The passions surrounding the proposed renaming of John C. Calhoun Expressway reveal a basic dynamic: signs and symbols matter to us.
Who we choose to commemorate and what we choose to publicly honor – in tangible, visible ways such as place-names, monuments, and statues – all says a lot about the ideals and values we hold.
Who and what are we honoring when we honor John C. Calhoun?
Even a casual student of American history has to associate John C. Calhoun with the antebellum South. Indeed, for two decades, the 1830s and ‘40s, Calhoun was the nation’s most prominent and vocal defender of the elite slaveholders’ vision of the South.
He led the counteroffensive against the abolitionist movement. To counter abolitionists, who said unequivocally that slavery was an inherently cruel, unjust system, Calhoun argued that Southern slavery was in fact a “positive good” because it put a superior race and an inferior race in proper relation to each other. Enslaved people from Africa and their descendants – like those on his massive plantation, now the campus of Clemson University – were, Calhoun claimed, being “civilized” and “improved” by being the slaves of white people.
Calhoun also theorized how Southern states could protect the interests of their slaveholders if they felt threatened by national politics. In Calhoun’s vision, the USA was a compact in which sovereign states had granted power to a federal government. If any state came to feel that its interests were being hurt by a federal policy, it could “nullify” that policy within its own borders.
If this drastic political act failed to get the attention of other states and persuade them to reconsider the policy, the state could then “secede” from the USA and return to its status as a sovereign entity.
In 1860-61, 10 years after Calhoun’s death, elite slaveholders acted out Calhoun’s script. They led their states out of the USA, seceding because they believed slavery was threatened by the rise of the Republican Party to national power.
This was Calhoun’s key legacy. It’s important, in our ideological culture, to emphasize that this terse description of Calhoun is based not on my own political views, but on what is fundamental for a historian: evidence and context. Those wishing to challenge this description can check the evidence – especially Calhoun’s Exposition and Protest and his February 1837 speech in the Senate – and see if they can find a different Calhoun.
In two moments – 1851 and 1966 – Augusta’s City Council chose to honor Calhoun by naming a road after him. The rationale for the 1851 choice is easy to discern: Calhoun had died the previous year, and Augusta’s pro-slavery political leadership saw Calhoun as worthy of honor. So they designated an unnamed road as a new “Calhoun St.”
But why, in 1966, did the City Council choose to honor him? Walton Way was being extended to connect with Gordon Highway, and Calhoun Street was part of its logical extension. The Planning Commission hit on the idea of keeping the Calhoun name by transferring it to a projected new expressway into the downtown. The new name was much more overt: “John C. Calhoun Expressway.”
With the 13th Amendment and Confederate defeat, Calhoun’s defense of slavery and secession were discredited. But core elements of his thinking had a long afterlife. His conception of the USA as a compact of sovereign states informed the idea of “states’ rights”: that states could resist the federal government if they thought it was acting unconstitutionally.
And the racial hierarchy that Calhoun imagined in his defense of slavery was intrinsic to the emergent code of segregation. Proponents of segregation claimed that no one’s rights were being violated, that Jim Crow put whites and blacks in the proper relation of inequality.
Defending the rightness of segregation in the face of black activism, resisting federal desegregation policies by appealing to states’ rights, were basic parts of white resistance to the Civil Rights Movement. The pro-segregation, pro-states rights restaurateur Lester Maddox was elected Georgia’s governor in 1967, and here in Augusta, publisher/politician Roy Harris was waging an adamant defense of segregation and states’ rights throughout the 1960s.
In this context, naming a major new road “John C. Calhoun Expressway” was powerful political symbolism, a thinly-veiled anti-Civil Rights gesture.
That’s history, and we can’t change it. But we can overturn past political decisions.
In our American system, our hands aren’t tied by the political choices of those who came before us. We can choose, in 2018, to say that John C. Calhoun is not someone whom we as a community wish to honor.
He will in no way disappear from history classes or history books because, as noted above, he was a vital 19th century figure whose legacy lasted well into the mid-20th.
We just won’t be commemorating him or his legacy in public.
John Hayes is associate professor of history at Augusta University. He is a native Georgian with deep family roots in the South.