Liberty Matters

Consolidation and Disunion, Tyranny and Anarchy

Long considered to be one of early America’s most impressive political theorists, John C. Calhoun has become almost untouchable. This is thoroughly unsurprising given the dynamics of contemporary public discourse, but it is also quite unfortunate, as his understanding of constitutional, republican government has much to teach us in an age of centralized democracy and dysfunctional politics.
Keith Whittington’s fine essay highlights some of the value of Calhoun’s thought, as well as the great stain on his legacy—his association with and defense of Southern slavery—which often complicates and sometimes distorts the understanding of his ideas. In this reply, I will attempt to elaborate upon some of Whittington’s observations and push back on a few points in hopes of sparking some useful conversation.
Whittington focuses mostly on Calhoun’s elaboration of state nullification and the compact theory of the union which underpinned it, making only occasional forays into his more comprehensive political ideas presented most systematically in the Disquisition on Government. I will, therefore, try to fit some of Whittington’s observations into that broader theory, which I think is most useful for understanding the relevance of Calhoun’s constitutionalism.
Though Calhoun vigorously took part in the political wrangling of his tumultuous age, I also read him as a theorist capable of looking beyond the surface and seeing general, underlying tendencies and forces at work in political life. These observations, more than the immediate goals he pursued, are what retain power and usefulness today.
In the Disquisition, Calhoun argues that healthy constitutional governments navigate between the Scylla and Charybdis of tyranny and anarchy, consolidation and disunion. And this middle ground derives from the sort of middle that defines human nature: On the one hand, human beings are inherently social—they have need of one another, have inherent moral obligations to one another, and must have a healthy society in order to “attain to a full development of [their] moral and intellectual faculties.”[1] On the other hand, they tend to value their own interests above those of others, and invariably make use of others for their own benefit.
So we need society, but also need a government with power sufficient to protect that society if we are to get any good out of it. And though we need government, it will invariably be misused by those in power unless it too is controlled by the society it governs. Whittington’s discussion takes us through the insufficiency of majority rule and the need for a set of mutual checks and concurrent voices that serve to give a more complete “sense of the whole” that ought to control government.[2]
The version of state interposition (the term he preferred to nullification) that Calhoun articulated is one practical example of the balance between consolidation and disunion. It is easy to see how it was a response to what he saw as dangerously consolidated, unaccountable power. But it was just as much an attempt to steer away from disunion. Secessionists were all around Calhoun throughout the latter half of his career, but—contrary to common understandings—he invariably rejected their calls. In an 1838 letter to his daughter, for instance, he warned her that prominent voices minimized “the many bleeding pores which must be taken up in passing the knife through a body politic.”[3]
That Calhoun did not want interposition to be a revolutionary act is evident from the differences between his and earlier versions (like that of Jefferson) to which Whittington calls our attention. As much as it was designed to offer a remedy to irresponsible power, interposition was equally designed to convince secessionists that there was a stable, ordered, and institutional remedy to the perceived abuse of power, one which did not stray too far in the opposite direction.
Whittington’s discussion of political parties is also quite useful, and one that points back to Calhoun’s more theoretical understanding of political life, specifically the dangers of consolidation. The more unchecked power there is to be won through a majority-rule election, the more we should expect parties to resort to lies, corrupt promises, bad faith, and “corrupt appeals to the appetites” in order to attain a majority.[4]
But it was not just a concern about the emergence of one “dominant” and “stable” party (which Whittington emphasizes) that Calhoun articulated. As parties use such corrupt tactics and adjust to reach new voters, government will eventually “vibrate between the two factions . . . at each successive election . . . [until] confusion, corruption, disorder, and anarchy, would lead to an appeal to force.”[5] This seems remarkably prescient at a time when political leaders vocally affirm their desire to use any means necessary to attain power, use that power to immediately undo every policy of the previous government, and now sometimes even make open appeals to force.
I now offer three critiques of Whittington’s essay that I hope may open some avenues of discussion—on Calhoun’s conservatism; on slavery; and on the moral foundations of his thought.
I highlight Calhoun’s conservatism because I think Whittington understates the extent to which Calhoun presented concurrent, constitutional mechanisms as imperfect devices that emerge from within a society, adapted to the particular circumstances that it faces. As such, the “prescriptions” he offered for the crises America found itself in during his time were primarily ones he believed were already embedded in the institutions that the system had already developed (the states).
The case of the dual executive proposal in the Discourse (which, coming up only once in an unfinished work, I generally think is over-emphasized), I don’t think is so much a “moving of the goalposts” as another inevitably imperfect, but targeted suggestion springing from what he saw to be the underlying cause of the crisis: sectional disaffection and the concentration of presidential power.
On slavery, Whittington is right to observe that “it is quite possible to separate Calhoun’s analysis of democratic constitutional politics from his motivation for developing such an analysis,” a point that is not always conceded. He also notes that Calhoun was not the originator of such positive defenses of slavery, being part of an ongoing shift of views in the lower South. I would go a step further and question the characterization of Calhoun as a “pro-slavery theorist.” He was, of course, pro-slavery, and he was a theorist. But he was not a theorist of slavery.
I think this is a reasonable characterization because, despite being a man who rigorously analyzed political questions on his own, and typically formulated them in a new, advanced way, his slavery arguments were all second-hand. As historian Irving Bartlett observed, Calhoun simply “was never as interested in studying or discussing [slavery] as he was in analyzing political and constitutional issues.”[6] This is evidenced by his personal correspondence as well as the comparatively minimal amount of time spent in his speeches and public writings on the actual moral status of slavery as opposed to, say, presidential patronage, banking, free trade, the political effect of abolitionism (a distinct question), and of course constitutional interpretation. Most strikingly, slavery is entirely absent from the Disquisition, a work he described as the “solid foundation” of his political theory, and absent from the Discourse, except as the historical cause of sectional discord.[7]
The arguments he did use to defend the moral status of slavery partook in a paternalistic strand of thought that had been brewing since at least the turn of the century, and probably earlier. The idea that slaves were healthier, safer, and more advanced than freed blacks in Northern cities; the idea that the interests of the slave and the master were mixed in the plantation household, thereby avoiding the social frictions of Northern free labor; the idea that slaveholders were benevolent masters, making the slave a part of the “community” or “family”: All of these were common assertions by 1837, when Calhoun began to publically speak on the moral rectitude of slavery.[8] He spoke in this language, but his comments on such questions never approached anything close to the systematic treatment given them by political men like Thomas Dew and Edward Brown, or men of the cloth like Richard Fuller and George Freeman. And he never used the language of the new racial “science” which began to develop near the end of his life.
There are also some important contradictions between his political theory and his instinctive defense of slavery, which I outline in my book.[9] It is true that his general view on the expansion of liberty—that every person ought to be free “to pursue the course he may deem best to promote his interest and happiness, as far as it may be compatible with the primary end for which government is ordained [the peaceful ordering of social life]”—does carve out a space in which slavery may exist, but only on his specious grounds that slavery was actually beneficial to the slave.[10] Take away the misguided racial assumptions, and the principle itself does not allow for the kind of exploitation that slavery actually was.
Finally, and relatedly, I think Whittington is wrong to suggest (by the association with Hobbes), that Calhoun’s vision of constitutional government has an amoral character to it. His rejection of natural rights theory (which, as his comments about the European revolutions of 1848 make clear, was not simply or even primarily about race and slavery), did not mean that politics was grounded simply in the avoidance of violence and anarchy—constitutionalism would be unnecessary for this, as Hobbes makes clear.
Rather, he posits that society and a government which protects it in whole, allow for the full flourishing of human potential, made possible by ordered liberty: moral and intellectual development, along with physical protection and material well-being. So we arrive back at my initial theme: Man cannot flourish in a state of anarchy, but neither can he flourish in a state of arbitrary government, or in a disfigured political system squinting toward absolutism.
Claes Ryn captured the moral element of Calhoun’s constitutionalism by analogizing the checks required of concurrent constitutionalism to the ethical conscience, the primary responsibility of which is to curb morally arbitrary action. The checks “do not in themselves have any moral worth. But paradoxically they greatly facilitate the task of those who are striving to give politics a higher direction.”[11] Constitutionalism, as Calhoun understood it, creates fertile ground for human flourishing, and offers practice and habituation in the art of living well together.
[3] JCC to Anna Maria Calhoun, 1838.
[6] Irving H. Bartlett, John C. Calhoun: A Biography (New York: W.W. Norton, 1993), 218.
[7] JCC to Anna Maria Calhoun Clemson, 15 June, 1849.
[8] See Lacy K. Ford, Deliver Us from Evil (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 505-536; Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene D. Genovese, The Mind of the Master Class (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 201-224.
[9]John C. Calhoun’s Theory of Republicanism (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2016), 170-175
[11] Claes G. Ryn, Democracy and the Ethical Life (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1993), 169