Aaron Sibarium’s column, “The real case for Calhoun” (Dec. 7, 2016) is intellectually dishonest on at least three levels. Sibarium argues that John C. Calhoun, class of 1804, developed “a novel political system that would promote consensus-based politics within a diverse, pluralistic society.” Calhoun called that system a “concurrent majority”: Minority groups in government could veto majority decisions, and thus prevent any oppression of dissent. Sibarium claims that Calhoun’s “brilliant framework” set the stage for the modern-day left’s fight for minority rights.
This is skewed logic. It conflates the left’s contemporary definition of “minority” — an oppressed group that needs to be empowered — with Calhoun’s: propertied, agrarian Southerners facing an industrial, abolitionist North. Historian Richard Hofstadter argued that Calhoun never intended a “concurrent majority” to protect dissent. “Not in the slightest was he concerned with minority rights as they are chiefly of interest to the modern liberal mind — the rights of dissenters to express unorthodox opinions, of the individual conscience against the State, least of all of ethnic minorities,” writes Hofstadter. (Sibarium is not the first to connect proslavery intellectuals to today’s progressives — see Breitbart news on George Fitzhugh.) The “concurrent majority” as a foundational idea of the modern left? Calhoun would roll over in his grave.
Instead, Calhoun used his “concurrent majority” to argue for nullification. If Southern states disagreed with federal laws, they had a right to ignore the feds — if necessary, to secede. This is where Calhoun is headed in “A Disquisition on Government” when he writes that a minority should have “a concurrent voice in making and executing the laws, or a veto on their execution.” Though he talks about the necessity of “consensus” for his system to function, Calhoun never explains how unanimous agreement would really happen. He didn’t need to. The concurrent majority was an argument for outsized minority power in a moment when Calhoun’s South needed just that. Calhoun’s theory didn’t “promote consensus-based politics.” It tore our nation apart. Sibarium never mentions nullification in his article.
Nor does he mention the more disturbing moments in Calhoun’s “A Disquisition on Government.” Calhoun’s belief that men are born inherently unequal, which led to an argument for natural slavery. Or the South Carolinian’s disdain for the values in our Declaration of Independence (Liberty was a “reward to be earned, not a blessing to be gratuitously lavished on all alike”). If one wants to look at Calhoun’s intellectual legacy, one has to address his affection for anti-Enlightenment traditionalism and his defense of slavery (which Sibarium writes off in a single paragraph). Sibarium parades Calhoun around as some enhanced version of Locke. Far from it.
I, too, want a fair, reasoned, contextual analysis of Calhoun’s legacy. Sibarium has no patience for “emotions,” “shenanigans,” or “far-fetched notions” from either side of this debate, and I agree with him. We should read Calhoun with an unflinching eye. Sloppy, skimpish intellectual history is not a good start.
Daniel Judt is a junior in Timothy Dwight College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.