Civil Rights in Columbia

White supremacy wording proposed for Calhoun monument angers SC Secessionist Party

John C. Calhoun
John C. Calhoun

The South Carolina Secessionist Party is unhappy with the wording on a plaque proposed to be added to the monument of John C. Calhoun in Charleston.

In a letter to the members of the Charleston City Council, S.C. Secessionist Party chairman, James Bessenger, called the approval of wording involving white supremacy “disgusting.”

The plaque was commissioned by Charleston mayor John Tecklenburg, reported. He sent a letter to the Charleston History Commission asking it to come up with the wording for a plaque which, “will describe who Calhoun was and clearly elucidate his views on racism, slavery, and white supremacy.”

Tecklenburg wrote his letter in August, following the deadly violence at the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va. South Carolina’s Heritage Law makes it very difficult to remove Confederate monuments, something that had been done across the country after Charlottesville. But adding new information is a more attainable outcome involving the more than a century old statue.

The commission made its recommendation in December and now it is up to Charleston City Council to approve the wording.

In a Tuesday session, city council didn’t decide whether to approve or change the language for the proposed plaque. For the moment, the issue has been deferred to a later date.

Bessenger is trying to appeal to the city council to make sure they don’t approve the wording on the plaque as currently proposed.

The section of the proposal that has drawn Bessenger’s ire reads, “most white South Carolinians believed in white supremacy.”

In his letter, Bessenger said “the fact that the Charleston History Commission would approve such a sentence should be seen as evidence of the incompetency of the commission in this matter. To so widely condemn the people of South Carolina who are long since dead and unable to speak for themselves is disgusting and must not be sponsored by the City of Charleston.”

Bessenger goes on to reason that adding such a plaque is taking history out of context. He argues it is unfair to cast that white South Carolinians in a negative light regarding slavery, saying it wasn’t abolished by Great Britain or France much earlier than it ultimately was in the U.S.

The S.C. Secessionist Party chairman changes his argument from a historical basis to a financial one. He writes that the people of Charleston shouldn’t have their tax dollars spent on such a plaque.

Finally, he closes his letter to the city council with an emotional appeal.

“Telling the history of the people of our State is something we can all support,” Bessenger wrote. “Issuing an indictment against the white population of 19th century South Carolina is not, and will do nothing to bring the people of Charleston together.”

The Charleston monument honoring Calhoun was erected in 1896. Calhoun remains the only South Carolina resident to serve in the Executive Branch of the federal government, as a two-time Vice President.

Calhoun also served as U.S. Secretary of War, U.S. Secretary of State, U.S. Senator from South Carolina and as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

But among Calhoun’s many accomplishments, his reputation today is impacted by his strong defense of slavery.

Newly proposed text for John C. Calhoun monument in Charleston

This monument to John C. Calhoun (1782-1850), erected in 1896, was the culmination of efforts begun in 1858 to commemorate his career. It was erected at a time, after Reconstruction, when most white South Carolinians believed in white supremacy, and the state enacted legislation establishing racial segregation. These ideas are now universally condemned.

Calhoun served as Vice-President of the United States under two presidents, as U.S. Secretary of War, as U.S. Secretary of State, as a U.S. Senator from South Carolina and as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. A political theorist, he was the author of two important works on the U.S. Constitution and the Federal Government.

A member of the Senate’s “Great Triumvirate,” which included Daniel Webster of Massachusetts and Henry Clay of Kentucky, Calhoun championed states’ rights and nullification, the right of an individual state to invalidate a federal law which it viewed as unconstitutional.

Unlike many of the founding fathers, who viewed the enslavement of Africans as “a necessary evil” possibly to be overcome, Calhoun defended the institution of race-based slavery as a “positive good.”

The statue remains standing today as a reminder that many South Carolinians once viewed Calhoun as worthy of memorialization even though his political positions included his support of race-based slavery, an institution repugnant to the core ideas and values of the United States of America.

Historic preservation, to which Charleston is dedicated, includes this monument as a lesson to future generations of the importance of historical context when examining individuals and events in our state’s past.