John C. Calhoun


Introduction by Jon Roland

Calhoun served as U.S. senator from Sourth Carolina, secretary of war, secretary of state, and twice as vice-president, and was a dominant figure, alongside such men as Henry Clay and Daniel Webster.

Calhoun's Disquisition on Government has been called a "deep look at the nature of man and government".[1] Calhoun saw himself as the heir of Thomas Jefferson and the Republican tradition, but he rejected both the Lockean view of natural rights and the optimistic Enlightenment view of human nature and human societies. According to Calhoun, man is by nature selfish, arrogant, jealous, and vengeful, and these tendencies must be controlled by the state. There are no natural rights. Liberty is a reward and, inevitably, based upon the subjection or slavery of others. Calhoun went further, arguing that the United States was not a nation, but a confederation of nations, and attacked the key founding doctrines expounded by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay in the Federalist Papers. In the Disquisition, he challenges Federalist #1's assumption that institutions can be a product of reflection and reason; #10's theory of the compound republic; #22's doctrine of the numerical majority; and #51's separation of powers.[2] According to Calhoun, numerical majorities were as selfish and rapacious as individual men when it came to trampling on minority interests. His proposed solution was the concurrent majority, essentially a constitutional method of enabling minorities to block the actions of majorities that might threaten the rights of the minority, making them, in essence, veto groups.

We may reject Calhoun's racist views, and the inconsistency of his advocacy of constitutional reforms to protect the minority he represented, while oppressing another minority, but his discussion of the problem of protecting the rights of a minority against a persistent majority, and how the problem might be solved constitutionally, is relevant today as special interests combine to exceed the constitutional limits on powers originally intended by the Founders, and in seeking benefits for themselves, operate to infringe the rights of others.


1. Ross M. Lence, ed., Union and Liberty: The Political Philosophy of John C. Calhoun, (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1992), xviii. Also see the discussion of Calhoun's political philosophy in Merrill Peterson, The Great Triumvirate: Webster, Clay, and Calhoun, (New York: Oxford UP, 1987), 409-13.

2. Lence's foreword has a particularly strong discussion of Calhoun's "conversations" with Hamilton, Madison, and Jay: xi-xxiii.