More than a century after his death, the cancel culture is still trying to take out Mark Twain.
Rarely a year goes by without some people trying to get Huckleberry Finn kicked out of schools. Because they contend the novel is racist.
If they really understood history, these people would realize the novel celebrates African American freedom and highlights the struggles they faced at the time.
Yes, the book includes racial stereotypes and slurs that decent folks don’t use today. But the mistake, and it’s a common one, is judging the past by modern standards.
Society and the times change, and context is paramount to understanding history. And the context here is that Twain was — by the measure of his time — quite progressive.
And that brings us to another giant of the 19th century, John C. Calhoun.
Calhoun is without a doubt the most consequential politician in South Carolina’s history. He was one of this country’s most influential leaders for decades, serving as secretary of state, vice president under two presidents and a U.S. senator for more than 15 years. In the 1950s, a committee that included then-Sen. John F. Kennedy voted Calhoun one of the five greatest members in Senate history.
Calhoun was also an unabashed white supremacist who promoted the proliferation and preservation of slavery ... and helped inspire the South to secede and plunge this country into civil war a decade after his death.
Both of those things can be true, and they are. It’s the context that matters.
In Calhoun’s day, this country was in the midst of a national debate about slavery. Abolitionists wanted to end it; others wanted to limit its expansion; and Calhoun maintained slavery was an indispensable “positive good.”
Various theories about congressional power to limit slavery emerged. The most extreme, contending slavery could never be outlawed, was based on the Calhoun doctrine. Which said states could nullify any federal law they didn’t like, including limitations on slavery.
Calhoun was a divisive figure in his own time. He provoked strong emotions among political adversaries; Andrew Jackson once lamented he hadn’t ordered Calhoun executed for treason. And Jackson wasn’t exactly a human rights crusader.
All that explains why Marion Square’s Calhoun statue ended up more than 100 feet off the ground. Even in the late 19th century, many people opposed a monument to slavery’s staunchest proponent … and repeatedly tried to deface it.
Those sentiments have lingered ever since and, this week, City Council voted unanimously to finally bring down the controversial monument. Critics argued that this erases our history. The irony is this consternation might have been avoided had more people been interested in compromise and a full accounting of history all along.
A couple of years ago, City Council refused to add a plaque to the Calhoun monument that would have put his career into context. But some people have always tried to gloss over, ignore or excuse the ugliest chapters in our history. Those politics probably led City Council to deep-six the plaque.
Well, Tuesday night was the reckoning for more than a century of denial, when the voice of a long-ignored community was finally heard. It’s too bad some people spent a century dismissing the offense that their neighbors took at that statue.
Calhoun is too important to be forgotten, and he won’t be. He was a major player in a crucial chapter of American history. But, as several council members noted, we don’t learn our history from statues. As prominent as the monument has been, many locals couldn’t tell you the first thing about Calhoun.
Taking down his statue shouldn’t become a green light to tear down every monument in the city, or rename anything associated with people who don’t measure up to 21st century standards. Because that would be pretty much everyone.
Instead it marks the latest chapter in Charleston history. This city has a long, glorious and sometimes messy past. But today it makes great strides to honestly acknowledge its past sins.
So it should come as no surprise that 21st century Charleston is no longer the sort of place that aspires to put a man like John C. Calhoun, and all that he stood for, on a pedestal.