In 1820, he remarked to his friend John Quincy Adams, who regarded slavery as a “merciless scourge,” that the enslavement of Black people was “the best guarantee to equality among whites.” Calhoun believed that by maintaining a docile class of dependent laborers, slavery solved the chronic problem of conflict between workers and employers. In the wage-labor system of the North, exploited whites — “galled,” as his disciple James Henry Hammond later put it, “by their degradation” — would inevitably become a force of contention and raise the risk of revolution. (The historian Richard Hofstadter called Calhoun “the Marx of the Master Class.”) But in the South, the dignity and tranquillity of white people, rich and poor, were secured by the degradation of Black people. Especially as he grew older, Calhoun rationalized these shameless arguments with pseudoscientific claims that Blacks were the natural inferiors of whites.
By the 1840s, “Free-Soilers,” some of whom shared Calhoun’s racism, were demanding that the Western territories must be reserved for white settlers and closed to Black slaves. Calhoun regarded this demand as an intolerable attack on the constitutional rights of Southerners. His mission became “the protection of one portion of the people against another” — by which he meant protecting the South from the North. He regarded this struggle as a fight for democracy against tyranny.
Although the antebellum South controlled huge wealth in the form of human chattel, Calhoun correctly foresaw the region’s decline into an electoral and economic minority. His conception of minority had nothing to do with what the term means today — a historically demeaned or disregarded group. He meant, as Edmund Fawcett puts it in his recent book “Conservatism,” which devotes several searching pages to Calhoun, “an enduring regional or social ‘interest’ large enough to bear weight in the nation but too small not to be out-votable.” Calhoun’s particular interest was, of course, that of his own slave-owning caste, but he believed that at issue was the general principle of minority rights.
Concern for this principle is what led John Stuart Mill, despite his personal revulsion at the interest Calhoun sought to protect, to respect him as a formidable thinker who challenged the utilitarian ideal of “the greatest good for the greatest number.” Fearing for the lesser number, Calhoun developed his idea of the “concurrent majority,” whereby “each interest or portion of the community … separately, through its own majority,” would possess veto power in a government requiring “the consent of each interest either to put or to keep the government in action.”
Underlying Calhoun’s political thought was his conviction — derived in part from the Virginia and Kentucky resolutions written by Jefferson and Madison — that the states were not subsidiary parts of a permanent union but sovereign members of a compact subject to continual revision. To resolve inevitable conflicts between state and national governments, he proposed different means at different times in his life — from his early idea that states should have the power to veto or “nullify” acts of Congress, to his desperate proposal just before his death in 1850 of a dual national executive, each with veto power over the other. If conflict proved irresolvable, the ultimate recourse was secession.