Notes on John C. Calhoun, A Disquisition on Government, (1848)

This is a condensation of his argument, not a commentary upon it.

1. “The Nature of Man and the Origin of Government”

a.) “man is so constituted as to be a social being” (270). Much of the argument in this section is taken from Aristotle. “His inclinations and wants, physical and moral, irresistibly impel him to associate with his kind . . .” Only in society “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” (270).

b.) But “this [social] state cannot exist without government”, and “In no age or country has any society or community ever been found, whether enlightened or savage, without government of some description” (270). (By implication, Calhoun acknowledges government among Native Americans.)

c.) Why does society require government? “The answer will be found in the fact . . . that, while man is created for the social state and is accordingly so formed as to feel what affects others as well as what affects himself, he is, at the same time, so constituted as to feel more intensely what affects him directly than what affects him indirectly through others . . . I intentionally avoid the expression ‘selfish feelings’ . . . because, as commonly used, it implies an unusual excess of the individual over the social feelings in the person to whom it is applied . . .”

“In asserting that our individual are stronger than our social feelings, it is not intended to deny that there are instances, growing out of peculiar relations--as that of a mother and her infant--or resulting from the force of education and habit over peculiar constitutions, in which the latter have overpowered the former . . .” (270).

This is compared to the law of gravitation.

d.) Society is primary. “It is the first in the order of things and in the dignity of its object; that of society being primary -- to preserve and perfect our race -- and that of government secondary and subordinate -- to preserve and perfect society” (271).

e). The powers of government, however, “must be administered by men in whom, like others, the individual are stronger than the social feelings.” Consequently, the danger exists that they will convert government powers “into instruments to oppress the rest of the community. That by which this is prevented . . . is what is meant by constitution, in its most comprehensive sense, when applied to government” (271).

“Constitution is the contrivance of man, while government is of divine ordination. Man is left to perfect what the wisdom of the Infinite ordained as necessary to preserve the race” (271). An echo here of the distinction in Aquinas between natural law and human law.

f.) Thus, the key question: “How can those who are invested with the powers of government be prevented from employing them as the means of aggrandizing themselves instead of using them to protect and preserve society?” (271-272).

2. Constitutional Design -- Concurrent Versus Numerical Majorities

g.) The ruled must possess the means “of resisting successfully this tendency on the part of rulers to oppression and abuse. Power can only be resisted by power -- and tendency by tendency. Those who exercise power and those subject to its exercise -- stand in antagonistic relations to each other” (272).

h.) “Such an organism, then, as will furnish the means by which resistance may be systematically and peaceably made on the part of the ruled to oppression and abuse of power on the part of the rulers is the first and indispensable step toward forming a constitutional government” (272).

I.) The “right of suffrage”, ensuring “the responsibility of the rulers to the ruled . . . is the indispensable and primary principle in the foundation of a constitutional government” (272).

“The sum total . . . of its effects, when most successful, is to make those elected the true and faithful representatives of those who elected them . . .[,] but in doing so, it only changes the seat of authority without counteracting, in the least, the tendency of government to oppression and abuse of its powers” (272).

j.) Why? “If the whole community had the same interests . . . all would have like interests as to what laws should be made and how they should be executed. . . . But such is not the case.” Instead, society consists of “diversified interests”, and “nothing [is] more easy than to pervert its powers into instruments to aggrandize and enrich one or more interests by oppressing them and impoverishing the others” (273). And “the more extensive and populous the country, the more diversified the condition and pursuits of its population; and the richer, more luxurious, and dissimilar the people, the more difficult it is to equalize the action of the government, and the more easy for one portion of the community to pervert its powers to oppress and plunder the other” (273). Thus Madison’s expectation (in Federalist #10) that the country’s size and the diversity of interests among its people would prevent majority tyranny has not proven true, according to Calhoun.

k.) By itself, the right of suffrage engenders a struggles “between the various interests to obtain a majority in order to control the government.” As a result, “When once formed, the [political] community will be divided into two great parties . . . between which there will be incessant struggles . . .” (273).

l.) This leads Calhoun to alter an earlier claim. “The advantages of possessing the control of the powers of government . . . are, of themselves, exclusive of all other considerations, ample to divide even such a community into two great hostile parties” (273). Government is a prize.

m.) Government, “to fulfill the ends for which it is ordained, and more especially that of protection against external dangers” must have “powers sufficient to call forth the resources of the community and be prepared at all times to command them promptly in every emergency which may possible arise” (274).

This requires an extensive bureaucracy.

All this makes control of government attractive to the ambitious and avaricious.

n.) Government cannot possibly equalize costs and benefits. “Its honors and emoluments, however great, can fall to the lot of but a few, compared to the entire number of the community and the multitude who will seek to participate in them.” As a result, “one portion of the community must pay in taxes more than it receives back in disbursements, while another receives in disbursements more than it pays in taxes” (274). On balance, then, only the former a really burdened by the taxes they pay. Thus we have “tax-payers and tax-consumers” (274).

Those in control of government can and will systematically pervert the power of taxation unless prevented from doing so.

o.) In sum, “the dominant majority, for the time, would have the same tendency to oppression and abuse of power which, without the right of suffrage, irresponsible rulers would have” (275). Calhoun’s theory of majority tyranny.

Of itself, all the right of suffrage can do “is to collect the sense of the greater number; that is, of the stronger interests of combination of interests, and to assume this to be the sense of the community” (276). Calhoun seeks to expose the fiction of a single national interest while assuming the internal homogeneity of the distinct interests within the nation and the clear affiliation of each person/citizen with on or another such interest.

p.) Hence the need for another provision in addition to the right of suffrage, “which shall so effectually prevent any one interest or combination of interests from obtaining the exclusive control of the government as to render hopeless all attempts to direct to that end” (275).

“There is, again, but one mode in which this can be effected, and that is . . . to require the consent of each interest either to put or to keep the government in action . . .[, through] either a concurrent voice in making and executing the laws or a veto on their execution” (276). Calhoun refers to this as “proper organism” (276).

“In brief, every individual of every interest might trust, with confidence, its majority or appropriate organ against that of every other interest” (276).

q.) The numerical versus the concurrent majority.

Numerical majority: When “one regards numbers only and considers the whole community as a unit having but one common interest throughout, and collects the sense of the greater number of the whole as that of the community” (276). In effect, the greater part of the people is taken as the whole, “and the government of the greater part as the government of the whole” (277). This “leads to the conclusion that . . . nothing more is necessary than the right of suffrage and the allotment to each division of the community a representation in the government in proportion to numbers” (277).

Those who “fall into these errors regard the restrictions which organism [concurrent majority] imposes on the will of the numerical majority as restrictions on the will of the people and, therefore, as not only useless but wrongful and mischievous” (278).

Concurrent majority: “It is this mutual negative among its various conflicting interests which invests each with the power of protecting itself, and places the rights and safety of each where only they can be securely placed, under its own guardianship. . . . It is, indeed, the negative power which makes the constitution, and the positive which makes the government” (278).

Thus while the principle of numerical majority divides the community in two, that of the concurrent majority “tends to unite the most opposite and conflicting interests and to blend the whole in one common attachment to the country” (279-280). Why? Because “Each sees and feels that it can best promote its own prosperity by conciliating the good will and promoting the prosperity of the others” (280).

Objections to the concurrent majority: There are two: “one is that it is difficult of construction, which has already been sufficiently noticed [?]; and the other that it would be impracticable to obtain the concurrence of conflicting interests where they were numerous and diversified, or, if not, that the process for this purpose would be too tardy to meet with sufficient promptness the many and dangerous emergencies to which all communities are exposed” (283). Calhoun responds that while it is often difficult to bring those who differ together when there is no urgent necessity, “When something must be done -- and when it can be done only by the united consent of all -- the necessity of the case will force a compromise. . .” Furthermore, the need to conciliate would promote the common interests of the whole, and it “is thus that concession would cease to be considered a sacrifice” (284).

3. Liberty Versus Security

r.) “To perfect society, it is necessary to develop the faculties, intellectual and moral, with which man is endowed. . . . For this purpose liberty and security are indispensable.” This much is Aristotelian. Calhoun then defines liberty as the individual “free to pursue the course” he deems best “as far as it may be compatible with the primary end for which government is ordained” (280). But it is to security that “there must ever be allotted, under all circumstances, a sphere sufficiently large to protect the community against danger from without and violence and anarchy within. The residuum belongs to liberty. More cannot be safely or rightly allotted to it” (280). Spoken like a leader of the slaveholding South, always fearful of slave revolt. But the larger point should not be missed, that liberty is jeopardized for all when it is withheld from some. Brings to mind both Thoreau remark about the right place being prison and (the apparently contrary) point in Patterson about the symbolic (as distinct from any economic) significance of slavery in some societies.

s.) Of all factors, it is “moral qualifications” which most determine how must liberty is appropriate to (and possible for) a community. Excessive liberty only leads to anarchy “the greatest of all curses”, and thence probably to something approaching tyranny. “No people, indeed, can long enjoy more liberty than that to which their situation and advanced intelligence and morals fairly entitle them” (281).

t.) “Liberty . . . though among the greatest of blessings, is not so great as that of protection, inasmuch as the end of the former is the progress and improvement of the race, while that of the latter is its preservation and perpetuation. And hence, when the two come into conflict, liberty must, and ever ought, to yield to protection, as the existence of the race is of greater moment that its improvement” (281).

u.) Liberty “is a reward to be earned, not a blessing to be gratuitously lavished on all alike -- a reward reserved fro the intelligent, the patriotic, the virtuous and deserving . . .” (281). What sort of liberty is this!?

v.) Another error is “the opinion that liberty and equality are so intimately united that liberty cannot be perfect without perfect equality” (282). Calhoun grants that this is true of equality before the law, but “to go further and make equality of condition essential to liberty would be to destroy both liberty and progress.” Why? “the mainspring to progress is the desire of individuals to better their condition . . . [, and] the necessary effect of leaving all free to exert themselves to better their condition must be a corresponding inequality between those who may possess these qualities and advantages in a high degree and those who may be deficient in them. . . . But to impose such restrictions on them would be destructive of liberty, while to deprive them of the fruits of their exertions would be to destroy the desire of bettering their condition” (282).

w.) The “state of nature” is “purely hypothetical. It never did nor can exist, as it is inconsistent with the preservation and perpetuation of the race. It is, therefore, a great misnomer to call it ‘the state of nature.’ Instead of being the natural state of man, it is, of all conceivable states, the most opposed to his nature. . .” Men, “instead of being born free and equal, are born subject, not only to parental authority, but to the laws and institutions of the country where born and under whose protection they draw their first breath” (283).