Photo by Dustin Waters

Charleston’s John C. Calhoun monument has its origins in a parlor at the corner of Meeting and Ann streets, the brainchild of three bored women looking to honor the loss of South Carolina’s native son.

Months after Calhoun’s death in 1850, the wife of Gen. James Gadsden had called on her friends, Miss S. Hart and Mrs. Esther Monk, for a bit of conversation in her husband’s absence, according to the April 26, 1887 edition of the News and Courier, published on the eve of the unveiling of the first Calhoun monument at the city’s center. It was during this meeting that the Ladies’ Calhoun Monument Association was formed. Little did they know what the monument would come to represent in Charleston almost 170 years later.

The spectre of Calhoun looming over Marion Square has gained increased scrutiny in recent months as cities across America contend with how best to handle monuments erected in honor of Confederate leaders and defenders of slavery. In the case of Charleston, Mayor John Tecklenburg has called on the city’s History Commission to draft the language for a plaque to be placed on the Calhoun monument, outlining his role shaping the country and his beliefs in the “positive good” of slavery.

During the commission’s first meeting to discuss the Calhoun plaque, a great deal of focus was placed on communicating to future generations why a statue of such a figure was ever constructed. So this raises at least two major questions: What did Charleston residents think of the Calhoun monument when it was first erected? And what lesson did they expect it to teach future generations of Charlestonians?

Rendering of originally-proposed Calhoun monument from ‘News & Courier,’ April 26, 1887 | Photo courtesy of Charleston County Library/News & Courier

From a small parlor at Meeting and Ann streets grew the initial effort to raise a monument to Calhoun. The $2 gathered during that first meeting eventually grew into $8,000 by the time of the group’s 1855 annual meeting. Three years later, the cornerstone of the monument was laid, containing a cannonball from the battle of Fort Moultrie, a banner from Calhoun’s funeral procession, $100 in Continental money, and a lock of Calhoun’s hair.

The American Civil War erupted as plans for Calhoun’s monument were reaching their end. Reports claim that the Ladies’ Calhoun Monument Association treasurer, having fled to Columbia on the eve of Sherman’s attack, sewed the money for the monument into her dress.

Following the war, the Ladies’ Association discussed using the remaining funds to establish an educational fund for South Carolina youth, according to a 1972 article in the News and Courier. That idea was soon batted down due to legal concerns and the plan for the monument pressed forward.

A young Philadelphia artist by the name of Albert E. Harnisch was contracted to carry out the job for the original Calhoun monument. His plans included a bronze statue atop a granite base. Calhoun’s figure was to be surrounded by “four allegorical figures” representing truth, justice, the Constitution, and history. Harnisch was to be paid $44,000 for the statue.

Finally, in 1887, the Calhoun monument was set to be unveiled. The fanfare surrounding “Calhoun Day” dominated the front page of local papers, and the events of the day were given equal share in the following day’s publications.

“Robed in sunshine, redolent with the varied perfumes of her numerous gardens fanned hither and thither by exhilarating breezes fro the sea, Charleston, resting in the lap of her encircling bay, smiled a most gracious welcome to her guests on Calhoun Day,” read the front page of the April 27, 1887 edition of the News and Courier.

With a procession through the streets from the Battery to Marion Square packed with dignitaries of the highest order, writers described the areas as “black with the immense throngs of people” gathered for the monument’s unveiling.

The original Calhoun monument at Marion Square was the subject of ridicule soon after its unveiling. Reports say that the four allegorical figures to accompany Calhoun were not completed at the time of the monument’s unveiling in 1887. Also, Calhoun’s hands appeared distorted and his wardrobe was inaccurate, among other concerns. The Calhoun monument we know today was completed in June 27, 1896 with little fanfare. No mention was made of the new monument in that day’s News and Courier. As the paper reported in 1972, “Apparently embarrassed at the failure surrounding the first statue, the ladies held no extravagant ceremonies for the unveiling.”

But back to the original Calhoun Day in 1887 and the context in which a monument to Calhoun was first presented. Tasked with summarizing Calhoun’s legacy on the day of his monument’s first unveiling in Charleston was U.S. Secretary of the Interior Lucius Q. C. Lamar. The Mississippi lawmaker and former official for the Confederacy gave an exhaustive account of Calhoun’s accomplishments as a politician and statesman before eventually discussing the topic of slavery.

“Fellow citizens: The institution of slavery! That question has been settled. Slavery is dead — buried in a grave that never gives up its dead. Why reopen it today?” Lamar said, according to a copy of his speech published in the April 27, 1887, edition of the News and Courier

‘News & Courier.’ April 27, 1887 | Courtesy Charleston County Library/News & Courier

Lamar went on to state that Calhoun never expressed an opinion on slavery that wasn’t at least entertained by his fellow statesmen of his time. Lamar then argued toward the “benefits” that slavery had on America.

“Every benefit which slavery conferred upon those subject to it: all the ameliorating and humanizing tendencies it introduced into the life of the African, all the elevating agencies which lifted him higher in the scale of rational and moral being, were the elements of the future and inevitable destruction of the system,” Lamar told the throng of citizens gathered in Charleston that day. “The mistake that was made by the Southern defenders of slavery was in regarding it as a permanent form of society instead of a process of emergence and transition from barbarism to freedom. If at this very day the North or the American Union were to propose to re-establish the institution, it would be impracticable; the South could not and would not accept it as a boon.”

While Lamar’s view that slavery had served as a necessary step in “humanizing” the victims subjected to the system is horrifying by modern standards, his speech earned immense acclaim from writers all across the country. Reviews of Lamar’s dedication to Calhoun were published in the May 2, 1887, edition of the News and Courier. The Philadelphia Record wrote that “In developing the relations of Calhoun with the great issue that divided the North and South, Secretary Lamar treated slavery as dead, and he expressed the sentiments of the Southern people when he said that they would not revive the corpse if they could.”

The St. Louis Republican called Lamar’s speech eloquent and fitting such a happy occasion. The Boston Post claimed that the speech would elevate Lamar’s national profile. But it was the Hartford Courant that provided the closest description to what modern Charlestonians grapple with today as it concerns the Calhoun monument.

“We of the North have no quarrel with the honors paid by Calhoun’s state to Calhoun’s memory. He was incomparably her greatest son. He loved her devotedly, if not wisely. He stamped his name indelibly upon her history,” the paper wrote. “Yet as the coming generations of South Carolinians, to whom ‘Calhounism,’ ‘nullification,’ ‘secession,’ and ‘slavery’ will be only traditions contemplate the statue unveiled at Charleston, some wonder will inevitably mingle with their admiration — wonder that so vigorous and lucid an intellect should have gone so astray.”

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