The Eternal Insight of John C. Calhoun

“By the death of Mr. Calhoun,” wrote Henry Clay, eulogizing his dead Senate colleague, “one of the brightest luminaries has been extinguished in the political firmament.” An even greater rival of John C. Calhoun, Daniel Webster called him a “man of undoubted genius and of commanding talent.” Yet many, if not most, students of the American tradition believe they know better.

The latest casual dismissal of Calhoun’s political thought comes from Cameron Hilditch at National Review. Responding to Hunter DeRensis’ essay on Calhoun and counter-majoritarianism at The American Conservative, he informs readers not only that Calhoun was misguided on certain points; not only that his political philosophy was flawed in some way; but that he was a “Hegelian Jacobin” and “no one of sound mind and moral fiber . . . could possibly share Mr. DeRensis’s conclusion that [Calhoun] was ‘one of the first-rate minds of the nineteenth century,’ a man from whom conservatives today can ‘find guidance.’”

In addition to Clay and Webster, Hilditch will have to add several other luminaries to his list of those “not of sound mind”: Calhoun’s brilliance as a political theorist was also recognized by figures such as Orestes Brownson, John Stuart Mill, Lord Acton, and (as he acknowledges) Russell Kirk, who, even if they did not embrace every element of his thought, praised Calhoun’s defense of liberty, his theory of diffused political authority, and the ability of his “federal representative” government to provide for a robust form of popular rule. 

To two scholars who have spent considerable time and energy studying Calhoun’s ideas, Mr. Hilditch’s assertions are frustrating not because this one essay is likely to result in any great shift of opinion, but because of how persistent the misrepresentations are, despite scholarship like our own, that has shown their inadequacy. For decades, warmed-over talking points of Harry Jaffa and the former Stalinist Richard Hofstadter have been uncritically circulated, distorting the insight of Calhoun’s intellectual legacy, from which conservatives should, indeed, be able to learn much. The persistence of these claims proves once again the wisdom of Clyde Wilson, the editor of Calhoun’s Papers, who has observed that “The literature [about Calhoun] does not so much progress as go round in circles.” At a time when conservatives are rethinking many key principles, perhaps this is an opportunity to recognize Calhoun’s insights anew. 

Some of Hilditch’s points are hardly worth refuting, such has his tenuous linkage of Calhoun to the specifics of southern secession ordinances that took place a decade after his death (presumably because they both subscribed to a compact theory of the Constitution that was already well-established by the time Calhoun was a teenager). Nevertheless, other points, because of their persistence, are worth examining. We will allow Mr. DeRensis to speak for himself, if he so chooses, on the substance of his original essay, but we think it worthwhile to add our voices on some general points about Calhoun and his context, so that his place in the conservative pantheon can be more accurately assessed.

First is Mr. Hilditch’s claim that, unlike Calhoun, “The Founders permitted democratic majorities to decide questions of government policy so long as their decisions did not infringe upon . . . inalienable, individual rights.” Quote whatever Madison essay you like, the Constitution simply does not do this, as Calhoun himself ably demonstrated in his brilliant “Speech on the Veto Power.” To the consternation of today’s majoritarians, the Senate, by representing each state equally, could theoretically be held by a tiny fraction of the American population. The Electoral College incorporates the weight of each state’s senators into its allotment so that, as 2016 showed us, an Electoral College landslide is quite possible without a popular vote majority. Even the House of Representatives, divided as it is by state lines and district lines, does not reflect any national numerical majority. And of course, all three must concur on legislation.

Moreover, the method of adoption was not majoritarian: No state—even the tiniest—was forced into the Constitution without its own consent. And the Amendment process is obviously designed to thwart even persistent majorities, unless they have broad-based support across the states. As Calhoun put it, “Can facts more clearly illustrate the total disregard of the numerical majority?”

Second, somewhat shockingly, Mr. Hilditch believes Calhoun should be excised from conservatism for believing that rights are “claimed through membership in a community” (farewell, Burke), and for holding that the political and social state is mankind’s natural condition (arrivederci, Aristotle, au revoir, Cicero). For what it’s worth, he gets Calhoun right on this point—he was one of the greatest American exponents of a political philosophy rooted in mankind’s natural sociality, standing in impressive historical company. But by this account (and its influence is not insignificant), conservatism is now defined by adherence to the absolute, abstract, pre-political rights of man, perceived by Reason, which serve as the only legitimate limit to the power of the majority.

Who was the Jacobin, again?

But Mr. Hilditch gets Calhoun very wrong in his claim that this priority of human sociality means that “For Calhoun, the community has rights and privileges, not the individuals that make it up.” This is blatantly incorrect. Indeed, Calhoun’s Disquisition on Government makes the powerful argument that liberty, which “leaves each free to pursue the course he may deem best to promote his interest and happiness,” is the primary spur to the improvement of civilization and the development of mankind’s intellectual and moral faculties. The “groups, not individuals” canard surrounding Calhoun springs from his recognition that an organized society inevitably defines and refines the limits of liberty, and if the majority’s preferences are not checked by the organized and recognized minority, liberty and rights will inevitably be defined in the way that suits the majority interest. This does not, however, mean that individual liberty is absent.

The conservative tradition of Burke, Calhoun, Kirk and others was founded in a realism that recognized that neither individual nor communal liberty will last long if it is not rooted in the social consensus and constitutional institutions of a real community. This insight is, evidently, in great need of revival.

Third, Mr. Hilditch argues that Calhoun’s concurrent majority was influenced by Rousseau and reflects something like the latter’s “general will.” This is probably the most ludicrous of his claims, as even a cursory glance at the Disquisition reveals a strong antipathy to anything smacking of Rousseau. 

Rousseau believed that understanding political life required a pre-political understanding of man; Calhoun believed man was a political and social animal. Rousseau’s general will emerged from absolute majoritarianism; Calhoun sought checks on the majority. Rousseau saw society as a monolith composed of rootless, identity-less, interest-less “citizens”; Calhoun sought a way to institutionalize and protect the differences within society. Rousseau’s general will was an avowedly simple regime, which saw evolved, complex constitutional institutions as amounting to “chains” on the will of the people; Calhoun explicitly rejected such “simple and absolute” regimes, preferring the “complex” institutions of the concurrent majority which develop along with a country’s history and practice. 

Finally, Mr. Hilditch refers to Calhoun as a “Hegelian Jacobin.” Setting aside the painfully oxymoronic character of this formulation, Calhoun is the least Hegelian political thinker in the American political tradition. As we have noted, Calhoun, like Aristotle, St. Thomas, Burke, and the great pantheon of conservative thinkers, believed humankind was by nature social and political, and Hegel’s dramatic transition from a rather nebulous social state to an idealized political regime was an impossibility.

More importantly, Calhoun viewed a rightly ordered community as consisting of highly autonomous parts or divisions cooperating together for the welfare of the whole. The societal realm described in all of Calhoun’s writings should be understood as the extension of smaller community units, represented by individual states, who serve as examples of how the larger society could be organized and political authority diffused throughout an extensive regime. For Calhoun, the United States of America did not exist as an aggregate, only as assemblage of communities, ultimately forming states and eventually contributing to a union. Calhoun’s dream of popular rule is Hegel’s political nightmare.

So, was Calhoun’s thought simply a “post hoc rationalization of slavery”? Obviously, we would answer that question in the negative. A proof would require more than this essay can provide (though we have addressed this question, directly and indirectly, in our books). Calhoun did offer a moderate defense of slavery that was thoroughly mainstream for his day, viewing the slavery situation as part of a larger discussion of the evolving nature of Southern society. But it was neither the most important nor most consuming aspect of his political thought. In most of the great debates of his lifetime, including a myriad of concerns from nullification to slavery, Calhoun should be understood as a source of moderation amid seas of extremism. Because of Calhoun’s own complex views and long-standing regional tensions, some of his critics attempt to use slavery as a means of distracting students of Calhoun’s political thought from a more complete examination of his work and its continuing importance to American politics. 

We would suggest that the interested reader make up his own mind on the question by picking up Calhoun’s Disquisition, in which slavery is never mentioned,with an open mind. While it rewards careful and repeated readings, it can also be read in an afternoon. We believe honest engagement with Calhoun’s ideas dispels this misunderstanding.

Calhoun was not perfect, and he unfortunately shared the misguided racial opinions of his time and place. But his political and constitutional theory is powerful and often convincing. It is also thoroughly conservative. Conservatives don’t need to make Calhoun their only star and compass, but the mental gymnastics required to excise him from the conservative tradition, as Mr. Hilditch shows, demand the distortion of his thought and the complete remaking of the tradition. Apparently, that’s a price some are willing to pay. 

John Grove is associate editor of Law & Liberty and a former professor of political science. He is the author of John C. Calhoun’s Theory of Republicanism

H. Lee Cheek, Jr., is Professor of Political Science and the former Dean at East Georgia State College, and a Senior Fellow of Alexander Hamilton Institute. He is also a United Methodist minister and former U.S. Army chaplain. His books include Calhoun and Popular Rule and Confronting Modernity, among others.

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