Calhoun: American Heretic


Calhoun: American Heretic by Robert Elder is published by Basic Books.

Robert Elder has written an outstanding biography of an essential man in 19th century American history. The book, the man, and the issues are primary and critical for any students, would-be-scholars, and teachers of American history. I would commend any college professor who assigns or at least strongly recommends this study.

With decades of teaching and reading American history, I found huge gaps in my own understanding of history helped by my study of this work. All of that being said, I do have some reservations, indeed disagreements, with the author’s perspective that I will comment on later.

The Great Triumvirate : Webster, Clay, and Calhoun by Merrill D. Peterson

There were three men, sometimes referred to a “the Great Triumvirate” of the U. S. Senate, who held powerful positions in the antebellum government from the War of 1812 up to the Compromise of 1850. They were Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and John C. Calhoun. It is interesting that none of them made it to the Presidency, yet all of them individually outshone quite a few of the Presidents of those years. All three were Secretaries of State at one time or another (and that office was the stepping stone to the Presidency). All three battled the key issues of the day, often in opposition to one or the other amongst themselves. All three have been ranked as being among the greatest leaders in the Senate for all of American history.

Of the three, it is Calhoun who has often been praised or blamed for being an original and profound political thinker. While he grappled with the political conflicts of his time, and while he sometimes had views that morphed from one stance to another to fit circumstances, and while he was a skilled a wily politician rather than a marble statesman, he actually carved out time to write A Disquisition on Government. This work, which like too many source materials is mentioned sometimes and read almost never, grapples with the issues of how a minority (the Southern states in Calhoun’s situation) can coexist with a ruling majority.

For Calhoun, political thought was not an academic ivory tower escape. He was generally in the thick of the political controversies of his time. He came near to being a Presidential contender on several occasions. Oddly enough, he served as Vice President twice under two men who were Presidential rivals (John Q. Adams and Andrew Jackson). Not surprising, Calhoun’s principles and convictions would put in alliances with others at points, while later producing political enmity. His conflicts with Andrew Jackson were both political and personal. Jackson regretted not hanging Calhoun, although he had no legal grounds to do so (which would have been only a slight impediment to Old Hickory).

The political drive, unrelenting convictions, and untiring work that Calhoun devoted to his and South Carolina’s and the South’s and the United States’ are astounding. Much of what labored to achieve fell into obscurity, or occupies a few paragraphs of most government texts, or is discredited in our day.

There is no understanding of pre-Civil War America without some serious time devoted to Calhoun. For that reason, this book is quite important, readable, and well done.

But notice the title: Calhoun: American Heretic. Robert Elder deals forcefully with the terrible institution of slavery in Calhoun’s time. Like so many other leaders of his era, Calhoun was a slave owner. Unlike many of them, he did not flinch or apologize or seek to minimize the bad effects of slavery. In our time, we have, thankfully, gotten past praising our leaders of the early republic as though they were all pillars of truth and exemplars of all virtue. Hagiography has no place in historical studies. But we still have to reckon with the fact that people from the past live in a foreign land that differs from our own. Criticizing and fault finding is inescapable, but there a need for trying to get inside the mindset of a previous era whose sins and follies differ from our own.

Calhoun is a pariah today. His name, statues of him, and his legacy are part of the great airbrushing of history due to our own sensitivities, political correctness, and desire to rewrite the past. I found Dr. Elder’s last section of the book unsatisfying. In it, he heaped up his criticisms of Calhoun, his dismissal of his political thought, and his willingness to push him off the stage. Maybe Elder is right. Calhoun said and thought many things I don’t want to defend.

For me, I find myself now wanting to read Calhoun’s writings, particularly his Disquisition on Government. I also am ready to dig into the works of such scholars as Lee Cheek and Clyde Wilson who have much more favorable assessments of the man. That is, I suppose, what historical studies are all about.

Whether you like Calhoun or despise him, whether this would be one of many reads on the man or your first venture into his thought, Robert Elder has written a challenging, readable, and worthy book.

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