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.
“I think it was great at the time when families were united — even though we had slavery — they cared for one another. … Our families were strong, our country had a direction.” #RoyMoore pic.twitter.com/X9s7Hcp9Sg
— Kevin M. Levin (@KevinLevin) December 8, 2017
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.