Calhoun and Conservative Reform


Abstract: Recent scholarship on John C. Calhoun has tended to portray his political thought as an anomaly in the American context. Its primary purpose is said to have been the permanent hindrance of popular rule through the pitting of rival interests against one another. As such, Calhoun sought to undermine the republicanism of America’s constitutional principles. This article challenges this view by examining Calhoun’s articulation of nullification during the “Nullification Crisis” of 1828–33 in light of Edmund Burke’s teaching on political reform. Properly understood, nullification should be examined as an attempt to revivify what Calhoun saw as America’s three most fundamental constitutional principles: federalism, popular rule, and the limitation of government through balancing power. Calhoun crafted this new constitutional reform with the intention of restoring what he believed to be a corruption of these principles, which would, if left unattended, prove fatal to the Union.