Removing the Statue of John C. Calhoun will be easy. Banishing his Ghost will not.

For Juneteenth, I should be completely pleased with the news that the City Council in Charleston SC will be doing its best to dethrone a statue of John C. Calhoun.

The plan was announced in connection with the fifth anniversary of the horrible mass killing of nine black worshippers at the city’s Mother Emanuel AME Church. Its projected deconstruction is part of the swell of collective revulsion after the George Floyd killing that is felling one Confederate monument after another. The removal would also defy a state law protecting such monuments.

[Update: on June 23, The Charleston City Council voted 13-0 to remove the statue. The council said the statue will be preserved in “an appropriate site where it will be protected and preserved,” at an as yet undisclosed location. They did not set a specific date for the removal.]

Maybe here is  where my hesitation is triggered: not over civil disobedience against such a statute; but starting with the seemingly technical point that Calhoun was not a Confederate leader, or even a Civil War figure: he died in 1850, eleven years before hostilities started.

(Once the war began, the rebel government sought to enshrine his iconic status by adding Calhoun’s visage to the Confederate $100 bill {at lower left}. When that plan didn’t work out so well, the Defenders of the Lost Cause turned to more durable monuments.)

The fact that Calhoun was a pre-war actor is not a reason  to leave his monument alone. But it does raise the questions of why it’s there, and why it’s so “monumental” — 115 feet high, and officially venerated since its erection in 1896. As an ode to Calhoun by a local poet, Miss E. B. Cheesborough, crowed,

Float it above the city’s spires,
And o’er the bay’s blue tide,
Tell how he battled for the South,
And battling thus—he died. . . .

There’s lots to say about Calhoun, and I’m not scholar enough to do that work justice. But  what I’ve read makes one thing clear, and it’s important: he was not merely an advocate of slavery. He was its principal antebellum theoretician.

Calhoun used an exceptional intelligence to build a system of thought that undergirded and justified the slave system  and the political order built on it. These justifications have lived on in various Post-bellum versions & disguises down to the present.

Consider these few quotes from his famous 1837 speech on slavery as “a positive good.”

“Never before has the black race of Central Africa, from the dawn of history to the present day, attained a condition so civilized and so improved, not only physically, but morally and intellectually [as today in the American slave states] … It came to us in a low, degraded, and savage condition, and in the course of a few generations it has grown up under the fostering care of our institutions.

Many in the South once believed that slavery was a moral and political evil. That folly and delusion are gone. We see it now in its true light, and regard it as the most safe and stable basis for free institutions in the world. . . .

But I will not dwell on this aspect of the question; I turn to the political; and here I fearlessly assert that the existing relation between the two races in the South, against which these blind fanatics are waging war, forms the most solid and durable foundation on which to rear free and stable political institutions. It is useless to disguise the fact.

There is and always has been in an advanced stage of wealth and civilization, a conflict between labor and capital. The condition of society in the South exempts us from the disorders and dangers resulting from this conflict; and which explains why it is that the political condition of the slaveholding States has been so much more stable and quiet than that of the North. . . . ”

He argued this key proposition relentlessly, year after year, both in writing and oratory, as well as the hurly-burly of politics.  Its echoes and reverberations are with us still.

And this is the important point for me: the protests and debates today emphasize — rightly — the violence of American racism, its founding in chains, and the upholding of it with the lash, the lynching  rope, and the bullets of police impunity. These are indeed its continuing baleful fruits.

Yet slavery and segregation were more than that. Their roots included ideas and ideology, and in their way these abstract tools were as crucial to maintaining the edifice of oppression as the sharpest blade and the white klansman’s hood. And they are above all Calhoun’s intellectual offspring, still alive and active in our society.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for taking down the Charleston monument. But that work, I believe, will be radically incomplete if we do not also confront & dismantle Calhoun’s ideas, in both their early and current guises and disguises. As the besotted Miss Cheesbrough intoned,

He bore the odium of reproach
While battling for the right;
His prophet voice in clarion tones
Foretold the coming night. . . .

While History weaves for him her crown
The fairest ever seen,
Carolina’s daughters long will strive
To keep the garland green.

And so many of them have.  Not to the pleasure of all Charleston citizens. The city’s Post and Courier quotes “Ms. Mamie Garvin Fields, who was born shortly after the statue, said it seemed to point at her and others like her and say: ‘You may not be a slave, but I am back to see you stay in your place.’”

Hence, after his visage is brought down from its looming pedestal, let it be put somewhere out of public display but still accessible for viewing and the facilitation of  analysis and  intellectual autopsy.

As an editorial in Charleston’s Post & Courier put it:

If Charleston’s mayor and City Council ultimately vote Tuesday to remove the Calhoun statue from Marion Square, they should make sure it finds a home in a local museum or educational institution, so his story would still be on the city’s landscape, albeit in a far less conspicuous spot. . . .

By removing the statue rather than revising it, we would be passing up a serious opportunity to continue to learn from our past.

Mr. Calhoun is arguably South Carolina’s most significant statesman, a vice president under two presidents, a secretary of war, a secretary of state, an influential U.S. senator and a leading political thinker who penned two major works on the U.S. Constitution and federal government. People today should know who he was, for better and worse.

For many, it might feel good to bring down the likeness of a controversial historical figure so linked to the perpetuation of slavery, especially one who has occupied such a high perch for more than a century. We get that. But we take our most important steps forward by understanding our history, not by removing it from view.

Or as James a Baldwin much more pithily put it: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

Miss Cheesbrough again:

O, prophet of the eagle eye!
O, patriot without stain!
Thou’st given a priceless gift to us
In thy untarnished name.

For this we’ve sought to honor thee,
Great champion of the Truth;
And fain would have this hallowed spot
A Mecca for our youth.

3 thoughts on “Removing the Statue of John C. Calhoun will be easy. Banishing his Ghost will not.”

  1. As I’ve been saying in a number of forums of late, the WHY of commemoration matters – a LOT. A memorial to a person or event privileges that thing in the popular imagination. There are those figures from the past who are significant and perhaps worthy of memorialization DESPITE the evil in which they took part. In the case of many Southern leaders and especially of memorials of figures important to the Confederacy, they are memorialized BECAUSE of their support for evils such as chattel race slavery and their acts of treason against the United States. Such memorials were placed with the intent of supporting racial repression and inequality. It needs to also be remembered that a memorial is not the thing itself or history itself – they are objects that we associate with people, places, or events. Removing the memorial does not remove the thing it represents, but it does erase it’s privileged place.

  2. Calhoun was one of American histories worst racists, I agree. And, maybe some of the worst U.S. leaders should have their statues removed.

    However, so much of the ignorant vandalism and/or official removal and the financial costs that come because of them, lead me to think that this whole focus is the wrong, and a very weak simplistic way, to respond to moral evil of the past and the present.

    What is the significance, for instance, of in one week alone, the vandalism and tearing down of statutes of Columbus, Miguel Cervantes, Grand, Lee, Jefferson, Washington, Pike, and so many others?

    The villains and their bad actions of the past and alleged cause of wrongs today don’t go away because works of history and art are destroyed. What if instead all of that money and time and effort were used to educate, inform, and hopefully, alter bad conditions now?

    What if that money was used to set up a better school for minority kids? What if it was used to build new memorials that focus on leaders of the past who accomplished more for humans and who had less of a dark side and fewer moral evils?

    Also, this iconoclasm seems to have the mistaken notion that human evil resides out there in somebody else, symbolically or literally. And if we just get rid of that object or that individual, then good will come. And that we who destroy the bad past, aren’t also capable of wrong beliefs, choices, and actions. It’s just those immoral and unjust bad guys out there.

    There is much to be said for “…the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years.”
    “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.
    “In keeping silent about evil, in burying it so deep within us that no sign of it appears on the surface, we are implanting it, and it will rise up a thousand fold in the future. When we neither punish nor reproach evildoers…we are thereby ripping the foundations of justice from beneath new generations.”
    ― Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago 1918–1956

    1. I agree with Solzhenitsyn, and that grappling with the fact that many of the men with statues were a mix of good & bad seems to be beyond the ken of those who are taking them down Willy-nilly. But I don’t mourn much over fallen brass or marble. For that matter, my guess is that Calhoun’s visage is probably safe from vandals floating 115 feet above Marion square. I prefer the way they did the takedowns in New Orleans & Baltimore: at night, using the right equipment operated by skilled pros. Quick, safe & quiet. This symbolic struggle is significant; but for me it’s no substitute for the serious homework needed to understand the history behind them & dethrone the ideas & myths that upheld them.

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