Far from feeding disunion, John C. Calhoun understood that a more perfect Union listened to the representative voices of the states, rather than the despotic voice of the “nation” represented in the federal Congress…
I recently read two essays: one bemoaning the electoral college, and another explaining that Yale University was considering renaming Calhoun College. That these two disparate essays appeared in the fall of 2016 after the year’s general election might seem to be a coincidence, but in fact they are uniquely relevant to each other. In the aftermath of 2016, both the Electoral College and facets of Calhoun’s legacy and worth exploring and even defending.
Many if not most Americans reflexively believe themselves to be part of some mystical American nation, a unitary culture and people who are ostensibly ruled from the national capital, Washington D.C. But there is properly no such thing as the American people. There is such thing as a post-modern society occupying the physical space of the central 2/5th of the North American continent that practices the cultural and societal values of what Rusty Reno has called post-Protestant American culture. But to call the majority of these people, no matter their race, a unitary American society is specious. How much do I, and an Anglo magisterial Protestant from central North Carolina, have in common with communities of largely Asian immigrants in urban California? Retreating to the ugly language of ethno-nationalism to claim that one community is “more American,” and therefore more deserving of political voice, is un-Christian and antithetical to reality of liberties granted by nature and nature’s God. Thankfully, the fundamental law of the United States, the Constitution, recognized this potential conflict of interest. From the beginning, the Constitution recognized not one, but thirteen potentially different cultural and political dispositions—the states. And it is to the states and more local communities that the reality of most mundane government in the American Union should fall.
The Union’s president, and the federal Congress, were appointed only to meet and legislate on a few specific facets of government delegated in the federal compact. Anything not delegated to the federal government was left to the states. The states picked a president every four years not to rule over a nation, but to preside over the limited objectives and necessities delegated to the federal apparatus, and to ensure that the limited but important federal instrumentation ran smoothly. Thirteen, and then eventually fifty states, cast votes for a slate of electors organized with an understanding that a state with a larger population should have a larger say in the president’s election. But the election, then and now, recognized only the voices of the states. And while that might seem undemocratic, the alternative to the electoral college is far worse: the gnostic tyranny of an idealized and imperialistic majoritarian American nation.
John C. Calhoun’s historical legacy is typically based around his distasteful and repellent view of American slavery as a positive good. And men of good will, no matter their political viewpoints, can agree that such a view is at odds with the historical understanding of the Imago Dei. Calhoun threw off his orthodox Christian upbringing and embraced Unitarianism during his time in New England. There he also began to imbibe the romantic notion of nationalism. He supported a standing army, and internal improvements to assist commerce. But by 1828, Calhoun learned the dangers of majoritarian nationalism, and turned violently towards protecting the voices of the states with his famous Exposition of 1828. Termed Nullification by opponents and supporters alike, Calhoun’s theory was not as radical as later historians and contemporary critics have portrayed.
While some Nullification enthusiasts later supported secession, Calhoun’s exposition never explicitly countenanced disunion. Instead, the document held itself up as a mirror to the American constitutional system. As the federal Congress pilfered powers not granted to it during the aftermath of the War of 1812, twenty-four voices increasingly became subsumed into one federal voice, squeezing out local voices and becoming increasingly less representative. The Exposition argued that a state’s voice should be heard until congressional legislation was definitely proven to be constitutional or not by confirmation in state legislatures. If the legislation was constitutional, the state would abide. If not, a constitutional convention would be required to bring legislation into law. Although a slower process than constantly legislating by congressional fiat, it was more lawful, and consistent with a truly representative federalism. Far from feeding disunion, Calhoun understood that a more perfect Union listened to the representative voices of the states, rather than the despotic voice of the “nation” represented in the federal Congress.
In the nineteenth century, Calhoun’s intellectual enemies identified his penchant for federalism, rather than his support for slavery, as his chief sin against the “American nation.” Hermann Von Holst, one of Calhoun’s scholarly biographers, derided the South Carolinian for promoting local voices at the expense of the “nation.” Von Holst had no use for representative government. The romantic, sacralized nation held his heart. In his work he termed the members of the House the “representatives of the nation,” rather than representatives of their states or respective districts. Indians became “wards of the nation,” rather than sovereign nations in their own right. Calhoun’s exposition, Holst complained, did “not contain a single sentence bearing directly on the national interest.” Even if one granted the existence of an American nation, Holst never believed that natural law, the law that governed nations, was immutable. Instead he saw it as “constantly changing and developing with the general development of civilization.” Calhoun’s unwillingness to champion nationalism and become a “national statesman” diminished him forever in Holst’s eyes.
Interestingly, Holst was indifferent to Calhoun’s slaveholding. Only when slaveholding ran counter to the will of the nation did he indict Calhoun’s sectionalism. When, before 1820, the interests of slaveholder and nation dovetailed, Holst offered nothing but praise for Calhoun the nationalist slave owner: “The late champion of a national policy and of consolidating measures [now took] for his starting-point the assertion that, ‘so far from the Constitution being the work of the American people collectively, no such political body, either now or ever, did exist.’” Holst also accused Calhoun of a lack of patriotism when the latter warned James K. Polk against pursuing the blatantly imperialistic Mexican War. Calhoun’s slaveholding, however repugnant it was, led him to adopt principles that might transcendently protect and even further the liberty of all Americans, white and black. Holst’s anger at Calhoun for rejecting “consolidation of the union [as the] greatest interest of every true American” never meant that he censured Calhoun for being a slaveholder in the abstract. 
One contemporary of Calhoun who celebrated the idea of a popular national will was President Andrew Jackson. After losing the election of 1824 to John Quincy Adams, but winning a plurality of votes, Jackson lambasted any obstacle to the unfettered will of the majority. “To the people belongs the right of electing their chief magistrate… The majority is to govern.” Neither the electoral college or the House of Representatives—the two lawfully designated electoral instruments—should be allowed to defeat the voice of the people. Jackson urged Americans to amend the system so that it gave a “fair expression of the will of the majority.” More importantly, he urged the removal of any “intermediate” agency. Intermediate agencies were, or course, the voice of the states.
The generations of Americans who created the Union government in 1787 understood the advantage of the Electoral College in limiting the dominance of any one region over another. Jackson’s attempt to remove the Electoral College, of course, would have doomed New England in the 1828 and 1832 presidential contests to near-oblivion. The alliance of South and West dominated. So too did their interest. A raw majority of Americans in the United States in 1831 could not have cared less about the brutality Jackson meted out to the five peaceful Indian nations of the American Southeast. Without the Electoral College, Abraham Lincoln, who garnered only thirty-nine percent of the popular vote in 1860, would have never been president. If Jackson’s logic, shared by modern enemies of the Electoral College, was vocalized after Abraham Lincoln’s election, they would have been forced to argue that the sixteenth president had no “mandate,” and therefore no right, either to coerce violently the Confederate states back into the Union, or, more importantly, to emancipate enslaved African Americans. In different times, the genius of the Constitution has been to limit the power of any one group, right or wrong, because the men who wrote the Constitution attempted the check the disposition in humanity towards tyranny. If men were angels, Madison famously averred, they wouldn’t need to be checked.
In recent years, Americans committed to liberty have warned against the idea of nationalism and adopted the cry of subsidiarity. Most famously voiced by Pope Leo XIII’s remarkable encyclical, Rerum Novarum, and increasingly vocalized by thinkers such as Yuval Levin, the principle of subsidiarity argues that political decisions are made most prudently at the most local level. The Electoral College is not simply the toy of state-rights southerners or modern libertarians: It is a key to the implementation of Judeo-Christian social thought in modern society. Voices left unheard in the councils of the national government can nonetheless be heard at local levels—in their states, towns, and local communities.
The Constitution codified the principle of subsidiarity by building a political system around the states being heard, rather than being steamrolled by a far less representative monolithic federal Congress. And as the Union grew, Congress became far less representative. In 1790 a member of the House represented roughly 30,000 people. In 2010, the average representative had a constituency of approximately 700,000. That roughly 500 men gradually accrued more power, and in the process sidelined the thousands of representatives of the fifty states, has ominously and slowly destroyed representative government in the United States. Americans increasingly invested their emotional and political energies in a distant and generally un-representative executive. And the American president, far from being the dignified presiding officer of the order-keeping but prudently non-invasive federal government, has become a Bonapartist cartoon of his former self. As Americans have let liberties slip away in order to affirm the fanciful idea of an American nation, they have put the American Union in danger of becoming a leveling and homogenizing autocracy entirely uninterested in the real needs and interest of the various peoples living in the American Union. No matter what party is power, and no matter the president, the American states must reclaim their constitutional rights from the general government. Only then may the peoples of the United States live in peace, and ultimately, in truer union.
President Trump and congressional Democrats have both argued against the Electoral College, and both could not be more egregiously wrong. Presidents and Congresses have trampled rights historically. Calhoun recognized this. For now, Calhoun remains at Yale, his influence a mere shade of what it once was at the Ivy League university. And a residue of federalism still lingers in the American political scene. For now.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.