Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a monument as “a lasting evidence, reminder, or example of someone or something notable or great.” At a time when monuments are falling all around the United States, it is only fair we shift the lens to our own.
The spotlight is planted firmly on the man charged with looking over Marion Square: John C. Calhoun. While people have questioned for years why the former vice president has been reimagined in bronze, recent events have reenergized the discussion.
This is not directed at those supporting an argument for bringing down his statue, as the evidence is ample, but those arguing against it. Arguments like, “Lincoln didn’t free the slaves until three years into the war, we should burn all $5 bills, right?” or, “Why don’t we just go ahead and sink Fort Sumter while we’re at it?” come to mind, omitting the definition of a monument or confusing them with historical sights altogether.
Calhoun is in fact one of South Carolina’s most recognized politicians. Citing Walter Edgar, one of South Carolina’s most prominent historians and a man deserving of his own statue, writes that Calhoun actively opposed the industrialization of the South in antebellum times. The slave-based agricultural system in the South was simply far too profitable for those with influence, deterring state governments from modernization. The South, stimulating a global economy on the backs of those stooping down to pick the short-staple cotton could not change its game plan: There was too much wealth at stake. Unfortunately, short-sighted, greedy and inhumane decisions to not diversify the South’s economy, educational system and infrastructure are still impacting modern day South Carolina.
Calhoun went on to support the nullification movement, a pre-Civil War stance against the North that blossomed into secession. While seeking the big-seat at the White House, Calhoun tip-toed around, keeping voters happy both in the North and South, but ultimately recognized he could not turn on his base. Arguing for state’s rights against Northern tariffs would soon reveal their deeper truths.
Once the opportunity of becoming president was dead and buried, Calhoun made his feelings on slavery more public. In 1837, Calhoun argued that he saw slaveholding as “a good,” saying, “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,” in his widely-read “Slavery: A Positive Good.”
This is the man we are memorializing. A man who not only made an argument for the enslavement of Africans because it made Southerners wealthy, but because Africans were physically, morally and intellectually better for it. I implore you, stop reading for a moment, hit pause in your life, find yourself a quiet room, far removed from television, smartphones, or your dog begging to go outside. Take a seat, close your eyes and let his argument sink in. If you are left feeling queasy, unsettled or generally upset, head down to Marion Square, crane your neck and direct your emotions at the man staring down at you. If you don’t feel anything at all, you can’t be helped. The evidence against Calhoun goes well beyond anything I’ve provided, but in the name of preserving history, I encourage everyone to read his texts in full.
The problem we are left to mull over is not how to move on from Calhoun, but how to utilize the perfectly good pedestal his statue sits upon. After much thought, consideration, and in the name of countering those who decree history such a foundational aspect of our democracy: I submit we honor the great historian himself: Walter Edgar. Furthermore, if we seek to honor the history of Charleston, we should illuminate the name of Robert Smalls. We should honor the name of Septima P. Clark. We should honor the names of those fallen at Mother Emanuel. If there were an ounce of empathy, cognizance and honesty in our hearts, we’d replace that statue with those souls who never had a choice but to build this city.