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While we were watching the political chaos of 2020 and early 2021 unfold, Baylor his­torian Robert Elder was quietly fin­ishing his long and mas­terful biog­raphy of John C. Calhoun.

In “Calhoun: American Heretic,” Elder makes one of America’s strangest and most con­tro­versial figures familiar without under­stating any of his flaws. From Calhoun’s youthful pres­i­dential dreams to his acerbic middle-aged reac­tionism, Elder tracks his subject’s career from the South Car­olina upcountry and Yale College to Wash­ington, D.C., inter­spersing the stories of his political battles in Con­gress and the War Department with details of his plan­tation life and per­sonal reflections. 

The book skill­fully examines Calhoun’s changing political phi­losophy in light of his homeland, his Calvinist con­vic­tions, and his many blind spots. Elder also sit­uates Calhoun’s ambition, sense of honor, loyalty to his state, and per­sonal hypocrisy inside the intel­lectual climate of the early 19th-century United States — American aspi­ra­tions, American values, and American hypocrisy. 

Like Calhoun, many Amer­icans believed that edu­cation, ter­ri­torial expansion, and the per­fection of the repub­lican legal system would ensure a glo­rious age of freedom, peace, and equality in the New World. But many Amer­icans, including Calhoun, saw their rights as political real­ities extending from their status as former British sub­jects, not the uni­versal rights which a literal reading of the Dec­la­ration of Inde­pen­dence would suggest. 

When the senator exclaims that “there shall be at least one free state,” referring to tariff-free South Car­olina, we rightly gawk at his audacity. But in many ways, Calhoun was a spokesman for his age and a hero to those who were more con­cerned with pre­serving their own freedoms than extending them to the oppressed. His bril­liant and con­vo­luted argu­ments for state rights are impos­sible to decipher without under­standing the spirit of his age, and neither can we under­stand American history without exam­ining its heretics.

Finally, Elder achieves what most biog­ra­phers cannot — or dare not — undertake: he con­nects a distant, painful part of our history to current events we know. The political rev­o­lu­tions of the last few years are too recent to digest fully, but “Calhoun: American Heretic” acknowl­edges them, treating issues like 19th-century racism with enormous sen­si­tivity to our 21st-century struggle over race. 

Under­standing Calhoun’s dark and complex life is both chal­lenging and worth­while. Venge­fully denying his humanity or ignoring his influence does us no good. 

“Unlike a mon­ument, history cannot be torn down and bundled off to some dusty corner of a municipal ware­house without con­se­quences,” Elder writes. “It must be told, fully, fairly, and hon­estly, or else we are left with a limited under­standing of our past and no way to explain our present.”