Calhoun
and Popular Rule: The Political Theory of the
Disquisition and
Discourse

by H. Lee Cheek (University of Missouri Press, 2001), 202
pages

book cover imageH. Lee Cheek’s study of John C. Calhoun (1782–1850)
achieves exactly what it sets out to do. It offers a close
reading of Calhoun’s major theoretical tracts, A
Disquisition on Government
and A Discourse on the
Constitution of the United States of America
, highlighting
and examining the central concepts of Calhoun’s thought
as “concurrent majorities” and “organic” associations,
which he set over against the appeal to popular majorities.

Most importantly, Cheek places Calhoun’s most fully
developed political theory into the context of “South
Atlantic republicanism,” a tradition going back to
Jefferson, Madison, and George Mason. Although Cheek pays
homage to his own teachers, Claes Ryn and Russell Kirk, his
preferred view of the descent of Calhoun’s work from
an older generation of Southern agrarian republicans is exemplified
by the interest shown in the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions.
This Southern republicanism (which, by the way, was not particularly
conservative) stressed the contractual nature of political
societies while assigning extremely limited power to central
governments. Its sources lay in Locke and the European Enlightenment,
although in the antebellum South attempts were made to adjust
this contractualism to the circumstances of Southern life
and to a landowning class. Like the distinguished Southern
historian Clyde N. Wilson, Cheek devotes considerable attention
to the Jeffersonian (and eventually Madisonian) critique
of Federalist governance as a key to understanding Southern
sectionalist political thinking. Calhoun is seen as the final
formulator of that tradition.

At the same time, Cheek takes pains to distinguish Calhoun’s
worldview from the more recognizably Lockean framework, accepted
by Jefferson and at least intermittently present in the Declaration
of Independence. Like the Southern conservative M. E. Bradford,
Calhoun believed that the Declaration’s invocation
of human equality in liberty was incidental to its purpose,
which was to proclaim the independence of British colonies,
inhabited by Englishmen, from an overbearing mother country.

Moreover, Calhoun challenged the appeal to equality by insisting,
like David Hume, that human beings are unequal in their aptitudes
and capacities and in the historical conditions in which
they are found. He also distinguished between political and
social compacts, arguing that Locke had confused the two
by speaking about the transition from a state of nature to
civil society. For Calhoun, as for Aristotle, human associations,
which are corporate and hierarchical, operate independently
of specific regimes—which might be dissolved or refounded,
without affecting the more permanent and critical aspects
of interpersonal relations. What Locke described was nothing
more than an eminently revocable act of political construction.

Also contrary to Locke’s treatment of human understanding,
Calhoun insisted, what we know as social and moral actors
depends on the education we receive from our belonging to
a cluster of human associations. We do not learn to be good
from processing sensory data accumulated by individual understanding.
Rather, example and custom reinforced by community shape
individual character. To the extent that Lockeans actually
believe that, Calhoun remained skeptical of their epistemology
and ethics. Cheek cites Burke as someone whom the author
of the Disquisition read and praised. One suspects
that Calhoun digested other conservative critics of Locke
as well, including Hume and some of the continental restorationist
thinkers of the early nineteenth century.

It may be that Cheek dismisses too readily the opinion expressed
by Richard Hofstadter in The American Political Tradition
and the Men Who Made It
that Calhoun was “the
Marx of the master class.” Unlike the denigration of
Calhoun current among the current generation of American
historians, the designation provided by Hofstadter was entirely
respectful. Calhoun produced his speculative and interpretive
writings in response to a particular set of circumstances;
and when he associates “organic” government with
the kind of majority expressed by the citizens of his state,
he is thinking specifically about a planter class then under
assault. The fact that these planters availed themselves
of servile as opposed to indentured peasant labor, as was
the case in Europe, to maintain their way of life is historically
less relevant than their identification with a manorial economy
and with other archaic features of a beleaguered social and
political economy. Eugene Genovese, writing as a Marxist
historian, got the picture right, and Cheek would have done
well to follow Genovese’s interpretation more closely.

Although it is foolish to reduce the entirety of Calhoun’s
thought to a defense of what for bourgeois and post-bourgeois
societies is indefensible—slave labor—it is hard
to ignore the context in which Calhoun felt driven to combine
organicism and Lockean constructivism into a defense of “diffused” central
power. Such an interpretive perspective does not entirely
relativize Calhoun’s undertaking but explains where
he is situated in terms of his time. Otherwise, we are left
with disembodied ideas, from James Madison’s criticism
of John Adams’s presidency down to Calhoun’s
presentation of the idea of concurrent majorities.

From the perspective of European intellectual history, Calhoun
has more in common with the Swiss defender of organic, patrimonial
government, Karl Ludwig von Haller (1768-1854) than he does
with such political Lockeans as Mason and Jefferson. Haller’s
major work, Die Restauration der Staatswissenschaft,
a defense of, among other things, local, territorial, and
family-based rule in the Swiss cantons, was published in
the early 1830s, about fifteen years before Calhoun wrote
his two dense tracts as the advocate inter alia an American
manorial society. Both authors, as Robert Nisbet understood,
were pioneers in what began as a largely reactionary discipline,
sociology. Moreover, what makes the appeals to territorial
rule and regionally based consensual government popular once
again, a point that Cheek might have done more to clarify,
is that nation states have come to represent chiefly bureaucracy.

Today European regionalists, like the Lega Nord in Italy,
cite almost interchangeably Locke, Jefferson, and Calhoun
to make the case for accountable government, whether regional
or local. The “mystical cords” Lincoln appealed
to in his first inaugural address arguably no longer hold
Western nation states together: Nor are those cords present
in American states, which Calhoun thought of as organic associations
that point back to familial and communal hierarchies.

Still, Calhoun’s time may be coming back. An opponent
of a consolidated American nation state, he may be gaining
currency as a critic of that managerial regime into which
the work of Hamilton and Lincoln has fallen. Like all appeals
to the past—whether Harry Jaffa’s and Garry Wills’s
refurbishing of Lincoln as a civil rights icon or Lithuanian
opponents of Soviet tyranny marching under Confederate banners—the
resurrection of Calhoun will be necessarily selective, and
may well incorporate historical inaccuracies.

Certain reviews of this able book have dismissed it in a
gross and graceless manner. Supposedly, Cheek’s unwillingness
to devote his study to a diatribe against Calhoun as an apologist
for slavery shows that his writing is merely “hagiographic.” In
fact, Cheek devotes about two pages to discussing Calhoun’s
judgments about slavery: Calhoun found that institution as
practiced in the South preferable to the North’s factory
system of labor, a view widespread among white Southerners.
Certainly Cheek is not wrong to remark on the conventional
and moderate nature of this opinion on slavery, given Calhoun’s
time and circumstances. Yet Cheek’s sensitive treatment
of historical context is dismissed by one reviewer as idle “theorizing” in
the face of an enormity.

One might contrast such a tantrum to the mature opinions
on Calhoun expressed by J. S. Mill, whose anti-slavery, feminist,
and pro-welfare-state thinking protect him from any charge
of siding with Reaction. In Considerations on Representative
Government
, Mill presents the core arguments from the Disquisition,
defending its author as a “man of great ability.” Notwithstanding
Calhoun’s support of slavery, Mill observed, the South
Carolinian statesman was looking for conceptual and legal
protection against political tyranny.

Perhaps for adulators of centralized “democratic” government,
what renders Calhoun particularly odious is less his association
with slavery than his arguments against consolidated government.
If our country took Calhoun’s view of “diffused” power
seriously, we could not wage worldwide crusades for “human
rights” with the help of an expanding central state.
One might even have to face the horror of living without
the apparatus of the managerial, therapeutic, anti-discrimination
government under which Americans and Europeans might now
be imagined to have become paradigmatic “democrats.” For
his thoughtful and thought-provoking presentation of a genuine
alternative to our reigning ideology, H. Lee Cheek deserves
not vilification, but gratitude.

Paul
Gottfried
is professor of history
at Elizabethtown College and author, most recently, of
The Strange Death of Marxism:
The European Left in the New Millennium
(2005).

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