John C. Calhoun, Roy Moore and a Monument to a “Crime Against Humanity”

Reports out of Charleston today indicate that the city’s commission to add a contextual panel to the John C. Calhoun has been finalized. Not surprising, this has been a contentious process from the beginning. It ended with the decision to remove what some people believe to be the most important reference to the monument as a “relic of the crime against humanity.”

First, the original panel text.

This statue to John C. Calhoun (1782 – 1850) is a relic of the crime against humanity, the folly of some political leaders and the plague of racism. It remains standing today as a grave reminder that many South Carolinians once viewed Calhoun as worthy of memorialization even though his political career was defined by his support of race-based slavery. Historic preservation, to which Charleston is dedicated, includes this monument as a lesson to future generations.

December 6, 2017 revision:

This monument to John C. Calhoun (1782- 1850), erected in 1896, was the culmination of efforts begun in 1858 to commemorate his career. It was erected at a time, after Reconstruction, when most white South Carolinians believed in white supremacy, and the state enacted legislation establishing racial segregation. These ideas are now universally condemned.

Calhoun served as Vice-President of the United States under two presidents, as U.S. Secretary of War, as U.S. Secretary of State, as a U.S. Senator from South Carolina and as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. A political theorist, he was the author of two important works on the U.S. Constitution and the Federal Government.

A member of the Senate’s “Great Triumvirate,” which included Daniel Webster of Massachusetts and Henry Clay of Kentucky, Calhoun championed states’ rights and nullification, the right of an individual state to invalidate a federal law which it viewed as unconstitutional.

Unlike many of the founding fathers, who viewed the enslavement of Africans as “a necessary evil” possibly to be overcome, Calhoun defended the institution of race-based slavery as a “positive good.”

The statue remains standing today as a reminder that many South Carolinians once viewed Calhoun as worthy of memorialization even though his political positions included his support of race-based slavery, an institution repugnant to the core ideas and values of the United States of America.

Historic preservation, to which Charleston is dedicated, includes this monument as a lesson to future generations of the importance of historical context when examining individuals and events in our state’s past.

While I do think this revised text hits on some important points about Calhoun the reasons for the monument, it is still problematic. First, it speaks volumes that Charlestonians can erect a monument to the victims of the Holocaust within feet of the Calhoun monument, but they can’t acknowledge a “crime against humanity” in their own backyard. Calhoun didn’t defend states’ rights for its own sake. His defense was directly tied to the fear that a stronger federal government threatened the institution of slavery.

As I recently learned first hand, these discussions are difficult to have in Charleston, but if ever there was a time when we need to fully embrace this language it is now. One need look no further than Roy Moore’s own understanding of slavery. He will soon serve the good people of Alabama in the U.S. Senate.

There is a direct link between Roy Moore’s understanding of slavery and Calhoun’s framing of it as a “positive good.” The failure to call it for what it is and connect Calhoun himself to this lingering narrative is itself an argument to remove the monument. This was an opportunity for the people of Charleston to fully reject the legacy of racism that sits within eyesight of where Dylann Roof tried to incite his own race war in 2015.

Unfortunately, they came up short.

10 comments… add one
  • The first text says to me, “we would have much preferred to tear this monument down, but since we can’t, we’ll excoriate it with moral indignation.” The second text actually provides context–the core goal, last I checked, of contextualization. My synopsis of Calhoun’s career might have looked a little different, but I have written, edited, and otherwise approved texts for hundreds of historical markers and various interpretive panels, and the former would never have been seriously considered except as a starting point–which, indeed, it was. Most readers will draw the correct conclusion without being beaten over the head with it.

    Calhoun’s cemented his place in history as the primary architect of states’ rights doctrine. Coupled with “scientific” racism as justification for the “positive good” view of slavery, states’ rights advocates specifically rejected the Enlightenment- and Revolution-era concept of divinely ordained natural rights enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. They accurately foresaw that the logical end of natural rights lay in abolition and emancipation, and as such was completely inimical to perpetuating the southern way of life. Alexander Stephens succinctly and coherently framed the ascendancy of states rights over natural rights in his Cornerstone Speech.

    Reply
    • Well said. A useful addition would be the info that the original monument was opposed and vandalized, as a commenter notes below.
      While a longer text is a bigger target in such a contentious discussion, I suspect a lot of people might not know who Calhoun was, and the newer text gives that info. The base text was long on justified indignation but short on facts.

      Reply
  • You are right, period.

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  • It seems so obvious that if white Southerners had been sincere about States’ Rights they would have acknowledged the right of free states to nullify the Fugitive Slaves Act. They didn’t, so they weren’t. Why doesn’t that alone settle the argument?

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  • I wish they had also included some discussion of the black community’s protests against, and vandalism of, this monument and the original Calhoun monument it replaced. Many South Carolinians despised these monument from the start.

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  • “There is a direct link between Roy Moore’s understanding of slavery and Calhoun’s framing of it as a “positive good.””
    I can’t agree with you on this, Kevin. Moore was effectively saying “this good despite slavery is what matters,” while Calhoun was saying “slavery is good”. Not that I want to defend Moore.

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    • I don’t see how you can talk about the moral foundation of the white family without acknowledging its ownership of other people. Slaveowners themselves often situated enslaved people as constituting members of an extended family.

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      • I fail to see just what that has to do with what I wrote, or with what Moore and Calhoun wrote.

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        • Kristoffer, it has to do with Levin’s hatred of white Southerners. Expressing that hatred is an underlying motive for this blog. That’s why it’s about civil war MEMORY … he can claim anything and anyone he wishes to trash are “memories” of the civil war.

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          • Glad to see that you are still in the land of the living. I missed you, Connie. Happy Holidays!

            Reply

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