First Principles: Rethinking Calhoun

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In Rethinking Calhoun at First Principles, The ISI Web Journal, Adam Tate reviews the book “Majority Rule versus Consensus: The Political Thought of John C. Calhoun .  Concluding,

Read’s Majority Rule versus Consensus ultimately finds Calhoun’s argumentation unsatisfying and unhelpful for modern political problems.  In the last chapter Read provides numerous examples of the difficulties in applying Calhoun’s consensus model to republican systems elsewhere in the world, particularly in South Africa, Yugoslavia, and Northern Ireland.  He concludes: “Constitutional checks and institutional design can only do so much to limit the diseases to which democracy is subject.  Beyond that point, the health of democracy depends upon the leaders we elect and the politics we ourselves practice.”  In finding Calhoun’s theory lacking, Read leaves the reader in a dilemma Calhoun himself feared. Neither the party system nor the Madisonian extended republic combined with a supreme national government has protected American liberty (as understood by the Founding generation) adequately.  Two solutions might be considered.  First, the problem of scale, as philosopher Donald Livingston calls it, might indicate that the current republic is simply too large.  Second, state sovereignty could be asserted more aggressively against claims of national sovereignty.  And indeed, we have recently witnessed facets of such a politics in reaction to certain policies of the Obama administration.  Yet both solutions led to secession once before in American history.  Even with the tensions that Read identifies, Calhoun’s theoretical efforts, shorn of the connection to slavery and race, might still be instructive for those who value both union and liberty.

While this review might not get a stamp of approval from Rachel Maddow, it is an interesting read.  Go read the whole thing, here.


Steve Palmer is the State Chapter Coordinator for the Pennsylvania Tenth Amendment Center.

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