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. In the United States, the most vocal proponents of the theory have tended to be minority groups, such as farmers in an industrial society or slave-owning Southerners protesting national policies that encroached on their hereditary privileges and business interests.[1] 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.

Furthermore, the "3/5ths Compromise"—more familiarly known at the time as the "federal ratio"—allowed enslaved Africans to count as 3/5ths of a human being for purposes of determining congressional representation.[2] This compromise secured Southern votes for ratification of the U.S. Constitution and gave Southerners outsize influence in governance, based on population, for the first fifty years of the nation's history.[2]

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 dependence on slavery sharply differentiated its agricultural economy from that of the North, the difference in power afforded by population threatened interests Calhoun considered essential to the South.

But national policy became more and more driven by expansion—of the frontier from the original 13 colonies to Indian lands of the "old Northwest," into the Louisiana Purchase territories, into the lands conquered in the Mexican War and eventually to the Pacific—and by the focus on developing internal markets and infrastructure. With these changes, the South perceived more and more risks to its position and Calhoun became the most strident spokesman for political and economic protectionism. His theory of the "concurrent majority"—elaborated in his A Disquisition on Government (1853)[3]—argued a method for protecting voting minorities from "the tyranny of the majority," while his position on nullification argued the importance of protecting what we today refer to as the "free markets" essential for an export-focused economy. These positions unfolded over time, in response to passage of the protectionist Tariff of 1828, the so-called "Tariff of Abominations" (in response to which Calhoun anonymously wrote the South Carolina Exposition and Protest, a pamphlet that threatened secession by South Carolina if the tariff were not repealed). Calhoun responded to another difficult legislative loss, the Tariff of 1832, passed instead of a repeal of the 1828 tariff, with the doctrine of nullification.

This doctrine, which essentially held that any state might declare specific federal laws void within its borders, required two forms of majority for a law to have nationwide effect: a concurrent majority of the legislatures of each state as well as a majority of the federal legislature. It was on this authority that 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.


  1. ^ Kersh, Rogan (2004). Dreams of a More Perfect Union. Ithaca and New York: Cornell University Press. pp. 141–42. 
  2. ^ a b Wills, Garry (2005). The Negro President: Jefferson and the Slave Power. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. pp. xv–14. 
  3. ^ "John C. Calhoun: Disquisition on Government". Retrieved 2015-09-27. 

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