John C. Calhoun, Madisonian Manqué

Today John Calhoun is in bad odor, to say the least. In the wake of the recent apparent rise of the alt-Right and heightened racial tensions, the American statesman who said that slavery was a positive good and that states retained the power to nullify unconstitutional federal law seems to many the source of what is bad in American political thought, the very thing that progress, in the sense meant by today’s progressives, is supposed to overcome.

A new book by John G. Grove aims to argue against this common view. Written with clarity and focus and a certain amount of contrarianism, John C. Calhoun’s Theory of Republicanism would persuade us that we’ve rejected Calhoun too easily. While he can hardly deny the importance of slavery for Calhoun’s politics, the assistant professor of political science at Lincoln Memorial University thinks we go wrong when we see that as the core of his thought. He thinks that Calhoun was a genuine constitutionalist, despite his differences from the Founders, and that he was a critic of the Lockean liberalism of the Founding from the point of view of the older republicanism of Aristotle and Cicero. The “theory of republicanism” mentioned in the title is, according to Grove, classical republicanism.

Now the author knows he has a heavy lift to persuade his readers that Calhoun’s political thought can indeed be separated from his defense of slavery, to say nothing of the further argument that Calhoun is correctly described as a classical republican. Yet that is the ambition of the book: by disentangling Calhoun’s political project from slavery, to expose the deeper themes of his thought and make them available for us today to consider on their own terms, freed from their association with America’s national sin.

Grove begins with an in-depth treatment of Calhoun’s most important theoretical writings, the Disquisition on Government and the Discourse on the Constitution and Government of the United States (Chapter 1). Discussion of Calhoun’s political theory in the precise sense is followed by an examination of Calhoun’s speeches and other practical writings, beginning with his career as a War Hawk in the War of 1812 (Chapter 2); his turn to states’ rights and nullification in response to the politics of the 1820s (Chapter 3); his mature thought on nullification as the reform needed to bring American politics back to constitutionalism (Chapter 4); and his reflections at the end of his life on the impending crisis of American politics in the face of persistent disagreements about the status of slavery in the territories (Chapter 5).

In Chapter 6, the author finally comes face to face with the issue of slavery’s role in Calhoun’s thought. Only after making the case that Calhoun’s defense of slavery was a mistake even on Calhoun’s own principles does Grove deliver his conclusion that Calhoun’s political thought is superior to the liberal political principles of the Founders.

The Founders’ Virtue-Signalling

By saying that Calhoun is, in key respects, not a “modern” thinker but a genuinely classical republican in the tradition of Aristotle and Cicero, Grove means that Calhoun looks not to natural rights and the state of nature, as do John Locke and most of the American political thinkers, but to our natural sociality, virtue, and the common good as his guides for judging political life. And Grove tries to show how this ancient understanding of politics is expressed in the Disquisition and the Discourse. I must say, the argument leaves me skeptical. While scholars of political theory in the past half-century have tended to see the world in terms of a grand “ancients-moderns” divide, the American Founders rarely did, at least not in the way political theorists today usually talk about it. Many of them, including those Grove wants to set Calhoun against, were perfectly happy to appeal to the authority of Aristotle or Cicero, and even to virtue and the common good.

This is by no means to deny the significant differences between the American thinkers and those of classical antiquity; it is only to say that the former’s references to the classics were more often what we today call virtue-signaling than in-depth engagements. Grove is correct, Calhoun rejects the state of nature and natural rights and to that extent departs from the Lockean tradition otherwise so popular in the Founding era. But surely that rejection has something to do with the fact that classical republicanism was more open to slavery than was the Jeffersonian-Lockean doctrine of natural rights, which Calhoun correctly sensed was aimed like a dagger at the institution of slavery.

But however that may be, it’s not at all clear that Calhoun had any very sustained engagement with the main texts of classical republicanism. While he does appeal to virtue and the common good, Calhoun doesn’t give us any sustained account of what those things mean for him; in this respect he is quite unlike the ancients. The question then becomes: How are we to know that Calhoun’s references to the ancients have some substance, rather than just a means of virtue-signaling?

Grove does attempt to read classical republicanism into Calhoun’s notion of the concurrent majority and also Calhoun’s interpretation of the American constitutional tradition. His idea is that, by making it impossible for majorities simply to outvote minorities, the concurrent majority forces majorities to seek the positive approval of all sections of society, thereby encouraging if not requiring compromises acceptable to all sides. Grove thinks that  this requirement of unanimity will compel public spiritedness and a concern for virtue among statesmen and citizens.

Calhoun does in fact say things like this. But it doesn’t seem like a very classical idea. At least by some plausible interpretations, the ancients talked about virtue so much because they thought there was no institutional solution to the problems of politics. Calhoun, on the other hand, tells us little about what virtue looks like and spends a lot of time talking about institutional design. In this respect, he looks less like an Aristotelian than like a Madisonian manqué: He goes so far as to claim that the proper institutions will ensure moral and political virtue.[1] That comment in particular sounds more like Immanuel Kant’s remark in “Perpetual Peace” (1795) that even a nation of devils, if sufficiently intelligent, can organize a state, than anything Aristotle says.

The middle sections of the book provide something of a narrative account of how Calhoun’s thought developed in the face of the political events of his time. Chapter 2 examines Calhoun’s speeches from the first part of his career, before his turn to states’ rights and advocacy of nullification. Chapter 3 offers a sympathetic account of Calhoun’s reaction to the presidential election of 1824, Quincy Adams’s “corrupt bargain” with Henry Clay, and Andrew Jackson’s ascent to the presidency. Chapter 4 takes up Calhoun’s most important interventions into practical politics with his defense of nullification and South Carolina in the crisis of 1830-31 in the “Exposition and Protest” and the “Fort Hill Address.” Chapter 5 offers a reading of Calhoun’s speeches at the end of his career, about Oregon and California and the status of slavery in the territories.

This is the most valuable part of the book, offering as it does insightful readings of some of Calhoun’s lesser known writings. Of particular interest here are Grove’s observations about the early Calhoun speeches in the House of Representatives and about Calhoun’s pseudonymous newspaper exchange in the late 1820s, when he was in the process of making his turn to nullification, with a writer in the Quincy Adams orbit (who may even have been Adams himself). Grove’s thesis is that, disgusted by the party politics and patronage of the “corrupt bargain” and by Adams’ revival of Federalist doctrine, with its centralizing tendencies and exemplified by the “Tariff of Abominations,” Calhoun sought some way to restrain the power of overbearing national majorities. That way was state nullification of federal law. According to Grove, Calhoun knew full well that this idea was not recognized in the text of the Constitution but saw it nonetheless as a kind of primitive truth of the American political experiment.

All this is accurate enough as far as it goes. But Grove never quite confronts the obvious practical objection to the idea of nullification. Doesn’t the Constitution, by means of the Supremacy Clause, directly undercut state nullification of federal law? Doesn’t Calhoun in effect aim to undo the constitutional deal ratified in 1787 and go back to something like the Articles of Confederation? And why should we think that going back to the Articles of Confederation wouldn’t bring back a federal government that was incapable of performing the most basic tasks?

Calhoun’s answer, as Grove reads him, is that the necessity of satisfying all groups in society, together with the press of events, will encourage public spiritedness and the willingness to compromise. But I am not sure why this should be. Might we not rather expect that every special interest will demand to be paid off before signing on to whatever will happen? Would Calhoun’s proposal not empower special interests to squeeze the polity for more favors rather than encourage a genuinely deliberative frame of mind? Be that as it may, Calhoun’s disagreement  with the Founders on the merely institutional level of the argument turns more on weighing these practical possibilities differently than on any highfalutin debate over humanity’s natural sociality or the ultimate nature of the social contract.

Taking Aim at Majoritarianism to Protect Slavery

In Chapter 6, where he finally confronts slavery head on, Grove works hard to minimize the role of slavery in Calhoun’s thought and in his ascent to the position of premier political thinker of the antebellum South. He wants to say that Calhoun cared mostly about limiting the excesses of majoritarianism, and only secondarily, almost as an afterthought, about defending slavery. I’m not persuaded; and here are two pieces of evidence that cut against his reading.

First, it is true that the explicit theme of Calhoun’s writings during the nullification crisis is the need to restrain overbearing majorities. But Calhoun was also acutely aware of how explosive the slavery issue was, and there is reason to believe that he had his eye on it throughout the nullification crisis. One ought not to forget here the role of the Missouri Crisis in 1819-20 in waking the country to the hitherto dormant conflict over slavery, still much in the minds of Americans North and South at the time of the Nullification Crisis.

The very materials Grove examines show that Calhoun was thinking about slavery from the beginning. In his speech on the abolition petitions in 1837, when he first went public with the claim that slavery is a positive good, he says:

Several years [ago] . . . I then predicted that the doctrine of the proclamation and the Force Bill—that this Government had a right, in the last resort, to determine the extent of its own powers, and enforce its decision at the point of a bayonet . . . would at no distant day arouse the dormant spirit of abolitionism . . . The consequence would be inevitable—a large portion of the Northern states believed slavery to be a sin, and would believe it as an obligation of conscience to abolish it if they should feel themselves in any degree responsible for its continuance; and that this doctrine would necessarily lead to the belief of such responsibility.[2]

These words point directly away from Grove’s interpretation: Calhoun’s worry about the excesses of majoritarianism, and his advocacy of state of nullification of federal law, were rooted in his desire to protect slavery, and he foresaw that protecting it in the future would become ever more difficult as national majorities came to know their power.[3]

A second piece of evidence concerns Calhoun’s explicit defense of slavery in the speech on the abolition petitions. Grove makes much of Calhoun’s distinction between recommending slavery in the abstract and endorsing slavery under the circumstances as making the best of a bad situation. He wants to say that Calhoun didn’t argue that slavery was a necessary basis for republican governments everywhere and always.

First of all, this distinction doesn’t help defend Calhoun very much. “What?” a Frederick Douglass might say, “you don’t endorse slavery in the abstract but only for us black people living in the United States? Is there something about us as distinguished from every other people in the world that suits us for slavery?” Grove may well be right about Calhoun’s argument; but it is hard to see how the argument makes sense without Calhoun’s racism being a central background factor.

More importantly, Calhoun does in fact say that in every society there is an upper class that lives on the labor of a lower class, and that the institution of slavery based on race as practiced in the United States is the best version of that inevitable class distinction known to Calhoun. It is, in his words, “the most solid and durable foundation on which to rear free and stable institutions.”[4] This sounds for all the world like a general endorsement of the institution and, if not the only possible basis on which to create free institutions, certainly the best one. What then is the difference between what Calhoun says and endorsing slavery in the abstract?

For all Grove’s erudition, the conventional wisdom he aims to displace still seems the most accurate account of what Calhoun was up to. In addition to concerns about majoritarian excesses like the Tariff of Abominations, Calhoun saw that slavery was the most divisive issue in American politics and the most likely issue on which the South would be attacked. He realized the South needed both constitutional means of protection against national majorities (nullification) and to have its spine stiffened in the defense of slavery (the doctrine of slavery as a positive good). He seems to have thought that a South that saw slavery as Thomas Jefferson did—as something in contradiction with the principles of the regime—could not be a reliable defender of its own interests in the long run. He therefore set out to displace those principles, and thus, in a sense, become a cultural re-founder of a Southern nation.

This, it seems to me, is the source of his critiques of the doctrine of the state of nature, not any deep appreciation of Aristotle or Cicero. Paradoxically, the lengths Calhoun had to go to in order to create a South dedicated without qualm to racial hierarchy shows the extent to which slavery was indeed in profound tension with the principles of the Declaration of Independence and to that extent is a kind of vindication of the Founders and of Jefferson in particular. Today, when we find it so difficult to make important moral and political distinctions, that is, to my mind, perhaps the most important reason for us to read Calhoun.

Why Defend the Indefensible?

At the end of the day, Grove tries too hard to defend Calhoun. If the point is to remind us that majoritarianism has flaws and that there is such a thing as political virtue, there are any number of other authorities who can teach us those lessons without Calhoun’s baggage. If the point is to tell the truth about Calhoun and how he saw the world, that task does not require trying to defend an indefensible position.

None of this is to suggest that the book is not worth reading. Grove wants to build Calhoun up into a true inheritor of classical republicanism in the modern world; but the book accomplishes something less grand but still useful to scholars of American political thought. By clarifying how Calhoun saw the world, and how Calhoun became Calhoun in the political crises of the 1820s and 1830s, it allows us to understand better how Calhoun understood himself. If it is true that a turning point in the antebellum drama of American politics was the linkage of the constitutionalist themes of the states’ rights tradition with the forthright defense of slavery, Calhoun’s career is of central importance in understanding just what happened to America.

Today, when the polarization of our politics easily seeps into our attempts to understand the past, we more than ever need scholars who will try to understand the great statesmen and thinkers of the past as they understood themselves. It is to this task, as yet unfinished, that John Grove’s study makes its most valuable contribution.

[1] See “Disquisition on Government,” in Union and Liberty: The Political Philosophy of John C. Calhoun, edited by Ross Lence (Liberty Fund, 1992), pp. 37-39.

[2] Union and Liberty, p. 471.

[3] See also the letter Calhoun wrote to Martin Van Buren in September 1830, cited by Richard Ellis in The Union at Risk: Jacksonian Democracy, States’ Rights, and the Nullification Crisis (Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 193: “I consider the tariff act as the occasion, rather than the real cause of the present unhappy state of things. The truth can no longer be disguised, that the peculiar domestick institution of the Southern States, and the consequent direction which that and her soil and climate have given to her industry, has placed them in regard to taxation and appropriations in opposite relation to the majority of the Union, against the danger of which, if there be no protective power in the reserved rights of the states, they must in the end be forced to rebel or submit it to have their paramount interests sacrificed. . . .”

[4] Union and Liberty, p. 474.