Book Review: A Disquisition on Government by John C. Calhoun

Bottom Line Up Front: Required reading for any Southerner or American interested in the question of good government. Writing can be bit difficult for modern eyes, though fine if you’re used to older texts. Go here to buy.

Disquisition was written as Mr. Calhoun’s introduction and elaboration on his theory of the concurrent majority. This theory would allow minority factions within a constitutional federal government negative, or veto, power over federal government actions, simply by securing a majority within the respective faction. Mr. Calhoun presents this as an alternative to the numerical majority, which would allow government action with a simple majority of citizens or representatives of the entire political body. Mr. Calhoun’s theory has been called the largest real contribution to political science to come from the New World.

The first thing that jumps out is Mr. Calhoun’s entirely accurate critique of the numerical majority, of which the United States government consists, more or less. He points out its tendency to slide from a constitutional government to an absolute one, based on the incentive for the majority to consolidate power by removing the restrictions on itself, as well as concentrating power into a diminishing number of hands in order to wield power more efficiently. What’s more, the numerical majority acts as a force of progress or liberalism over conservatism, as a simple majority will be easier swayed by new, half-baked ideas, while the veto ability of a concurrent majority would theoretically force new legislation to act for the benefit of all.

Any quick perusal of US history will vindicate Mr. Calhoun’s criticisms. Minority factions, like the South, were trampled as the numerical majority wielded the federal government to frightening effect, even prosecuting a horrendous war in order to maintain control over its vassal. The South was, in effect, made a colony to the majority, exploited and abused while the North grew fat and happy. Clearly the negative powers entrusted to the checks and balance system of the Constitution were not sufficient to preserve minority interests, and early Southern leaders were misguided to hitch their respective states to it.

What if the theory of concurrent majority had been adopted? It is an open question. Certainly it would have retarded the onslaught of Progressivism which ground the South up. Would it have enabled the antebellum US government to function? I think not in the long term. The antebellum South and North were two strikingly different societies, and it didn’t take long to figure out that the two shared very little common ground as to which government policies could benefit the whole. But it is an interesting thought experiment. Mr. Calhoun does outline several historical examples of the concurrent majority theory, namely 17th Century Poland and the Iroquois Confederacy of North America.

In the former example, the concurrent majority theory was taken to the utmost extreme, as any individual member of the Polish legislature had the power to veto any legislation, and call an end to any specific session simply by shouting “Nie pozwalam! (I do not allow!).” See: Liberum veto. This ideal of unanimous assent for any law has been rightly criticised (Mr. Calhoun’s suggestion is much less stringent), and Mr. Calhoun acknowledges its role in the eventual deterioration of the Polish Commonwealth, but also points out that the rule was in place and worked for nearly 200 years, covering the zenith of Polish power.

Perhaps the strongest example for the working power of the concurrent majority is the trial-by-jury system practiced everywhere in the West, in which twelve unrelated citizens are forced to come to a unanimous decision in order for anything at all to be accomplished. Mr. Calhoun notes that, when practiced by reasonably intelligent and moral common citizens, this encourages sober analysis and reflection and nearly always results in a just rendering.

Does this idea translate to today? I think, if the United States were to revert to a concurrent majority system tomorrow, it is doubtful that it would do much good. For one, the mainstream (that is to say, white) US no longer consists of very distinct societies with reasonable autonomy, as it did in Mr. Calhoun’s time. Regions and states today are barrelling towards the cultural homogeneity dictated by the Progressivism infection, which has its claws, to some extent, in every state. That said, the racial thedes which exist under the mainstream social layer are of such foreign and alien character to the prevailing white society that no constitutional government would have much hope in aligning the various interests under one roof.

Additionally, it’s doubtful that the concurrent majority model could be optimized for a federal government divided into 50 states, stretched over a quarter of the globe (seriously, why is Hawaii a state?). How many common interests do Alaska, Connecticut, and Alabama have, after all?

I think the best bet for the concurrent majority model to see the light of day in North America, if at all, would be post-US breakup, in a reasonably culturally homogenous region consisting of maybe 10-15 polities. Coincidentally, a near-future independent South would fit this hypothetical bill. While I tend to endorse Mr. Calhoun’s praise of the concurrent majority theory, the first question we must ask is: Do we need a constitutional or absolute government? I think this question is impossible to answer, until we know what the political, moral, intellectual landscape post-USG may look like. Our best bet for the time being is to oppose Progressivism in all of its forms, foster the traditional mindset, and work towards rebuilding the missing piece of the Southern social puzzle – the aristocracy. If this is ably done, the vexatious questions that may come after the downfall of the Leftist Establishment will just about answer themselves.

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One thought on “Book Review: A Disquisition on Government by John C. Calhoun

  1. Pingback: This Week in Reaction (2015/03/20) | The Reactivity Place

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