So– the City of Charleston wasted no time. After the City Council voted unanimously this week to take down its landmark monument to John C. Calhoun, a crew swung into action, starting at near midnight.
It was no small task to pluck the figure from its 100-foot pedestal. It took the workers until late the next day to bring Calhoun floating back down to earth, and ship him off to a future of obscurity.
I was as pleased as anyone to see Calhoun disappear, at least from that exalted place of honor; but I hope he lives on as a shameful memory, of a sadder-but-wiser nation that let him look down on all since 1896, as what one historian called “the Marx of the master class.” The Carolinian’s “manifesto” could perhaps be summed up in this quote from 1836:
“It would be well for those interested to reflect whether there now exists, or ever has existed, a wealthy and civilized community in which one portion did not live on the labor of another; and whether the form in which slavery exists in the South is not but one modification of this universal condition… Let those who are interested remember that labor is the only source of wealth, and how small a portion of it, in all old and civilized countries, even the best governed, is left to those by whose labor wealth is created.”
While Calhoun’s defense of Southern slavery has been rejected by history, the underlying ideas are by no means banished from reality and intellectual discourse; nor will the disappearance of this statue banish them.
Nevertheless, the downing of the statue was quite a spectacle, one which I watched quite consciously from my parochial Quaker perspective.
In Facebook Quaker chatter and debate, there have been numerous calls for a similar project to be applied to our Quaker institutions and their much more restricted iconography.
A particular target of this talk is the visage of William Penn, and in particular the statue of him which has stood atop the Philadelphia City Hall, since 1894 — his apotheosis preceding Calhoun’s by two years.
Philadelphia’s Penn is not only older than the southerner, but higher: his base is 500 feet above the street, 400 higher than Calhoun.
The reason for the calls for him to be consigned to another corner of Calhoun’s Gehenna had two main premises: the first is that when Penn acquired property in his new colony of Pennsylvania for a personal estate, a group of slaves came with it. As Penn was a slaveowner, so the indictment runs, out his visage must go, in disgrace and repudiation.
The second stated reason for removal was more general: it is that Quakers began as a quite iconoclastic group: not raiding churches and destroying religious icons, as many Puritans did, but denouncing and avoiding such, keeping their meetinghouses free of “heathenish idols”, their attire shorn of adornment, and their calendars free of the pagan names of months and weekdays. This week some posters insisted that this tradition be revived and applied generally, not just to Quaker statuary and other portrayals of those who were slave-connected, but generally.
Here they echoed an early cry by no less a Quaker than founder George Fox, who thundered:
This borrowed inconophobia became for two centuries a Quaker dogma. It was not a complete ban: on one hand it produced many meetinghouses that balanced an austere interior with a comely sense of spiritual balance.
And despite official frowns, it always made space for didactic poetry, such as “The Anti-Slavery Alphabet,” written by a Friend but published anonymously beginning in 1846 as a fundraiser for abolitionist organizing. A contemporary, John Greenleaf Whittier, became the most famous American poet of his time (he died in 1892).
Yet the Quaker anti-art policy was otherwise total, and ultimately it was increasingly felt to be oppressive. But before it collapsed, it caught a number of inconveniently talented Friends in the grip of existential dilemmas.
Perhaps the most well-known victim of this self-denial was the painter Edward Hicks (1780-1849), of Newtown, Pennsylvania. He wrote in his Memoirs that:
The trouble for Hicks was that he himself was a “fine painter,” and hard experience showed him that he was pretty much no good at anything else. Yet he was also a devout Quaker; so what was he to do?
We don’t have room to tell his very interesting, often poignant story; but basically, he painted, agonized, and died poor. Hicks is best-known today for the sixty or so “Peaceable Kingdom” scenes that he painted, variations on a biblical prophecy. He mostly gave them away; today they’re worth millions.
But back to statuary. I predict the new iconoclasts will have a tough time getting slaveowner Penn off the top of Philadelphia City Hall. For one thing, putting him there was not a Quaker project; it reflects a long tradition of city pride. For another, the logistics would be daunting: when the city has done conservation work on the statue (Philly weather is hell on his bronze skin), it takes weeks of preparation before they can even start. And by the way, this topmost Penn is 37 feet high himself, and weighs well over 50,000 pounds.
And that’s not to mention pushback: Penn did a bunch besides owning a few slaves, and much of his legacy is something that Pennsylvanians and educated Quakers can be proud of. He was an epochal hero of engraving religious freedom into the political DNA of the colonies that became the USA. That’s an achievement that has benefited Christians, Jews, Muslims and even unbelievers of all colors for 320-plus years and counting.
Penn is a fine example of the mixed character that makes many historic figures hard cases for those who want to think about not only the cultural bathwater, but also the baby. Lots of Quakers still think he’s worthy of high regard, without wanting to erase his shortcomings; me included.
But some reject this, even from within our small Quaker horizon. The old attitude is stirring: Quaker statues are almost all of white people, and their time is past, and anyway, Fox told us to pluck down all these images.
Which made me wonder. How much grist do we have for their mill? So I looked around.
We can’t match the Catholics, of course. But as it turns out, there’s another Quaker statue just a few blocks from Philadelphia City Hall, and much closer to street level. And it’s well-known in a quiet Quaker way.
It is of Mary Dyer, who was hanged on Boston Common in 1660, one of four such Boston Quaker martyrs. The sculpture’s simple lines reflect the spirit of the early Quaker drive for a stern plainness. The sculptor, Sylvia Shaw Judson, was a Friend herself.
So out with Mary too? She’s not known to have owned any slaves; but . . . . And her eviction would be a threefold task: three copies of the sculpture were made: the one in the photo is at Earlham College in Indiana; there’s another outside Friends Center in Philly, and the third sits by the Massachusetts state house in Boston, a short walk from where Dyer was hanged.
I’ve visited all three of these, in situ. And you know what? I like them. They remind me of when being a Quaker was serious business. While nowhere as big as the Penn figure at city hall, the statue looks very solid and heavy. She won’t be easy to move. I like that also and say: leave her be.
And if some just have to strike a blow against William Penn, they could look west, to, wait for it — William Penn University, in Oskaloosa Iowa. And they even have a sculpture ready for you. I couldn’t find a name for it; but it’s outside their fine arts center; the school was founded after the Quaker anti-art & music ban had crumbled.
Or go farther west, to southern California and the city of Whittier near LA. It was founded by Quaker migrants from the East, in memory of the famous Quaker poet, with Whittier College nearby to boot. Whittier (the town) has a Central park, and in it there’s a statue of Whittier himself.
An assault in it is not an original idea. Some West Coast iconoclasts already got to Whittier and started on his visage. Just with paint this time. And he’s an easy target; not really elevated, no fence or anything.
But wait a minute. Somebody painted “no slaveowners” on him, which might be timely — but Whittier was never a slaveowner. To the contrary, he spent much of his adult life as an antislavery activist. Even after his health failed and kept him at home, Whittier fought for abolition with one of the most famous pens of his day. I’m wondering what it achieves to treat him as in the same category as Calhoun.
But then, if one can’t get to Whittier, there’s always the Northwest. Up in Oregon you could find George Fox University. They have a new statue, their equivalent of the 800-pound gorilla: this one is an 800-pound bronze bear.
A bear? Don’t ask. There it is and it’s a Quaker school; have at it. (Not really. The bear never owned slaves.)
And I’ve got one more, which should be a magnet: A twofer, in the U.S. Capitol in Washington. It portrays three women: Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony & (my hero) Lucretia Mott.
The trio is honored in the rotunda because of their work to win votes for women. But this is an array BLM protestors can sink their teeth into (figuratively): two of them (Stanton & Anthony) explicitly chose their single issue cause of women’s suffrage over against urging Congress, after the Civil War, to enfranchise freed blacks and protect their voting rights against white terrorism. In the course of that, Stanton & Anthony said and wrote some very racist stuff. And Susan B. Anthony had lots of Quaker connections.
I’m leaving out the third figure here, Lucretia Mott, because her record is different; she stood staunchly and life-long for equal rights for all black and white Americans, female as well as male, and was not part of the sellout that Stanton and Anthony fell into. She was also the one lifelong staunch Quaker, and she walked the talk. (You ask me, messing with her would be seriously bad karma.)
But okay, the mantra of the moment is no exceptions, so Lucretia’s gotta go too. But one more caution: security around the Capitol is tight and serious: those dudes have plenty of guns.
Speaking of guns, for John C. Calhoun, beyond all the intellectual gymnastics, his defense of slavery always came down to a vow that he and the South would fight to preserve it. Calhoun didn’t live to fulfill that vow, but many others ended their days doing so.
I hope we’re not again nearing that same point of extremity. But the voices of revived iconoclasm remind me of a comment by Rufus Jones about the impact of the earlier Quaker efforts against arts like sculpture:
This time, I wouldn’t miss the 800 pound bear. And sorting out what to make of the failings of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Stanton is a serious question. As for the rest, aren’t there better and more important targets?