Liberty Matters

John C. Calhoun: Slaveholder First, Republican Second

My thanks to Liberty Fund for inviting me to participate in its discussion about the theories and legacy of John C. Calhoun. In his excellent essay, Professor Whittington characterized Calhoun’s intellectual project as a continuation of the Madisonian effort to “reconcile republicanism and constitutionalism,” even at the expense of the liberalism of Jefferson. This is a very apt description and prompts from me a few observations.
While Calhoun was trying to push forward the Madisonian project, he was not very Madisonian. Indeed, the Nullification Crisis brought on by Calhoun drew an aged James Madison out of retirement to write a series of letters rebuking the project. Madison’s efforts probably dissipated support for nullification in Virginia, isolating South Carolina and helping President Andrew Jackson to squash the incipient uprising.
The divide between Madison and Calhoun parallels the differences between Madison’s Virginia Resolutions and Jefferson’s Kentucky Resolutions, and ultimately gets down to a question of faith in the politics of an extended republic. Following Jefferson, Calhoun wanted to establish the right of the states to strike down federal laws — although Calhoun’s position was more extreme. Jefferson was grasping for a way to overturn the Sedition Act, a manifestly unconstitutional law, in an era before the Supreme Court had established the power of judicial review. Calhoun, on the other hand, was objecting to protective tariffs, an exercise of the federal taxing authority that had generations of legal precedent behind it. He was essentially asserting that the states could determine the boundaries of national politics.
Madison’s Virginia Resolution did not suggest any right to nullification. Instead, Madison’s purpose was to rally the states to focus public opinion on the crisis of the moment. From Madison’s perspective, the purpose of the Virginia Resolution was not legal, but political. The Virginia Resolutions were a specification of Madison’s extended republic theory. Minority rights and the general welfare were best protected in a large, diverse republic that takes on a variety of interests. In such a society, the political process could be trusted to generally respect justice and the general welfare. Calhoun, in calling for nullification, was explicitly trying to limit the scope of political debate, fearful that Madisonian nationalism threatened the welfare of his state.
The historical context helps illuminate Calhoun’s motives. The United States enacted its first avowedly protective tariff in 1815. The purpose was distinctly national, with a particular eye to foreign affairs. Having fought two wars with Great Britain in the last 30 years, the Americans had no idea that the Treaty of Ghent would inaugurate a durable peace with its old imperial master. The tariff rates of the 1815 tariff were a mild and temporary expedient to boost critical industries in anticipation of future economic or martial conflicts. While most Southern congressmen voted against it, a majority of the South Carolina delegation, including Calhoun, backed the measure.
The protective rates offered by the government were, in effect, bounties to private industries, which began clamoring for more. The census of 1820 redistributed political power in the House northward toward the industrializing areas of the country, resulting in the Tariff of 1824. Unlike the 1815 tariff, this measure was decidedly sectional in character, amounting to a transfer of wealth to the industrialists of the North and West from the planters of the South. As a region whose economy was dominated by the exportation of staples, the South drew few benefits from higher tariff rates, and instead was burdened by higher prices on the manufactured goods it imported. The industrialists struck again in 1828, with another tariff that raised rates as high as they would go until the Great Depression.
Calhoun and other Southern politicians, such as John Randolph of Roanoke and John Taylor of Caroline, identified in the 1824 tariff a novel danger to the republic. The bill was essentially a logroll, yoking together a variety of interests that had no point of commonality beyond a mutual desire for personal enrichment. Madison’s vision of an extended republic seemed to offer no protection against such a minority-majority coalition. It was this crisis for his home region that prompted Calhoun to develop the theory of the concurrent majority, which was in effect an effort to save republican government from the errors of Madisonianism.
Calhoun would never have characterized his project in this way, and he made a political mistake by denying that his innovations were exactly that — innovations. Instead, he framed them as being consistent with the original vision of the founding. Unfortunately for the Nullifiers, Madison was still alive, able to point out the heterodoxy of their views. Embarrassed that the Nullifiers had appropriated the memory of his late friend to their radical cause, Madison lamely asserted that Jefferson originally never intended to assert a right to nullification — although he most certainly did.
Still, Calhoun’s critique of the theory of the extended republic has validity, and in fact he anticipated the challenge that industrialization and its attendant concentrations of wealth would pose to republicanism over the course of the next 200 years. Economic groups that receive government subsidies have proven themselves to be skillful at organizing, mobilizing, and crafting strategies to maximize their bounties, despite the political hurdles placed in their way by the extended republic. Calhoun, in eyeing suspiciously the growing power of the cordage and woolens industries in the 1820s, anticipated in a way the rise of Carnegie Steel and Boeing — not just as economic forces but as political players as well.
Where Calhoun erred was not in his diagnosis of the problem, but his prescription. The idea of the concurrent majority is simply unworkable. It would have taken the United States back to the era of the Confederation, when a single state could thwart any national endeavor it disliked. Today, the United Nations Security Council mimics the design of Calhoun’s system, where each member gets a veto over resolutions of the rest. History has shown that, while the Security Council remains an important place for debate and deliberation, it is no venue for resolving differences between the member nations.
Calhoun likewise underestimated the potential for politics to secure equitable treatment in the Madisonian system. If the protective tariffs of the 1820s were primarily bargains among diverse factions of the North and West, it should be possible for outside groups to crack the coalition via counteroffers — which is exactly what the South did. Calhoun himself negotiated a lower tariff schedule with Henry Clay in the early 1830s. And while Andrew Jackson was generally indifferent to the tariff issue, the Democratic party over the subsequent generation advocated for lower rates. It became the dominant political coalition by combining advocacy of lower tariffs with expansionary land policy — joining the West with the South at the expense of the New Englanders, who opposed expansionary policies for fear it would drain their regions of population. This South-West alliance lasted until the Civil War and reemerged afterwards to become the foundation of Democratic power through the 1940s.
Ultimately, I think the manner in which Calhoun abandoned the Madisonian nature of the founding and embraced such a radical alternative can only be explained by his commitment to the institution of slavery. I’m not sure I agree with Professor Whittington’s claim that it is “quite possible to separate” Calhoun’s constitutionalism from the matter of slavery. The slaveholders were asking not merely for more favorable economic policies — that could be, and in fact was, secured through the kind of bargaining envisioned under the extended republic. What Calhoun really wanted was to force the rest of the nation to accept the lie that the South was republican in any meaningful sense of the word.
The institution of slavery is feudalistic — and by the 1830s it had taken on industrial qualities that exacerbated this atrribute, thanks to the invention of the cotton gin. Wealth and power in the South were increasingly concentrated in just a handful of slave owners. The overwhelming majority of the South — the enslaved blacks and the politically free but economically impoverished whites — were losers in what really was an agrarian oligarchy that prospered by denying others the opportunity to enjoy their rights or govern themselves.
This slaveocrat faction dominated southern politics, economics, and culture, but owing to its small size it was vulnerable in any political arrangement where power was housed in a numerical majority. So, they were always dependent on the indulgence of a national majority. This position was tenable in in 1787 — the moral conscience of the North had not yet been stirred by abolition, the South remained mildly embarrassed by slavery, and it was even possible to imagine a post-slavery South. But by 1830s the emancipation movement had already garnered successes in Europe and was beginning to pick up steam in the North. Meanwhile, slavery was spreading rapidly throughout the South, and planters like Calhoun were now calling the institution a positive good.
No political process could possibly reconcile such vastly different moral visions of the public good. Charles Sumner was right to call it the irrepressible conflict. And insofar as that conflict would be resolved through republican means, the ultimate result was bound to be a loss for the South. Thus, Calhoun was ultimately seeking to preempt this defeat by radically redesigning the nature of American constitutionalism — stripping it of its Madisonian republican qualities.
This signifies to me the tragedy of the life of John C. Calhoun. A man of extraordinary intellectual gifts, he was in the final analysis a slaveholder first and a republican second.