Rescuing Calhoun A Review of H. Lee Cheek's Calhoun and Popular Rule

In his book Calhoun and Popular Rule: The Political Theory of the Disquisition and Discourse, H. Lee Cheek, Jr. presents a two-part thesis. First, he contends that John Calhoun’s political thought, as manifested in his Disquisition and Discourse, represents an original contribution to the South Atlantic republican worldview espoused by Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and others. Second, Cheek argues that Calhoun’s thought, despite uninformed, often absurd arguments to the contrary, is still relevant today. In my estimation, Cheek proves his thesis.

Cheek persuasively refutes those who dismiss Calhoun’s political theory as either tailored to defend Southern sectarian interests or the last gasp of the Jeffersonians. Though Jefferson and Madison influenced Calhoun, his theory revealed original thought as well. For example, Calhoun introduced the concept of the concurrent majority. Calhoun argued that a simple numerical majority would lead to increasingly bigger and tyrannical government, with the majority utilizing big government to control the minority. Moreover, if only a numerical majority decided who controlled government, citizen participation would decline; people would vote, but then the majority would control government and only those supportive of the majority would help govern. Without citizen participation, government would reach tyrannical proportions.

Thus, Calhoun recommended a concurrent majority rather than a numerical one. A concurrent majority would limit the growth of government by providing an elaborate system of checks and balances. Most importantly, the states would retain ultimate authority regarding constitutional interpretation. Giving states a veto over the central government served many purposes. First, since the states signed and ratified the Constitution, they should have the final say over important constitutional questions; they created the central government. Second, giving states veto authority would help control the central government’s natural tendency to abuse its power, since the states could, if necessary, nullify obnoxious federal laws to protect their citizens. Third, a concurrent majority would encourage a virtuous citizenry by allowing Americans to participate in their own governance. As long as states retained significant powers, the people would participate in state politics and, through their representatives, national politics. However, if a distant federal government usurped state powers, citizens, feeling powerless, would lose confidence in government, which would eventually lead to the destruction of the Union.

Near the end of the book, Cheek persuasively argues that Calhoun’s thought is still relevant today. He offers a convincing rebuttal of those, like Harry Jaffa, who condemn Calhoun as a "Marx of the Master Class" who favored the Articles of Confederation because they did a better job of protecting Southern slaveholders than the Constitution. If that is the case, Cheek writes, why did Calhoun dislike the Articles? As Cheek points out, Calhoun criticized the Articles because they gave too little power to the central government, making Congressional representatives more like diplomats than congressmen.

Interestingly, while this aspect of Calhoun’s thought certainly refutes Jaffa’s preposterous view, it also reveals a flaw in Calhoun’s reasoning. The Constitution, by ambiguously defining the federal government’s powers (particularly with the "necessary and proper" clause) has allowed centralizers like Alexander Hamilton and Abraham Lincoln to trample state’s rights. For the preservation of liberty, the Articles are infinitely superior to the Constitution.

Cheek’s most satisfying rebuttal comes when he addresses contemporary critics who conveniently dismiss Calhoun’s belief in small government as unrealistic given the size of today’s federal government. Cheek answers this criticism by pointing out the fact that most of these critics do not want to limit the size of government. For those of us that do, Calhoun and Popular Rule is a great read.