Charleston’s History Commission voted to continue debate over language of the proposed plaque at the John C. Calhoun monument at Marion Square amidst ideological and semantic disagreements on Wednesday night.
During the two-hour meeting, commission members disagreed on everything from the severity of language perceived to be anti-Calhoun to the grammatical merits of “that” versus “which.”
Commission member David McCormack brought forth a new draft, revising the original one written by member Robert Rosen that was heavily edited in last month’s meeting.
McCormack questioned the historical accuracy of “crimes against humanity,” a term that gained notoriety in 1915 when it was used by France, Great Britain, and Russia to condemn the killing of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire, according to the United Nations. He also warned that the commission was meeting to add context and “not to denigrate or vilify any person or group.”
Member Robert Rosen, the primary author of the original draft, clarified that he believes Calhoun to be “considered one of the greatest senators in American history,” but appeared conflicted about McCormack’s challenge.
“I think when you say slavery was a crime well it was a crime, well it wasn’t a crime in the South, it was legal,” Rosen said. “But slavery was a crime against humanity in my opinion, so I don’t know.”
Commission chair Harlan Greene continued his war against adjectives such as “brilliant” and moved to begin the day’s edits way beyond the mention of any crimes against humanity. Commission members Damon Fordham, Rodney Williams, Wilmot Fraser, and CofC history professor Bernard Powers all pressed for stronger language.
“What are we afraid of here? We fought against slavery for what reason? So that we would not be enslaved,” Fordham said. “I fail to see why any of that is controversial when that is historical fact that what the man was advocating was enslavement of a group of people”
“It is a crime against humanity, you can put it in the third paragraph, you can put it in the first paragraph,” Williams said. “But to say language is offensive, tell that to young people all over this country…”
Powers argued in favor of decisive language and pointed out that the plaque will be there to teach students and citizens about an uncomfortable topic that is often buried in textbook pages.
“Should we repeat what they already know, or is the charge to go substantially beyond what they already know and tell some truth that seldom gets told, and that we are still today in recovery from not telling those truths?” Powers asked.
Commission member Peg Eastman moved to replace mentions of the “Confederacy” with “white supremacy” after it was decided that the Calhoun monument represented more of the latter than the former.
Lines 14 to 32, which are to continue to be edited along with the rest of the plaque’s language on Dec. 6, now read as follow:
“It was erected in 1896, replacing an earlier monument begun in 1858, three years before the Civil War (1861 – 1865). 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 and as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. A political theorist, he was the author of two 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 state’s 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” to be possibly be overcome, Calhoun defended/advocated the institution of slavery as ‘a positive good’.
The current monument was erected at a time when most White South Carolinians believed in white supremacy and enacted legislation establishing racial segregation. These ideas are condemned by all and universally repugnant to the principles, ideals and values of the United States of America.”