John C. Calhoun’s A Disquisition On Government Essay, Research Paper
John C. Calhoun
A Disquisition on Government (1848), selections
“The Nature of Man and the Origin of Government”
According to Calhoun, to understand the nature of government, one must also understand the nature of its creator, man. He begins by asking, “What is that constitution or law of our nature without which government would not exist and with which its existence is necessary?” In answering this question, Calhoun makes two assumptions: First, man is a social being whose physical and moral inclinations and wants lead him to associate with his fellow man. Second, some form of government must exist in man s social state. Calhoun offers as proof of this second assumption that no society has ever been found without some form of government.
Calhoun next asks, “What is that constitution of our nature which, while it impels man to associate with his kind, renders it impossible for a society to exist without government?” He contends that even though man is a social creature who feels the wants and needs of others in his community, at the same time man s stronger inclination is to feel what affects him directly. Calhoun avoids using the word “selfish” because it implies an unusual excess of the individual over his social feelings. Calhoun believes man s individual feelings are stronger.
Calhoun goes on to say that since man is so constituted that government is necessary to the existence of society, and society is essential to the existence of man and the perfection of his faculties, that government has its origin in this two-fold constitution of man s nature. Social feelings constitute the remote cause and individual feelings the proximate cause of government. If man had evolved differently, then government would not be necessary.
However, government itself has a strong tendency to disorder and abuse of its powers, as evidenced by history. This is because government is administered by men in whom the individual feelings are stronger than the social feelings. Government cannot repress violence and preserve order on its own. The nature of man to prevent injustice and oppression of the community is what Calhoun means as “constitution” when applied to “government.”
Calhoun states that forming government is like breathing necessity forces it on all communities in some form. On the other hand, constitution is one of the most difficult tasks imposed on man.
So, how can those who are entrusted with the powers of government be prevented from running amok instead of protecting and preserving society? The same tendency of man that leads rulers to oppress the ruled with equal strength leads the ruled to resist when given the means of a peaceful and effective resistance. Therefore, resisting “rulers” is the first step in forming a constitutional government. This can only be achieved by the right of suffrage, the right of the ruled to chose their rulers at proper intervals and hold them responsible for their conduct. This is the foundation of a constitutional government. The right of suffrage should then give control to those who elect over the conduct of those they have elected and should serve to make those elected the true and faithful representatives of those who elected them.
But the right of suffrage is not all-sufficient to counteract the government s tendency to oppression and abuse of its powers because a community does not have the same interests for each and every individual. Conflict among the different interests of the community creates a struggle for a majority. If one interest is not strong enough to take majority status on its own, then a give and take process between those who have the most like interests will slowly, over time, create a majority.
In order to fully protect a community, government must be able to call on the resources of the community and be able to command them when a crisis arises. Calhoun believes that large civil and military establishments are necessary to achieve this. He calls for “a host of employees, agents and officers” to run these establishments. To meet the necessary expenses, Calhoun states that “large sums must be collected and disbursed, and for this purpose heavy taxes must be imposed, requiring a multitude of officers for their collection and disbursement.”
Calhoun goes on to explain that it is impossible to equalize the action of the government so far as its fiscal operation extends. One part of the community must pay more taxes than it receives back in disbursements and vice versa. In this unavoidable consequence, government necessarily divides the community into taxpayers and tax-consumers. The greater the gain of one side, the greater the loss of the other. Therefore, the more the policy of the government is to increase taxes and disbursements, the more it will be favored by one side and opposed by the other. Government could, in effect, elevate one side into wealth and power while depressing the other side to poverty.
Calhoun states that government can and will be used this way, save the constitution of man. If the government is used this way, then the right of suffrage cannot counteract the tendencies government and becomes moot because a wealthy majority holds controlling power. The way to avoid such government exclusive control is by dividing and distributing the powers of government (creating “organs”).
Division of government, along with the right of suffrage, creates a constitutional government and is sufficient to counteract the tendency of government to oppress and abuse its powers. Calhoun states, “In brief, every individual of every interest might trust, with confidence, its majority or appropriate organ against that of every other interest.”
“The Numerical Versus the Concurrent Majority”
Calhoun states that the sense of the community may be taken by two modes: First, the numerical or absolute majority, the unaided right of suffrage, regards numbers only and considers the community a unit, assuming the greater number reflects the whole community. Second, the concurrent or constitutional majority regards interests as well as numbers and takes the sense of each through its majority or appropriate organ. The concurrent majority is essential to a constitutional government and is often overlooked.
“The Numerical Majority Not the People”
Calhoun states that it is difficult to form and preserve popular constitutional government when the distinctions between the two majorities defined above are overlooked. Regarding the numerical majority as “the people” is the same as assuming a part is the same as the whole. In agreeing that a proper government, or democracy, is the government of the people, one must realize that a numerical majority does not represent all the people. Regarding the numerical as the only majority has contributed more than any other cause to prevent the formation of popular constitutional governments and destroy them after they have been formed.
The concurrent majority is an indispensable element in forming constitutional governments. A concurrent majority gives each interest or portion of the community a negative on the others. Without this, there is no systematic, peaceful or effective resistance to the natural tendency of each to come into conflict with others. Negative power is the result of a concurrent majority and without it there can be no constitution.
Negative power makes the constitution, and positive power makes the government. The two combined, the power of acting and the power of preventing or arresting action, make constitutional governments. Constitutional governments take the sense of the community by its parts (through its appropriate organ) and regard the sense of all the parts as the sense of the whole. They rest of the right of suffrage and the responsibility of rulers. Absolute governments concentrate power in one uncontrolled and irresponsible person or body whose will is regarded as the sense of the community but comes from a numerical majority. Hence, the differences in governments are not of the one, the few or the many but of the constitutional and the absolute. Another difference is that constitutional governments are upheld and preserved in compromise; absolute governments in force. The numerical majority divides the community while the concurrent majority tends to unite the most opposite and protect itself by invoking compromise.
The goals of a government are to protect and perfect society. But to preserve society, it is necessary to guard the community against injustice, violence and anarchy within and against attacks from without.
In perfecting society it is necessary to develop the intellectual and moral faculties with which man is endowed. Liberty and security are indispensable to this goal. Liberty allows man to pursue a coarse that will best promote his interest and happiness, as long as it is compatible with the end goals of government. Security gives him assurance that he will not be deprived of the fruits of his labor to better his condition.
However, Calhoun asserts that liberty is a right to be earned and it would be a dangerous error to assume that all people are equally entitled to it. He states that liberty is a reward to be earned, not a blessing for all. It is reserved for the “intelligent, the patriotic, the virtuous and deserving.” Liberty should not be bestowed on “people too ignorant, degraded and vicious to be capable either of appreciating or enjoying it.”
“Liberty and Equality”
Calhoun states that it is a mistake to assume liberty and equality go hand in hand. He concedes that they are united to a certain extent, but making equality a condition of liberty would destroy both liberty and progress. Inequality is essential to progress in that the mainspring of progress is the desire individuals have to better their condition. People differ greatly in “intelligence, sagacity, energy, perseverance, skill, habits of industry and economy, physical power, position and opportunity.” Calhoun likens this inequality of condition to the front and rear ranks of a march of progress. Forcing the front ranks to join the rear or the rear ranks to come in line with the front, by government inter-position, would halt the impulse and effectively put an end to the march of progress.
“The State of Nature Purely Hypothetical”
Calhoun states that “these great and dangerous errors have their origin in the prevalent opinion that all men are born free and created equal than which nothing can be more unfounded and false.” Such a state of nature, supposed to have existed before the social and political state, where all men would have been free to do as they pleased and exempt from the authority and control of others is purely hypothetical. It never did nor could exist because it is inconsistent with the preservation and perpetuation of the race. Calhoun goes on to say that not only is it not the natural state of man but also it is the most opposed to his nature “most repugnant to his feelings and most incompatible with his wants.” Man exists in the natural state for which the Creator made him and the only state in which to preserve and perfect his race. Man is born “not only to parental control, but to the laws and institutions of the country.” After such bold statements, Calhoun returns to the advantages of concurrent over numerical majority.
Calhoun states that it is difficult to bring opposing sides into line when there is no urgent need to do so. But when something must be done, the necessity of a case will result in a compromise among the parties. Each side would select those to represent it whose “wisdom, patriotism and weight of character would command the confidence of others.” With such well-qualified representatives, the prevailing desire would be to promote the common interests of the whole. This is the feature that so strikingly distinguishes the concurrent majority from the numerical. Calhoun concludes by decrying that a numerical majority is motivated by reluctance, hostility, injustice and oppression, while a concurrent majority is motivated “willingly and cheerfully, under the impulse of an exalted patriotism, impelling all to acquiesce in whatever the common good requires.”