John C. (John Caldwell) Calhoun.

A disquisition on government, and A discourse on the Constitution and government of the United States online

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freely as if borne by the winds ; while the electrical
wires outstrip them, in velocity — ^rivalling, iu rapid-
ity, even thought itself.

The joint effect cf all has been, a great increase
and diffusion of knowledge ; and, with this, an im-
pulse to progress and civilization heretofore unex-
ampled in the history of the world, — accompanied
by a mental energy and activity unprecedented.

To all these causes, public opinion, and its organ,
the press, owe their origin and great influence.
Abeady they have attained a force in the more civil-


ized portions of tlie globe sufficient to be felt by all
govennnents, even the most absolute and despotic.
But, as great as tbey now are, tbey have as yet at-
tained nothing like their inaximum force. It is prob-
able, that not one of the causes, which have contrib-
uted to their formation and influence, has yet pro-
duced its full effect ; while several of the most
powerful have just begun to operate ; and many
others, probably of equal or even greater force,
yet remain to be brought to light.

When the causes now in operation have pro-
duced their full effect, and inventions and discov-
eries shall have been exhausted, — if that may ever
be, — ^they will give a force to public opinion, and
cause changes, political and social,, difficult to be an-
ticipated. What will be their final bearing, time
only can decide with any certainty. That they
will, however, greatly improve the condition of man
ultimately, — ^it would be impious to doubt. It would
be to suppose, that the all-wise and beneficent Be-
ing, — ^the Creator of all, — ^had so constituted man, as
that the employment of the high intellectual facul-
ties, with which He has been pleased to endow him,
in order that he might develop the laws that con-
trol the great agents of the material world, and
make them subservient to his use, — ^would prove to
him the cause of permanent evil, — and not of per-
manent good. K, then, such a supposition be inad-
missible, they must, in their orderly and full devel-
opment, end in his permanent good. But this can-
not be, unless the ultimate effect of their action,
politically, shall be, to give ascendency to that form


of government best calculated to fulfil the ends fo
wHcli government is ordained. For, so completel
does the well-being of our race depend on good go-\
ernment, that it is hardly possible any change, th
ultimate effect of which should be otherwise, couli
prove to be a permanent good.

It is, however, not improbable, that many am
great, but temporary evils, wiU follow the change
they have effected, and are destined to effect. I
seems to be a law in the political, as well as in th
material world, that great changes cannot be made
except very gradually, without convulsions and revc
lutions ; to be followed by calamities, in the begic
ning, however beneficial they may prove to be in th
end. The first effect of such changes, on long estal
lished governments, will be, to unsettle the opinion
and principles in which they originated, — and whicl
have guided their policy, — ^before those, which th
changes are calculated to form and establish, ari
fairly developed and understood. The interval be
tween the decay of the old and the formation aii(
estabhshment of the new, constitutes a period o
transition, which must always necessarily be one o
uncertainty, confusion, error, and wild and fierc

The governments of the more advanced and ci\
ilized portions of the world are now in the midst c
this period. It has proved, and will continue to prov
a severe trial to existing political institutions of ever
form. Those governments which have not the sj
gacity to perceive what is truly public opinion, — t
distinguish between it and tK\ mere clamor of fai


tion, or shouts of fanaticism,— and the good sense
and firmness to yield, timely and cautiously, to the
claims of the one, — and to resist, promptly and de-
cidedly, the demands of the other, — are doomed to
fall. Few will be able successfally to pass through
this period of transition; and these, not without
shocks and modifications, more or less considerable.
It will endure until the governing and the governed
shall better understand the ends for which govern-
ment is ordained, and the form best adapted to ac-
complish them, under all the circumstances in which
communities may be respectively placed.

I shall, in conclusion, proceed to exemplify the
elementary principles, which have been established,
by giving a brief account of the origin and charac-
ter of the governments of Rome and Great Britain ;
the two most remarkable and perfect of their re-
spective forms of constitutional governments. The
object is to show how these principles were applied,
in the more simple forms of such governments ; pre-
paratory to an exposition of the mode in which
they have been applied in our own more complex
system. It will appear that, in each, the principles
are the same ; and that the difference in their appli-
cation resulted from the different situation and so-
cial condition of the respective communities. They
were modified, in each, so as to conform to these ;
and, hence, their remarkable success. They were
applied to communities in which hereditary rank
had long prevailed. Their respective constitutions
originated in concession to the people ; and, through
them, they acquired a participation in the powers of


government. But witl. us, they were applied
communities wtere all political rank and distinct;
between citi^iens were excluded ; and where gove
ment had its origin in the will of the people.

But, however different their origin and charact
it will be found that the object ia each was the sai
■ — ^to blend and harmonize the conflicting interests
the community ; and the means the same, — taki
the sense of each class or portion through its f
propriate organ, and considering the concurre
sense of all as the sense of the whole communi-
Such being the fact, an accurate and clear conce
tion how this was effected, in their more simi
forms, will enable us better to understand how it-w
accomplished in our far more refined, artificial, a:
complex form.

It is well known to all, the least conversant m
their history, that the Roman people consisted of ti
distinct orders, or classes, — the Patricians and t
Plebeians ; and that the line of distinction was
strongly drawn, that, for a long time, the right
intermarriage between them was prohibited. Afl
the overthrow of the monarchy and the expulsi
of the Tarquins, the government fell exclusive
under the control of the patricians, who, with th<
clients and dependents, formed, at the time, a ve
numerous and powerful body. At first, while the
was danger of the return of the exiled family, tli
treated the plebeians with kindness ; but, after itli
passed away, with oppression and cruelty.

It is not necessary, with the object in view,
enter into a minute account of the various acts


oppression and cruelty to wMcL. they were subjected.
It is sufficient to state, that, according to tlie usages
of war at tlie time, the territory of a conquered
people became the property of the conquerors ; and
that the. plebeians were harassed and oppressed
by incessant wars, in which the danger and toil were
theirs, while all the fruits of victory, (the lands of
the vanquished, and the spoils of war,) accrued to
the benefit of their oppressors. The result was
such as might be expected. They were impoverished,
and forced, from necessity, to borrow from the pa-
tricians, at usurious and exorbitant interest, funds
with which they had been enriched through their
blood and toil ; and to pledge their all for repay-
ment at stipulated periods. In case of default, the
pledge became forfeited ; and, under the provisions
of law in such cases, the debtors were liable to be
seized, and sold or imprisoned by their creditors in
private jaUs prepared and kept for the purpose.
These savage provisions were enforced with the ut-
most rigor against the indebted and impoverished
plebeians. They constituted, indeed, an essential part
of the system through which they were plundered
and oppressed by the patricians.

A system so oppressive could not be endured.
The natural consequences followed. Deep hatred
was engendered between the orders, accompanied
by factions, violence, and corruption, which distract-
ed and weakened the government. At length, an
incident occurred which roused the indignation of
the plebeians to the utmost pitch, and which ended
in an open rupture between the two orders.


An old soldier, wIlo had long served the countr
and had fought with bravery in twenty-eight ba
ties, made his escape from the prison of his credito
— squalid, pale, and famished. He implored the pr
tection of the plebeians. A crowd surrounded hin
and his tale of service to the country, and tl
cruelty with which he had been treated by h
creditor, kindled a flame, which continued to ra^
until it extended to the army. It refused to coi
tinue any longer in service, — crossed the Anio, an
took possession of the sacred mount. The patriciai
divided in opinion as to the course which should I
pursued. The more violent insisted on an appes
to arms, but, fortunately, the counsel of the mode:
ate, which recommended concession and compr(
mise, prevailed. Commissioners were appointed t
treat with the army ; and a formal compact was ei
tered into between the orders, and ratified by tl
oaths of each, which conceded to the plebeians th
right to elect two tribunes, as the protectors of thei
order, and made their persons sacred. The numhc
was afterwards increased to ten, and their election b
centuries changed to election by tribes ; — a mode b
which the plebeians secured a decided preponderanci

Such was the origin of the tribunate ; — whicl
in process of time, opened all the honors of the go^
ernment to the plebeians. They acquired the righ
not only of vetoing the passage of all laws, but als
their execution; and thus obtained, through the:
tribunes, a negative on the entire action of the go^
ernment, without divesting the patricians of the
control over the Senate. By this arrangement, tl


government was placed under tlie concurrent and
joint voice of the two orders, expressed through
separate and appropriate organs ; the one possess-
ing the positive, and the other the negative powers
of the government. This simple change converted
it from an absolute, into a constitutional govern-
ment, — ^from a government of the patricians only,
to that of the whole Eoman people, — and from an
aristocracy into a repuhlic. In doing this, it laid
the solid foundation of Eoman liberty and greatness.

A superficial observer would pronounce a gov-
ernment, so organized, as that one order should have
the power of making and executing the laws, and
another, or the representatives of another, the
unlimited authority of preventing their enactment
and execution, — ^if not wholly impracticable, at least,
too feeble to stand the shocks to which all govern-
ments are subject; and would, therefore, predict
its speedy dissolution, after a distracted and inglo-
rious career.

How different from the result ! Instead of
distraction, it proved to be the bond of concord
and harmony; instead of weakness, of unequalled
strength ; — and, instead of a short and inglorious
career, one of great length and immortal glory. It
moderated the conflicts between the orders; har-
monized their interests, and blended them into
one; substituted devotion to country in the place
of devotion to particular orders; called forth the
united strength and energy of the whole, in the
hour of danger; raised to power, the wise and
patriotic; elevated the Roman name above all


others ; extended lier authority and dominion ovei
tte greater part of the then known world, anc
transmitted the influence of her laws and institu
tions to the present day. Had the opposite conn,
sel prevailed at this critical juncture ; had an appeal
been made to arms instead of to concession and
compromise, Rome, instead of being what she after-
wards became, would, in all probability, have been
as inglorious, and as little known to posterity as
the insiguiflcant states which surrounded her, whose
names and existence would have been long since
consigned to oblivion, had they not been preserved
in the history of her conquests of them. But
for the wise course then adopted, it is not impro-
bable, — ^whichever order might have prevailed, —
that she would have fallen under some cruel and
petty tyrant; — and, finally, been conquered by
some of the neighboring states, — or by the Cartha-
ginians, or the Gauls. To the fortunate turn wliich
events then took, she owed her unbounded sway
and imperishable renown.

It is true, that the tribunate, after raising her
to a height of power and prosperity never before
equalled, finally became one of the instruments by
which her liberty was overthrown : — ^but it was not
untU she became exposed to new dangers, growing
out of increase of wealth and the great extent of
her dominions, against which the tribunate furnish-
ed no guards. Its original object was the protec-
tion of the plebeians against oppression and abuse
of power on the part of the patricians. This, it
thoroughly accomplished ; but it had no power to


protect the people of the numerous and wealthy
conquered countries from being plundered by con-
suls and proconsuls. Nor could it prevent the plun-
derers from using the enormous wealth, which they
extorted from the impoverished and ruined pro-
vinces, to corrupt and debase the people ; nor ar-
rest the formation of parties, (irrespective of the
old division of patricians and plebeians,) having no
other object than to obtain the control of the
government for the purpose of plunder. Against
these formidable evils, her constitution famished no
adequate security. Under their baneful influence,
the possession of the government became the object
of the most violent conflicts ; not between patricians
and plebeians, — but between profligate and corrupt
factions. They continued with increasing violence,
until, finally, Rome sunk, as must every community
under similar circumstances, beneath the strong
grasp, the despotic rule of the chieftain of the success-
ful party ; — the sad, but only alternative which re-
mained to prevent universal violence, confusion and
anarchy. The Republic had, in reality, ceased to
exist long before the establishment of the Empire.
The interval was filled by the rule of ferocious, cor-
rupt and bloody factions. There was, indeed, a
small but patriotic body of eminent individuals,
who struggled, in vain, to correct abuses, and to re-
store the government to its primitive character and
purity ; — and who sacrificed their lives in their endea-
vors to accomplish an object so virtuous and noble.
But it can be no disparagement to the tribunate,
that the great powers conferred on it for wise pur-


poses, and whicli it had so fully accomplislied, sliouL
be seized upon, duriag this violent and corrupt in
terval, to overthrow the liberty it had established
and so long nourished and supported.

In assigning such consequence to the tribunate
I must not overlook other important provisions o
the Constitution of the Eoman government. Th
Senate, as far as we are informed, seems to have beei
admirably constituted to secure consistency anc
steadiness of action. The power, — when the Repub
lie was exposed to imminent danger, — ^to appoint i
dictator, — vested, for a limited period, with ahnos
boundless authority ; the two consuls, and the manne:
of electing them ; the auguries ; the sibylline books
the priesthood, and the censorship ; — all of wMcl
appertained to the patricians, — were, perhaps indis
pensable to withstand the vast and apparently irreg
ular power of the tribunate ; — while the possessioi
of such great powers by the patricians, made it ne
cessary to give proportionate strength to the 011I3
organ through which the plebeians could act on tli<
government with effect. The government was, in
deed, powerfully constituted ; and, apparently, wel
proportioned both in its positive and negative 01
gans. It was truly an iron government. Withou
the tribunate, it proved to be one of the most op
pressive and cruel that ever existed ; but with ii
one of the strongest and best.

The origin and character of the British govern
ment are so well known, that a very brief sketcl
with the object in view, will suffice.

The causes which ultimately moulded it into it


present form, commenced witli the Norman Con-
quest. This introduced the feudal system, with its
necessary appendages, a hereditary monarchy and
nobility; the former in the line of the chief, who
led the invading army ; — and the latter in that of
his distinguished followers. They became his feuda-
tories. The country, — ^both land and people, — (the
latter as serfs,) was divided between them. Con-
flicts soon followed between the monarch and the
nobles, — as must ever be the case under such sys-
tems. They were followed, in the progress of events,
by efforts, on the part both of monarchs and nobles,
to conciliate the favor of the people. They, in con-
sequence, gradually rose to power. At every step
of their ascent, they became more important, — and
were more and more courted, — until at length their
influence was so sensibly felt, that they were sum-
moned to attend the meeting of parliament by del-
egates ; not, however, as an estate of the realm, or
constituent member of the body politic. The first
summons came from the nobles ; and was designed
to conciliate their good feelings and secure their co-
operation in the war against the king. This was
followed by one from him ; but his object was sim-
ply to have them present at the meeting of parlia-
ment, in order to be consulted by the crown, on
questions relating to taxes and supplies ; not, indeed,
to discuss the right to lay the one, and to raise the
other, — for the King claimed the arbitrary authority
to do both, — but with a view to facilitate their col-
lection, and to reconcile them to their imposition.
From this humble beginning, they, after a long


struggle, accompanied by many vicissitudes, raisei
themselves to be considered one of the estates of th
realm ; and, finally, in their efforts to enlarge am
secure what they had gained, overpowered, for
time, the other two estates ; and thus concentrate;
all power in a single estate or body. This, in effed
made the government absolute, and led to conse
quences which, as by a fixed law, must ever resid
in popular governments of this form ; — ^namely :-
to organized parties, or, rather, factions, contend
ing violently to obtain or retain the control of tli
government ; and this, again, by laws almost as uni
form, to the concentration of all the powers of gov
ernment in the hands of the military commander o
the successful party.

His heir was too feeble to hold the sceptre h
had grasped ; and the general discontent with th
result of the revolution, led to the restoration of tt
old dynasty; without defining the limits betweei
the powers of the respective estates.

After a short interval, another revolution fol
lowed, in which the lords and commons unite;
against the king. This terminated in his overthrow
and the transfer of the crown to a collateral brand
of the family, accompanied by a declaration o
rights, which defined the powers of the severa
estates of the realm ; and, finally, perfected and ei
tablished the constitution. Thus, a feudal monarch;
was converted, through a slow but steady proc^
of many centuries, into a highly refined constiti
tional monarchy, without changing the basis of ti
original government.


As it now stands, the realm consists of three
estates ; the king ; the lords temporal and spiritual ;
and the commons. The parliament is the grand
council. It possesses the supreme power. It enacts
laws, by the concurring assent of the lords and com-
mons, — subject to the approval of the king. The
executive power is vested iu the monarch, who is re-
garded as constituting the first estate. Although
irresponsible himself, he can only act through respon-
sible ministers and agents. They are responsible to
the other estates ; to the lords, as constituting the
high court before whom aU the servants of the
crown maybe tried for malpractices, and crimes
against the realm, or official delinquencies ; — and to
the commons, as possessing the impeaching power,
and constituting the grand inquest of the kingdom.
These provisions, with their legislative powers, —
especially that of withholding supplies, — give them
a controlling influence on the executive department,
and, virtually, a participation in its powers ; — so that
the acts of the government, throughout its entire
range, may be fairly considered as the result of the
concurrent and joint action of the three estates ; —
and, as these embrace all the orders, — of the concur-
rent and joint action of the estates of the realm.

He would take an imperfect and false view of the
subject who should consider the king, in his mere
individual character, or even as the head of the
royal family, — as constituting an estate. Regarded
in either light, so far from deserving to be consider-
ed as the First Estate, — and the head of the realm,
as he is, — he would represent an interest too incon-


siderable to be an object of special protection. In-
stead of this, lie represents what in reality is, habi-
tually and naturally, the most powerful interest, all
things considered, under every form of government
in all civilized communities, — the tax-consuming irir
terest / or, more broadly, the great interest which
necessarily grows out of the action of the govern-
ment, be its form what it may ; — ^the interest that
Iwes hy the goverrmient. It is composed of the reci-
pients of its honors and emoluments ; and may be pro-
perly called, the government interest, or party ;—
in contradistinction to the rest of the community,—
or, (as they may be properly called,) the people or
commons. The one comprehends all who are sup-
ported by the government ; — and the other all who
support the government : — and it is only because
the former are strongest, all things being considered,
that they are enabled to retain, for any considerable
time, advantages so great and commanding.

This great and predominant interest is naturally
represented by a single head. For it is impossible,
without being so represented, to distribute the hon-
ors and emoluments of the government among those
who compose it, without producing discord and con-
flict: — and it is only by preventing these, that ad-
vantages so tempting can be long retained. And,
hence, the strong tendency of this great interest to
the monarchical form ; — that is, to be represented by
a single individual. On the contrary, the antagonis-
tic iaterest, — that which supports the government,
has the opposite tendency ; — a tendency to be re-
presented by many ; because a large assembly can


better judge, than one individual or a few, what
burdens the community can bear ; — and how it can
be most equally distributed, and easily collected.

In the British government, the king constitutes
an Estate, because he is the head and representative
of this great interest. He is the conduit through
which, aU the honors and emoluments of the govern-
ment flow ; — while the House of Commons, accord-
ing to the theory of the government, is the head and
representative of the opposite — the great tax-pay-
ing interest, by which the government is supported.

Between these great interests, there is necessa-
rily a constant and strong tendency to conflict;
which, if not counteracted, must end in violence
and an appeal to force, — ^to be followed by revolu-
tion, as has been explained. To prevent this, the
House of Lords, as one of the estates of the realm,

Online LibraryJohn C. (John Caldwell) CalhounA disquisition on government, and A discourse on the Constitution and government of the United States → online text (page 7 of 27)