Concurrent majority

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Concurrent majority is a constitutional method of enabling minorities to block the actions of majorities by allowing minority groups veto power over laws. The most vocal proponents of the theory have tended to be minority groups, such as farmers in an industrial society or nonwhites in a predominately white society. The concurrent majority is intended to prevent the tyranny of the majority that can otherwise occur in an unlimited democracy.

Prior to the American Revolution, most governments were controlled by small minorities of ruling elites. In these governments, most of the population was completely disfranchised, even in countries like Switzerland whose governments (local, regional, and federal) were constitutionally democratic by modern standards. The conception of government that materialized during the separation of the United States from the United Kingdom marked movement away from such control towards wider enfranchisement. The problem of tyranny then became a problem of limiting the power of a majority.

The United States Constitution[edit]

Even so, the widening of the franchise caused concern. The framers of the United States Constitution, even while reiterating that the people held national sovereignty, worked to ensure that a simple majority of voters could not infringe upon the liberty of the rest of the people. One protection from this was separation of powers, such as bicameralism in the Congress and the three branches of the national government: legislative, executive, and judicial.

Having two houses was intended to serve as a brake on popular movements that might threaten particular groups, with the House representing the common people and the Senate defending the interests of the state governments. The House was to be elected by popular vote, while the Senate were appointed by state legislators. Executive veto and the implied power of judicial review by the Supreme Court created further obstacles to absolute majority rule.

Calhoun and nullification[edit]

During the first part of the 19th century, John C. Calhoun of South Carolina revived and expounded upon the concurrent majority doctrine. An ardent advocate of states' rights, Calhoun served as Vice President and Senator. He noted that the North, with its industrial economy, had become far more populous than the South. As the South's agricultural economy differed vastly from that of the North, the difference in power afforded by population threatened interests Calhoun considered essential to the South.

As national policy, driven by the North, became ever more hostile to the South, Calhoun argued more stridently for a requirement of concurrent majority by geographic region. Following the Tariff of 1828, referred to by Southerners as the "Tariff of Abominations", Calhoun wrote (anonymously at the time) the South Carolina Exposition and Protest. The document threatened secession of South Carolina if the tariff was not repealed. After another protective Tariff of 1832 was passed instead of a repeal of the 1828 tariff, Calhoun attempted to fight both with the doctrine of nullification.

The doctrine, which essentially said that any state might declare specific federal laws void within the borders of the state, required a concurrent majority of the legislatures of each state in addition to the federal legislature to assent to a law for it to have nation-wide effect. South Carolina passed the Ordinance of Nullification of the two tariffs and began preparations to defend the nullification against federal enforcement. A Compromise Tariff of 1833 was passed, avoiding armed conflict and ending the Nullification Crisis.


Further reading[edit]

  • Brown, Guy Story. "Calhoun's Philosophy of Politics: A Study of A Disquisition on Government" (2000)
  • Cheek, Jr., H. Lee. Calhoun And Popular Rule: The Political Theory of the Disquisition and Discourse. (2004) online edition
  • Ford Jr., Lacy K. "Inventing the Concurrent Majority: Madison, Calhoun, and the Problem of Majoritarianism in American Political Thought," The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 60, No. 1 (Feb., 1994), pp. 19–58 in JSTOR
  • Potter, David M., Don E. Fehrenbacher and Carl N. Degler, eds. The South and the Concurrent Majority. (1973). 89 pp., essays by scholars
  • Safford, John L. "John C. Calhoun, Lani Guinier, and Minority Rights," PS: Political Science and Politics, Vol. 28, No. 2 (Jun., 1995), pp. 211–216 in JSTOR