Concurrent majority

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A concurrent majority, in US history, was a constitutional rule proposed to enable minorities to block the actions of majorities. In the United States, its most vocal proponents have tended to be minority groups, such as farmers in an urban-majority society or slaveowning Southerners protesting national policies that encroached on their privileges and interests.[1] The concurrent majority was intended to prevent the tyranny of the majority that proponents feared might arise in an unlimited democracy.


Prior to the American Revolution, most governments were controlled by small minorities of ruling élites. Most of the population was completely disfranchised, even in countries like Switzerland whose governments (local, regional, and federal) were democratic by contemporary standards. The conception of government that materialized during the separation of the United States from Great Britain marked a movement away from such control toward wider suffrage. The problem of tyranny then became a problem of limiting the majority's power.

US Constitution[edit]

Even so, the widening of the franchise caused concern. The framers of the US Constitution, even while they reiterated 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 was separation of powers, such as bicameralism in the US 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 US House of Representatives representing the common people and the US Senate defending the interests of the state governments. The House was to be elected by popular vote, and the Senate was to be chosen by state legislatures. The executive veto and the implied power of judicial review, which was later made explicit by the US Supreme Court, created further obstacles to absolute majority rule.

Furthermore, the Three-Fifths Compromise, more familiarly known at the time as the "federal ratio," allowed slaves to count as three fifths of free men for the purposes of representation and taxation.[2] The compromise secured Southern votes for ratification of the Constitution and ensured disproportionate influence to Southerners for the first 50 years of the Constitution's history.[2]

Calhoun and nullification[edit]

During the first half of the 19th century, John C. Calhoun of South Carolina revived and expounded upon the concurrent majority doctrine. An ardent advocate of states' rights, he 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 the North's, the difference in power afforded by population threatened interests that Calhoun considered essential to the South.

However, national policy became more and more driven on expansion and developing internal markets and infrastructure. With such changes, the South perceived more and more risks to its position and Calhoun became the most strident spokesman for sectionalism of his region.

His theory of the "concurrent majority," elaborated in his posthumous work of political theory A Disquisition on Government (1851),[3] argued a method for protecting voting minorities from the tyranny of the majority, but his position on nullification argued the importance of protecting his region from high tariffs, essential for its export-focused economy. In life, Calhoun had been a leading proponent of the concept of nullification, as he most forcefully articulated in the 1828 South Carolina Exposition and Protest, which was published anonymously while he was vice president, in response to the protectionist Tariff of 1828, also called the "Tariff of Abominations."

Nullification, an outgrowth of Jeffersonian compact theory, held that any state, as part of its rights as sovereign parties to the Constitution, had the power to declare specific federal laws void within its borders if it considered the law to be unconstitutional. Therefore, under Calhoun's schema, a law required two forms of majorities: a majority of the federal legislature and a concurrent majority of the legislatures of each state. It was on that authority in 1832 that South Carolina passed the Ordinance of Nullification on the Tariff of 1828 and its successor, the Tariff of 1832, thus beginning the Nullification Crisis. Andrew Jackson responded with the Force Bill, but armed conflict was avoided after the Tariff of 1833 was passed, the compromise being largely the work of Calhoun.


  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.


  • 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