By Professor Damon L. Fordham, MA
With all of the controversy over the statue of John Caldwell Calhoun that is in Marion Square in downtown Charleston, I think that before considering if it is appropriate to be there, we should at least learn something about who this man really was and what he really represented.
So who was John Caldwell Calhoun? He was born in 1782 in Abbeville, South Carolina. He was a graduate of Yale University and husband of Floride Bounneau. Elected to the House of Representatives in 1810, he pushed for American involvement in the War of 1812 and later became Vice President under two presidents, John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. He also served as Secretary of War and Secretary of State. However, he was very outspoken on the subject of race and slavery. He died in 1850, ten years before the Civil War, but is credited with the ideas that led to the Confederacy. He was also the great uncle of the legendary African American singer Lena Horne, according to Miss Horne’s daughter Gail’s recent book ‘The Black Calhouns’.
Calhoun had this to say on slavery in a speech on slavery on February 6, 1837: “A large portion of the Northern States believed 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, and that this doctrine would necessarily lead to the belief of such responsibility. I then predicted that it would commence as it has with this fanatical portion of society, and that they would begin their operations on the ignorant, the weak, the young, and the thoughtless.”
When the United States went to war in 1848, Calhoun had this to say about the Mexican people on January 4 of that year: “Ours, sir, is the Government of a white race. The greatest misfortunes of Spanish America are to be traced to the fatal error of placing these colored races on an equality with the white race.”
On another speech given in 1838, he had this to say about slavery: “A mysterious Providence had brought together two races, from different portions of the globe, and placed them together in nearly equal numbers in the Southern portion of this Union. They were there inseparably united, beyond the possibility of separation. Experience had shown that the existing relation between them secured the peace and happiness of both. Each had improved; the inferior greatly; so much so, that it had attained a degree of civilization never before attained by the black race in any age or country. Under no other relation could they co-exist together. To destroy it was to involve a whole region in slaughter, carnage, and desolation; and, come what will, we must defend and preserve it.”
So what did African Americans in turn think of such statements? This is from Elijah Green, an ex-slave who was interviewed in Charleston in 1937 and remembered Calhoun well: “Not ’til John C. Calhoun’ body was carried down Boundary Street was the name (of the street) changed’ in his honor. He is bury in St. Phillip Church yard, across the street with a laurel tree planted at his head. Four men and me dig his grave and I cleared the spot where his monument now stands. The monument was put up by Pat Callington, a Charleston mason. I never did like Calhoun because he hated the Negro; no man was ever hated as much as him by a group of people. The present day Calhoun Street in Charleston was known as Boundary Street before his death.”
In 1895, Thomas E. Miller, who was later the founder of South Carolina State University in Orangeburg, was one of the black representatives who spoke out at the State House in Columbia during the debates against then- Senator Benjamin Tillman who was introducing segregation laws to South Carolina.
As part of the debates on October 26, 1895, Rep. Miller said these words in regard to the John C. Calhoun statue in Charleston: “About 10 years ago, or maybe less, I chanced to be in the city of Charleston and the sun was about to set in the west. I strolled from my home to the Citadel Square and seated myself on one of those seats viewing the grand scenery that surrounded me. While there I beheld a typical Southern gentleman, of infirm age, approaching me. Running by him was a fair maiden of about eight or nine summers. She was rolling a hoop and just in front of my seat she stopped as if she had received a deadly blow. She cast her eyes in the direction of the object I had been studying. She exclaimed, “Oh grandpapa, what great, big, graveyard stone is that? Who has been buried there,” she continued, “since we have been in the country?” The old gentleman reached out his hands, trembling as if palsied, and drew this winsome little tot to his embrace. He struggled to clear his voice. Tears began to sparkle in his eyes. Said he, “Grandpapa’s little jewel has innocently called that pile of stone and bronze a great big graveyard stone, and you are not far out of the way. And if you will listen, I will tell you a tale unfold.”
The little girl, looking into her grandfather’s face, saw the great big drops of tears that fell upon his spotless linen. Said he: “When your mama was a girl like yourself, and your papa was a rambling youth, there was a giant in intellect by the name of John C. Calhoun. He taught us that the state was greater than the nation. That it was our right to disobey the laws of this nation. That it was our right to withdraw form the nation and it was our sacred privilege to do as we pleased. At that time, your grandmother had over thirty servants in the house and hundreds of Negroes on our plantations. We were rich, haughty, proud, refined, virtuous, and cultured.
“With a heart full of hope and a hand ready to dare and do, Calhoun’s teachings led us to war and the bones of our sons are scattered upon every battlefield from Gettysburg to the banks of the Mississippi. In that struggle, our hopes were crushed, our homes were burned; our prosperity destroyed, and our servants freed. And, my dear little tot, since you have called that magnificent monument that the women have erected to John C. Calhoun a great, big, graveyard stone and have asked who is buried there, I am forced to admit that it is a huge, graveyard stone under which is buried a people’s blind ambition; under which is buried the hearts and hopes of all your kindred, under which is buried all that was dear to the hearts of the Southern man. And those of us who are left are compelled to stand the wreck of fortune and spend our old days in misery, poverty, and want.”
These are the facts. So we must ask again – should the Calhoun statue stay? Should it be removed? Or do we as a people have more important things to determine at the present?
Now that you know – you decide.