John C. Calhoun
Abstract:No point of John C.Calhoun's political thought has been more disputed than exactly where it is situated in the theoretical landscape. Calhoun has been treated as the ‘Marx of the master class’ by Richard Hofstadter; a ‘reactionary conservative’ arguing eclectically from liberal premises by Louis Hartz; an authentic conservative by Russell Kirk, Clinton Rossiter and August Spain; and a precursor to the pluralist vision of politics by Peter Drucker. Two of the most engaging treatments of Calhoun's thought are Darryl Baskin's and Peter Steinberger's, both of relatively recent vintage. Baskin argues that despite Calhoun's use of vocabulary borrowed from organic conservatism he is essentially a classical liberal and, as such, is engaged in the typically liberal ‘flight from community’. He has no true notion of civic virtue and his concept of the public interest is only a mechanistic sum of private interests. Steinberger agrees that Calhoun is a liberal, but argues that his contribution to American liberalism is precisely to sublate selfishness to an authentic civic virtue.
These disputes are interesting, but I suggest that in the efforts to contain Calhoun within the conservative/liberal scheme of categorization some of the subtlety of his thought is lost. Too often an appreciation of his thought is sacrificed to an underlying agenda of attacking or defending one ideology or another. In the present critique I attempt to recover some insights that have been submerged in other treatments. Calhoun's constitutional theory of concurrent majoritarianism, rather than his liberal or conservative bent, is the focal point of sections III and IV. I argue that Calhoun's theory exposes -- sometimes unwittingly -- the stern limits of what constitutions can accomplish. In section V I suggest that insofar as Calhoun is generally a liberal (as Hartz, Baskin and Steinberger contend) an internal contradiction within his theory points to a paradox at the very heart of liberalism.
Document Type: Research Article
Affiliations: University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
Publication date: 1991-02-01