John C. Calhoun's Political Warning Is Still True

Gary M. Galles

Yale University has chosen to rename Calhoun College, an undergraduate residence, because John C. Calhoun was best known as a proponent of slavery. Plaques will offer context about Calhoun’s place in history where symbols still survive.

John C. Calhoun served as Congressman, Senator, Secretary of War, Secretary of State, and Vice President to two different Presidents with whom he strongly disagreed (and sometimes fought as President of the Senate). However, while tarred by his defense of slavery, Calhoun, described by John F. Kennedy as “a masterful defender of the rights of a political minority against the dangers of an unchecked majority,” still provides one of the best explanations of Americans’ current extreme political disunity ever offered. His 1850 Disquisition on Government found that the battle for political dominance and its spoils guaranteed not unity but bitter divisiveness.

Consider how up-to-date Calhoun’s insights remain:

Government, although intended to protect and preserve society, has itself a strong tendency to disorder and abuse of its powers, as all experience and almost every page of history testify.

Suffrage … only changes the seat of authority, without counteracting, in the least, the tendency of the government to oppression and abuse of its powers.

[Suffrage aims] to obtain the majority – and, thereby, the control of the government and the advantages it confers … aggrandizing and building up one portion of the community at the expense of the other.

In such case, it would be indispensable to success to avoid division and keep united…This, in process of time, must lead … to the conversion of the honors and emoluments of the government into means of rewarding partisan services, in order to secure the fidelity and increase the zeal of the members of the party.

As the struggle became more intense … principles and policy … would lose all influence in the elections; and cunning, falsehood, deception, slander, fraud, and gross appeals to the appetites of the lowest … would take the place of sound reason and wise debate.

[This] will divide the community … into two great parties, which will be engaged in perpetual struggles to obtain the control of the government … The great importance of the object at stake must necessarily form … attachments on the part of the members of each to their respective parties … and antipathies to the opposite party, as presenting the only obstacle to success.

Their mutual antipathies [are] carried to such an excess as to destroy, almost entirely, all sympathy between them, and to substitute in its place the strongest aversion … devotion to party becomes stronger than devotion to country – the promotion of the interests of party more important than the promotion of the common good of the whole, and its triumph and ascendancy objects of far greater solicitude than the safety and prosperity of the community.

[This will] overpower all regard for truth, justice, sincerity, and moral obligations … falsehood, injustice, fraud, artifice, slander, and breach of faith, are freely resorted to, as legitimate weapons – followed by all their corrupting and debasing influences.

The struggle to obtain the control of the government, elevates to power the designing, the artful, and unscrupulous, who, in their devotion to party – instead of aiming at the good of the whole – aim exclusively at securing the ascendancy of party … to promote the interest of parties at the expense of the good of the whole.

Every election year, Americans hear candidates deride our disunity and claim that they will be unifiers. But the primary change has been adding more zeroes to wedge issues which manifestly divide us, rather than returning to the core principles and unalienable rights against government abuse that can alone possibly unite us.

Calhoun was wrong in supporting slavery. But he correctly pointed out how much of politics, then and now, comprises tooth-and-nail fights to impose partial slavery on electoral losers to benefit electoral winners. So, even if Yale’s Calhoun College disappears, it would be unwise to let his failings keep us from insights so sorely needed now. As he wrote:

The possession of [government’s] control, as the means of directing its action and dispensing its honors and emoluments, will be an object of desire … Party conflicts … in such governments, can hardly ever terminate in compromise – The object of the opposing minority is to expel the majority from power; and of the majority to maintain their hold upon it. It is, on both sides, a struggle … that must determine which shall be the governing, and which the subject party.

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