John Calhoun and the Unchecked Majority

John C. Calhoun

Found in Union and Liberty: The Political Philosophy of John C. Calhoun

The most recognizable element of John Calhoun’s political theory is its anti-majoritarianism. But he did not simply articulate the obvious possibility of a majority dominating a minority. He also explained how unchecked majority rule disfigures political life.

But to return to the point immediately under consideration. I know that it is not only the opinion of a large majority of our country, but it may be said to be the opinion of the age, that the very beau ideal of a perfect government is the government of a majority, acting through a representative[446] body, without check or limitation on its power; yet, if we may test this theory by experience and reason, we shall find that, so far from being perfect, the necessary tendency of all governments, based upon the will of an absolute majority, without constitutional check or limitation of power, is to faction, corruption, anarchy, and despotism; and this, whether the will of the majority be expressed directly through an assembly of the people themselves, or by their representatives. I know that, in venturing this assertion, I utter what is unpopular both within and without these walls; but where truth and liberty are concerned, such considerations should not be regarded. (FROM SPEECH ON THE REVENUE COLLECTION [FORCE] BILL February 15–16, 1833) - John C. Calhoun

These comments on the Senate floor prefigure the ideas later developed in his Disquisition on Government, recognizing the enticement centralized power creates for partisan corruption and the gradual erosion of the rule of law. By contrast, he argued, constitutional government requires the concurrence, through a variety of institutions, of a wide swath of society in order to put the power of government into action. In doing so, it not only protected political minorities, but it reduced the incentive to pursue political victory by any means necessary, as the fate of the republic could never hang on a single election. Ultimately, he believed such institutions—insofar as they are well-formed and balanced with the necessity for government power—could inculcate civic virtue by making the path to political success and lasting fame paved with compromise, conciliation, and public-spiritedness.