A Disquisition on Government. John C. In order to have a clear and just conception of the nature and object of government, it is indispensable to understand correctly what that constitution or law of our nature is, in which government originates; or, to express it more fully and accurately — that law, without which government would not, and with which, it must necessarily exist. Without this, it is as impossible to lay any solid foundation for the science of government, as it would be to lay one for that of astronomy, without a like understanding of that constitution or law of the material world, according to which the several bodies composing the solar system mutually act on each other, and by which they are kept in their respective spheres.
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A Disquisition on Government. John C. In order to have a clear and just conception of the nature and object of government, it is indispensable to understand correctly what that constitution or law of our nature is, in which government originates; or, to express it more fully and accurately — that law, without which government would not, and with which, it must necessarily exist.
Without this, it is as impossible to lay any solid foundation for the science of government, as it would be to lay one for that of astronomy, without a like understanding of that constitution or law of the material world, according to which the several bodies composing the solar system mutually act on each other, and by which they are kept in their respective spheres.
The first question, accordingly, to be considered is — What is that constitution or law of our nature, without which government would not exist, and with which its existence is necessary? In considering this, I assume, as an incontestable fact, that man is so constituted as to be a social being. His inclinations and wants, physical and moral, irresistibly impel him to associate with his kind; and he has, accordingly, never been found, in any age or country, in any state other than the social.
In no other, indeed, could he exist; and in no other — were it possible for him to exist — could he attain to a full development of his moral and intellectual faculties, or raise himself, in the scale of being, much above the level of the brute creation.
I next assume, also, as a fact not less incontestable, that, while man is so constituted as to make the social state necessary to his existence and the full development of his faculties, this state itself cannot exist without government.
The assumption rests on universal experience. In no age or country has any society or community ever been found, whether enlightened or savage, without government of some description. Having assumed these, as unquestionable phenomena of our nature, I shall, without further remark, proceed to the investigation of the primary and important question — What is that constitution of our nature, which, while it impels man to associate with his kind, renders it impossible for society to exist without government?
The answer will be found in the fact not less incontestable than either of the others that, while man is created for the social state, and is accordingly so formed as to feel what affects others, as well as what affects himself, he is, at the same time, so constituted as to feel more intensely what affects him directly, than what affects him indirectly though others; or, to express it differently, he is so constituted, that his direct or individual affections are stronger than his sympathetic or social feelings.
I intentionally avoid the expression, selfish feelings, as applicable to the former; because, as commonly used, it implies an unusual excess of the individual over the social feelings, in the person to whom it is applied; and, consequently, something depraved and vicious.
My object is, to exclude such inference, and to restrict the inquiry exclusively to facts in their bearings on the subject under consideration, viewed as mere phenomena appertaining to our nature — constituted as it is; and which are as unquestionable as is that of gravitation, or any other phenomenon of the material world. In asserting that our individual are stronger than our social feelings, it is not intended to deny that there are instances, growing out of peculiar relations — as that of a mother and her infant — or resulting from the force of education and habit over peculiar constitutions, in which the latter have overpowered the former; but these instances are few, and always regarded as something extraordinary.
The deep impression they make, whenever they occur, is the strongest proof that they are regarded as exceptions to some general and well understood law of our nature; just as some of the minor powers of the material world are apparently to gravitation. I might go farther, and assert this to be a phenomenon, not of our nature only, but of all animated existence, throughout its entire range, so far as our knowledge extends.
It would, indeed, seem to be essentially connected with the great law of self-preservation which pervades all that feels, from man down to the lowest and most insignificant reptile or insect.
In none is it stronger than in man. His social feelings may, indeed, in a state of safety and abundance, combined with high intellectual and moral culture, acquire great expansion and force; but not so great as to overpower this all-pervading and essential law of animated existence. But that constitution of our nature which makes us feel more intensely what affects us directly than what affects us indirectly through others, necessarily leads to conflict between individuals.
Each, in consequence, has a greater regard for his own safety or happiness, than for the safety or happiness of others; and, where these come in opposition, is ready to sacrifice the interests of others to his own. And hence, the tendency to a universal state of conflict, between individual and individual; accompanied by the connected passions of suspicion, jealousy, anger and revenge — followed by insolence, fraud and cruelty — and, if not prevented by some controlling power, ending in a state of universal discord and confusion, destructive of the social state and the ends for which it is ordained.
It follows, then, that man is so constituted, that government is necessary to the existence of society, and society to his existence, and the perfection of his faculties. It follows, also, that government has its origin in this twofold constitution of his nature; the sympathetic or social feelings constituting the remote — and the individual or direct, the proximate cause. If man had been differently constituted in either particular — if, instead of being social in his nature, he had been created without sympathy for his kind, and independent of others for his safety and existence; or if, on the other hand, he had been so created, as to feel more intensely what affected others than what affected himself if that were possible or, even, had this supposed interest been equal — it is manifest that, in either case, there would have been no necessity for government, and that none would ever have existed.
But, although society and government are thus intimately connected with and dependent on each other — of the two society is the greater. It is the first in the order of things, and in the dignity of its object; that of society being primary — to preserve and perfect our race; and that of government secondary and subordinate, to preserve and perfect society. Both are, however, necessary to the existence and well-being of our race, and equally of Divine ordination. I have said — if it were possible for man to be so constituted, as to feel what affects others more strongly than what affects himself, or even as strongly — because, it may be well doubted, whether the stronger feeling or affection of individuals for themselves, combined with a feebler and subordinate feeling or affection for others, is not, in beings of limited reason and faculties, a constitution necessary to their preservation and existence.
If reversed — if their feelings and affections were stronger for others than for themselves, or even as strong, the necessary result would seem to be, that all individuality would be lost; and boundless and remediless disorder and confusion would ensue. For each, at the same moment, intensely participating in all the conflicting emotions of those around him, would, of course, forget himself and all that concerned him immediately, in his officious intermeddling with the affairs of all others; which, from his limited reason and faculties, he could neither properly understand nor manage.
Such a state of things would, as far as we can see, lead to endless disorder and confusion, not less destructive to our race than a state of anarchy. It would, besides, be remediless — for government would be impossible; or, if it could by possibility exist, its object would be reversed.
Selfishness would have to be encouraged, and benevolence discouraged. Individuals would have to be encouraged, by rewards, to become more selfish, and deterred, by punishments, from being too benevolent; and this, too, by a government, administered by those who, on the supposition, would have the greatest aversion for selfishness and the highest admiration for benevolence. To the Infinite Being, the Creator of all, belongs exclusively the care and superintendence of the whole.
He, in his infinite wisdom and goodness, has allotted to every class of animated beings its condition and appropriate functions; and has endowed each with feelings, instincts, capacities, and faculties, best adapted to its allotted condition.
To man, he has assigned the social and political state, as best adapted to develop the great capacities and faculties, intellectual and moral, with which he has endowed him; and has, accordingly, constituted him so as not only to impel him into the social state, but to make government necessary for his preservation and well-being. But government, although intended to protect and preserve society, has itself a strong tendency to disorder and abuse of its powers, as all experience and almost every page of history testify.
The cause is to be found in the same constitution of our nature which makes government indispensable. The powers which it is necessary for government to possess, in order to repress violence and preserve order, cannot execute themselves. They must be administered by men in whom, like others, the individual are stronger than the social feelings.
And hence, the powers vested in them to prevent injustice and oppression on the part of others, will, if left unguarded, be by them converted into instruments to oppress the rest of the community.
Having its origin in the same principle of our nature, constitution stands to government , as government stands to society ; and, as the end for which society is ordained, would be defeated without government, so that for which government is ordained would, in a great measure, be defeated without constitution. But they differ in this striking particular.
There is no difficulty in forming government. It is not even a matter of choice, whether there shall be one or not. Like breathing, it is not permitted to depend on our volition.
Necessity will force it on all communities in some one form or another. Very different is the case as to constitution. Instead of a matter of necessity, it is one of the most difficult tasks imposed on man to form a constitution worthy of the name; while, to form a perfect one — one that would completely counteract the tendency of government to oppression and abuse, and hold it strictly to the great ends for which it is ordained — has thus far exceeded human wisdom, and possibly ever will.
From this, another striking difference results. Constitution is the contrivance of man, while government is of Divine ordination. Man is left to perfect what the wisdom of the Infinite ordained, as necessary to preserve the race.
With these remarks, I proceed to the consideration of the important and difficult question: How is this tendency of government to be counteracted? Or, to express it more fully — How can those who are invested with the powers of government be prevented from employing them, as the means of aggrandizing themselves, instead of using them to protect and preserve society? It cannot be done by instituting a higher power to control the government, and those who administer it.
This would be but to change the seat of authority, and to make this bigger power, in reality, the government; with the same tendency, on the part of those who might control its powers, to pervert them into instruments of aggrandizement. Nor can it be done by limiting the powers of government, so as to make it too feeble to be made an instrument of abuse; for, passing by the difficulty of so limiting its powers, without creating a power higher than the government itself to enforce the observance of the limitations, it is a sufficient objection that it would, if practicable, defeat the end for which government is ordained, by making it too feeble to protect and preserve society.
The powers necessary for this purpose will ever prove sufficient to aggrandize those who control it, at the expense of the rest of the community. In estimating what amount of power would be requisite to secure the objects of government, we must take into the reckoning, what would be necessary to defend the community against external, as well as internal dangers.
Government must be able to repel assaults from abroad, as well as to repress violence and disorders within. It must not be overlooked, that the human race is not comprehended in a single society or community. The limited reason and faculties of man, the great diversity of language, customs, pursuits, situation and complexion, and the difficulty of intercourse, with various other causes, have, by their operation, formed a great many separate communities, acting independently of each other.
Between these there is the same tendency to conflict — and from the same constitution of our nature — as between men individually; and even stronger — because the sympathetic or social feelings are not so strong between different communities, as between individuals of the same community.
So powerful, indeed, is this tendency, that it has led to almost incessant wars between contiguous communities for plunder and conquest, or to avenge injuries, real or supposed. So long as this state of things continues, exigencies will occur, in which the entire powers and resources of the community will be needed to defend its existence.
When this is at stake, every other consideration must yield to it. Self-preservation is the supreme law, as well with communities as individuals. And hence the danger of withholding from government the full command of the power and resources of the state; and the great difficulty of limiting its powers consistently with the protection and preservation of the community. And hence the question recurs — By what means can government, without being divested of the full command of the resources of the community, be prevented from abusing its powers?
The question involves difficulties which, from the earliest ages, wise and good men have attempted to overcome — but hitherto with but partial success. For this purpose many devices have been resorted to, suited to the various stages of intelligence and civilization through which our race has passed, and to the different forms of government to which they have been applied.
The aid of superstition, ceremonies, education, religion, organic arrangements, both of the government and the community, has been, from time to time, appealed to. Some of the most remarkable of these devices, whether regarded in reference to their wisdom and the skill displayed in their application, or to the permanency of their effects, are to be found in the early dawn of civilization — in the institutions of the Egyptians, the Hindoos, the Chinese, and the Jews.
The only materials which that early age afforded for the construction of constitutions, when intelligence was so partially diffused, were applied with consummate wisdom and skill. To their successful application may be fairly traced the subsequent advance of our race in civilization and intelligence, of which we now enjoy the benefits.
For, without a constitution — something to counteract the strong tendency of government to disorder and abuse, and to give stability to political institutions — there can be little progress or permanent improvement. In answering the important question under consideration, it is not necessary to enter into an examination of the various contrivances adopted by these celebrated governments to counteract this tendency to disorder and abuse, nor to undertake to treat of constitution in its most comprehensive sense.
What I propose is far more limited — to explain on what principles government must be formed, in order to resist, by its own interior structure — or, to use a single term, organism — the tendency to abuse of power.
This structure, or organism, is what is meant by constitution, in its strict and more usual sense; and it is this which distinguishes, what are called, constitutional governments from absolute. It is in this strict and more usual sense that I propose to use the term hereafter. How government, then, must be constructed, in order to counteract, through its organism, this tendency on the part of those who make and execute the laws to oppress those subject to their operation, is the next question which claims attention.
There is but one way in which this can possibly be done; and that is, by such an organism as will furnish the ruled with the means of resisting successfully this tendency on the part of the rulers to oppression and abuse. Power can only be resisted by power — and tendency by tendency. Those who exercise power and those subject to its exercise — the rulers and the ruled — stand in antagonistic relations to each other. The same constitution of our nature which leads rulers to oppress the ruled — regardless of the object for which government is ordained — will, with equal strength, lead the ruled to resist, when possessed of the means of making peaceable and effective resistance.
Such an organism, then, as will furnish the means by which resistance may be systematically and peaceably made on the part of the ruled, to oppression and abuse of power on the part of the rulers, is the first and indispensable step towards forming a constitutional government. And as this can only be effected by or through the right of suffrage — the right on the part of the ruled to choose their rulers at proper intervals, and to hold them thereby responsible for their conduct — the responsibility of the rulers to the ruled, through the right of suffrage, is the indispensable and primary principle in the foundation of a constitutional government.
When this right is properly guarded, and the people sufficiently enlightened to understand their own rights and the interests of the community, and duly to appreciate the motives and conduct of those appointed to make and execute the laws, it is all-sufficient to give to those who elect, effective control over those they have elected. I call the right of suffrage the indispensable and primary principle; for it would be a great and dangerous mistake to suppose, as many do, that it is, of itself, sufficient to form constitutional governments.
To this erroneous opinion may be traced one of the causes, why so few attempts to form constitutional governments have succeeded; and why, of the few which have, so small a number have had durable existence. It has led, not only to mistakes in the attempts to form such governments, but to their overthrow, when they have, by some good fortune, been correctly formed.
So far from being, of itself, sufficient — however well guarded it might be, and however enlightened the people — it would, unaided by other provisions, leave the government as absolute, as it would be in the hands of irresponsible rulers; and with a tendency, at least as strong, towards oppression and abuse of its powers; as I shall next proceed to explain.
The right of suffrage, of itself, can do no more than give complete control to those who elect, over the conduct of those they have elected. In doing this, it accomplishes all it possibly can accomplish.
This is its aim — and when this is attained, its end is fulfilled.
Disquisition on Government
This book is published by Liberty Fund, Inc. All rights reserved. All inquiries should be addressed to Liberty Fund, Inc. Oil on canvas by Rembrandt Peale. Calhoun, June 18, William M.
Online Library of Liberty
Calhoun, U. Senator from South Carolina, hastily wrote these two essays, one on civil government in general, and the other on the United States Constitution. Calhoun was a key player in the Senate at the time, but died in early before the Compromise was settled, and before he had an opportunity to review and edit these works. In spite of the rough and unedited form, these works show an unmistakable brilliance. Alexander Stephens, in Constitutional View of the War Between the States, Volume 1, Colloquy 7, says this of Calhoun and these essays: "Government he considered a science, and in its study his whole soul was absorbed.
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A Disquisition on Government is a political treatise written by U. Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina and published posthumously in Written in response to what Calhoun saw as the growing subjugation of the Southern United States by the more populous North, especially in terms of Northern promotion of tariff legislation and opposition to slavery , the page Disquisition promotes the idea of a concurrent majority in order to protect what he perceived to be the South's interests. The Disquisition , and other writings like it by Southern Fire-Eaters , increased the feeling of sectionalism in the South and led ultimately to secession and the American Civil War. The Disquisition on Government is a page essay on Calhoun's definitive and comprehensive ideas on government, which he worked on intermittently for six years until its completion.