John C. Calhoun is perhaps the most hated historical figure in modern America. There may be others who offer more succinct and intuitive criticisms of America’s institutional decay; many have led stronger movements for reform and challenged the ruling establishment in ways more forceful than he did. But in the scholarly world, where historians and political scientists are more obsessed with race and sex than were their historical subjects, Calhoun is vilified as the champion of the Southern planter class. An example of modern opinion can be found in any American history textbook, where Calhoun’s photograph, taken on the brink of his death in 1850, lurks like a hideous, horned devil—the culmination of an evil that must be purged from the body politic. (Calhoun hated that picture.)

It is refreshing, then, to find a new book on Calhoun in which the author appreciates the man not just for his political presence in antebellum America but for his philosophical acuity as well. H. Lee Cheek’s Calhoun and Popular Rule explains Calhoun’s political philosophy, which was grounded in a realistic appraisal of the country’s merits and weaknesses. Calhoun’s philosophy of government, Cheek contends, “should be understood as a reflective journey towards recovering genuine popular rule amidst the national crisis” of the mid-19th century.

Calhoun and Popular Rule explains many key facets of Calhoun’s political theory: its roots in the European tradition of subsidiarity; its place within a broader South Atlantic context; the use of the plantation as a symbol of organic community; and its basis in the Declaration as well as the Constitution. Cheek recommends we read Calhoun through the lens of the Jeffersonian or (as he phrases it) South Atlantic political tradition as expounded by the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions of 1798 and the Virginia Report of 1800. At first glance, this seems questionable, given the importance of Jacksonian politics in shaping Calhoun’s thought. However, on closer inspection, Cheek’s framework proves helpful. Like Clyde Wilson before him, Cheek calls Calhoun the last of the Founders; an equally credible assessment, however, would be to view him as the last Jeffersonian.

Integral to Calhoun’s understanding was the Aristotelian and Christian belief that man is a social creature, born not in a mythical state of nature but dependent upon others for his life and sustenance. People, being incapable of doing everything for themselves, have to seek assistance from other people.

Calhoun advocated a kind of individualism through the back door, where individual are best protected within a solid, organic community. There is no room for equality within these communities, because equality eliminates mutual dependence. If all people were the same, they simply would not need each other, and the community would fall apart.

Calhoun denied the possibility of atomistic individualism, except as a figment of social-contract theorists’ imagination. His argument, however, did not claim diversity to be impossible; it is merely to be found in differing communities rather than in individuals. Calhoun feared these communities would gradually move closer together, causing some to forget their essential differences and to accept themselves as representative of all the rest.

Societal pressure can thus lead to a deterioration of liberty. For those within the South Atlantic republican tradition, “consolidation” implied more than just a political problem; it was a social, intellectual, and, indeed, spiritual concern of the utmost importance. Without social institutions to restrain consolidation, liberty would be lost. Calhoun located the source of restraint in family, an historically based education, and tradition, or what he called “habit.” Restraint is both personal and political, since it involves protecting personal and communal interests from the distractions of modem life. A stable organic community—one that supports the common good—encourages protection of personal interests while promoting the good of the community. Defending your interests necessarily means defending the social institution in which you live.

Calhoun found a lack of restraint in various places, but nowhere more than in the demagogic style of politics popular in mid-19th-century America, as politicians encouraged Americans to sacrifice their personal and communal interests to an abstract union and abstract rights. Calhoun deplored the prospect of the United States becoming an undifferentiated mass or a nation composed of millions of self-contained individuals. Both extremes, he thought, must be moderated by popular rule.

Cheek explains Calhoun’s understanding of popular rule through an important instance in then-Vice President Calhoun’s career. Presiding over a bitter senatorial contest involving John Randolph of Roanoke, Calhoun refused to call Randolph to order during a speech deemed derogatory of President John Quincy Adams. When administration forces attacked Calhoun in the public press, he replied with a series of newspaper articles written under the pseudonym “Onslow.” Calhoun argued that his position as president of the Senate did not involve any intrinsic power—only that which the Senate expressly delegated. His opponent, using the name “Patrick Henry,” argued that a source of power must possess any and all means necessary for its self-preservation. Calhoun believed such reasoning denied the people of their continuing possession of legitimate power. But when “Patrick Henry” wrote that the people’s capacity, to elect the right person limited the abuse of political power, Calhoun responded that we must do more than change the officer; we must reform the office.

Calhoun chose not to place his faith in electing the right man to office but in seeking a diffusion of power to match the cultural and economic diversity of the people. As Cheek points out, Calhoun believed the survival of the federal regime depended upon the proper restraint of its powers. Each branch of government must assume responsibility for its own prerogatives and not interfere with those of others. This rule applied in state-federal relations as well. A state should not assume its unique interests were supreme and then use federal power to further those interests at the expense of other states.

Calhoun’s strategy, which he believed the American political tradition endorsed, required the protection of minorities so that true majority rule would not be thwarted by those building temporary coalitions among disaffected groups. It also included a recognition that homogenous majorities, the kind that make democracies stable, could never materialize in a country as diverse as the United States—except on the local level. Calhoun shared this belief with previous generations, including many Antifederalists, who believed republican forms of government could not exist in the United States because national majorities could never form.

In some respect, Calhoun and Popular Rule raises more questions than it answers. If human beings are naturally social, seeking to build social limits, how can political authority be prevented from migrating too far from local control? If Calhoun was correct, family creation naturally leads to other forms of community building, which increase one’s obligations. In turn, people seem unwilling to accept all of their duties; instead, they choose the ones they wish to fulfill. Many exercise their responsibility to larger social institutions at the expense of local ones.

Radical localists and states’-rights advocates challenged the varied forces causing the shift in responsibility, not the least of which were national political parties. Because American parties are always coalitions, obtaining national political power requires enlarging the issues over which the parties fight, instead of pushing political discourse downward, parties move issues up to the uncontrollable stage of national polities. Calhoun’s associates in the Southern states’-rights movement fell into a similar trap. While claiming the United States was a compilation of many communities within a federal system, they assumed the states existed as homogenous wholes. Eventually, they came to view sectionalism as the heart of national issues.

Calhoun stood apart from his contemporaries, hearkening back to the Jeffersonian tradition. Like Jefferson, John Randolph, and John Taylor, Calhoun blamed most of the country’s national problems not entirely on sectionalism, but on the conflict between the great body of producers and on minorities using political power at the majority’s expense. Thomas Jefferson never assumed that everyone in the South stood against his brand of republicanism, and neither did Calhoun. Both men believed the culprit to be misguided party leaders. The nationalist fervor and thrill of party politics, whether under John Adams’ Federalists or Henry Clay’s Whigs, acted as a “flight from principles” rather than a rational means of political discernment. As Calhoun declared in 1841,

It was much to be regretted that the all absorbing question among the people was, not whether great fundamental principles should be established or overthrown, but who should be President.

Cheek asks us to reconsider Calhoun, if only to find solutions to of present predicaments. Like Calhoun, he believes that

republican government must consist of more than the flux of voting and interest coalitions, political parties struggling to possess the “honors and emoluments” associated with patronage, and the pursuit of power.

Through the Disquisition and the Discourse, Calhoun was instrumental in passing on the legacy of Jeffersonian republicanism and popular rule to his generation. H. Lee Cheek offers one step in passing Calhoun’s legacy on to ours.


[Calhoun and Popular Rule: The Political Theory of the Disquistion and Discourse, by H. Lee Cheek (Columbia: University of Missouri Press) 202 pp., $29.95]