John Calhoun on Executive Power and Constitutional Order

John C. Calhoun

About a year into the presidency of John Tyler, Henry Clay proposed a constitutional amendment allowing a presidential veto to be overridden by a simple majority of both houses of Congress. Opposition to executive power was one of the most consistent themes of John Calhoun’s career, but he saw in this amendment a dangerous threat to the constitutional order. His resulting 1842 “Speech on the Veto Power” was long considered to be one of the most articulate descriptions of the character of that constitutional order. A good constitution required a broad concurrence so as to make the government, as much as practicable, one “of the whole people.”

There is but one way by which it can possibly be accomplished; and that is by a judicious and wise division and organization of the Government and community, with reference to its different and conflicting interests, and by taking the sense of each part separately, and the concurrence of all as the voice of the whole. Each may be imperfect of itself; but if the construction be good, and all the keys skilfully touched, there will be given out, in one blended and harmonious whole, the true and perfect voice of the people.

This picture of the American constitution shows vividly how Calhoun saw checks on centralized power as a way to make government more popular and conducive to genuine self-government, not less. By requiring three different governmental bodies, each selected in different manners and therefore likely to represent different elements of society, to cohere around a particular policy (which would likely require prudential compromise), it made it more reasonable to see an act of government as a “harmonious” voice of the whole, not as one part triumphing over another.