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CofC professor topples Calhoun from his column — figuratively

Posted on April 18, 2014 by in Heritage

John C. Calhoun at Marion SquareJohn C. Calhoun at Marion Square (2)John C. Calhoun presides over Marion Square from an 80-foot-high granite column. A few blocks to the west, in his office at the College of Charleston, English Prof. Joseph Kelly sought to bring Calhoun down, figuratively, from his perch. He did it with this summing up of his recent book “America’s Longest Siege: Charleston, Slavery and the Long March Toward civil War”:

'America's Longest Siege, Charleston Slavery and the Slow March Toward Civil War,' Joseph Kelly, 2013“John C. Calhoun is the biggest villain in the book. In 1820, everyone agreed that slavery was evil. By the 1860 Secession Convention, not one delegate believed that it was. We lost a whole generation that was infused with this notion. It’s the great tragedy of the South.”

In his interview in the College of Charleston Magazine, Kelly says Calhoun and other prominent figures in Charleston’s elite, including Charles Pinckney and John Rutledge, were, in the early decades of the 19th century, able to close the gate against the Southern half of the national abolition movement. “Up until the 1830s, the forces of history were on the side of emancipation,” Kelly said. “Slavery would have withered on the vine in the United States if not for the hard work of a few very greedy and backhanded Charlestonians. A few men perpetuated slavery long after it would have died off naturally.”

Calhoun, the man on the high column in Marion Square, “one of South Carolina’s most illustrious citizens,” according to the Charleston County Public Library, is No. 1 on Kelly’s list of villains.

photo (1)This is not how Calhoun is characterized by the city’s certified tour guides. In their carriage-delivered spiels, Calhoun is simply an “advocate” of slavery. That characterization is from the 492-page “The City of Charleston Tour Guide Training Manual,” which would-be guides must master before they’re certified.

Calhoun himself had this to say from the floor of the U.S. Senate in 1837 in response to anti-slavery petitions:

“I hold concession or compromise to be fatal. If we concede an inch, concession would follow concession — compromise would follow compromise, until our ranks would be so broken that ef­fectual resistance would be impossible. We must meet the enemy on the frontier, with a fixed determination of maintaining our position at every hazard….

“[Slavery] has grown up with our society and institutions, and is so interwoven with them, that to destroy it would be to destroy us as a people.”

Historic Charleston Foundation, with its formidable research resources on Charleston history, compiled the tour guide manual. Katherine S. Pemberton, Manager of Research and Education, calls Prof. Kelly’s judgment about Calhoun and Charleston’s elite of the antebellum period “interesting but [it] is a fine-grained point that many tour guides would not have the occasion or opportunity to delve into in a 1-2 hour tour.”

Kelly’s 2013 book was published during what is an ongoing re-examination of slavery and the Civil War, including its origins, that was prompted in part by the war’s sesquicentennial, which concludes in 2015, on the 150th anniversary the South’s surrender.

This re-examination has brought changes to many historic sites, including ones in Charleston. For example, two area  plantations, Boone Hall and Magnolia, have restored some of their slave cabins, and Magnolia’s tour guides emphasize that the lowcountry plantations’ rice culture owes its success to West Africans who cultivated rice with the same canals before they were pressed into slavery and brought to South Carolina. Historic Charleston Foundation has revised the audio tour of its Aiken-Rhett House Museum to point out the the yard was a work place for that urban plantation’s many slaves.

But, so far, Calhoun, at least atop his 80-foot column in Marion Square, remains “one of South Carolina’s most illustrious citizen.”




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