This article was last modified on June 24, 2006.


Thoughts on the Disquisition of Calhoun

In the 1840s, John C. Calhoun wrote “A Disquisition on Government”, his collected thoughts on how he felt a government should be set up and ran in America. The timing was ripe: America was still a new country, with many citizens living that had been born in what was British territory. And Calhoun was the perfect man to tackle such a project: he had been in South Carolina’s legislature, the United States House of Representatives, served as Secretary of War under James Monroe and Vice President under John Quincy Adams. When most would have retired, he continued to serve his country in the Senate.

Here are my thoughts on a variety of issues raised by Calhoun in his disquisition. They are unorganized and vary in length and density. Perhaps at some point in the future I will explore one or several of these issues in more depth, but for now I present an assortment of ideas for the student of political science to ponder.

James Madison and Democracy

I have argued against pure democracy in a variety of essays found online. But I think James Madison was on the right track when he said, “If a majority be united by a common interest, the rights of the minority will be insecure.” (Federalist Papers, Number 51) Neither Madison or Calhoun provided a solution to this astute observation. Even without pure democracy — with representative democracy, for instance — this problem arises over and over again. I have no cure-all, though I think this is important to keep in mind at all times when singing the praises of democracy.

Calhoun adds that “conflicts between the majority and minority [parties] in [democratic] governments can hardly ever terminate in compromise.” And of course when there is no compromise, the majority party gets the lion’s share.

Unfortunately for the citizenry, the duties of the elected officials (serving the public) is often overshadowed by something completely unrelated to governing every other year. “The object of the opposing minority is to expel the majority from power, and of the majority to maintain their hold on it.” Today more than the 1840s, officials must do whatever necessary to maintain or attain power: more often than not through deceit or promises they are unable or unwilling to keep.

Denial of the Social Contract

Many political philosophers (Rousseau, Locke and Jefferson) had assumed what was called the social contract, the idea that at an indeterminate point in history men agreed that joining together was more beneficial than being at war with one another (what is called the state of nature). Some believed this contract existed in some real sense while others used the idea as more of a theoretical foundation for human rights. Calhoun denied the idea altogether.

Calhoun asserts that “[i]n no age or country has any society or community been found, whether enlightened or savage, without government of some description.” What I take from this is the idea of some natural pecking order, that in any group of humans there will be one or a select few who will be leaders and others who will be followers. Whether in a relationship or a family, someone will have the charisma to take power and show others the way. And I feel this idea has merit, because anyone outside of a certain isolated group or clique will notice which individuals take charge and which fall to the bottom (although, interestingly, the person on the bottom rung may be the leader in another group).

Much of the difference between the social contract and Calhoun’s position may be semantics. If we take the social contract as strictly a device rather than a real occurence, probably even Clahoun would agree that two people subconsciously know that working together will be more beneficial than working against one another. And at the same time, I do not perceive the social contract theorists as denying that in any group some people are more naturally running operations than others.

Calhoun, while arguing against the social contract, also argues against the so-called “state of nature” (which he calls a misnomer). “Instead of being the natural state of man, it is, of all conceivable states, the most opposed to his nature – most repugnant to his feelings and most incompatible with his wants.” What baffles me is that Calhoun seems to be saying the same thing as the social contract theorists: man does not feel comfortable as a non-social creature and must for ma bond with his fellow man. Does Calhoun believe the theorists thought that man literally at one point was an independent creature free of any family or tribal gatherings?

So is Calhoun denying the device or the physical existence of such a contract? If the former, we are at odds. If the latter, I find that easily agreeable.

The Expiration of Contracts

Thomas Jefferson said that “every constitution … and every law naturally expires at the end of thirty-four years.” This is by far one of the more novel concepts in political theory (and even more novel when we find out Jefferson later wanted to reduce the time frame to nineteen years). What are the ramifications of this?

On the negative side, this re-writing of laws every so often denies us the rich history of the judicial findings in our court system. With a string of cases from the dawn of our country to the present, judges are more easily able to justify positions held on a variety of issues. Without this history, they would have to start over every so often with nothing backing them up other than their own opinion and interpretation. This sounds to me a dangerous practice.

Also, if all laws were to expire, rewriting them seems to me a tiem consuming process. Already the system is bogged down with pointless laws, amendments and repeals. If the legislators had to repeat this each generation (as well as adding the new laws) they would hardly have time to play golf.

But this is not all bad. One of the best outcomes would be more of a flexible country with regards to rights. Some judges consider the Constitution a living document while others (the originalists) are more rigid. From a progressive point of view, the rigidness slows down what could otherwise be a big leap forward for human rights. And certainly even the originalists would admit the language of the original laws is stale and in some cases very ambiguous by modern standards.

The Denial of Natural Rights

Calhoun denied that humans have “natural rights” – rights we have simply by being born, granted by nature or God. Many people see natural rights as an extention of the social contract (by agreeing not to war with others, we simultaneously grant the ma right to life, a right against torture and so on). As Calhoun denies the contract (see above) it is not surprising he denies natural rights.

Calhoun and I are in partial agreement on this issue. I do take issue with individuals today who stretch the definition of “natural right” to the point where we all have a right to education, health care and other services. While I think these services ought to be provided to the citizens of a country (and would go so far as to say it is morally unacceptable to deny them such services if they are possible) I would not call them rights in this sense.

However, I do think that some very basic rights exist if we use the contract as a device. Using killing as the primary example, I do feel we have a right to life. Even if a killing is legal and justified (such as an execution), the denial of the person’s humanity and dignity signifies to me a violation of something very basic: the human right to exist. Admittingly, I find this hard to support — what are dignity and humanity? — but it seems to be true.

A denial of rights as a whole (even if correct) would wreak havoc on our moral system. Without right to life, is killing acceptable? Without a right to property, is theft or home invasion acceptable? What makes contracts valid and how are we guaranteed a paycheck? What would laws and constitutions be founded on? Whether rights exist in a real sense or only as a concept, their denial seems to be a dangerous slippery slope into moral nihilism.

Abuse of Power by Administrations

As I am writing this in 2006, in the heart of the George W. Bush administration, I found many parellels between Calhoun’s following words and certain aspects of our current leaders. Although, in all fairness to Bush, the same could probably be said about any leader in any time. Decide for yourself:

“A written constitution certainly has many and considerable advantages, but it is a great mistake to suppose that the mere insertion of provisions to restrict and limit the powers of the government, without investing those for whose protection they are inserted with the means of enforcing their observance, will be sufficient to prevent the major and dominant party from abusing its powers.”

With regard to George W. Bush, I refer to of course his claim that he can overrule the constitution and that his Commander-in-Chief status gives him powers that the title of President does not. Notably, while provisions exist to stop such power abuses (censure and impeachment) there is very little that can be done when the people with this authority are members of the same party (in this case, Republicans).

Calhoun’s Idea of a Failed State

Calhoun informs us that “to preserve society, it is necessary to guard the community against injustice, violence, and anarchy within, and against attacks from without. If it fail in either, it would fail in the primary end of government and would not deserve the name.” He further encourages the perfection of society through the development of “the faculties, intellectual and moral.”

I call two points to mind: first, that Calhoun puts a solid defense (foreign policy) on the same level as a solid domestic policy. I admire this balance which I feel has not been upheld by modern politicians. While America excels at providing the military with funding, we certainly pay far less attention to injustice (depending, I suppose, on one’s idea of what injustice means) here at home. And we do not fund any program to enhance our faculties nearly to the point of the military.

Second, I would point out that Calhoun says that we need a defense from the enemy outside our border. He does not say anything of our forces leaving the border to defend us by having an offense abroad. I do not mean to put words into Calhoun’s mouth, but encouraging defense is not (in my opinion) the same as encouraging preventive offense.

I would not go so far as to call America a “failed state” (nor would Calhoun, although Noam Chomsky has). We are, however, in serious need of an examination of our cultural values.

Holding on to Liberty, Protection

Calhoun argues that some people may not get as much liberty as they are entitled to have (he avoids saying “the right to have”), but nobody gets more liberty than they are entitled to or capable of holding. An odd observation, but seemingly true: while many people are oppressed, we rarely see people with more freedom than they should duly have.

Calhoun sees a balance between liberty and protection that I do not share and which I believe puts him at odds with Benjamin Franklin. Calhoun argues protection is more important than liberty (because if we are unsafe, we cannot be free) and if the two come in conflict, liberty must yield. I agree that if we are in danger, our self-preservation should be our primary motivation. But I am uncertain of what instance requires a liberty to be denied. An example would be beneficial, but Calhoun does not offer one.

Inequality and Progress

Calhoun posits that “inequality of condition, while it is a necessary consequence of liberty, is at the same time indispensable to progress.” Does liberty lead necessarily to inequality? Does this inequality lead to progress?

I deny both assertions. First, liberty leads to inequality if the liberty allows one person to overtake another. But this is hardly necessary. Checks can be placed on an individua lto prevent such inequality. One might argue any restriction restricts their liberty. But I would argue the opposite: not restricting them gives them reign to restrict the liberty of others. Liberty only leads to inequality if the liberty is granted disproportionately (men over women, white men over blacks, and so on). Equal liberty does not create inequality.

Second, inequalities do not lead to progress any more than equality does. Continuing from point one, we would not call it progress to keep women or blacks inequal. But more so, putting the wealth into the hands of one group and not another limits the amount of progress to only one group while denying it to the other. I have argued elsewhere there is no reason to believe a wealthy corporation will make some breakthrough when a moderately comfortable professor at a public university will not. Or inequal education leaqding to progress? What of the poor child who cannot afford education but could have been another Einstein?

Perhaps I have completely missed Calhoun’s point, but I see no reason to expect inequality to be to the benefit of society. Especially a society that should encourage our intellectual faculties (to use Calhoun’s language).

The Gunpowder Ascendency

What do you suppose Calhoun means here? “The discovery of gunpowder and the use of steam as an impelling force, and their application to military purposes, have forever settled the question of ascendency between civilized and barbarous communities in favor of the former.” Is he suggesting that might equals right? That America has dominion over South America and other savage peoples?

On the Heredity of Powerful People

Calhoun argues that monarchies are the most durable governments and are best adapted to postive change. He believes that when the power is handed down within a family, the family will see the land and subjects as something they are responsible personally for tending and will do their best to keep the subjects happy. I find this viewpoint unusually optimistic, especially coming from a man who helped found America – a country that was founded on anti-monarchy values and saw firtsthand the abuses of power by authority.

Another point, not discussed, is the existence of hereditary power in democracies (both pure and indirect). As we have seen in such powerful families as the Kennedys or the Bushes, high ranking offices can be handed from one person to another. While this is not achieved as simply as in a monarchy, there is a definite advantage to having the same surname as a previous ruler.

And we cannot disregard the influence of wealth on power. Money allowed nearly limitless power, and if the money is passed from father to son, so too does the power get passed. Company executives, in some ways, are even more powerful than the politicians. Their actions influence the politicians, they do not have to answer to the public, and unlike presidents of nations, comapny heads get very little face time and can remain essentially faceless while retaining their full extent of powers. So to think that the removal of monarchies removes hereditary power would be a mistake; the power was simply diluted, not diffused.

On Roman Nationalism

The Romans felt a greater sense of national pride and were more comfortable with the exclamation “I am a Roman” than any other nation in history, says Calhoun. In his day, this may have been true.

Ignoring the situation of Nazi Germany, I would say the greatest example of nationalism in the history of the world lies in present-day America. Nowhere else will you find so many flags flying, flags sewn to things completely unrelated to patriotic affairs, and people who so proudly boast their country is dominant and in the right. No other country shares this non-worldly outlook, and I daresay none ever has.

I did not live in Rome, and cannot say anything about them conclusively, but Americans today are giving them a run for their money. And frankly, that scares the hell out of me.

Also try another article under Political
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

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