The purpose of Calhoun: American Heretic, Baylor historian Robert Elder writes, is “to reevaluate whether John C. Calhoun was indeed out of step with the flow of history.” We ought not to dismiss Calhoun as “the dark foil of an inevitable American progress and freedom.” The man who emerges from Elder’s biography is more worldly and progressive than the late-born provincial baron Elder suspects we see. Consequently, Calhoun’s devotion to white supremacy and slavery cannot be attributed to a fossilized way of life that might otherwise mitigate his sin. His was a defense of the indefensible by an undoubtedly modern statesman, who therefore should have known better. Furthermore, Elder proves that Calhoun’s influence on the growth and future shape of the United States was as great as that of any American of his age. He attempts to open our eyes to the uncomfortable realization that Calhoun’s present legacy is stronger than we might wish. He is “at the center of the stories we tell about our past.” The suggested inference is that since we are not so different from him and live in a world he helped create, we could easily succumb to Calhoun’s worst failings.

Readers inoculated against historicism might shrug at the revelation that Calhoun was modern in outlook and action. For us, good and evil exhibit no particular historical cast. Yet it is a tribute

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