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American Burke?

By: Jason Jividen
January 31, 2018

nce hailed as a political genius, John C. Calhoun is today either forgotten or condemned as a slavery apologist. Scholars dismiss his ideas as incoherent or misguided. In John C. Calhoun’s Theory of Republicanism, John Grove attempts to turn this consensus on its head. He believes Calhoun deserves mention alongside our greatest philosophic statesman and most serious political thinkers.

Grove, assistant professor of political science at Lincoln Memorial University, fights his campaign on two fronts. First, he argues that Calhoun is best understood as a classical republican, moderating the abstract, possessive individualism of the founding's liberal institutionalist strain. Second, he argues that Calhoun’s fully-developed political thought, especially seen in his posthumous Disquisition on Government (1851), must be distinguished from his less-than-rigorous, and often politically motivated, defense of slavery. In fact, Grove claims, slavery has very little to do with Calhoun’s republicanism.

Grove is especially interested in refuting the notion that Calhoun's embrace of limited government, minority rights, and compact theory lacked proper theoretical grounding. Calhoun’s concurrent majority theory, argues Grove, cultivates and protects civic virtue, free government, and human flourishing in a large republic. For Calhoun, men are not autonomous, rights-bearing individuals, but deeply embedded in political communities. Only within these communities are men truly free. Diversity of interests fosters factionalism, threatening civic harmony. The concurrent majority theory (and practical manifestations of it like nullification) fosters harmony and virtue by promoting compromise, while giving each section of a community a role in determining governmental actions, or at least a concurrent veto upon those actions.

Grove thinks Calhoun a traditionalist―Calhoun’s appreciation of history, circumstance, and prescription led Russell Kirk to include him in his pantheon of conservative thinkers. Grove’s Calhoun is an American Burke, suspicious of philosophical abstractions, political doctrinairism, and moral absolutism. Calhoun stands outside the American political mainstream's Lockeanism. He rejected the natural equality of inalienable rights described in the Declaration of Independence and any notion that peoples, or individuals, have an abstract moral claim to liberty, everywhere and always. Instead, Calhoun argued that liberty was no abstraction, but the result of circumstance and historical development, earned by a people through intellectual and moral improvement.

Grove offers a detailed, carefully-researched, and plausible case that Calhoun was a classical republican, and that he thought institutions should foster republican virtue and civic harmony. Grove's account of Calhoun’s conservatism, and its relationship to the principles of the founding, seems correct. Grove's argument that slavery is not fundamental to Calhoun’s political thinking, however, is unconvincing.

Grove suggests, for example, that Calhoun’s argument that slavery is a “positive good” for both master and slave makes perfect sense. Suspicious of theoretical abstractions, Calhoun thought all moral claims best understood as practical judgments, made in particular circumstances. Any assessment of slavery in the abstract is foolish, for nothing is abstractly good or evil. If slavery seems necessary at the time, and circumstances make its abolition impractical, then slavery is a positive good. Grove enlists the services of Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln in Calhoun’s defense, arguing that they too doubted that the white and black races could coexist on a plane of social and political equality. Yet both Jefferson and Lincoln thought slavery was a prudentially tolerated evil. Calhoun's position, in contrast, entails that nothing “necessary” can ever be considered evil. If something is necessary, it simply ceases to be evil; we cannot distinguish principle from compromise.

In practice, Calhoun thought slaves, undeserving of liberty, were made materially, intellectually, and spiritually better by their slaveholders. Moreover, slavery promoted a harmony of interests in political society, mitigating the Northern economy's tension between capital and labor. Under such circumstances, slavery served as the safest and most stable basis for free institutions―and for Calhoun, circumstances were everything.

But Calhoun's vision of political society, argues Grove, doesn't require slavery, and Calhoun's defense of slavery actually contradicts the basic principles of his Disquisition. There he argued that absolute power tends to be abused; that no one segment of society can justly exploit another; and that a people might earn liberty through moral and intellectual development. On its face, Calhoun’s slavery defense does seem at odds with these principles, leading Grove to insist Calhoun's fundamental principles were fine―he merely failed to apply them to the case of slavery. We are thus “free to learn from and appreciate Calhoun the political philosopher even as we rightly deplore one of the causes championed by Calhoun the statesman.”

But even if we grant that slavery is peripheral to Calhoun’s thought, his rejection of natural equality is certainly central. For Calhoun, it’s simply untrue to suggest that no man has a natural claim to rule another, or that no man can rightfully rule another without that other’s consent. Calhoun’s inability to condemn slavery isn’t an anomaly in his thought; it follows from, or is easily permitted by, his principles. By Grove’s own admission, Calhoun’s critique of natural rights lies at the very core of his thinking. Grove is right to say that Calhoun’s principles may not require slavery, but those same principles cannot furnish any reliable arguments against slavery, aside from merely pragmatic concerns.

Grove admits that “it must be allowed that [Calhoun’s] rejection of abstract natural rights, to a limited extent, allowed him to justify the inequality of slavery.” But he thinks this rejection should not be overstated, for it isn't a “rejection of justice, and it should go without saying that a rejection of natural rights and social contract theory in no way necessitates an acceptance of slavery.” Perhaps this is true, although Grove doesn't explain it. He suggests that justice for Calhoun requires that no group in political society systematically oppress another. Of course, if a group has not yet earned the privilege of liberty and self-government, one wonders if all bets are off. Grove laments that, though there is room in Calhoun’s principles for a moral condemnation of slavery, Calhoun himself appeared unaware of it, blinded by his immersion in the institution. On this issue, and perhaps this issue alone, Calhoun is painted by Grove as a mere man of his times.

Grove is undoubtedly correct that ignoring Calhoun’s ideas impoverishes our study of American political thought. John C. Calhoun’s Theory of Republicanism is a serious and thoughtful discussion of ideas worthy of our careful attention. Nevertheless, our refusal to rank Calhoun among the greatest of American political thinkers need not be the result of ideological squabbles, polemics, willful neglect, or intellectual laziness. We might just find his arguments unpersuasive and his ideas incorrect.