Calhoun and Concurrent Majority
John C. Calhoun is perhaps the greatest and most original political thinker ever produced by the Western Hemisphere. Born in South Carolina, Calhoun was more of a realist than an idealist. He tended to set class economics above abstract humanitarianism. Caring little for egalitarian doctrine, he objected strongly to the assertion that all men were created free and equal. Such an assertion was contrary to all biological and social facts. He set forth the principle of concurrent majority, which is perhaps the most original political principle ever espoused by an American.
In 1828, he broke away from Henry Clay’s nationalism of federal intervention and consolidation to become one of the greatest minds, perhaps the greatest, that the South has ever produced. The issue was tariffs. Tariffs were protecting the industrial North from foreign competition at the expense of the agricultural South. As a result of the tariffs, the North was prospering while the South was in a depression.
Calhoun realized that the United States were drifting towards consolidation and an uncritical faith in numerical majorities. Under such conditions the minority position of the South could not be protected. Contrary to what most Americans believed then, and unfortunately still believe, the principle of political democracy offers no safeguard against the dangers of arbitrary government. When unrestrained by constitutional limitations on its will, numerical democracy is the enemy of political justice. The measure of protection given to the weakest citizen is the critical test of every government. Judged by this test, a democratic state becomes little more than a tyrant as power is centralized into the hands of a few. The majority inevitably becomes irresponsible in its unrestraint. The more power it wields, the more vicious its disregard of minority opinion becomes. To Calhoun the perennial problem of constitutional government was how to restrain it by constitutional checks to keep it just. With this point of view, Calhoun addressed himself to the problem of restraining the majority and protecting the rights of the minority.
Calhoun built his political principle upon the meshing of the Jeffersonian Republican doctrine of States’ rights and the Montesquieuian Federalist doctrine of static government resulting from exacting balanced powers. He believed that both doctrines were sound in their major premises, but they had strayed in certain important deductions. Experience had taught him that consolidation was extremely dangerous and that the existing checks on the federal government were insufficient. The Jeffersonians were mistaken in their belief that the democratic majority necessarily served the cause of political justice. The Federalists were mistaken in their belief that the division of power provided in the U.S. constitution was adequate to prevent arbitrary government. His solution to these mistakes was to provide an additional check. This check was the right of individual States to veto acts of the federal government. The veto power was the hallmark of constitutional government. Thus, he brought together two basic philosophies upon which the United States had been founded and strengthen them with the concept of concurrent majority.
Confusion on the interpretation of “the people” and “government” has done immeasurable harm to liberty and has brought untold oppression. In a republic sovereignty is intrinsic in the people. All authority is delegated. Government is merely an agent with strictly defined fiduciary powers. All its acts are subject to review by the principal. Depending on constitutional system of government, the review may be immediate and full or removed and limited. Where most political philosophers fall short is that they tend to treat “the people” as a homogenous body with a common interest. Calhoun realized that this was not the case. “The people” are an aggregation of individuals, groups, classes, and factions with diverse and often antagonistic interests. Most political philosophers also error in treating government as a sacred entity, the inheritor of sovereignty, which cannot be criticized without committing a crime against the sovereign. Again Calhoun realized that this was not the case. In a republic officials are invested with temporary power, and these officials are guided by motives common to all men. Unlike many political thinkers, Calhoun understood the meaning of “the people” and “government.”
To Calhoun the common fallacy of treating “the people” as a homogenous body with a common interest was an egregious danger that obscured the economic basis of society and confused the whole problem of government. The Jeffersonians had contributed to this problem by assuming a clear division between ruler and subject and by appealing to a common democracy against the aristocracy in their struggle against consolidation. Although the Federalist understood the economic origins of political power and the economic ends served by the political state, they concealed their designs by deceptive appeals to patriotism and made their knowledge serve their own interests. Calhoun knew that “the people” is a political fiction. Society is composed of a multitude of individuals, each with his own interest. They can never be merged into a united whole no matter how they are grouped or classified. To assume that government rests on the will of the people or represents the people is dangerous and fallacious. The political state is partisan to those who administer it. The diversity of the people and the errancy of treating them as one whole Calhoun acknowledged. This acknowledgment led him to devise his principle of concurrent majority, which compels the various segments and factions of the community to cooperate while preventing a majority of them from combining to oppress or exploit the rest of the community.
Just as Calhoun’s understanding of “the people” exceeds that of most political thinkers, so does his understanding of “government.” He knew that power corrupts and that governmental officials often become drunk with power. Once safely in office these agents begin assuming all the prerogatives of the principal and cloth their acts with the sanctity of sovereignty. With the power of taxation, these agents benefit their friends and favorites while penalizing and exploiting their enemies and the politically weak. Without an adequate defense to protect themselves, the weaker interest suffer legal exploitation and oppression. The popular government of the Jeffersonian Republicans changed only the outward form of the selfish struggle for power. It substituted party rule for class rule. The more democratic government becomes, the more callous and vicious majority rule becomes. All systems of checks and balances that fail to obstruct sufficiently this innate tendency of party rule prove to be unsuccessful. Separation of powers among executive, legislature, and judiciary, as the Montesquieuian Federalist had done, is not enough. The reigning majority can come to control all three and, thus entrenched, oppress the minority. Knowing how political leaders and political parties behave once they acquire power, Calhoun offered the minority, with his doctrine of concurrent majority, away to thwart this behavior.
Calhoun regarded freedom as the ultimate goal and most precious aspect of civilization. By freedom he did not merely mean legal restraints on tyranny, such as habeas corpus, he meant freedom from legal exploitation and statutory dictatorship. In his words, “The abuse of delegated power, and the tyranny of the stronger over the weaker interests, are the two dangers, and the only two to be guarded against; and if this be done effectually, liberty must be eternal. Of the two, the latter is the greater and most difficult to resist.” He acknowledged that two powers were necessary to the existence and preservation of a free state. One is the power of the governed to prevent their governors from abusing their authority and to compel them to be faithful to their constituents. This power is attained through suffrage. The other is the power to compel the various factions of the community to be just to one another by requiring them to consult the interest of each other. This power can only be achieved by requiring the concurrence of all the great and distinct interest of the community. With these two powers freedom can be safeguarded.
The method used to implement this second power to preserve liberty and prevent conflict between diverse parts of the community brought forth Calhoun’s great contribution to political science — the principle of concurrent majority. His solution to the preservation of liberty was to superimpose the will of a geographical majority upon the consolidated, indiscriminate majority. His solution collected not only the sense of the majority, but it also considered the various interests of the community. In “A Disquisition on Government,” Calhoun proclaimed,
It results, from what has been said, that there are two different modes in which the sense of the community may be taken: one, simply, by the right of suffrage, unaided; the other, by the right through a proper organism. Each collects the sense of the majority. But one regards numbers only, and considers the whole community one unit, having but one common interest throughout; and collects the sense of the greater number of the whole, as that of the community. The other, on the contrary, regards interests as well as numbers; — considering the community as made up of different and conflicting interests as far as the action of the government is concerned; and takes the sense of each, through its majority or appropriate organ, and the united sense of all, as the sense of the entire community. The former of these I call the numerical, or absolute majority; and the latter, the concurrent, or constitutional majority.Calhoun’s political philosophy is based on the principle that property rules by reason of its inherent power and that political justice is attainable only with a precise system of checks and balances that provides each important group with a veto. He has offered a mechanism by which minorities can protect themselves from oppression and exploitation without having to resort to armed conflict. With his principle of concurrent majority, Calhoun bequeathed his beloved South with a barrier to protect herself from political consolidation, standardization of society, and the universal monetary evaluation of life. Unfortunately for the South, and perhaps the rest of the world as well, this barrier was utterly destroyed in 1865. For the sake of liberty, the time has come to resurrect the lost principle of concurrent majority.
Copyright © 1987 by Thomas Coley Allen.
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