In any discussion of the Old Federalism—at least among that minority whose substantive knowledge of American principles and ideals precedes the beginning of the Kennedy dynasty—the name of John C. Calhoun and his idea of the concurrent majority is likely to come up.
Calhoun’s reputation as a political thinker has had its ups and downs. Widely praised in his own time and after, by no means solely by defenders of slavery and state rights, he was dismissed as a narrow reactionary fanatic during the intellectual rationalization of the victory in the Civil War. That victory, among other things, implied the triumph of the programmatically implemented will of the majority, in which ideas of Constitutional limitations and minority rights had only token place. In the l950’s, however, in biographies and commentaries from surprisingly diverse quarters, Calhoun was rediscovered and elevated. The burden of this rediscovery is conveyed by the title of one of many scholarly articles of the time, Peter Drucker’s “Calhoun’s Pluralism: A Key to American Politics.” Calhoun was celebrated as the philosopher and prophet of minority rights. His idea of the concurrent majority, implying the necessity to secure the assent of significant minorities for major political decisions, was thought of as having de scribed the way American pluralism actually worked.
During the Civil Rights Revolution, Calhoun was again relegated to a minor and negative role. Recently, as a part of the broad movement of conservatism, he has once more been receiving favorable attention. He has been so treated in Italian and Japanese scholarly journals. In American books and journals he has been called upon to provide solutions for the problems of the United Nations, Northern Ireland, and South Africa, and his ideas have been invoked to support Supreme Court decisions favoring minority representation on local governing bodies and even as a potential resource for Black Americans.
There is some merit and usefulness in these formulations. However, they slight and distort the real burden of Calhoun’s thinking on American government. For these formulations only incompletely grasp what Calhoun had to say, and, in my opinion, they sometimes embody a Pollyannish and inaccurate notion of the way our government works. The formulations, which Calhoun’s realism would have scorned, in fact represent the tendency of current thinkers to transcribe into mechanical and ideological terms ideas that are basically moral. Calhoun is better viewed as the last of the great republican thinkers who reached their peak with the Founding Fathers rather than as a prophet of modern pluralism, as a philosopher of democratic consent rather than as an architect of minority rights.
Calhoun’s thought, embodied in 40 years of congressional speeches and public papers and in his two treatises, A Disquisition on Government and A Discourse on the Constitution and Government of the United States, constitutes a remarkable body of commentary on the American system—its political economy, finance, international affairs, and many other matters, as well as Constitutional principles. Calhoun was the last active American statesman who was philosophical rather than empirical. To fully elucidate this would take several books. Here I wish to do no more than point to the opening pages of A Disquisition on Government. Properly understood, they contain a wealth of insight pertinent to the recovery of Old Federalism.
A Disquisition on Government, a slim 100 pages, is the most considered of Calhoun’s works, to which he devoted his leisure in the last five years of his life. He said that he hoped by it “to lay a solid foundation for political science.” Simple and clear in style, the work is complex enough in implications to have provoked many different interpretations. It would be an accurate, though not a complete, description to say that it is a study of the nature of the consent of the governed in a government of people.
A reading of the Disquisition afresh should convince anyone that Calhoun’s concurrent majority was not, in the first instance, structural. It was not, except incidentally, a series of devices to protect minority rights, though such devices, given a Constitutional system that already relied on checks and balances, had some relevance. What Calhoun was interested in was the nature of consent. All agreed that American government rested upon the consent of the governed, that this was the starting point for a democratic society. But what was this consent? How was it to be expressed, measured, and preserved? This, to Calhoun, related less to checks and balances and the mechanical features of government than to the old republican question of the virtue of the people. It is here that Calhoun has his real relevance. He was attempting to purify and clarify the republican idea of the consent of the governed, to move it to higher ground where it would be safe from the pressures of the 19th century that were silently turning it upside down. In this he failed, but nonetheless is still instructive.
In the Disquisition, Calhoun not only argues for his own views, but also recapitulates the implicit assumptions of the Founders of the American Constitution-making period:
“… I assume, as an incontestable fact, that man is so constituted as to be a social being. His inclinations and wants, physical and moral, irresistibly impel him to associate with his kind; and he has, accordingly, never been found, in any age or country, in any state other than the social. In no other, indeed, could he exist; and in no other—were it possible for him to exist—could he attain to a full development of his moral and intellectual faculties, or raise himself, in the scale of being, much above the level of brute creation.
I next assume, also, as a fact not less incontestable, that, while man is so constituted as to make the social state necessary to his existence and the full development of his faculties, this state itself cannot exist without government. This assumption rests on universal experience. In no age or country has any society or community ever been found, whether enlightened or savage, without government of some description.
But government, although intended to protect and preserve society, has itself a strong tendency to disorder and abuse its powers, as all experience and almost every page of history testify. … The powers which it is necessary for government to possess, in order to repress violence and preserve order, cannot execute themselves. They must be administered by men in whom, like others, the individual are stronger than the social feelings. And hence, the powers vested in them to prevent injustice and oppression on the part of others, will, if left unguarded, be by them converted into instruments to oppress the rest of the community. That, by which this is prevented, by whatever name called, is what is meant by CONSTITUTION, in its most comprehensive sense, when applied to GOVERNMENT. … 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 a great measure, be defeated without Constitution.”
We like to think of our democracy as having sprung naturally from the political wisdom of the philosophical revolutionists and Constitution-makers of our founding period. We, like they, believe that government rests properly on the consent of the governed, the will of the people. However, when we contemplate modern ideas of the relationship between the democratic state and the people with the degree of historical perspective provided by Calhoun’s Disquisition, we confront at once an innovative assumption that has crept into our thinking and turned the understanding of the Fathers on its head.
As expounded in the 20th century, the theory of democracy is that the rule of the people is the sum of individual wills and inclinations. The democratic man casts his vote, along with all the other citizens, and the numerical majority of these votes determines the will of the people. By this scheme the chief locus of social value is in the democratic process itself—the right of participation and the possibility of the minority becoming a majority at the next election, all of which is together often summed up and celebrated as “the open society.” This description seems to me to fairly represent the theory of American politics as it has been described in the last half-century or so by the predominant academic political scientists and popular spokesmen.
Under this dispensation, a great deal that was assumed as basic in the republican philosophy of the Founding Fathers gets lost. What is to be decided by the will of the people, directly or by representatives, for instance, is usually seen as programmatic and empirical. The public good has no independent existence but is the sum of trade-offs between the union member, the manufacturer, the public school teacher, the welfare client, and all the other participants in the process. The will of the people thus becomes a balance of interests, a sharing of the pie. Not only is the idea of the public good, taken for granted by the Founders and by Calhoun, missing here, but also missing is the idea of the independent citizen whose strenuous virtue is the foundation of the public good.
By this scheme, the citizen is defined and exists by virtue of his participation in the democratic collectivity. In fact, only in its emphasis on “openness” does this idea of the democratic society differ from modern totalitarian theory. In both, the state and the individual confront each other starkly, and the individual, in the final analysis, is defined by the state. But for the Founding Fathers, the bedrock of republicanism was not the egalitarian political participation of the abstract individual so dear to modern democratic theory. Rather, republicanism (government of the people) was defined by the freedom and self-determination of communities of men, preexisting historically in all the complexity and differentiation of their social bonds. The history of American democracy is, until this century, the history of community. Self-government was the expression, not of the individual, but of communities. Missing from the modern formulation is the assumption with which Calhoun began—preexistent society itself.
For the Founders, liberty was not the right of the rootless individual to do as he pleased or to participate in a process of head-counting leading to majority rule. It was, rather, the right of natural communities to be free from the depredations of the state. The definition of tyranny in the republican philosophy (inherited from the English “country party,” amplified by American experience and thought, and underlying the American Revolutionary response) was the overreaching by the state of its legitimate bounds to tamper with or exploit the communities of men. The point of Constitution was not that they guaranteed a process of democratic decision-making. It was, rather, that society (the people) created and delimited an authority for its protection. In theory and practice, we have moved from a condition in which majority rule was a device or protecting society from the state, to one in which society is the raw material to be exploited and reconstructed by the state, acting in the name of a “majority.
It was this which Calhoun foresaw when he spoke with contempt of the “mere numerical majority.” Here, I submit, is an insight of great importance. For Calhoun was not simply advocating a veto power for a numerical minority within a political system governed by a numerical majority. His point was much more basic. It was that the “numerical majority” or the “mere majority” did not represent the consent of the governed, that the political will of the people. properly involved not head-counting but something higher and more intangible, a process of consent by society. But here is the key point. The elements of this consent were the organic parts of society, preexistent to government. These elements, being the product of society, and not of the state, ought to be inviolate. It was these elements that deserved the protection of the veto power implicit in the concurrent majority. Throughout Calhoun’s discussion is the recognition of the superiority of the natural social elements, those that have come into existence spontaneously by the force of history and the necessities of man’s nature, over those artificially created or enhanced by government action. The latter are precisely seen as one of the dangerous by-products of an unqualified and abstract majority.
In any proper theory of democratic government, society must precede the state. It is with this observation that Calhoun begins. Society was man as he was found—in family, in custom, in ethnic, territorial, religious, and occupational communities. For Calhoun, and here he was simply restating the assumptions of the Founders, the locus of value was not in the democratic process, it was in society. The democratic process was merely the best means to protect and preserve society. That society is hierarchical and antiegalitarian in both structure and values does not contradict the fact that communities should largely govern themselves and give the law to the state. And there is no protection implied for minorities which seek to come into being or power by state action. No ground is laid here for a pluralism marked by claims to veto power on the part of minorities who wish to disrupt natural society or assert an inviolate right to the earnings of others by state action (e.g., the advocates of “gay rights” and of “welfare rights”).
It was Calhoun’s assumption, rather, that such artificial minorities threatened the consensual basis of the govern ment of the people. He decried particularly in his own time manufacturers (by virtue of log-rolling a numerical majority) who wished to force industry into prosperity through protective tariffs that preyed upon the earnings of other parts of the community and political spoilsmen who sought the profits and power of office rather than the public good. In the latter connection he spoke again and again on the corruption of democratic consent represented by empty party slogans (like the Whigs’ “Tippecanoe and Tyler, too” of 1840) and by the rise of oily equivocators like Martin Van Buren, who sought to mute and obscure issues, to rest their appeal on the broadest and least controversial ground possible, and thus to achieve power as an end in itself rather than as a means to reach fundamental decisions for the public good.
One might argue, as Daniel Boorstin has, that this muting of issues was a pragmatic and constructive avoidance of dangerous antagonisms. This is a kind of evasive pragmatism that would have been anathema to both Jefferson and Hamilton. The effect of this blandness, Calhoun maintained, was to undermine that free deliberation within and among communities that was a necessity for achieving the genuine consent of the people. The end result was to suppress disagreements that might be honorably adjusted, force them into other channels, and postpone and increase the explosion. Thus Calhoun predicted that the evasions of party men would lead to civil war, and those historians who have characterized the Civil War as a failure of democracy must concur.
Put another way, the consent of the governed was not to be viewed primarily as a process of counting heads, even when conditioned by technical safeguards for the minority. The consent of the governed was primarily a high moral matter—a process of political deliberation and social assent. The minority veto was not a device to block decision, but an effort to provoke further deliberation and a higher consensus. It trusted in the consent of the governed, that is, in the people, to find the right answers, provided the action of a mere majority, which might be a temporary manifestation of selfish combinations, could be suspendedlong enough to bring into play the higher consensus of communities.
Reflect upon the degree to which democracy depends upon the spirit of parliamentary institutions—the agreement that opponents are to be heard, to be dealt with civilly, and not to be overridden ruthlessly; that all are bound by decisions made after a proper hearing; and that all are pledged to remain a community even in disagreement. This entire proceeding relates less to the theory of majority rule, head-counting, than it does to the moral heritage of feudal chivalry—tolerance and respect for the opponent as bound within a common system of honor. There is nothing about it that is modern, utilitarian, or efficient or compatible with the “open society” theory. If the consensus is to be maintained, there are things the mere numerical majority must not do, even when it has the power. The majority must look for an answer that is inclusive and morally satisfactory rather than expedient, the morally satisfactory answer being, in the long run, also the most practical if genuine consent of the governed is to be maintained.
Here, then, is the lesson. The community must be the master of the state rather than its raw material. This is indeed alogical necessity in any viable theory of self government, as well as a Constitutional and moral truth. It is also, I believe, an historical truth. Calhoun’s postulate that society precedes government is not, like the state of nature, merely a convenient theoretical starting point. It actually describes the origins of American government and provides the element that distinguishes America from Old World societies. In a speech of 1841, Calhoun referred to a historical contingency which “through the mysterious dispensation of Providence” had had a decisive effect on “the prosperity and greatness of our country.” This contingency was that British America was not settled by an armed government, but “by hardy and enterprising emigrants, inspired, in some instances, with a holy zeal to preserve their religious faith in its purity; in others, by the love of adventure and gain; and in all, with a devotion to liberty. It is to settlements formed by individuals so influenced, and thrown, from the beginning, on their own resources almost exclusively, that we owe our enterprise, energy, love of liberty, and capacity for self-government.”
When Calhoun premised that society preceded government, he was merely recalling American experience. His own family was part of a kith of Scotch-Irishmen who had come into the up-country of South Carolina before the Revolution when it was empty of all but hostile Indians, tied together not by the state but by blood, religion, necessity, and the desire to make a new life. They carried some cultural baggage, and there was a distant Crown that was in theory sovereign. But the settlers were in fact virtually self-governing and self-reliant communities in economic, political, ecclesiastical, and military affairs. There was a real sense in which they participated in the creation of their own governments and constitutions by communal acts of consent.
The county in which I now live was occupied at the beginning of the American Revolution by interconnected families of prosperous German farmers. They had been settled for half a century and had no particular quarrel with the King in Great Britain. When confronted with the Revolution they did not appeal to the rights of individual man or to the “open society.” The heads of households gathered under the trees, talked for two days, and decided that the interest of their community would best be served by allegiance to the American cause, which they thereafter supported loyally, often at the cost of property and life. If this seems an exaggerated or eccentric statement of histori cal precedence of society over government in this continent, reflect upon the self-governing congregations of Puritans who settled Massachusetts Bay, on the self governing wagon trains and mining camps of the West, and on the later communities of immigrants of many sorts. Nowhere does the individual constitute only an abstract integer in a numerical majority.
There is a sense, of course, in which the subjugation of society to government, the reversal of the master-servant relationship between the community and the state apparatus, was an ineluctable product of “modernization.” But there is also a sense in which it was a conscious decision, and therefore reversible. For, at an identifiable point in our history, we decided that the state ought to become master. This happened at the end of the 19th century, when a Progressive elite declared that the conditions of modernity required it to take a guardian role through the Federal government and discard previous notions of what constituted American principles. I can illustrate this turning point by a typical assertion of that time that I happen to have conveniently at hand. It is from the founding statement of the American Economic Association in 1885: “We regard the state as an agency whose positive assistance is one of the indispensable conditions of human progress.” That is, the community is no longer able to govern itself, but must be guided by a class of experts wielding the power of the state. But the complexity of modern society did not necessarily call for a shift to the state. It called for new instruments of consensus formation. Empowering the state to solve all our problems does not make the state the instrument of the people. It makes the state—and this was Calhoun’s point about the “numerical majority”—the instrument of the strongest interests and reduces democracy to an endless game of pie-sharing and the citizen to an abstraction.
If we are to be true to the American inheritance, society must precede government; the community must take precedence over the state. This simple declaration, I realize, does not grapple fully with the complexities of modern life, with the thrust of the predominant strain of the national character, and with the burdens, including the international role, that history has piled upon us. However, I am talking about philosophical starting points, not final solutions.
If it is indeed true that man is capable of self-government, then it is true that his mistakes are to some degree reversible. Much could be accomplished toward the preservation and reordering of self-government if we could reorder our thinking to give society precedence over government and make our communities the master of the state rather than its raw material. cc
Image Credit: Calhoun and Community