Calhoun and Popular Rule: The Political Theory of the Disquisition and Discourse / Calhoun's Philosophy of Politics: A Study of the Disquisition on Government

By Dale, Elizabeth | South Carolina Historical Magazine, July 2002 | Go to article overview

Calhoun and Popular Rule: The Political Theory of the Disquisition and Discourse / Calhoun's Philosophy of Politics: A Study of the Disquisition on Government


Dale, Elizabeth, South Carolina Historical Magazine


Calhoun and Popular Rule: The Political Theory of the Disquisition and Discourse. By H. Lee Cheek, Jr. (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2001. Pp. xii, 202; $29.95, cloth.)

Calhoun's Philosophy of Politics: A Study of the Disquisition on Government. By Guy Story Brown (Macon: Mercer University Press, 2000. Pp. xi, 435; $45.00, cloth.)

In an era when every term of the United States Supreme Court seems to be marked by another decision examining the balance of power between the state and federal governments, and questions of airport security, health insurance, and education laws are all framed in terms of federalism, it is perhaps both reasonable and appropriate that attention returns to the political theories of John C. Calhoun. The two books under review in this essay are both efforts to reexamine Calhoun, and both offer to do so with an eye on his historical antecedents, as well as the lessons he offers for us today.

While they have that in common, the two works take very different approaches. As its title indicates, H. Lee Cheek's book is a study of Calhoun's two main political works, the Disquisition on Government and the Discourse on the Constitution and Government of the United States. His focus is on how the two works, one, the Disquisition, theoretical, the other, the Discourse, a practical consideration of the United States' constitutional order, relate to one another, and so he treats the Disquisition as a sort of introduction to the Discourse, which he considers Calhoun's more important work.

This conclusion is consistent with Cheek's basic theory, that Calhoun's works were expressions of a fundamentally American political philosophy, which Cheek refers to as the South Atlantic republican vision. By this formulation, Cheek refers to a particularly "Southern worldview [that] identified the ancient imperfections of a civilization with the need to an enduring pattern of improvement and refinement within human nature" (p. 6). By placing Calhoun's works into this tradition, Cheek attempts to show both that Calhoun's political theory was part of the larger AngloAmerican tradition of republicanism, with its emphasis on community, but reflected ideas that particularly flourished in the Southern states and became increasingly distinct from other forms of republicanism in the United States and in England. In this respect, Cheek offers Calhoun as a spokesman for both an explicitly American idea, and as a regional voice, an assessment that one imagines Calhoun would have felt comfortable with.

Cheek undertakes to explicate the antecedents of Calhoun's political theory in order to place him in that larger tradition and to refute those who argued that Calhoun was not a significant thinker. …

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