Calhoun was one of those rare politicians who was also a political philosopher. He claimed to have developed a true science of politics in which he explained the evolutionary history of government and constitutionalism as constrained by a universal human nature. He elaborated this political science in many writings and speeches, but most fully in two posthumously published books--A Disquisition on Government and A Discourse on the Constitution and Government of the United States. One of the best collections of his writing as published by the Liberty Fund and edited by Ross Lence is available online.
Although it is not Darwinian, Calhoun's political science follows the structure of a Darwinian political science in which human nature constrains but does not determine human culture and human judgment. Moreover, Calhoun suggests, the science of human nature that lies at the foundation of political science is part of a general biological "law of animated existence" that embraces all animals.
Many people today scornfully dismiss Calhoun's political science because they find his defense of slavery abhorrent. But this ignores Calhoun's deep insight in understanding the problem of majority tyranny in a democracy and in developing an attractive solution to that problem--the concurrent majority. His proposed solution ultimately fails, however, because he failed to see how democratic republicanism depends upon a natural human equality of liberty that creates tragic conflicts of interest that can never be perfectly resolved by constitutional forms.
He also failed to see how the biological equality of human beings as belonging to the same species refutes any defense of slavery as founded in racial science.
THE LAW OF HUMAN NATURE AND OF ANIMAL LIFE
In the Disquisition, Calhoun looks to the "constitution or law of our nature" as the foundation for the "science of government" that is as solid as the law of gravitational attraction is for the science of astronomy.
This "law of our nature" is constituted by three "incontestable facts" about human nature (Lence edition, 5-6)--natural sociality, the natural necessity for government to perfect that sociality, and the natural tendency for individual feelings to be stronger than social feelings, which makes government necessary for resolving conflict between individuals.
First, human beings are by nature social beings, because they everywhere associate with other members of their species, and they could not satisfy their physical, moral, and intellectual wants without social life. Human beings have never been found to exist as purely solitary animals.
Second, this social state requires government. No human society, even the most savage, has ever been found without government of some kind.
Third, the reason that society cannot exist without government is that while a human being feels what affects others as well as what affects himself, he feels more intensely and directly what affects himself than what affects others. This throws individuals into conflict, because each person is inclined to sacrifice the interests of others to his own interests. This tendency to universal conflict would destroy society if there were no controlling power to mediate conflict, and this controlling power is government.
Calhoun recognizes, however, that there are some peculiar circumstances and conditions in which the social feelings can override the individual feelings--as in a mother's care of her infant and in rare cases where unusual individuals are shaped by education and habituation to care more for others than themselves (6).
Calhoun understands this law of human nature as part of a general law of animal life:
"I might go further, and assert this to be a phenomenon, not of our nature only, but of all animated existence, throughout its entire range, so far as our knowledge extends. It would, indeed, seem to be essentially connected with the great law of self-preservation which pervades all that feels, from man down to the lowest and most insignificant reptile or insect. In none is it stronger than in man. His social feelings may, indeed, in a state of safety and abundance, combined with high intellectual and moral culture, acquire great expansion and force; but not so great as to overpower this all-pervading and essential law of animated existence" (7).Darwinian science now allows us to confirm Calhoun's science of human nature and animal life as rooted in the natural evolution of animal sociality. Although this science was not available to Calhoun, its fundamental ideas were already stated in the writings of Adam Smith, and much of what Calhoun says echoes Smith.
Like other animals, human beings have evolved instincts for self-preservation, so that they feel more directly what affects themselves than what affects others. And yet as social animals who are born dependent on parental care, and who live in social groups, human beings extend their care for themselves into care for others bound to them by ties of kinship, mutuality, and reciprocity.
Although they are social animals, human beings do not show the perfect sociality of colonial invertebrates (such as corals, the Portuguese man-of-war, or sponges), because human beings are not genetically identical. As products of a tense balance of individual selection and group selection, human beings show a complex interaction of individual competitiveness and group loyalty. Even in small bands of hunter-gatherers, where one might expect a harmony of interests, there are individual conflicts that require mediation through some sort of informal governmental order. As is true for other social animals, government is required to resolve conflicts of interest among human beings, but this governmental resolution of conflict must always be imperfect, because there will never be any perfect harmony of interests.
CONSTITUTIONAL LAW AND THE CONCURRENT MAJORITY
That same law of human nature that makes government necessary to secure social order also gives government a natural tendency to abuse of its powers, because those who have the powers of government will be inclined by their individual interests to use those powers for their own advantage contrary to the common good. For that reason, Calhoun explains, we need a constitutional structure to organize the powers of government to prevent their abuse. "Having its origin in the same principle of our nature, constitution stands to government, as government stands to society; and, as the end for which society is ordained, would be defeated without government, so that for which government is ordained would, in great measure, be defeated without constitution" (9). But while government in some form arises naturally in all human societies, constitution is a more artificial human contrivance that is more difficult to form.
Just as the natural tendency of individuals to resist being attacked or exploited leads them to establish government to protect them against the aggression of other individuals, so does this same natural resistance to unjust aggression lead them to establish constitutional structures to protect them against the abuse of government by the rulers. The fundamental principle here is countervailing power. "Power can only be resisted by power and tendency by tendency" (12).
Traditionally, beginning in ancient Greece, the constitutional forms of government have been distinguished as rule by one (monarchy), by few (aristocracy), or by many (democracy), or by some mixture of one, few, and many.
Anarchists argue for rule by none, so that there would be no abuse of the powers of government over society, because there would be society but no government. Calhoun dismisses this as impossible based on the evidence of history--that all human societies, no matter how primitive, have had government in some form. Modern evolutionary political anthropology confirms this: even hunter-gatherer bands without any formal government have informal leadership by some individuals. Even among other political animals, such as chimpanzees, there are dominance hierarchies in which alpha individuals exercise control over society.
Another possibility is rule by all--that is, organize governmental power so that everyone in a society either concurs in governmental decisions or can exercise a veto over decisions, and thus government rules by unanimous consent, and no one can be oppressed by others. This is what Calhoun defends in his idea of concurrent majority.
Calhoun accepts electoral democracy with majority-rule as a primary restraint on the abuse of governmental powers, because this forces the rulers to win the support of the majority in society. But this fails to solve the problem of majority tyranny over minorities.
One famous proposed solution to the tyranny of the majority is James Madison's argument (in Federalist number 10) for an extended republic in which the great multiplicity of interests will make is unlikely that any unjust majority can form. But Calhoun argues that political parties competing for majority control of the government will foster the formation of coalitions in which diverse interests find common cause in becoming a winning majority that can exploit the losing minorities.
This can be seen in the unequal fiscal actions of government that divide every community into two classes--taxpayers and tax-consumers. Imagine a community of five individuals under a government controlled by majority rule (18-19, 446-51). Imagine that the government collects an equal amount of revenue from each of the five, so that there is equality in the raising of revenue. Won't there be an incentive for three of the five to form a majority coalition that can appropriate all of that revenue for the benefit of the three, and thus the minority of two has no protection against exploitation?
Three of the five constitute a "numerical majority" that can oppress the minority. The only protection for the minority, Calhoun argues, is a "concurrent majority" that would "give to each division or interest, through its appropriate organ, either a concurrent voice in making and executing the laws, or a veto on their execution," which would require "taking the sense of each interest or portion of the community" (21).
Calhoun saw this problem manifest in the American Union. If the Northern States have a majority control of the federal government, they can use that power to legislate federal tariffs that favor the interests of the North at the expense of the South; or they can use that majoritarian power to attack the Southern institution of slavery, even though those in the South see these policies as unconstitutional. The only effective protection against such majority tyranny, Calhoun concluded, was to recognize that each State was sovereign in its power to veto any federal policy that it saw to be unconstitutional. In response to such State nullification of federal laws, 3/4 of the States could use their constitutional power for amending the constitution to declare whether this nullification was correct as an interpretation of the Constitution. The State could then acquiesce to this decision, or it could invoke its right to secede from the Union. This threat of secession and disunion would be a powerful incentive for finding a compromise acceptable to all.
Before the Civil War, the United States was a deeply divided society because of the conflicting sectional interests of North and South, in which it appeared that the Northern section was becoming a permanent majority interest that could use majority rule to dominate the Union. The same situation can arise in other societies deeply divided by racial, ethnic, religious, linguistic, and other cultural differences. In such societies, those who belong to minority groups might find Calhoun's proposal for a concurrent majority to be powerfully attractive. After all, why can't we agree that the common good is best achieved in social orders where each interest has a veto power over every major policy, so that policies must arise by rule of consensus, and no group can exploit any other group?
There are, however, serious problems with Calhoun's consensus model of democracy. The best survey of those problems is James Read's book Majority Rule Versus Consensus: The Political Thought of John C. Calhoun (University Press of Kansas, 2009), which includes studies of how Calhoun's system might apply not only to the United States before the Civil War but also to other deeply divided societies (such as Northern Ireland, the former Yugoslavia, and South Africa). By contrast, the best philosophical defense of Calhoun's reasoning is Lee Cheek's Calhoun and Popular Rule: The Political Theory of the Disquisition and Discourse (University of Missouri Press, 2001).
Read identifies three major problems--the problem of anarchy or deadlock, the problem of minority rule, and the problem of infinite regression in vetoes.
First, if each "portion or interest" of a community has the right to veto decisions of the government, won't this block all decisions and thus throw the society into anarchy? Calhoun's answer is no, because the very threat of anarchy or deadlock will force all interests to reach a compromise satisfying to all to avoid the harm to all coming from a failure to act. He thinks juries illustrate this. The requirement that juries reach a unanimous decision gives a veto power to each juror. But most of the time, juries reach a decision because their desire to avoid deadlock moves them to deliberate until they all agree on a decision.
This jury analogy is not persuasive, however, because jurors are not supposed to have a personal stake in the outcome of the case, while legislators are motivated by personal interests, either their own or those of their constituents, that will be affected by their decisions. And while legislators might feel social pressure to avoid deadlock, they might also feel social pressure not to compromise.
Second, if a minority can veto the decision of the majority, won't that allow the minority to rule over the majority? Calhoun's answer is no, because the power of a minority to block action is not the same as the power to impose action. But, as Read indicates, it is often the case that a minority imposes its will precisely by blocking action, because governmental inaction is itself a policy. So, for example, the blocking of a protective tariff would impose a policy against protective tariffs.
Third, if every "portion or interest" is to have a veto power, how do we identify that "portion or interest"? Or to put the question another way, where do veto rights stop? If one minority group has a veto power, why don't the minorities within that group also have a veto power over the group? Read asks: "What prevents an infinite regress of vetoes-within-vetoes by minorities-within-minorities?"
For example, when Calhoun was leading the movement for South Carolina to nullify the federal tariff, he supported a requirement that all office holders in South Carolina would have to take an oath to support this nullification. This provoked the Unionist minority in South Carolina into charging that this was majority tyranny.
This points to what I regard as the most fundamental problem for Calhoun's unanimity principle. On the one hand, Calhoun assumes a diversity of interests in which each interest is inclined to exploit the others, which requires a rule of unanimity to avoid exploitation. On the other hand, he assumes that each interest is internally so homogeneous in its shared interest that it can be governed by simple majority rule without any tendency to exploit a minority, and consequently, "every individual of every interest might trust, with confidence, its majority or appropriate organ, against that of every other interest" (23). Calhoun never resolves this contradiction in his reasoning.
Calhoun says that wherever the interests of a community are dissimilar, the rule by a simple majority cannot produce justice. And such a "dissimilarity of interests" is "to be found in every community, in a greater or less degree, however small or homogeneous" (373). But if even the smallest and most homogeneous groups have such diverse interests that lead to conflict, then no group can be trusted to have a veto power that is not checked by vetoes from within the group, and thus we are thrown into an infinite regress for which the only stopping point is to grant a veto power to every individual person.
The very "law of our nature" that Calhoun invokes includes the natural diversity of individuals, no two of whom are identical, which creates individual conflict that can never be completely overcome by our natural sociality. In this conflict of individual interests, each individual is naturally inclined to resist exploitative rule by others, and thus each individual is equal to the others in demanding the liberty to govern oneself. Calhoun seems to concede this when he declares that "every individual has the right to govern himself" (373). But he denies this in his defense of slavery.
"It is a great and dangerous error to suppose that all people are equally entitled to liberty," Calhoun insists. Liberty is "a reward to be earned, . . . a reward reserved for the intelligent, the patriotic, the virtuous and deserving--and not a boon to be bestowed on a people too ignorant, degraded and vicious, to be capable either of appreciating or of enjoying it" (42). This implies that those with ruling power must identify those who deserve liberty and those who don't. But according to Calhoun's science of human nature, no human being can be trusted with such power.
This incoherence at the heart of Calhoun's thought is most evident in his defense of slavery. He declares that slaves are "utterly unqualified to possess liberty" (569). But he never explains exactly how we can identify and enforce the qualifications for liberty or slavery without falling into tyranny. He is clear, however, that all members of the white race in the American South are qualified for liberty, and all members of the black race are not. And, therefore, slavery is morally good, and emancipating black slaves is morally evil, and on this high moral principle, he argues, there can be no compromise (260-62, 272-74, 464-76, 563-70). Slavery is "the most solid and durable foundation on which to rear free and stable political institutions" (474).
One of Calhoun's best statements on slavery is his speech of January 10, 1838 (quoted by Read at 122-25). He explains:
"Many in the South once believed that it was a moral and political evil; that folly and delusion are gone; we see it now in its true light, and regard it as the most safe and stable basis for free institutions in the world. It is impossible with us that the conflict can take place between labor and capital, which makes it so difficult to establish and maintain free institutions in all wealthy and highly civilized nations where such institutions as ours do not exist. The Southern States are an aggregate, in fact, of communities, not of individuals. Every plantation is a little community, with the master at its head, who concentrates in himself the united interests of capital and labor, of which he is the common representative. These small communities aggregated make the State in all, whose action, labor, and capital is equally represented and perfectly harmonized. Hence the harmony, the union, and stability of that section, which is rarely disturbed except through the action of this Government."So while he insists in the Disquisition that by a "law of our nature," the power of individual self-interest is so great that no individual can be trusted with absolute power over another, here he insists that the master can be trusted with absolute power over his slave, because the interest of the slave is harmonious with that of the master. Although Calhoun never elaborated a scientific theory of racial inferiority, he implicitly affirmed a doctrine of inherent racial inferiority in which those of the black race could never be qualified for liberty, because they were naturally adapted to be cared for by their masters.
Against Calhoun's affirmation of natural human inequality is the classical liberal affirmation of natural human equality. The equality affirmed by the classical liberal is not an equality in all physical, moral, and intellectual capacities, which is the equality of conditions that Calhoun can easily ridicule. Rather, liberal equality is the natural equality of human beings as members of the same human species who are naturally inclined to resist exploitation.
That liberal equality is implicitly affirmed in Calhoun's Disquisition: to argue for a "law of our nature" that dictates that all human beings equally need government and constitutional structure to protect them from exploitation by other human beings is to argue for equal liberty as the condition for human flourishing.
This classical liberal principle of equal liberty was well stated by Abraham Lincoln. He thought it became clear when one understood why slavery is wrong. "As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. That is my idea of democracy." From that conception of justice as reciprocity, one could infer the "principle of self-government" that "each individual is naturally inclined to do as he pleases with himself and the fruit of his labor, so far as he in no wise interferes with any other man's rights."
In contrast to Lincoln, Calhoun seems to say: As I would not be a slave, so I would be a master, because my slave is unqualified for liberty, and I am good enough to rule him without his consent.
I have developed some of these points in many other posts, some of which can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.
I have just learned that Jim Read is running for the U.S. Congress to fill the seat for the Sixth Congressional District in Minnesota being vacated by Michelle Bachman. He's seeking the endorsement of Minnesota's Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. He tells me that he wants to follow Calhoun's example in having a political career while continuing his work in political theory. He's a Professor of Political Science at the College of St. Benedict and St. John's University.