American Heretic


By Robert Elder

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A new biography of the intellectual father of Southern secession—the man who set the scene for the Civil War, and whose political legacy still shapes America today.

John C. Calhoun is among the most notorious and enigmatic figures in American political history. First elected to Congress in 1810, Calhoun went on to serve as secretary of war and vice president. But he is perhaps most known for arguing in favor of slavery as a "positive good" and for his famous doctrine of "state interposition," which laid the groundwork for the South to secede from the Union—and arguably set the nation on course for civil war.

Calhoun has catapulted back into the public eye in recent years, as some observers connected the strain of radical politics he developed to the tactics and extremism of the modern Far Right, and as protests over racial injustice have focused on his legacy. In this revelatory biographical study, historian Robert Elder shows that Calhoun is even more broadly significant than these events suggest, and that his story is crucial for understanding the political climate in which we find ourselves today. By excising Calhoun from the mainstream of American history, he argues, we have been left with a distorted understanding of our past and no way to explain our present.



IN THE EARLY MORNING HOURS of April 1, 1850, a young New York journalist named Joseph Scoville sat in a sparsely furnished room in a Washington, DC, boardinghouse, penning a letter to Thomas Green Clemson, the American chargé d’affaires in Belgium. “I am writing this within a few feet of the venerated corpse of Mr. Calhoun,” he wrote. “I sat up with him the last night. I hardly know where or how to commence my letter.” After relating the details of the famous senator’s final hours to Clemson, Calhoun’s son-in-law, Scoville closed, “I have done now with politics. I will never serve under a lesser man, and his equal will never be found.”

In New Haven, Connecticut, the aging Yale tutor and famous chemist Benjamin Silliman recorded a different reaction to the famous senator’s death. “He was a first-rate young man,” Silliman wrote of his old student, “both for scholarship and talent, and for pure and gentlemanly conduct… but his mind was of a peculiar structure, and his views also were often peculiar.” With sadness, Silliman wrote, “While I mourn for Mr. Calhoun as a friend, I regard the political course of his later years as disastrous to his country and not honorable to his memory, although I believe he had persuaded himself that it was right.”

As the day progressed a steady stream of visitors came to see the body, dressed in the same black suit they had seen its owner wear on the Senate floor. The face, though deeply lined and emaciated by the ravages of tuberculosis, still projected the fierce will that animated it in life. Preparations for a funeral the following day in the Senate were underway, and the titans of American politics were preparing their tributes. Meanwhile, far to the south in Charleston, South Carolina, a committee was forming to plan the largest civic event in the city’s history to welcome home the dead body of the South’s fallen champion.1

ONE HUNDRED AND SEVENTY years later, on June 17, 2020, amid ongoing protests throughout the country against racial injustice, Charleston mayor John Tecklenburg announced that the city would take down a monument to South Carolina’s most famous political figure, which had stood in the city’s Marion Square since 1896. “That we as Charlestonians must reckon with Mr. Calhoun’s towering and deeply troubling legacy is a given,” Tecklenburg said. “That we must allow his memorial to continue to divide our city while we do that reckoning, however, is not a given.”2

The announcement in Charleston marked the culmination of John C. Calhoun’s remarkable reappearance in American national discourse more than a century and a half after his death. In the preceding years, journalists had noted a “Calhoun revival” in American politics, while one historian claimed that a conspiracy concocted by the modern right in the mid-twentieth century to undermine democracy and protect the interests of wealthy elites took its inspiration from him. Following a horrific, racially motivated shooting at a black church in Charleston in 2015, waves of protest against monuments to the Confederacy spread across the country, sparking calls to rename a residential college named for Calhoun at his alma mater, Yale University. A petition to rename Lake Calhoun outside Minneapolis, Minnesota, soon drew more than 1,700 signatures.3 Meanwhile, in both the United States and Europe during these same years, elections and referendums signaled a simultaneous revival of nationalism and separatism in the world, forces whose history in an American context is impossible to explain without reference to John C. Calhoun.

FAME AND INFAMY ATTACHED themselves to Calhoun early in his life and have persisted since his death in 1850. Born to Scots-Irish immigrants in the backcountry of South Carolina in 1782, Calhoun was educated at Yale and elected to Congress in 1810. He played a central role in the War of 1812, served as secretary of war in the Monroe administration, and then as vice president under two very different presidents, John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. It was during his term as Jackson’s vice president that Calhoun drew on arguments first made by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison to craft his doctrine of “state interposition” or nullification, provoking a showdown between South Carolina and the national government. Parting with an earlier generation of southerners who viewed slavery as a necessary evil, as a US senator during the 1830s Calhoun formulated a defense of the peculiar institution as a “positive good” in a white democracy and became the foremost advocate of slaveholders’ right to carry their peculiar form of property into the new territories added by American imperialism in Mexico and the West. At the end of his life, in two of the most controversial and consequential political treatises in American history, A Disquisition on Government and A Discourse on the Constitution and Government of the United States, both published posthumously, Calhoun made the argument that every significant interest in a society should possess ironclad veto power in any legislative process, an idea that he called the “concurrent majority.” Calhoun’s aim was to save the Union as he thought it ought to be, but his theories helped lay the philosophical groundwork for southern secession a decade later.

Previous accounts of Calhoun’s life are of little help in explaining his sudden reappearance in the twenty-first century. The prevailing view of Calhoun among historians for the past half century and more has been that the intellectual father of southern secession and his ideas were as out of place in the modern world as the slave society he defended. In 1948 Richard Hofstadter dubbed Calhoun “The Marx of the Master Class” for his defense of slavery as a positive good, but wrote that Calhoun’s political ideas “have little more than antiquarian interest for the twentieth-century mind.” “Calhoun,” Hofstadter wrote, “was a minority spokesman in a democracy, a particularist in an age of nationalism, a slaveholder in an age of advancing liberties, and an agrarian in a furiously capitalistic country. Quite understandably he developed a certain perversity of mind.”4 In 1984, J. William Harris wrote that Calhoun was “a pre-eighteenth-century republican,” and compared Calhoun to a dinosaur who had survived into the age of mammals, “awesome and perfect in its way… but bound for extinction.”5 In a 1993 biography, the historian Irving Bartlett repeated this judgment, writing, “The dominant tendencies of the Western world moved toward human liberty, equality, and nationality, and Calhoun, frozen in time in tiny South Carolina, seemed to defy them all.”6

It is long past time to reevaluate whether John C. Calhoun was indeed out of step with the flow of history. In order to answer that question we have to consider him anew. It may be an uncomfortable exercise since, if done honestly, it will not confirm our comfortable preconceptions about him or about our history. Just as we can no longer dismiss slavery as a premodern labor system whose influence was restricted to one section of the country, opposed to modernity and antithetical to capitalism, a past that has no connection to our present, so we can no longer dismiss John C. Calhoun as the dark foil of an inevitable American progress and freedom. Instead, in any honest accounting, he belongs at the center of the stories we tell about our past. Unlike a monument, history cannot be torn down and bundled off to some dusty corner of a municipal warehouse without consequences. 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.


The People with No Name

BY HIS OWN INTERPRETATION of its history, John C. Calhoun was born before the Union. Martha Calhoun was three months pregnant with her fourth child when Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown, and when the child, a boy, was born in March 1782, there was still no formal peace treaty between England and its former colonies. Revolutionary chaos still reigned in the South Carolina backcountry and British troops still occupied Charleston. For the previous two years South Carolina patriots and loyalists had been torturing and killing one another with a ferocity unmatched in any other colony, and in the months after the boy’s birth his kinsman Andrew Pickens was still leading military expeditions to subdue Cherokee along the frontier. Martha and her husband, Patrick, named the boy after her brother, who had been killed in front of his own house by loyalists during the war. All around John Caldwell Calhoun the world was bloody and new, still taking on shape and form.1

Well before the revolution began, the Calhouns had a long family tradition of pursuing the promise of cheap land to the fringes of the ever-expanding British Empire. Calhoun’s father had been born in northern Ireland and emigrated to America as a young boy in 1733 when his parents, Patrick and Catherine Calhoon, as they spelled it then, decided to follow the promising news they had heard about the colony of Pennsylvania. The elder Patrick had been born in County Donegal in the province of Ulster, but the family was only a century removed from Scotland.2 During the seventeenth century members of the Calhoon family followed the promise of land taken from Catholic landholders by British rulers to northern Ireland, where by 1690 there were 150,000 Scottish Presbyterians.3

Even as they took advantage of its expansion, the Calhoons were keenly aware of their status as second-class subjects within the British Empire. As Protestants they enjoyed more rights than Ireland’s native Catholic majority, but as Presbyterians and thus dissenters from the established Church of Ireland, they were barred from holding office by the hated Test Act of 1704 yet still forced to pay a tithe to the established church. This double disadvantage, of being Irish in an English empire and Presbyterian in an Anglican country, was a source of deep resentment among the Calhoons’ Presbyterian friends and neighbors, who believed they were due the same rights that other freeborn Britons could claim in the decades after the Glorious Revolution. In the years before the Calhoons departed Ulster, some Presbyterian ministers protested their political exclusion and mounted a campaign to repeal the Test Act. Minister John Abernethy inveighed that the act deprived dissenters of “the full possession of their Civil Rights in common with their fellow Subjects.” The campaign eventually failed, but it assured that dissenters like the Calhoons who left Ulster in the early 1730s had been shaped by the rhetoric of the effort to repeal the act, which dissenters labeled a “badge of slavery.”4

Many of the ideas that would shape the history of Britain’s North American colonies could be found in Ulster in the years before the Calhoons departed. The ideas of John Locke were just finding their way into Ireland by way of the Scottish universities where most of Ireland’s Presbyterian ministers were educated. One of those ministers, Francis Hutcheson, departed Ulster three years before the Calhoons to take a chair in moral philosophy at the university at Glasgow, where he developed the idea of an innate moral sense that would make him a central figure in the Scottish Enlightenment and one of the sources of the Scottish Common Sense philosophy that would dominate American universities like Yale by the beginning of the nineteenth century.5 In 1747 Hutcheson published A Short Introduction to Moral Philosophy, in which he argued that it was the right, and even the duty, of a people to resist and change their system of government when it failed to secure their interests. Intimately familiar with the plight of the Irish within Great Britain, and the plight of Presbyterians within Ireland, Hutcheson applied this logic specifically to the case of a colony separating from its mother country, a radical argument that few other figures in the Scottish Enlightenment were willing to endorse, but which Great Britain’s American colonies would eventually embrace. More radical and less widely accepted in America was Hutcheson’s extension of the right of resistance to slaves and wives who were treated unjustly by their masters and husbands.6

Patrick Calhoon probably knew about Pennsylvania because of the linen trade, which had transformed Ulster society in the first few decades of the eighteenth century. Pennsylvania provided flaxseed for the Irish market and in turn served as one of the primary markets for the linen fabric woven in homes throughout Ulster, including perhaps the Calhoons’. But in the 1720s failing crops combined with rising rents, falling linen prices, and political and religious oppression created a perfect storm of pressures that set off a wave of migration to the American colonies that peaked in 1729 and continued for decades.7 More than one hundred thousand of Ulster’s Presbyterians would make the trip by the eve of the American Revolution, including Andrew Jackson and his wife Elizabeth, who sailed from the northern town of Carrickfergus in 1765 and settled in the Waxhaws region of South Carolina, where their third son, named after his father, was born two years later.8

Much of what the elder Patrick hoped Pennsylvania would be as he and his family sailed up the Delaware in 1733 had likely been shaped by reports from acquaintances who had already made the trip. As one Irish observer told an English official, the dissenters heard from friends and relatives that land could be purchased cheap in America, “and that these will remain by firm tenure as a possession to them and their posterity for ever.” They also heard that in Pennsylvania they would be “free from all those oppressions and impositions which they are subject to here… that there they have no tythe (or task masters, as they call them) to vex or oppress them…[and] no laws which render them incapable of serving their King and Country.” To Patrick and many others, the attractions of Pennsylvania contrasted with the oppressions of Ireland.9

After their arrival in Pennsylvania, Patrick and his family made their way inland from the coast to Lancaster County along the eastern side of the Susquehanna River, where by the 1730s large numbers of immigrants from Ireland had already settled. Evidence suggests they settled somewhere in what would become the township of Dromore, near the community of Chestnut Level, and almost certainly with family and acquaintances from Ireland. If the dead are evidence, Calhouns were buried in the cemetery of the Chestnut Level Presbyterian Church until well into the nineteenth century.10

Already by the time the Calhoons arrived some in Pennsylvania called the new immigrants the “Scotch-Irish,” denoting their mixed origins within the British Empire. Some observers simply called them “Irish.” The dissenters themselves rejected both labels. In any case, most colonists agreed the new arrivals were undesirable. In 1729, in his Pennsylvania Gazette, Benjamin Franklin noted the “impenitency” of the Ulster migrants, and blamed them for a recent outbreak of smallpox. Another observer called the migrants “the very scum of mankind.” As late as the eve of the American Revolution in his famous Letters from an American Farmer, Hector St. John de Crèvecœur could still write, “The Irish do not prosper so well; they love to drink and to quarrel; they are litigious and soon take to the gun, which is the ruin of everything.” The Calhoons likely arrived with more resources than many of their countrymen, and it appears they put those resources to good use, but Pennsylvanians were not disposed to draw distinctions.11

THERE WAS ONLY ONE group of immigrants to North America in the eighteenth century that outnumbered those from Ulster. In Pennsylvania, perhaps on the streets of Philadelphia, young Patrick probably had his first glimpse of enslaved Africans. Like the term “Scotch-Irish,” the term “African” was imposed, and would have made little sense to the people from various regions on the west coast of Africa who were given the name by those who enslaved them. During just the decade that the Calhoons arrived in Pennsylvania more than fifty thousand enslaved Africans were sold in ports up and down the Atlantic sea coast, with thirty thousand of them going to Charleston to feed the insatiable demand of South Carolina rice planters exporting to markets in Britain and the British West Indies.12 One of the Africans who endured the Middle Passage in the 1750s could still recall years later the “pestilential” smell of the hold of the ship that carried him across the Atlantic. “The closeness of the place, and the heat of the climate, added to the number in the ship, which was so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, almost suffocated us,” wrote Olaudah Equiano. “The shrieks of the women, and the groans of the dying, rendered the whole a scene of horror almost inconceivable.” Two of Equiano’s fellow captives threw themselves over the side of the ship and drowned.13 For Patrick Calhoon and many other dissenters from Ireland, the New World was an opportunity to seek a better life with more political equality and economic opportunity, but as it turned out that dream was sometimes rooted in the nightmares of people like Olaudah Equiano.

Slavery was not central to Pennsylvanian society in the 1730s, but it was not quite marginal, either. By the first decade of the eighteenth century most wealthy households in Philadelphia owned slaves as household servants, and by midcentury enslaved craftsmen were common in the city’s trades. In the countryside, enslaved Africans worked alongside European indentured servants growing crops for sale to the Philadelphia market and beyond. The same year the Calhoons arrived, Philadelphia papers carried advertisements for slaves, mostly in very small groups, including one by a Philadelphia merchant named Robert Ellis with a history of importing slaves from Antigua, who advertised “Several likely Negroe Boys and Girls” for sale.14 The Ulster Presbyterians showed little aversion to slavery, perhaps because they were accustomed to living with a subjugated Catholic population in Ireland, and by the late 1730s slave ownership was common in Ulster conclaves along the Susquehanna River. Although there is no evidence his family purchased slaves in Pennsylvania, as a boy young Patrick may have heard justifications of African slavery similar to the one Presbyterian minister John Elder gave in a sermon to his congregation in Lancaster County, in which he proclaimed, “The Negroes the Progeny of Ham are the servants of servants and their Country the Market of Slavery.”15

The biblical story of the curse of Ham in the book of Genesis had served to explain the inferiority and enslavement of black Africans among Muslims, Jews, and Christians for several centuries by the time it appeared in Pennsylvania.16 But newer explanations were on the horizon as the Enlightenment drive to organize knowledge produced the first efforts to scientifically categorize human beings. In 1735, the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus famously subdivided the human race into Europeans, Asians, American Indians, and Africans, the latter of whom he described as “crafty, indolent, negligent.” Most Enlightenment thinkers still held to the common origins of mankind, but the observable fact of African enslavement along with a neoclassical aesthetic of beauty drawn from ancient Greece and Rome led many to agree with David Hume, who in 1748 wrote, “I am apt to suspect the Negroes… to be naturally inferior to the whites.” In the eighteenth century these ideas had not crystallized into “scientific” racial theories, but as one historian writes, “the scientific thought of the Enlightenment was a precondition for the growth of a modern racism based on physical typology.” Natural rights and the racism that would eventually be used to deny that Africans deserved those rights matured together as cousins in Patrick’s world.17

Just as the Calhoons arrived in Pennsylvania a radical critique of slavery and the slave trade had begun to emerge within Pennsylvania’s Quaker community, a movement that would continue to grow and spread on both sides of the Atlantic as the century progressed. As early as 1688, a petition from four Quaker converts in Germantown condemned Quaker involvement in the slave trade, stating, “We shall doe to all men like as we will be done ourselves… making no difference of what generation, descent or colour they are.”18 Quaker critics condemned not only the cruelty of slavery but also the unrestrained desire for wealth and “luxury” that they believed sustained slaveholding and trading. One of the most influential voices in the middle colonies during the eighteenth century belonged to the Quaker John Woolman, who composed the first part of his Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes in 1746 after visiting the southern colonies. Woolman observed that “customs generally approved, and opinions received by youth from their superiors, become like the natural produce of a soil,” but he begged his Christian readers to reconsider their opinions on slavery. He also cited Genesis, but in this case to argue that “all nations are of one blood.” Woolman rejected “the idea of slavery being connected with the black colour, and liberty with the white,” lamenting that “where false ideas are twisted into our minds, it is with difficulty we get fairly disentangled.”19 Whether the Calhoons encountered arguments like Woolman’s or thought much about them if they did we do not know, but it seems unlikely that they had any moral objections to slavery. Like many other European immigrants to British North America, their concerns were mostly for their own rights as British subjects, not any rights supposedly common to all mankind.

WHEN PATRICKS FATHER DIED in Pennsylvania in 1741 the elder Patrick did not own any slaves, but he had accumulated a modest estate worth roughly £150, including land, crops, four horses, and a few cows. Since arriving in Pennsylvania he had also changed the spelling of his name to Calhoun.20 Within a few years of their father’s death, Patrick and his brothers, accompanied by their sister Mary Noble, her husband John, and likely other extended family and friends, took their widowed mother and traversed what would soon be a well-traveled path south from Pennsylvania along the eastern side of the Appalachian mountains into western Virginia, where colonial officials were offering cheap land to new settlers. Repeating a family pattern begun in Ireland a century earlier, the Calhouns settled in Augusta County sometime before 1746 and quickly began accumulating land.21 In 1749, the surveyor for Augusta County, acting on an order from the governor’s council to distribute 100,000 acres of land to settlers, surveyed 159 acres for twenty-two-year-old Patrick along Reed Creek. Patrick’s acreage, which the surveyor marked out by imposing arbitrary lines and boundaries based on features of the natural landscape, represented one small part of the larger process in which the vast interior of North America was being transformed into private property and transferable wealth secured by the power of the British Empire and shaped by European notions of property rights.22 To Patrick, his 159 acres undoubtedly represented independence, the right and duty to participate in politics as a “freeholder,” and a space in which to exercise his energy and authority. Patrick and his brothers would eventually amass nearly 1,800 acres in Augusta County.23

In 1755, Augusta County held over two thousand white settlers but only forty black people, the second-lowest number of any county in the colony despite having been settled for two decades. Indeed, Patrick may have had more familiarity with slavery from his time in Pennsylvania than in Augusta County. Scots-Irish Presbyterians were the largest single group in Augusta County in the 1740s, and given their tendency to move and settle together, it is likely that Patrick’s time in Virginia continued to be defined by the memory of Ireland and by the rituals and governance of the Presbyterian Church.24

When Patrick ventured through Rockfish Gap in the Blue Ridge Mountains into the Virginia piedmont to conduct business, he encountered something unique in the British colonies: a two-tiered society in which an attachment to liberty among whites drew its vitality from freedom’s opposite, embodied in black slaves. In Virginia the presence of racial slavery served, in the words of one historian, as a “flying buttress to freedom.” Between 1700 and 1775 an estimated 140,000 Africans were sold into slavery in the port cities of the Chesapeake.25 Slavery shaped the way that white Virginians read the warnings of a group of eighteenth-century British writers called the commonwealthmen, who drew from critics of monarchical power such as Algernon Sidney and James Harrington to urge the need to constantly guard liberty against the voracious nature of power. Virginians only had to look around them to see what they would become if they did not resist the first hint of a threat to their liberty, and few questioned the racial distribution of freedom in their society. Indeed, some of the British commonwealthmen such as James Burgh and Andrew Fletcher, both greatly admired by Thomas Jefferson, saw no contradiction between espousing liberty for one class of men while recommending slavery, or near slavery, for the dependent poor, who in their view posed a threat to political stability. By the time Patrick Calhoun arrived in Augusta County, Virginians across the Blue Ridge had followed this prescription. The dissenters had already shown a willingness to embrace slavery for economic gain in Pennsylvania, but in Virginia Patrick may have begun to learn its political lessons, as well.26

IN EARLY 1756 PATRICK and his family left Virginia, driven by the growing unrest on the Virginia frontier in the wake of General Edward Braddock’s disastrous defeat at the hands of the French and their Indian allies the previous July. This time, a recent treaty between the colonial government of South Carolina and the Cherokee seemed to promise not only cheap land but also a relative reprieve from the conflict upending life on the Virginia frontier. Making their way southward, Patrick and his family passed through the Waxhaw settlement on the border between North and South Carolina where Andrew Jackson would be born in 1767. Pushing on past a trading post called Ninety Six, which represented the boundary of white settlement in South Carolina, the Calhouns finally settled in what would become Abbeville County, on a small tributary of Long Cane Creek that soon came to be known as Calhoun Creek.27

As a boy growing up along that creek, John C. Calhoun would read in his father’s journal descriptions of the land as it appeared when the Calhouns arrived. It was “in a virgin state, new & beautiful, without underwood & all the fertile portion covered by a dense canebrake, & hence the name of Long Cane.” When the Calhouns settled there the area was full of game and only “16 or 17 miles” from the border with the Cherokee.28


  • “An illuminating account of the life of the notorious white supremacist as well as his complex afterlife in American political culture….In his lucid book about this complex and contradictory figure, Robert Elder wisely refrains from assigning Calhoun to a stationary spot along the political spectrum….[A] valuable book.”
     —New York Times Book Review
  • “A timely and thought-provoking biography of the South Carolina statesman whose doctrines and debates set the stage for the Civil War. In the course of his chronicle, Mr. Elder traces how Calhoun’s thinking continues to influence American society today....[A] much-needed biography.”—Wall Street Journal
  • “There are some biographies which are almost impossible to write….John Caldwell Calhoun is one of those difficult subjects, something which the Baylor University historian Robert Elder acknowledges in the title of his new Calhoun biography….Still, Elder has the decency of compassion and never underestimates or burlesques Calhoun.”—The New Criterion
  • "Historian Elder reassesses the life and legacy of U.S. vice president and South Carolina senator John C. Calhoun (1782–1850) in this comprehensive biography. Elder skillfully tracks Calhoun’s unusual political career trajectory, from his advocacy for war with England as a freshman congressman in 1811, to his modernization of the U.S. Army as secretary of war, resignation as Andrew Jackson’s vice president and return to Congress in 1832 as a strident advocate for states’ rights, and calls for a constitutional amendment protecting slavery in the weeks before his death in 1850.... Elder is a graceful writer who persuasively argues that the beliefs and policies Calhoun amplified continue to shape American politics."—Publishers Weekly
  • "A forcefully argued case for placing Calhoun at the center of any honest account of America's tangled past."—Kirkus
  • “This well-researched book offers a definitive account of Calhoun.”—Library Journal
  • "In this much-needed new biography, Robert Elder cuts through two hundred years of interpretive tangle to reveal Calhoun as he was and as he remains with us today—perhaps the most creative and darkly influential reactionary America has ever produced."—Matthew Karp, author of This Vast Southern Empire
  • "Because he was slavery's most eloquent defender as well as a founding father of the Confederacy, it's been difficult for scholars to come to terms with John C. Calhoun’s foundational role in America's political and social development. This engrossing biography reveals how the United States and one of its most prominent intellectuals grew in tandem during the first half of the nineteenth century. As much as we might like to forget Calhoun, Elder reveals just how short the path from his America to our own actually is."—Amy S. Greenberg, author of A Wicked War
  • "Robert Elder has written a brilliant reinterpretation of one of the most vital personalities in American history. Beautifully written, well argued, and carefully researched, Elder’s book offers an unflinching view of Calhoun's virtues and flaws and breaks new ground in revealing his significance as one of the first modern theorists of secession in the age of the nation-state. This is an ideal book to prompt conversations about our country’s difficult history."—Orville Vernon Burton, author of The Age of Lincoln
  • "Through careful attention both to Calhoun's rhetoric and that of his political opponents, and to the global context for American debates, Elder sheds light on Calhoun's broad influence and enduring, tragic legacy. To understand the depth of American racism and the shape of Americans' ongoing contests over the scope of federal power, Elder argues, one must grapple with Calhoun's relentless campaign to impose his political will on South—to make his heresies into the region's orthodoxies. This book is a bracing reminder of how the genre of biography can explicate the history of ideas."—Elizabeth R. Varon, author of Armies of Deliverance

On Sale
Feb 16, 2021
Page Count
656 pages
Basic Books

Robert Elder

About the Author

Robert Elder is an assistant professor of history at Baylor University, where his research focuses on the American South, and the author of The Sacred Mirror: Evangelicalism, Honor, and Identity in the American South, 1790-1860. He holds a PhD from Emory University and lives in Waco, Texas.

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