John C. Calhoun, slavery, Free Soil party, presidential election of 1848, sectionalism
In 1850, a dying John C. Calhoun looked on as a colleague read the South Carolinian's final address to the United States Senate. In his speech, Calhoun announced the weakening of the nation's "two great parties." This development, he claimed, endangered the Union, as the parties had functioned "to hold all its parts together."1 Although premature in his observation, Calhoun's linkage of the demise of the antebellum bisectional parties with unchecked sectionalism and disunion endures in accounts of the coming of the Civil War. At the same time, throughout his lengthy career Calhoun had regularly lambasted the parties for dulling sectional unity which, he argued, would actually strengthen the Union. The interaction of political parties with southern sectionalism thus proves more problematic than a simple inverse relationship in which partisanship diminishes as sectionalism increases. Two recent works on antebellum politics, taken together, highlight this dynamic and lead us to ask whether dedication to national political parties always benefited the Union, and whether southern sectionalists always sought to weaken it.
Calhoun prescribed the institutionalized voice of a united South as a preservative of the Union. In Majority Rule versus Consensus: The Political Thought of John C. Calhoun, political scientist James H. Read analyzes the doctrines of this expansive thinker with both theoretical and historical subtlety. Read carefully explains Calhoun's theory of the "concurrent majority," whereby all interests in society would possess a veto and in which consensus would be enshrined as the model for government. Read finds that while theoretically unworkable—if not in fact dangerous—the concerns that informed the concurrent majority ought to be taken seriously. Calhoun's qualms with majority rule, manifest in a domineering North and a marginalized South, remain serious indictments of democratic government, but his solution represents a worse [End Page 344] alternative. For Calhoun, certain minorities, especially the South, should be able to obstruct legislation, but in practice, the definition of who constituted a minority interest was itself exclusionary, and the goal of compromise could not guarantee actual consensus as opposed to inefficient deadlock.
Read takes issue with the view of Calhoun as a dogmatic strict constructionist. Calhoun instead envisioned the proper functioning of government, utilizing the concurrent majority, in expansive terms, because legislation derived from consensus could only further the common good. Calhoun thereby reworked inherited political thought, discarding traditional categories of rule by one, the few, or the many, for a system of "rule by all" (1). Recovering his positive conception of government demolishes the image of Calhoun as the airy theorist simply trying to protect slavery behind ever more baroque formulations of state sovereignty.
While the concurrent majority cannot be reduced to a simple defense of slavery, neither can Calhoun's thought be severed from his proslavery views. The chief strength of Read's work and its value for historians stems from his methodological approach of balancing theoretical inquiry with historical context. Read recognizes that slavery and race occupied significant positions in the South Carolinian's doctrines. Indeed, Calhoun's defense of slavery leads to holes in his theory, as when he places slavery beyond the limits of debate and compromise. Read thus probes the flaws of the concurrent majority on two fronts—its internal contradictions and its external reliance on a context in which slavery not only prompted its formulation but also remained intrinsic to its functioning. Read consequently bridges theory and history, and his findings are a valuable interdisciplinary contribution.
In a work that testifies to the ability of partisan allegiance to frustrate sectionalists such as Calhoun, Joel H. Silbey questions the prevailing view of the pivotal 1848 election as the initial act in the erosion of the second party system. In Party over Section: The Rough and Ready Presidential Election of 1848...