Liberty Matters

Reply to Read, Grove, and Cost

It is delightful to have helped create an opportunity for such an insightful set of essays not merely on John C. Calhoun but on the American political experience. I’m happy to be able to help keep the conversation going.
James Read puts his finger on an important issue in Calhoun’s thought, and one that makes Calhoun seem particularly naïve from our perspective. Calhoun asserted that a system of vetoes would serve to take some issues off the table while forcing compromises on others. Our experience instead suggests gridlock would be the likely outcome. Certainly the prospect of gridlock would have worried Federalists like Alexander Hamilton, who was all too aware that local self-interests could throw up obstructions to even the most urgent of national crises, such as the war for American independence. For Hamilton, a streamlined, powerful government would be necessary to make the hard choices and take the decisive actions that the country sometimes needed. Calhoun himself had entered into politics worried about an enfeebled federal government barely able to preserve American independence, and yet such worries seem to have faded into the background over the course of his long career.
If the threat of foreign enemies receded in Calhoun’s mind, the threat of domestic enemies became central to his thought and to that of his political allies. Read’s suggestion that Calhoun was responding to his own version of intense political polarization is illuminating. We are now surrounded by partisans who catastrophize every election, insisting that this one is really the most important one in the history of the republic and that electoral loss would mean the loss of America itself. It is perhaps predictable that in such an environment, especially combined with significant geographic sorting of political partisans, the idea of secession is casually thrown about and remarkable proportions of the public seem at least receptive to the idea. Calhoun too, and with him substantial portions of the slaveholding class, imagined that electoral loss might end the country as they knew it. (Interestingly, this aspect of the polarization of the antebellum era was distinctly asymmetrical. Relatively few of those who stood on the other side of the slavery line cast the prospect of electoral loss in such cataclysmic terms. The antislavery movement knew what it was like to lose elections and they set about building a broader constituency that would help them win elections in the future.)
If the stakes were so high, the demand for ever more insurance against the possibility of loss became intense. Political scientists have examined bills of rights and independent judiciaries as examples of such insurance against electoral loss so as to persuade potential political minorities to play the game of democratic politics, but Calhoun was unimpressed by such offerings. The likelihood of such a judiciary being captured by the same political majority that would dominate elected institutions was just too great. (On this point, modern political science tends to echo his judgment.) The veto power needed to be immediately in the hands of the interests who most felt the need to use it. Elections had to be made less consequential if political minorities were going to be willing to abide by their results. Calhoun never found a way to provide the necessary assurances to prevent the slaveholders from bolting the Union once an antislavery party showed itself capable of winning national elections. Calhoun’s preferred solution might have made the government unworkable, but the national rift that he perceived might have been so great that there was no way to bridge it in any case.
John Grove offers three critiques of my initial essay, and I think they are all well taken. Calhoun was highly creative, and he contended that the constitutional system could not stand in place if it were to perform its larger purpose. He was willing to innovate, sometimes dramatically. But there is a deep conservatism to Calhoun’s thought as well. Most basically, Calhoun’s efforts are all aimed at preserving union. To be sure, the union to be preserved is one that exists on the slaveholders’ terms, but it is the effort to preserve the country as he understood it that drives his innovations. Even while innovating, however, Calhoun argued that the underlying principles that he was hoping to build upon were already woven deep into the constitutional fabric. The concurrent majorities principle, he argued, was not something he had invented but was central to the spirit of the inherited Constitution. His arguments tended to be interpretive at their core. The forms he proposed might be new, but the substance was old. His proposals were also intended to be conservative in their operation. He wanted mechanisms that would operate as routine features of ordinary politics. Where some called for disunion and revolutionary action, Calhoun hoped for something more familiar and more peaceful.
I think Grove is right on his other points as well. Calhoun was an advocate of pro-slavery ideology, but it is fair to question how much of a pro-slavery theorist he was. His arguments about constitutionalism and democracy were bold, innovative, and original. His arguments about slavery were all too conventional, borrowed from his contemporaries who were more invested in elaborating on that particular issue. Calhoun was a staunch defender of the slave system, but he did not add very much to the arguments justifying it. I likewise think Calhoun took his philosophical bearings from a desire to cultivate human flourishing. He was not alone in thinking that chattel slavery was compatible with an advanced civilization, but he was distinctive in reaching back to classical theorists to ground his political philosophy on a vision of human family and community.
I am grateful to Jay Cost for bringing to the fore the shifting politics of tariffs in the late Jeffersonian period and James Madison’s efforts to beat back the nullifiers by reading them out of the Jeffersonian movement. As he notes, Madison was not entirely persuasive. Calhoun’s project was closer to Jefferson’s than Madison wanted to let on. At the same time, Calhoun’s project was more Madisonian than Madison himself might have appreciated. At least from Calhoun’s perspective, if not from Madison’s own, political developments had demonstrated the inadequacy of Madison’s theories about how to construct a republican solution to the republican problem of faction.
Of course, Cost is right that it was the defense of slavery that ultimately drove Calhoun to such extreme innovation. The tariff controversy that initially spurred the nullifiers was resolved, at least in part, through ordinary politics (though I am not so certain that the Jacksonian Democrats would have prioritized free trade if not for the insistence of the nullifiers).[1] Regardless, Calhoun continued to believe that ordinary politics would not be enough to protect Southern interests, or at the least the central interest that defined the final two decades of his life – slavery. When it came to that interest, negotiation and compromise were not acceptable options. With the growth of the abolitionist movement, electoral defeat loomed as a potential existential threat to the peculiar institution. Some reacted by threatening, or demanding, disunion. Calhoun reacted by abandoning the details of nullification but continuing to pursue a system of political vetoes that could block Northern majorities.
[1] See Keith E. Whittington, Constitutional Construction (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999).