July 13: Morris Anticipates, and Demolishes, Calhoun

July 13 features, as have recent days, a naked display of the real basis of the three-fifths compromise: Southern states wanted enslaved people counted toward representation for the sole purpose of perpetuating their enslavement. Pierce Butler of South Carolina did not attempt to hide it: “The security the Southn. States want is that their negroes may not be taken from them, which some gentlemen within or without doors, have a very good mind to do.”

Butler was responding to the delegate from whom we have heard so much: Gouverneur Morris. Morris had struck at the fatal flaw of the attempt to protect interests by elevating their voices beyond what the principle of majority rule would otherwise dictate. If the Northern and Southern states really represented irreconcilable interests that required anti-republican solutions, he said, the union was doomed.

But to come more to the point; either this distinction is fictitious or real; if fictitious let it be dismissed & let us proceed with due confidence. If it be real, instead of attempting to blend incompatible things, let us at once take a friendly leave of each other. There can be no end of demands for security if every particular interest is to be entitled to it. 

This last point—the impossibility of protecting every interest by giving it a chokepoint in the political process—anticipates, and demolishes, Calhoun’s theory of the concurrent majority. According to that theory, a given controversy should be resolved both by a majority of the community and a majority of the people interested in it. But these interests multiply ad infinitum. The concurrent majority was in fact a recipe for paralysis, which even Calhoun recognized in saying one of its benefits was that the only legislation that would pass would be so urgently needed it would be able to overcome natural divisions.

In that case, as Morris said, the Union was pointless. It took a war to establish the justice of his nationalist views. His belief, which James Wilson also endorsed on July 13, that barriers to persistent majorities were futile is a useful corrective to excessive invocations of individual rights today.

Leave a Reply