Marx of the Master Class
H. Lee Cheek’s study of John C. Calhoun (1782–1850) achieves exactly what it sets out to do. It offers a close reading of Calhoun’s major theoretical tracts, A Disquisition on Government and A Discourse on the Constitution of the United States of America, highlighting and examining the central concepts of Calhoun’s thought as “concurrent majorities” and “organic” associations, which he set over against the appeal to popular majorities.
Most importantly, Cheek places Calhoun’s most fully developed political theory into the context of “South Atlantic republicanism,” a tradition going back to Jefferson, Madison, and George Mason. Although Cheek pays homage to his own teachers, Claes Ryn and Russell Kirk, his preferred view of the descent of Calhoun’s work from an older generation of Southern agrarian republicans is exemplified by the interest shown in the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions. This Southern republicanism (which, by the way, was not particularly conservative) stressed the contractual nature of political societies while assigning extremely limited power to central governments. Its sources lay in Locke and the European Enlightenment, although in the antebellum South attempts were made to adjust this contractualism to the circumstances of Southern life and to a landowning class. Like the distinguished Southern historian Clyde N. Wilson, Cheek devotes considerable attention to the Jeffersonian (and eventually Madisonian) critique of Federalist governance as a key to understanding Southern sectionalist political thinking. Calhoun is seen as the final formulator of that tradition.
At the same time, Cheek takes pains to distinguish Calhoun’s worldview from the more recognizably Lockean framework, accepted by Jefferson and at least intermittently present in the Declaration of Independence. Like the Southern conservative M. E. Bradford, Calhoun believed that the Declaration’s invocation of human equality in liberty was incidental to its purpose, which was to proclaim the independence of British colonies, inhabited by Englishmen, from an overbearing mother country.
Moreover, Calhoun challenged the appeal to equality by insisting, like David Hume, that human beings are unequal in their aptitudes and capacities and in the historical conditions in which they are found. He also distinguished between political and social compacts, arguing that Locke had confused the two by speaking about the transition from a state of nature to civil society. For Calhoun, as for Aristotle, human associations, which are corporate and hierarchical, operate independently of specific regimes—which might be dissolved or refounded, without affecting the more permanent and critical aspects of interpersonal relations. What Locke described was nothing more than an eminently revocable act of political construction.
Also contrary to Locke’s treatment of human understanding, Calhoun insisted, what we know as social and moral actors depends on the education we receive from our belonging to a cluster of human associations. We do not learn to be good from processing sensory data accumulated by individual understanding. Rather, example and custom reinforced by community shape individual character. To the extent that Lockeans actually believe that, Calhoun remained skeptical of their epistemology and ethics. Cheek cites Burke as someone whom the author of the Disquisition read and praised. One suspects that Calhoun digested other conservative critics of Locke as well, including Hume and some of the continental restorationist thinkers of the early nineteenth century.
It may be that Cheek dismisses too readily the opinion expressed by Richard Hofstadter in The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It that Calhoun was “the Marx of the master class.” Unlike the denigration of Calhoun current among the current generation of American historians, the designation provided by Hofstadter was entirely respectful. Calhoun produced his speculative and interpretive writings in response to a particular set of circumstances; and when he associates “organic” government with the kind of majority expressed by the citizens of his state, he is thinking specifically about a planter class then under assault. The fact that these planters availed themselves of servile as opposed to indentured peasant labor, as was the case in Europe, to maintain their way of life is historically less relevant than their identification with a manorial economy and with other archaic features of a beleaguered social and political economy. Eugene Genovese, writing as a Marxist historian, got the picture right, and Cheek would have done well to follow Genovese’s interpretation more closely.
Although it is foolish to reduce the entirety of Calhoun’s thought to a defense of what for bourgeois and post-bourgeois societies is indefensible—slave labor—it is hard to ignore the context in which Calhoun felt driven to combine organicism and Lockean constructivism into a defense of “diffused” central power. Such an interpretive perspective does not entirely relativize Calhoun’s undertaking but explains where he is situated in terms of his time. Otherwise, we are left with disembodied ideas, from James Madison’s criticism of John Adams’s presidency down to Calhoun’s presentation of the idea of concurrent majorities.
From the perspective of European intellectual history, Calhoun has more in common with the Swiss defender of organic, patrimonial government, Karl Ludwig von Haller (1768-1854) than he does with such political Lockeans as Mason and Jefferson. Haller’s major work, Die Restauration der Staatswissenschaft, a defense of, among other things, local, territorial, and family-based rule in the Swiss cantons, was published in the early 1830s, about fifteen years before Calhoun wrote his two dense tracts as the advocate inter alia an American manorial society. Both authors, as Robert Nisbet understood, were pioneers in what began as a largely reactionary discipline, sociology. Moreover, what makes the appeals to territorial rule and regionally based consensual government popular once again, a point that Cheek might have done more to clarify, is that nation states have come to represent chiefly bureaucracy.
Today European regionalists, like the Lega Nord in Italy, cite almost interchangeably Locke, Jefferson, and Calhoun to make the case for accountable government, whether regional or local. The “mystical cords” Lincoln appealed to in his first inaugural address arguably no longer hold Western nation states together: Nor are those cords present in American states, which Calhoun thought of as organic associations that point back to familial and communal hierarchies.
Still, Calhoun’s time may be coming back. An opponent of a consolidated American nation state, he may be gaining currency as a critic of that managerial regime into which the work of Hamilton and Lincoln has fallen. Like all appeals to the past—whether Harry Jaffa’s and Garry Wills’s refurbishing of Lincoln as a civil rights icon or Lithuanian opponents of Soviet tyranny marching under Confederate banners—the resurrection of Calhoun will be necessarily selective, and may well incorporate historical inaccuracies.
Certain reviews of this able book have dismissed it in a gross and graceless manner. Supposedly, Cheek’s unwillingness to devote his study to a diatribe against Calhoun as an apologist for slavery shows that his writing is merely “hagiographic.” In fact, Cheek devotes about two pages to discussing Calhoun’s judgments about slavery: Calhoun found that institution as practiced in the South preferable to the North’s factory system of labor, a view widespread among white Southerners. Certainly Cheek is not wrong to remark on the conventional and moderate nature of this opinion on slavery, given Calhoun’s time and circumstances. Yet Cheek’s sensitive treatment of historical context is dismissed by one reviewer as idle “theorizing” in the face of an enormity.
One might contrast such a tantrum to the mature opinions on Calhoun expressed by J. S. Mill, whose anti-slavery, feminist, and pro-welfare-state thinking protect him from any charge of siding with Reaction. In Considerations on Representative Government, Mill presents the core arguments from the Disquisition, defending its author as a “man of great ability.” Notwithstanding Calhoun’s support of slavery, Mill observed, the South Carolinian statesman was looking for conceptual and legal protection against political tyranny.
Perhaps for adulators of centralized “democratic” government, what renders Calhoun particularly odious is less his association with slavery than his arguments against consolidated government. If our country took Calhoun’s view of “diffused” power seriously, we could not wage worldwide crusades for “human rights” with the help of an expanding central state. One might even have to face the horror of living without the apparatus of the managerial, therapeutic, anti-discrimination government under which Americans and Europeans might now be imagined to have become paradigmatic “democrats.” For his thoughtful and thought-provoking presentation of a genuine alternative to our reigning ideology, H. Lee Cheek deserves not vilification, but gratitude.
Paul Gottfried is professor of history at Elizabethtown College and author, most recently, of The Strange Death of Marxism: The European Left in the New Millennium (2005).
Posted: March 20, 2007
America’s Fin de Siècle: End of a Century or a Civilization?
Volume 30, Number 4 (Summer 1990)