On Wednesday, Charleston’s History Commission approved a plaque designed to provide context for the Marion Square John C. Calhoun monument that omits language critical of the Confederacy and racism.

Members of the commission voted unanimously to remove mentions of the “crimes against humanity,” the “plague of racism,” and the “folly” of political leaders like Calhoun, who predated the Confederacy, but whose ideals laid the groundwork for secession.

The phrase “crimes against humanity” proved to be especially contentious for some of those present at the last History Commission meeting on Nov. 1. David McCormack, who sits on the panel, questioned the possible anachronism of the phrase, which came into common parlance decades after the current monument was completed in 1896.

At the same meeting, members delayed discussing the introductory language of the plaque, which has now been entirely re-written. Commission members opted against superlatives when describing Calhoun’s contribution to American canon. Described in previous drafts as a “brilliant” political theorist, he is now referred to simply as “a” political theorist.

Also at that meeting, mentions of the “Confederacy” were replaced with a nod to “white supremacy” after it was decided that celebration of Calhoun represented acceptance of the ideology, not necessarily of the failed state. Calhoun died 10 years before South Carolina became the first state to secede from the Union. He commemorated by the Confederate States on a postage stamp (as were George Washington and Thomas Jefferson).

In a speech on February 6, 1837, Calhoun said of slavery:

I hold that in the present state of civilization, where two races of different origin, and distinguished by color, and other physical differences, as well as intellectual, are brought together, the relation now existing in the slaveholding States between the two, is, instead of an evil, a good–a positive good.

The Heritage Act, a state law passed in 2000, prohibits the removal of any Confederate flags and of any monuments commemorating the Confederacy or the civil rights movement without a two-thirds vote by the state Senate and House. Mayor Tecklenburg said in August that he opposed the removal of any monuments amidst activists calling for the statue to come down.

The Calhoun monument was vandalized in 2015 weeks after the racially-motivated shooting of nine worshippers at Mother Emanuel AME Church, which sits just a block away.

The plaque’s new text requires final approval by City Council. Council members are set to meet on Monday.

The new text reads as follows:

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. 

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