A Disquisition on Government

John C. Calhoun

When reading A Disquisition on Government, I found various points of contention with Calhoun, and as such, choose to spell out these points of disagreements by placing Post-it notes on various pages.  What you find below is both a collection of quotes from this work that I found insightful, and also my comments, clarifications, and disagreements therewith.  The latter will be written in pale yellow, whereas the former will be quoted in white.




Edited, with an Introduction, by


Frederick Ferris Thompson Professor

of political Science, Vassar College







Printed in the United States of America


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    Calhoun’s Father Opposed Ratification of the Constitution (p. vii)

    Patrick [Calhoun, father of John C. Calhoun,] opposed the adoption of the Federal Constitution on the grounds that the power with which the central government was to be endowed would prove destructive of liberty.

    Yale, Not Slavery (p. viii)

    Margaret Coit declares that

    Not the South, not slavery, but Yale College and the Litchfield Law School made Calhoun a nullifier.  In the little classroom, Reeve at white heat and Gould with cold logic argued the “right” of secession as the only refuge for minorities.  Logically, their argument was unimpeachable.  Messrs. Dwight, Reeve, and Gould could not convince the young patriot from South Carolina as to the desirability of secession, but they left no doubts in his mind as to its legality.

    Power Resides With The People (pp. xi–xii)

    The state rights doctrine assumed several forms, depending upon circumstances.  The most extreme statement of the doctrine, for example, held to the notion that the states did not relinquish their sovereignty when they agreed to enter the Union.  When the people of each state, through especially elected conventions, chose to ratify the Constitution, they were accepting the limitations of that instrument as limitations upon their respective governments.  This theory held that sovereignty did not reside in the state governments but in the people of the state, and that therefore what people had given they may take away; that in no way was the sovereignty of the states diminished by the act of confederation.  If the sovereign body elects to secede from the Union, there is nothing in the Constitution to prohibit it.

    Jefferson on Nullification (p. xiii)

    Jefferson urged an even stronger statement from the Kentucky legislature.  That body resolved that the Federal Government was not “the exclusive or final judge of the extent of the powers delegated to itself, since that would have made its discretion, and not the Constitution, the measure of its powers.”  The resolution asserted that each party to the compact had an equal right to determine for itself whether the terms of the compact had been violated and the proper remedy to be invoked.  The Alien and Sedition Acts were declared to be gross violations of the Constitution, and therefore void.

    South Carolina Reaction to Tariffs: Threaten Secession (pp. xvi–xvii)

    Unsuccessful in effecting a reduction in the tariff rates in the Act of 1832, South Carolina, in convention, as proposed in the Exposition, adopted the Ordinance of Nullification.  The Ordinance declared that “it shall not be lawful for any of the constituted authorities, whether of this State or of the United States, to enforce the payment of the duties imposed by the said acts within the limits of this State”; and concluded with a warning that any attempt on the part of the national government to enforce the tariff laws within the State of South Carolina would be

    …inconsistent with the longer continuance of South Carolina in the Union; and that the people of this State will thenceforth hold themselves absolved from all further obligation to maintain or preserve their political connexion with the people of the other States, and will forthwith proceed to organize a separate government, and do all other acts and things which sovereign and independent States may of right do.

    Nationalism Protected Slavery (p. xviii)

    It was nationalism that protected slavery.  Any system that truly protects minority rights against a central state would recognise the innate self-ownership of each person.

    Society Proceeds the State (p. xix)

    Calhoun assumes, thirdly, that while man is a social animal and incapable of the full development of his faculties outside of the social state, this state cannot exist without government.

    Society proceeds the state.

    Government and The State: Same, or Distinct? (p. xix)

    “In no age or country,” Calhoun asserts, “has any society or community been found, whether enlightened or savage, without government of some description”

    Does he draw a distinction between government and the state?

    With Government, Society is Jeopardised (p. xix)

    With government, the existence of society is jeopardised.

    Rights Are Inalienable (p. xx)

    Rights cannot be “given.”  Only privileges can be given.

    Jefferson’s Statutory Expiration Date (p. xxi)

    Jefferson said that “every constitution…and every law naturally expires at the end of thirty-four years” (later he reduced the number to nineteen).

    How oddly arbitrary.

    Society is the Voluntary Interaction of Man (p. xxi)

    Society, Calhoun argued, was not created by contract; society has always existed, and man has never existed outside of society.

    Society is nothing more than the voluntary interactions of man.

    Justice Requires Natural, Individual Rights (p. xxi)

    A state of nature, as described by the contract writers, never existed; nor were men ever endowed with natural rights.  The only rights men have ever known were those granted by society.  It was thus that Calhoun could repudiate equality and uphold slavery.

    Without rights, there can be no Justice.  Rights cannot be granted, and society can possess nothing that the individuals who comprise it do not already possess.  Calhoun’s philosophy is sloppy.

    Sectional Majority Must Also be Limited (p. xxii)

    This can only possibly work justly if we start from a state of anarchy, or we prevent the sectional majorities from being able to prevent the repeal of laws.  Otherwise, we are sure to get stuck with various unjust laws that no one is able to repeal as the attempt to repeal said unjust laws would incur the wrath of pro-tyranny sectional majorities.  But even with my proposal integrated into Calhoun’s proposal, there’s still no guarantee that tyrannical laws won’t appear, for what if the sectional majorities find themselves too lazy to stand up for their right to do away with unjust laws.  And if sections are to be determined solely by location, and not also by such things as party, occupation, gender, et cætera, what’s to prevent sectional majorities from allowing tyranny against minorities within their sectional locations?

    Government is Evil (p. xxiii)

    Governments are the number one murderers, number one enslavers, et cætera.  How is anarchy the “greatest of all evils”?

    Liberum Veto (pp. xxiii–xxiv)

    In Poland, during the seventeenth century, there developed a device designed to guarantee a most extreme liberty verging on anarchy.  This was the liberum veto.  Its basis appears to have been the notion of the absolute equality of each and every Polish gentleman, and this led directly to the conclusion that the unanimous vote of the Diet was required to approve proposed legislation.  At first the veto was used moderately; but in time it came to be used more and more frequently, and with disastrous results.  In 1652 an individual veto prevented a continuation of the Diet beyond the constitutional six weeks’ period as requested by the king, in order that important matters of state might be considered.  In 1681 the liberum veto handicapped the Polish king in his preparations for war against the Turks.  The veto was abolished in 1791.

    This veto sounds great!

    A Negative Variation of the Pressure Group Approach (p. xxvi)

    “The concurrent veto in operation,” says Charles M. Wiltse, “is a negative variation of the pressure group approach, which persists in one form or another in all diverse societies.”

    Interesting Comment on Sociology and Bigotry (p. xxviii)

    Mr. Carter asserts that “Before the South can conquer its bigotry, its people must be better educated, better clothed, better fed and better paid.”  But, he continues, “Before these things can come, the South must rid itself of the economic despotism imposed by the North’s financial hold upon capital, by patent monopolies, by tariff penalties and the rest of the enchaining restrictions.”

    An interesting comment.  I’ll have to think about this in more detail.

    The Degradation of Collectivism (p. xxviii)

    Our own generation has witnessed the degradation of the individual and the suppression of minorities by predatory collectivist systems.

    C. Gordon Post on Human Rights (p. xxix)

    [T]he rights of man have their basis…in the nature of man,…in the hopes and dreams and capabilities of the individual.  And as men differ from one another, so must conditions exist which allow for difference.  The recognition of diversity among men is implicit in the Bill of Rights.