation must agree to any policy moves–has lasting value in an age of increasing reliance on pure numerical majorities. Calhoun argued that governments are in place to restrain men and that “organisms” are placed on governments in enlightened nations to restrain the governments themselves, which must be done because they are run by men, who are as imperfect in positions of power as they are otherwise. The “organism,” in our case known as the Constitution, is meant to prevent governments from asserting absolute rule, and, as Calhoun shows, when a pure numerical majority is all that is necessary to implement policies, the government is nothing short of absolute. Calhoun sharply argues that even though many supposed “friends” of good governance will clamor for purer, more simply numerical democracy as a solution to bad outcomes, they hurt society rather than help it by so doing.

Calhoun clearly was heavily influenced by Aristotle and Adam Smith, and his sophistication and perceptiveness stems from them. His argument is deep and nuanced, and shows complete command of the subject matter. What’s unfortunate is that, because many members of Congress at the time from his region were labelled “Calhounites,” Calhoun is best remembered as a Southern hypocrite, favoring plantation chattel-slavery and clamoring for more democracy. This is because Calhoun resisted the majority under Andrew Jackson’s administration and because thirty years later people from the same region resisted the majority under Lincoln. It also stems from the fact that Jefferson Davis, who led the Confederacy in the 1860s, was Secretary of War, just as Calhoun had been, but that’s an extraordinarily weak link. This is not logic at its finest. By imposing modern norms and mores onto him, and by imposing modern logic (which is much worse, since that’s a total oxymoron), we miss the depth and range of insight he provides, and we also draw false historical conclusions; many of those same Southerners were not individuals he had any respect for or intimate connection with. Modern readers tend not to understand Calhoun, but that’s a product of their own educational shortcomings and not of the strength or weakness of Calhoun’s political philosophy.

I would argue that this text trumps all of the great works of political theory–Plato and Aristotle and Machiavelli and Hobbes and Milton and Locke and Montesquieu and Burke and The Federalist and so on–and, in 80 pages, makes the strongest possible case for respecting the Constitution as it was set up. I’ve read all of them. I’ve read Acton and Weber and Marx and Hayek and Spinoza and Descartes and Montaigne and Bacon and Thucydides and Livy and Gibbon as well. Calhoun’s the best and ought to be treated as such, though with the caveat that he is terrible with comma splices.

There is one irreconcilable problem with the text–namely that Calhoun believes in an “organism” to control the behavior of government, but then says that when liberty and protection come into conflict, liberty must always yield to protection.  He does not specify what limits may be placed on this maxim, and many cases of absolute government have started with a government claiming that its citizens need to be protected from ghosts, swiftly expanding the scope of constitutionality and making the prescribed limitations on government meaningless.  I think this is inherent in any work of government, though, and forgive Calhoun the lack of superhuman powers to resolve this conundrum.


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