For 124 years, the statue of John C. Calhoun, from high upon his perch in Marion Square, kept vigil over the city of Charleston. In life as in death Calhoun was indeed a monumental figure. Even in the flesh he seemed carved out of granite. He was, without question, the finest mind and the most dedicated public servant ever produced by the state of South Carolina, and, as our foremost authority on Calhoun, Dr. Clyde Wilson, has recently reminded me, he was and is recognized both nationally and in Europe as a political philosopher of the first rank.
Yet on June 23, 2020, our city council voted unanimously for the statue’s removal, and within a few hours the demolition squad came for him under cover of darkness. Even as his captors subjected him to the indignity of their blowtorches and their nylon cargo straps and lowered him to the ground, Calhoun remained defiant. They had hoped to complete the job before daylight, but it was well into the afternoon of June 24 before the shameful deed was accomplished.
Among all the monuments that have been toppled in our recent iconoclastic mania, the Calhoun Monument is one which stood out as an attack, not so much on a particular man, but on an idea: states’ rights, and the concomitant right of secession. It was for this, I suspect, more than for his association with slavery, that the public honor due to the author of A Disquisition on Government was cancelled.
I settled in Charleston some 21 years ago. For several years I resided in the historic district and became an avid walker though its storied streets. Around every corner one was apt to stumble across some unexpected vista, some reminder of the drama of the city’s tumultuous history. But nothing drew me more than the Calhoun Monument in what is today called Marion Square. How often I walked the perimeter of the square, or lay in the grass there, pondering that stern image in bronze, 80 feet above our earthly concerns, his cloak thrown over his shoulder, his face turned toward Charleston Harbor and the sea beyond. There was, in that profile, an aspect of the eternal, or so it seemed to me. Today, while the column still stands, the statue has been interred in some secret warehouse awaiting a new home.
In fact, the monument had its origins well before the Civil War. When Calhoun died of tuberculosis in Washington D.C. on March 31, 1850, he had already achieved heroic stature in South Carolina, and perhaps especially in Charleston, which was already the center of secessionist sentiment. Known as the Great Nullifier, he was celebrated here and across the South for his unflagging devotion to the notion that a state had the right, under the Constitution, to “nullify” any federal statute which threatened that state’s capacity to decide its own political and economic destiny. Like Jefferson and Madison before him, he believed that it was the states which created the Union, not the other way around.
In 1850, the thunderheads of secession were looming as never before, and the people of Charleston mourned Calhoun, not as the defender of slavery, but as the champion of the embattled Southern states against the ever-encroaching power of the nationalists in Washington. When Calhoun’s body arrived in Charleston, escorted by his sons, Charlestonians from every walk of life flocked into the streets by the thousands to pay their respects. Only a handful of those were slaveowners.
Originally, Calhoun was to be interred in Columbia, the state capitol, but at the request of his sons his body was temporarily laid to rest at St. Philips, one of the two oldest Episcopalian churches in the city. Then, when the war broke out, concern about the possible desecration of the tomb should the city fall into Union hands prompted officials to move the body to a secret resting place for the duration of the hostilities. When the War was over, Calhoun was returned to St. Philips and never moved again. No doubt he would have preferred to be buried in Upcountry soil. Indeed, he had been a resident of Charleston for just a short period as a young law student, and despite his ownership of two plantations upstate, he spent most of his adult life in Washington. Nevertheless, Charlestonians claimed him as their own.
By 1854, the Ladies’ Calhoun Monument Association was born under the leadership of philanthropical women like Mary Snowden. Within a few years, in 1858, the ladies had raised enough money to commission work on the cornerstone of the original monument, which contained, among other things, a lock of Calhoun’s hair. Naturally, when the conflict broke out, fundraising efforts were interrupted. When Sherman’s army marched on Columbia, where Mrs. Snowden had taken refuge during the Siege of Charleston, she is said to have quilted all the funds inside her dress before fleeing the burning city.
After many setbacks, the Ladies Association eventually raised enough—all in private funds—to commission the first of two Calhoun statues. Sculpted by Albert E. Harnish of Philadelphia, it came to be regarded as inadequate for aesthetic reasons. The second statue was carved by J. Massey Rhind and installed in 1896. Ironically, Rhind, a Scottish-American like Calhoun himself, was also later responsible for creating monuments of both Sherman and Grant, as well as the Grand Army of the Republic Memorial in Washington, D.C.
As the decades passed, the Calhoun Monument became so familiar to visitors and residents that, even as recently as last year, it would have been all but impossible for most of us to imagine its disappearance. Today, as we pass, we gaze upon a vacant column.
Some have proposed the vacancy should be filled by a statue of Francis Marion, the great Revolutionary War hero known as the Swamp Fox. After all, the Square is named after him, as is a graceful old hotel just across King Street, which borders one side of the square. But that proposal will surely never gain any traction: the Swamp Fox, too, was a slaveowner. What does it matter that without him, the Revolution might have ended in defeat for the colonials?
So purblind are our politicians that nothing short of sheer banality will ever replace Calhoun.
I wonder how many of those who so shrilly or so opportunistically demanded Calhoun’s removal knew anything about the man other than his association with slavery. Some three weeks before the removal of the statue, on the night of May 30, hundreds of rioters surged down King Street into the city’s premier shopping district, looting and vandalizing as they went, abetted by Black Lives Matter (BLM) organizers brought in on buses, their pockets stuffed with Soros cash. Those vandals, pretending to be enraged by the death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police, wasted little time on the Calhoun Monument as they passed, being more intent upon the free goodies awaiting them further down the street. Chances are, most of them couldn’t tell you the first thing about Calhoun.
During the week leading up to the vote of the city council, I attended a rally against the anticipated removal of the statue. Our pro-monument contingent numbered around 200 at best. Those numbers would have been higher but for the threat of the COVID virus, and the circulation of rumors on social media that an armed posse of KKK were plotting an infiltration of the protest.
For roughly an hour I stood with my compatriots in Calhoun Square, several of whom, including a local black woman, rose to speak eloquently in favor of the monument. The police were out in force, of course. Several hundred BLM devotees screamed their favorite slogan unceasingly, led by a young black man, megaphone in hand, who had drilled his team well. When we attempted a prayer, their obscene shouting became a deafening cacophony. At one point I found myself face-to-face with our antagonists across the police barrier, most of them young, white, and female. I have been caught up in street protests before, but never have I seen faces so charged with ugly fanaticism.
It is impossible to imagine that any of them had any real interest in learning about Calhoun the man, what he stood for, or what he died for.
What he stood for, above all, was the rights of minorities. However, for him, the term “minorities” had nothing to do with what we call “identity politics.” On the contrary, postmodern identity politics is the end result of the gradual transference of real political power to the centralized Leviathan state. In this context, “rights” belong either to abstract individuals or to groups of such individuals assorted by race, gender, or sexual preference, all of them reduced to infantile dependency upon a federal bureaucracy that suckles them from the cradle to the grave.
When Calhoun spoke of minorities, he meant the states, and particularly those states which, due to their smaller populations, had no hope of majority representation in Congress. In his view, only the right of nullification of federal laws that interfered with the interests of the states would guarantee the genuine sovereignty.
Sovereignty, argued Calhoun, could only exist in the states individually, for they had entered freely into a “compact,” not a “perpetual union” of the whole people of the United States. Such an amorphous mass could never be sovereign in any meaningful sense of the term. This was a figment of the Unionist imagination, one which disguised its struggle for power. The notion popular today, that Calhoun spoke only in the interest of slaveholders, is sheer nonsense. No one who has read his Disquisition with an unclouded mind could believe this.
Calhoun’s Disquisition is a dense and brilliantly argued thesis on the foundations of constitutional government. Slavery is mentioned in passing only once. At its heart is the view that if we locate the voice of the people only in numerical majorities, we are already well down the road to tyranny. Thus, he offered the concept of the “concurrent majority”—that is, a majority achieved through the conflict of interests between the various parts of the national community. Such a majority would not result in perfect harmony, but in a reasonable compromise, in which the interests of all the conflicting parties are truly represented. Calhoun made no attempt to disguise the reality of power. “Power,” he wrote, “can only be resisted by power.” And the vehicle of that resistance can only be sovereign states.
Today, and for some time now, the Unionist mythology built around the likes of Daniel Webster and Abraham Lincoln has lost whatever power it once possessed to bind us. The fiction patched together by Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address requires an enormous suspension of disbelief to remain compelling. The nation forged by the Confederate defeat on that tragic battlefield is dissolving day by day. This dissolution can only end in ruin for our once great republic, unless our state governments find the courage once more to resist federal power.
To be sure, it might be argued that the power of the states has become radically attenuated, that they have been reduced to mere administrative appendages of the federal colossus, and that to expect from them any serious resistance is foolhardy. But what is the alternative? To awaken the states to some recognition of their rightful claim to sovereignty will, no doubt, take the resolve of another Calhoun and the will of millions of nullifiers ready to stand their ground.
above: the statute of John C. Calhoun was removed from its pedestal in Marion Square in Charleston, South Carolina on June 24, 2020, following a unanimous vote of the city council the evening before (Wikimedia Commons)