Notes Concerning the Author
For our overview of the works and writings of John C. Calhoun, go to our essay at 20.00.03. Click below to read the commentary.
John C. Calhoun worked on his two treatises during the last, declining period of his life. He regarded the Disquisition as a permanent contribution to the understanding of government. His wish was fulfilled because the Disquisition has generally been regarded through the generations and on both sides of the Atlantic as one of the few really original American contributions to political science. It has gathered a large body of commentary, most of it admiring, the few dissenters being inveterate haters of the South. The treatises were left in manuscript at Calhoun’s death in 1850 and were prepared and published the next year by Richard K. Cralle’, a long-time Calhoun friend and associate. All subsequent printings rest on this original publication. The treatises have been republished many times, especially the Disquisition, and the number of publications of long excerpts from the texts is countless.
In A Disquisition, barely a hundred pages in the original, Calhoun intends to establish a foundation for the understanding of government. He begins by refuting the Rousseauian notion that “all men are born free and independent”—not because he wants to defend slavery or white supremacy but because it is necessary to begin with a true premise. We are not born free. Every one of us is born as a helpless babe who cannot survive without society. Man is a social animal and can only live well and realize his highest nature in society. Although man is a social animal, society is composed of people who have conflicting interests. It has universally been found that government of some kind is necessary to defend and maintain society. (Note that society comes first and is created by God, while government is secondary and created by men.) But since men have individual as well as social motives, those given the powers of government will inevitably tend to favour themselves at the expense of society. What is established to control this is the “constitution,” whatever particular form it may take. A “constitution” thus is not a power-bestowing instrument but a power- limiting one. Majority rule is a good thing but is not in itself sufficient to preserve a free and just government. A majority of 51 per cent might deal with a minority of 49 per cent as tyrannically as it wished. Here Calhoun introduces “the concurrent majority.” Major actions of government should receive the consent of more than a simple majority. A true consensus requires the consent of the major interests of society including those that are most effected by a particular action and those that may be in a minority on a particular occasion. This can be reached by deliberation and mutual consideration that will end in a stronger consensus and decision and strengthen the bonds of society. Calhoun refutes the old and common argument that a minority “veto” will lead to a weak and ineffective government. Rather, in a free society of the concurrent majority, a government will have all the strength that is necessary because it rests upon a broad basis of consent. There are many historical examples. The American constitutions from the beginning contained the principle of the concurrent majority.
In the Discourse Calhoun presents a comprehensive history and exposition of the American system of government as a confederal and limited one, the preservation of which is necessary to the preservation of American liberty. His case has never been refuted.