"The Making of a Disquisition on Government": Friday History Colloquium with Valparaiso Prof. Robert Elder


For the final Friday colloquium before the Thanksgiving break, Valparaiso University Assistant Professor of History Robert Elder came to campus to give a talk on his current book project, a cultural biography which seeks to identify South Carolina statesman John C. Calhoun’s place in the Southern intellectual tradition. In particular, Prof. Elder focused in his talk on Calhoun’s commentary on the rash of revolutions that swept across Europe during 1848. Contained largely in correspondence with his daughter Anna, who lived in Belgium at the time, these writings, Prof. Elder argued, provide new and illuminating context for reading Calhoun’s Disquisition on Government, as the author effectively saw the upheaval in Europe as providing an opportunity for him to test the theories on government that he was developing and chronicling. The case of France, for example, ultimately served to affirm Calhoun’s belief that governments founded on a principle of natural equality extend the scope of liberty beyond its reasonable limits and, in doing so, open themselves up to the tyranny of the numerical majority and a subsequent descent into absolutism. By contrast, Prof. Elder noted that Calhoun was somewhat more optimistic about the fate of Germany, whose proposed government he felt more closely resembled the United States’ own federal structure. Specifically, while he had concerns about whether Germany would sufficiently empower its member states, Calhoun did think that it was moving in the direction of striking the balance between strong government and rationally circumscribed liberty and suffrage that he associated with the best and most stable of constitutional systems.

Robert Elder received his Ph.D. in History from Emory University, and he joined the faculty at Valparaiso University in 2014, after serving as a Lilly Postdoctoral Fellow from 2011 to 2013. He is the author of The Sacred Mirror: Evangelicalism, Honor, and Identity in the Deep South, 1790-1860 (UNC Press, May 2016), and his research focuses primarily on the cultural and religious history of the American South in the nineteenth century. He is currently working on a new book project on John C. Calhoun.