- John C. Calhoun's Theory of Republicanism by John G. Grove
Political scientist John G. Grove brings fresh coherence to the political thought of one of the South's most vexing figures. Grounding John C. Calhoun in classical republicanism, Grove challenges prevailing views that the South Carolinian operated outside the American political tradition and that his thought was compromised by proslavery ideas, which, Grove boldly asserts, were not intrinsic to his political theory. Grove argues that Calhoun advanced the classical republican goal of a mixed government that fostered virtue and the common good. A republican preference for social harmony over liberal, democratic competition inspired Calhoun's theories of nullification and the concurrent majority, which considered societal interests beyond those of the numerical majority. Seen through a republican lens, nullification and states' rights were ways for the slave states to encourage popular national legislation consented to by all and not methods to dictate national policy.
Uncovering Calhoun's republican motivations allows Grove to reinterpret him on several important points. Grove contends that Calhoun did not advocate minority rule or the federal preferment for slavery. Rather, his seemingly pro-South stances on the territorial spread of slavery stemmed [End Page 160] from a desire to conserve national goodwill and the Union. Grove's portrayal of Calhoun as a harmonizer stands in stark contrast to his contrarian reputation. The author also uses Calhoun's dedication to the commongood to explain the nagging contradiction between his early nationalism and his later sectionalism, arguing that Calhoun's initial support for tariffs and internal improvements as well as his subsequent calls for states' rights were intended to balance sectional interests.
Grove's affirmation that Calhoun operated within the American political tradition constitutes one of the work's strongest contributions. He concedes that Calhoun renounced the liberal premises of American individualism and democracy. Yet, in drawing from republicanism, which also animated the American Revolution, Calhoun worked within a consensus that valued virtue and liberty over power. Interpreting nullification as a conservative means to engender harmony tempers Calhoun's undemocratic, illiberal, and reactionary image. Furthermore, Calhoun's states' rights constitutionalism was common to many of his contemporaries, and his Edmund Burke–esque skepticism of reform aligned with a vibrant strain of antebellum conservatism that is increasingly attracting historians' attention.
Grove distinguishes between Calhoun the theorist and Calhoun the statesman, a demarcation that is essential to the author's desire for "a bracketing of slavery from the content of [Calhoun's] political theory" (p. 175). Grove differentiates between Calhoun's political speeches and his theoretical works, composed near the end of his life, including A Disquisition on Government and A Discourse on the Constitution and Government of the United States, and demonstrates that Calhoun's abstract republicanism did not depend on biologically justifying enslavement. Grove also insulates Calhoun's political theory from his slaveholding and proslavery politics, arguing that Calhoun the politician defended slavery because it was the status quo, thereby minimizing the importance of his famous 1837 speech wherein he rebranded the institution as a "'positive good'" (p. 159). Calhoun refused to apply universal political maxims across historical contexts, Grove explains, and thus did not vindicate slavery in the abstract. Yet a counterargument could be made that Calhoun's historically contingent defense of slavery is not lukewarm but the strongest that can be expected from a conservative theorist who drew from certain experiences and was invested in an organic view of social development. Historians of the South will likely be skeptical of separating Calhoun the statesman and Calhoun the political thinker, especially because the two roles overlapped in antebellum political culture. For many historians, political thought is inextricable from its historical context. Calhoun's thought was substantive and is historically significant not despite but because of its intimate association with slavery. Historians will appreciate this work on political theory for its creative and nuanced presentation of a complex figure who has often been either caricatured or deemed inaccessible. Grove is right that...