Calhoun: American Heretic

Basic Books. Feb. 2021. 656p. ISBN 9780465096442. $35. BIOG
Elder’s (history, Baylor Univ.) cultural and intellectual biography expertly recounts the life and times of John C. Calhoun (1782–1850), a political force from the 1810s through the 1840s. Although his presidential ambitions were unsuccessful, he represented South Carolina in the U.S. House and Senate. He served as James Monroe’s Secretary of War and was Vice President to John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, though he became political foes of both men. He was also, briefly, John Tyler’s Secretary of State. But Calhoun is best remembered as one of the architects of Southern secession and a fervent defender of slavery as property, which he considered “one of the most essential rights of white citizens.” In addition to detailing Calhoun’s substantial career, Elder delves into his subject’s political philosophy and influences. Elder gives ample space to Calhoun’s personal life, including his marriage, children, illnesses, and constant financial struggles. He also assesses the politician’s controversial legacy and the dismantling of his reputation. In a powerfully written epilogue, he states, “We do not have to honor John C. Calhoun, nor should we. But he has not left us the luxury of forgetting him.”
VERDICT This well-researched book offers a definitive account of Calhoun, and will appeal to anyone interested in early American history.
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