A Disquietingly Current Disquisition

By: Gary Galles

John Calhoun, among the most influential of America’s nineteenth-century statesmen, was born on March 18. As someone who served as a congressman, senator, secretary of war, secretary of state, and vice-president to two presidents with whom he strongly disagreed (and with whom he sometimes fought as president of the senate), he deserves attention. But tarred by his defense of slavery, any attention Calhoun now gets seems to be negative (e.g., Yale changed the name of Calhoun College to distance itself from his position on slavery).

However, Calhoun was also described by John F. Kennedy as “a masterful defender of the rights of a political minority against the dangers of an unchecked majority,” and he still provides one of the best explanations of Americans’ current extreme political disunity. His 1850 Disquisition on Government laid out why the battle for political dominance and its spoils, as real today as when Calhoun was an important participant, guaranteed bitter divisiveness rather than unity:

  • “Government, although intended to protect and preserve society, has…a strong tendency to disorder and abuse of its powers, as all experience and almost every page of history testify.”
  • “Suffrage…only changes the seat of authority, without counteracting, in the least, the tendency of the government to oppression and abuse of its powers.”
  • “Obtain[ing] the majority—and, thereby, the control of the government and the advantages it confers…[means] aggrandizing and building up one portion of the community at the expense of the other.”
  • “It would be indispensable to success to avoid division and keep united…lead[ing] to the conversion of the honors and emoluments of the government into means of rewarding partisan services…to secure the fidelity and increase the zeal of the members of the party.”
  • “Principles and policy…lose all influence in the elections; and cunning, falsehood, deception, slander, fraud, and gross appeals to the appetites of the lowest…take the place of sound reason and wise debate.”
  • “[This] will divide the community…into two great parties…engaged in perpetual struggles to obtain the control of the government…[which] must necessarily form…attachments on the part of the members of each to their respective parties…and antipathies to the opposite party, as presenting the only obstacle to success.”
  • “Their mutual antipathies [will be] carried to such an excess as to destroy, almost entirely, all sympathy between them, and to substitute in its place the strongest aversion….devotion to party becomes stronger than devotion to country—the promotion of the interests of party more important than the promotion of the common good of the whole, and its triumph and ascendancy objects of far greater solicitude than the safety and prosperity of the community.”
  • “[This will] overpower all regard for truth, justice, sincerity, and moral obligations…falsehood, injustice, fraud, artifice, slander, and breach of faith, are freely resorted to, as legitimate weapons—followed by all their corrupting and debasing influences.”
  • The struggle to obtain the control of the government elevates to power the designing, the artful, and unscrupulous, who…aim exclusively at securing the ascendancy of party…at the expense of the good of the whole.

Every election year, Americans hear candidates deride our disunity and claim to be unifiers. But more attention than ever is actually focused on wedging us further apart, rather than returning to the core principles and inalienable rights against government abuse that can alone possibly unite us. But John C. Calhoun recognized 170 years ago just how much of politics consists of tooth-and-nail battles to impose partial slavery on electoral losers to benefit electoral winners, which only gets worse as the prize of controlling government becomes more valuable. Despite his support of slavery, it would be unwise to let Calhoun’s failings blind us to his insights, so sorely needed now. As he wrote:

The possession of [government’s] control, as the means of directing its action and dispensing its honors and emoluments, will be an object of desire….Party conflicts…in such governments, can hardly ever terminate in compromise—The object of the opposing minority is to expel the majority from power; and of the majority to maintain their hold upon it. It is, on both sides, a struggle…that must determine which shall be the governing, and which the subject party.

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