Calls to take down the Confederate flag battle flag have quickly extended to monuments to the Confederacy, most of which dot local court houses, parks, and other public spaces. Many have been vandalized with the phrase ‘Black Lives Matter”. The only city that has moved to take down a Confederate monument is Birmingham, Alabama, which did so last night. Other cities, including Baltimore, Memphis, and St. Louis will take up the issue in the coming days and weeks.
My position has remained consistent on the removal of Confederate monuments. Others like Karen Cox, Ethan Kytle and Blain Roberts have staked out their positions, which are well worth reading. Although I tend to resist removal I do not believe that monuments are timeless. Certainly, few Americans take issue with the symbolic gesture surrounding the pulling down of a statue to King George III at the very birth of our Revolution. No collective act more powerfully signaled a break with the past in 1776 short of war?
One of the monuments recently vandalized stands in honor of John C. Calhoun in Charleston’s Marion Park. Calhoun was one of the architects of the pro-slavery argument and worked tirelessly for its future on the floor of the Senate right up until his death during the emotional debates that culminated in the Compromise of 1850. Should his monument be removed as a symbolic gesture of moving forward as a nation?
Many of you might be surprised to hear that this is the second monument to Calhoun located on Marion Square, the first one having been removed – torn down by the very people who erected it. Thomas J. Brown includes an insightful chapter in his book, Civil War Canon: Sites of Confederate Memory in South Carolina, which explores the story of the Ladies Calhoun Monument Association and their efforts to erect a monument to Calhoun beginning in the 1850s.
For the purposes of this blog post I will not go into great detail. The Calhoun monument was finally unveiled in 1887, but almost immediately came under criticism by blacks and whites:
The unfinished monument was unveiled on April 26, 1887, and Charleston’s residents quickly dubbed the statue, “Calhoun and his wife” [a Gullah reference according to Thomas Brown]. The ladies association from the beginning were dissatisfied with the final result. Calhoun’s pose and his Prince Albert Coat were inappropriate. His right index finger which pointed in a different direction than the others (a habit peculiar to him in speeches) was exaggerated to the point of deformity. The final objection was most telling-the female figure’s disheveled appearance.
According to Brown, African Americans “undermined the monument with sarcasm.” Interestingly, the monument also spawned rumors that Calhoun was the father of Abraham Lincoln.
The Ladies immediately took action by commissioning a new monument paid for, in part, by the liquidation of the bronze figures on the original structure. The new monument was completed and dedicated in 1896.
I am not suggesting that this story sets a precedent for tearing down any Confederate monuments. Perceptions of the first Calhoun monument proved to be a sufficient justification for its removal in 1887. My point for now is that we at least need to move beyond viewing these monuments as timeless. The meaning of these structures are constantly evolving.
These decisions will be made by the residents of each community as to whether these monuments are to be torn down or moved to a different location. Ultimately, the debate will be about whether these monuments, and the sites on which they rest, do or can be made to reflect the current values of each community.