The Only True Sovereign of A Free People? The Problem of Majority Rule in Madison, Calhoun, and Lincoln
An Alpheus T. Mason Lecture on Constitutional Law and Political Thought: The Quest for Freedom
James H. Read, Professor of Political Science and Joseph P. Farry Professor of Public Policy, College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University of Minnesota
Abraham Lincoln believed the Civil War put to the test the fundamental principles of republican government – most obviously the tension between “all men are created equal” and the institution of slavery. But the secession crisis also tested the principle of majority rule. When should an outvoted minority submit to the majority? When is it entitled to resist? How do we distinguish a legitimate exercise of majority rule from an illegitimate one? To which majority – national, state, local – do citizens owe their principal allegiance?
Lincoln here took up a question with a long history. James Madison famously addressed the problem of just and unjust majorities, not only in The Federalist, but also in his Virginia Resolutions of 1798. John C. Calhoun of South Carolina considered Madison’s solution inadequate and sought stronger medicine with his doctrine of nullification, whereby a “sovereign state” could veto decisions of the national majority and demand unanimity on all important issues facing the country. In his First Inaugural Address Lincoln characterized Calhoun’s nullification theory as a formula for minority rule and called constitutionally-checked majority rule “the only true sovereign of a free people.” Yet Lincoln recognized that majorities could act unjustly in ways that constitutions did not always prevent.
The Civil War resolved the moral and legal status of slavery, for the United States and for the modern world. But it did not finally resolve the problem of majority rule, either here or elsewhere in the world. This address will compare Madison, Calhoun, and Lincoln to illuminate what remains a live question for the 21st Century.
James H. Read is the author of Majority Rule versus Consensus: The Political Thought of John C. Calhoun (University Press of Kansas, 2009). He is Professor of Political Science and Joseph P. Farry Professor of Public Policy at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University of Minnesota, and has been Visiting Professor of Political Science at University of California Davis. He received his Ph. D from Harvard University in 1988. He is also author of Power versus Liberty: Madison, Hamilton, Wilson, and Jefferson (2000) and Doorstep Democracy: Face to Face Politics in the Heartland (2008).