Charleston sculptor Theodore Mills
carved the Calhoun bust that appears in
the Senate Wing of the Capitol






At least we will do the North this justice--they do their own
thinking.  We let one man do ours--Mr. Calhoun.  And if fate left us
good wine, good dinners, fine horses, and money enough to go
abroad every summer, we asked no more of gods or men.  We
let things drift, and now we are in this snarl.

                           --Mary Chesnut's Civil War


Calhoun's policies lost their luster in the wake of Sherman's march. These words by Mary Boykin Chestnut's physician, St. Julien Ravenel, and quoted in her memoir[1], would have been unthinkable--and certainly unutterable--in the years before the war. Indeed, the earliest attempts at Calhoun commemoration began almost immediately after his death. In April 1854, the Joint Committee on the Library (of Congress) considered and rejected an application from an artist who wished his statuette of Calhoun placed in the Capitol[2]. That same year the Ladies Calhoun Monument Association formally organized in Charleston, South Carolina[3].

But, in the years after the Civil War, efforts to commemorate the South's champion flagged. Southerners were much far too occupied with the struggle to survive to devote much of their energy to memorialization activities. According to one estimate, only 94 Confederate monuments were erected from 1865-85, and some 70 percent of those were monuments to fallen soldiers placed in Southern cemeteries. [4].

Calhoun in Statuary Hall

After the mid-1880s, however, the character of and personalities behind memorialization efforts changed--largely because the character of the South had changed dramatically. Mining operations and textile mills were booming; changes in staple farming that required farmers to become more and more involved in marketing their crops created hundreds of bustling market towns across the regions. A burgeoning middle class of shopkeepers, small businessmen, doctors, lawyers, and accountants was accumulating wealth in the wreck of Southern civilization.[5]

This class, existing only in nascent form before the war, threw itself into memorialization activities as a way to articulate its values and, indeed, its identity to the South's skeptical Old Guard and the North's media taste-makers. From 1886-1912, the pace of monument building quadrupled, rising from 94 to 406.[6] And the monuments were just one of a spectrum of activities in the South's largely successful postwar effort to win the war of representation after losing the clash of arms.

The version of the "Lost Cause" myth that emerged from these efforts was a corporate creation, in both senses of the word. That is to say, the myths and rituals of the Cause served a variety of community purposes, allowing war survivors to celebrate "the past" as a way of containing the disorder of its present-day "New South" incarnation. At the same time, these myths and rituals also became a money- and prestige-generating machines, creating a Southern narrative of national origin as an item for popular consumption both in the South and in the North and West.

Serious scholars bent their hands to the task. Southern historians and memoirists from Edward Pollard (The Lost Cause, 1866) and Albert Taylor Bledsoe (Is Davis a Traitor?) to Alexander Stephens (Constitutional View of the Late War, 1870) and Jeff Davis himself (The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, 1881) advanced a series of largely self-serving theories of Confederate defeat that were tacitly and often openly embraced by most established historians.[7] Meanwhile, in the popular realm, the minstrel-style plantation fantasies of Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Thomas Nelson Page, and Joel Chandler Harris played on the nostalgia of a book- buying public struggling with the dislocations of rapid social and economic change.

Calhoun in the Senate Chamber

Commemoration activities began to shed a narrow focus on ritual mourning activities for the fallen soldier. No longer were Ladies Memorial Associations so concerned with hanging laurels on graves on Confederate Memorial Day. The commemorationists were marching to a new drumbeat--that of sectional reconciliation. Blue-and-gray reunions and parades became the preferred mode of expressing the new ideology. In 1881, the Louisiana State National Guard invited a New York National Guard unit to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. In 1887, the powers behind Richmond's Hollywood Cemetery--where nearly 20,000 Confederate and Union soldiers are buried along with Jefferson Davis, George Pickett, and many others--voted to change their Memorial Day celebration to the day observed by Union soldiers. They urged the shift on other Southern cities, to "foster the sentiments of brotherly love which have been so freely expressed of late by the former wearers of the blue and gray."[8]

John C. Calhoun's likeness entered the U.S. Capitol in 1881, just as this new period was getting under way. On February 23, the Joint Committee for the Library voted to purchase paintings of Calhoun and his fellow "triumvirs" Henry Clay and Daniel Webster from the collection of Matthew Brady, the famed photographer. The next landmark in Calhoun commemoration came in April 1887, when the Ladies Calhoun Monument Association finally saw their massive statue unveiled in Charleston's Marion Square. The dedication of an even more impressive statue in the Capitol's Statuary Hall in March 1910 showed just how thoroughly the senator's reputation had been rehabilitated.

Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts delivered the dedicatory address:

His statue is here by right.  He really was a 
great man, one of the great figures of history. 
He was a bold as well as a deep thinker, and he 
had to the full the courage of his convictions.  
The doctrines of socialism were as alien
to him as the worship of commercialism.
He raised his mind to truths.  He believed
that statesmanship must move on a high plane,
and he could not conceive that mere money
making and money spending were the 
highest objects of ambition in the lives
of men or of nations.[9]

Here indeed is a hero for a boisterously commercial age--a man who raised his mind to "truths", who lived "on a high plane".

In the speeches, programs, and pamphleteering surrounding the Calhoun commemoration, we catch glimpses of the stories the commemorationists used Calhoun to tell about themselves. Consider this account of the nullification and sectional crises:

As Mr. Calhoun had nobly come to the aid
of South Carolina in her Nullification trouble,
he was now appealed to for help in her fight
for States Rights on the slavery issue.  In the
beginning the State was no in favor of slavery, 
and in the days of the Proprietors, efforts were
made to check it.  Now the negroes were here
and had to be taken care of; after the invention
of the cotton gin, more cotton was raised and
more negroes were required to take care of it.
In the majority of cases, the negroes were 
happy and contented as they became more 
civilized.[10]

The pamphlets are also careful to create the proper aristocratic origins for Calhoun--and to pay the proper homages to its benefactresses: the "loyal servant" who kept the secret of where the monument funds were hidden from the Yankees; and the loyal cadre of "ladies" who kept the movement alive, those "purified priestesses around the altar of home." [11]












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Notes

1. Mary Chesnut, Mary Chesnut's Civil War, C. Vann Woodward, ed. (New Haven: Yale UP, 1981), 758.

2. Charles E. Fairman, Art and Artists of the Capitol of the United States of America (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1927), 423-24.

3. Clarence Cuningham, A History of the Calhoun Monument at Charleston, S.C. (Charleston: Lucas, Richardson & Co., 1888), 4.

4. Gaines M. Foster, Ghosts of the Confederacy: Defeat, the Lost Cause, and the Emergence of the New South, 1865 to 1913 (New York: Oxford UP, 1987), 40 and 273.

5. This process is documented in surprisingly rich detail in Margaret Mitchell's much- maligned Gone With the Wind. As a novel of the South--most particularly of Atlanta--the book mirrors the social, racial, class, and regional tensions of a city reeling from boom to bust to boom again: the "wreck" of Southern civilization in Rhett Butler's oft-repeated phrase. The book is aimed at the middle-brow tastes of a rising class- -the same class that was assiduously engaged in refiguring Southern history for modern consumption at a variety historical sites and through a spectrum of memorialization activities. Compare Mitchell's 1936 work with discussions in Foster's Ghosts of the Confederacy. Also see Michael Kammen, Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture (New York: Vintage Books, 1993). Also worth investigating is Catherine Clinton, Tara Revisited: Women, War, and the Plantation Legend (New York: Abbeville Press), 1995.