Book Review: A Disquisition On Government And Selections From The Discourse

A Disquisition On Government And Selections From The Discourse, by John C. Calhoun

It may be argued that the political writing of John C. Calhoun [1] is a classic example of rigorous reasoning drawn from faulty premises, but there is more to Calhoun’s faultiness than merely having the wrong premises.  In the beginning part of his career, John C. Calhoun was quite a nationalist along the lines of Henry Clay, someone who desired to see America expand and who was optimistic about the way that federal funding could help develop the South and West and lead to increasing wealth and power for frontiersmen and slaveholders like himself.  That said, somewhere over the course of the 1820’s and especially the 1830’s, South Carolina became turned in on itself and increasingly pessimistic about its place and far more defensive than outward looking, and Calhoun was strongly influenced by the darkening mood of his electoral base within the state, and responsive to its shifts with his own turn away from the nationalistic agenda he supported at the beginning of his political career, to the point where he is remembered in history as a crabbed and hostile representative of the malign spirit of his own cursed state.

This particular work is a short one at just over 100 pages and it is published by someone who appears to be in support of Calhoun’s thinking.  Before the writing there is a fair amount of introductory material by Gordon C. Post that praises Calhoun for his desire to see the United States adopt a more consensus-based approach to government that rejected electoral majorities and sought a majority of interest groups that would be familiar to the approach of the contemporary Democratic party.  Indeed, Calhoun is at pains throughout the book to defend a veto on acts prejudicial to the South on the grounds of identity and thus this book is a model for later identity group theorists who similarly lack self-examination on their own sins that need repentance on how corrupt minorities can preserve their privileged position by seeking to dominate the power of government.  After the introductory material there is Calhoun’s disquisition itself and then a couple of fragments from the Calhoun’s Discourse on the Constitution and Government of the United States that involve the formation of the federal republic and his ideas for a plural executive.  Combined these two elements and the notes on the text make for a short but interesting book.

By and large this book is not a particularly good one.  Most of these faults belong to Calhoun, because his thinking was based on improper premises.  Nonetheless, while Calhoun’s premises about the importance of identity group approval in consensus-based government were mistaken, not least because he seemed only to think of those identity groups who were powerful and of interest to him (a common flaw in the lack of consistency of such approaches, which always seem to neglect some unpopular but large sections of the population), they are important to note because the author shows himself appealing to a sort of socialist view of the “general will” that is made up of a combination of elites whose opinions do not necessarily match with nor give any respect to individual rights themselves.  The author’s desire to form a plural executive and to dilute the electoral majoritarianism of the Constitution appears to be done in order to turn a functioning republic into an oligarchy where politics consisted of compromise between elites who sought to best oppress the commonfolk who were not wise enough to engage in the high arts of practicing power and exercising political freedom.  And Democrats ever after him have been attempting various ways at bringing this sort of plantation-style politics to pass in the local, state, and national levels up to this day.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, Book Reviews, History and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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