“Don’t dishonor Calhoun,” wrote H. Lee Cheek Jr. and Sean R. Busick in these pages recently. At least they recognized that John C. Calhoun’s monument in Marion Square and his name on Charleston’s major east-west artery are more matters of honor than history.
They then go on to claim that ceasing to honor Calhoun would somehow get history all wrong. In the process, however, they get Calhoun’s history wrong. Getting the history right precludes honoring him.
They note he graduated from college and was an able Secretary of War. Such claims miss the arc of his life. That’s not why we remember or honor him. As he matured, Calhoun increasingly placed the interests of his region as he perceived them ahead of the national interest. After 1820, he took ever more extreme positions favoring the South as a region and slavery as a cause. In 1832 he threatened secession; in return, President Andrew Jackson threatened to hang him for treason. In 1837 Calhoun told the Senate, “[Slavery] cannot be subverted without drenching the country in blood, and extirpating one or the other of the races.” Nor should slavery ever be ended, he went on, because it is “a positive good.” This theory relies openly on racism — slavery is good for black people because they are “low, degraded, and savage,” in Calhoun’s words. Should we honor him for that?
Repeatedly, Calhoun threatened disunion to blackmail national leaders to get what he wanted. He explained his strategy to a friend in 1827:
“You will see that I have made up the issue between North and South. If we flinch we are gone, but if we stand fast on it, we shall triumph either by compelling the North to yield to our terms, or declaring our independence of them.”
Opposed to the high tariffs of 1828-1832, Calhoun prompted a national crisis when he got South Carolina to “nullify” them. Jackson refused to back down, declaring, “Our Federal Union — it must and shall be preserved.”
Calhoun’s threats did get congressional leaders to lower the tariff, however. Having browbeaten his way on the tariff, Calhoun later threatened disunion if Texas was not annexed, if the United States extended diplomatic recognition to Haiti, and even if citizens in northern states continued to agitate for abolition. Should we honor him for that?
As the last point shows, Calhoun also pushed to make South Carolina (and all of the South) a closed society. He argued that petitions about slavery should not even be received by Congress and that sending abolitionist materials through the mail should be a crime. Should we honor him for that?
The last point also shows his shift away from states’ rights. By the 1840s, Calhoun was insisting that because the Constitution protected slavery, slave-owners had the right to take their property into any of the territories. He now claimed that Congress had had no Constitutional right to pass the Northwest Ordinance, outlawing slavery northwest of the Ohio River. Since some of the same people voted for the Northwest Ordinance who later voted for the Constitution, Calhoun could hardly claim he knew the founders’ intent. Now he also called the Missouri Compromise, which he had supported in 1820, “unconstitutional,” because it banned slavery from territories north of the northern boundary of Arkansas.
Calhoun’s purpose had to have been disunion. In 1837, he had written that states’ rights allowed Northerners to distance themselves morally from slavery. “A large portion of the Northern States believes slavery to be a sin, and would consider it as an obligation of conscience to abolish it if they should feel themselves in any degree responsible for its continuance.” Now he opposed states’ rights, again threatening secession unless the federal government passed and enforced a harsh fugitive slave law and required slavery throughout the territories. Should we honor him for that?
In 1850 his agitating for secession won that fugitive slave law. Nevertheless, on his deathbed he opposed the Compromise of 1850, claiming that it didn’t go far enough toward guaranteeing slavery forever. By this point, it is doubtful that any compromise would have satisfied Calhoun. Yet Cheek and Busick write, “His last years were spent attempting to unify the country.”
I disagree. John C. Calhoun is remembered — and honored in Charleston — for what he did in the latter half of his adult life. In those years, he provided the intellectual scaffolding that rationalized slavery, suppressed freedom of speech and legitimized secession.
Surely that legacy should persuade residents of Charleston to rename his street and move his statue, or at least put an accurate historical marker in front of it contextualizing it.
Every year that he dominates Marion Square, every year that Calhoun Street remains named for him, Charleston declares on its landscape that he was a hero worthy of honor. That declaration insults every black resident and every white resident who does not believe that treason on behalf of slavery made moral or political sense then or now.
After Charleston renames the street and perhaps removes the statue, it can put up good markers explaining what had been there and why it was changed.
South Carolina historical markers allow enough words to tell about Calhoun’s career, positive and negative.
Then history, not honor, will result.
James Loewen is a sociologist, historian and author whose books include “Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong.”