Tuesday, June 7, 2011
A Disquistion on Government
John C. Calhoun 1782-1850
A few weeks ago some lamebrain that considers himself a student of the War of Northern Aggression realized that Lake Calhoun, adjoining the trendy Uptown district of Minneapolis, was named in 1820 after John C. Calhoun, then the Secretary of War and the individual that authorized the establishment of nearby Fort Snelling. He has proposed to the Minneapolis Park Board that the name of the lake be changed because Calhoun was an advocate of slavery. Who knows where this will go but it made the local media. Coincidentally, at that very time, I was reading Calhoun's "Disquisition on Government" and his "Discourse on the Constitution of the United States".
The popular perception of Calhoun today is that he was a retrograde states rightist and outspoken promoter of slavery. Both are true as far as they go, but the story is much more complicated than that.
John Caldwell Calhoun was born and raised in rural South Carolina and was the very epitome of the self-made man so important in American folklore. After graduating from Yale in 1804, Calhoun completed law school and was elected to the U.S. House in 1810, remaining a national political figure until his death forty years later, holding every major office except the Presidency itself. In 1957, a Senate Committee selected Calhoun as one of the five greatest U.S. Senators, along with Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, Robert La Follette, and Robert Taft. No doubt the next Senate Committee tasked with a similar job will name John Kerry, Carol Mosely Braun, Barbara Boxer, and Teddy Kennedy shortly before the world comes to an end.
Calhoun's political ideas were rooted in the interests of the South, an agrarian society. He, and many others, believed that the United States was made up of British colonies that had banded together through the Articles of Confederation to achieve independence from Britain while retaining their own sovereignty. The US Constitution, adopted after much debate and acrimony, was, as historian Charles Beard pointed out, a means to insure the payment of War of Independnce debt, among other things, through a central government more powerful than that of any of the states. While the new constitution was eventually ratified by each of the states, there remained a substantial minority of the population that never intellectually accepted a lesser role for the states. Calhoun was a leader and spokesperson for these people, believing that every state had the right of "nullification", meaning that if a state found a federal law to be onerous it had the right to nullify that law and forbid its enforcement within that state. This concept was particularly directed at the federal protective tariffs used to finance the federal government in that era. The southern states, with little industry of their own, were forced to subsidize northern manufacturing to the detriment of their trade in raw materials with Europe. The federal government did cut tariff duties in response but never eliminated them entirely. During the first half of the nineteenth century slavery was legitimized by the US Constitution itself. Even abolitionists in the north had to admit that they could do little about southern slavery, except prevent its spread to new western territories. Slave state southerners could envision a future where they would be surrounded by new anti-slavery states and become even more of a minority nationally. Thus the argument between North and South was rooted in two different views of the ideology of republican government. The South felt that there was no single federal government with a power over individual states and that ultimately a state had the right to secede from the Union if it felt that to be necessary.
Additionally, Calhoun advanced the theory of the advantages of the "concurrent majority" as opposed to that of the "numerical majority". The latter is what we accept as normal today, where a simple majority of voters elect representatives and endorse government policies that affect all citizens. On the other hand a concurrent majority, as outlined by Calhoun, would be exemplified by our jury system, where decisions are made unanimously.
Lincoln, of course, did not agree with nullification and sent almost 3/4 of a million men and boys to an early grave to demonstrate his beliefs, in addition destroying so much Southern capital and property that the rebel states took almost a century to recover. By that time, Calhoun had been dead for over 15 years. He had no personal connection with War of Northern Aggression but his ideas were still poison to the industrial North. And government-sponsored education either ignores one of America's greatest statesmen or paints him as a villain, in addition to inspiring grommet-heads to remove his name from bodies of water.