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John C. Calhoun's life shows he was never worthy of our lake

As a life-long slave holder whose fortune and comfort rested on bondage, Calhoun was too proud to be shamed for his conscripting other men, women and children to a short, poverty-marked life so he could be wealthy.

As a life-long slave holder whose fortune and comfort rested on bondage, Calhoun was too proud to be shamed for his conscripting other men, women and children to a short, poverty-marked life so he could be wealthy. Library of Congress

Die-hard John C. Calhouners have recently counter-attacked the restoration process designed to remove a short-lived smear upon the honor of south Minneapolis’ most prominent water.

The beautiful, nearly circular, pollution-free body of water was no secret to long-time residents, the woodland Dakota people. They called it Mde (lake, prounounced ‘Bde’) Maka (earth) Ska (white), or Lake of White Earth, which speaks to its many white sand beaches brilliantly lit in the gem-like waters of a by-gone era. Even after 150 years of intense development dumping vast quantities of pollutants into the lake in the form of stormwater, Mde Maka Ska remains at the higher end of water quality scales. Except when it rains.

The earliest recorded history informs us that a Chief Cloud Man steered a substantial village along the southeastern edge of the 1-mile diameter, 90-foot deep lake. From Cloud Man’s gardens, a path wound three miles north to the ‘Great River’s’ (Mississippi) impressive cataracts, a 65’ drop in elevation marked by huge chunks of fallen limestone. To the original bronzed-skin settlers, owahmenah, “falling waters” indicated powerful spirits dwelled among the noisy mists.

It was re-named The Falls of St. Anthony by the first white man to behold it. That path is still there, exactly as the Dakota trod it. Only now it is known as Hennepin Avenue.

A slaveholder burning with ambition
Opponents claim the restoration attempt amounts to political correctness, abandonment of history, and an expensive route to future identity battles. The substance of their thrust is that John C. Calhoun was a great man, even though a slave holder (which was okay, since it was back in the day when it was no big deal to own people and have total control of their lives so they could be rented out and their wages become your wages).

Besides, he was a great compromiser and he built Fort Snelling and everybody loved him. Fair enough, challenge accepted.

I admit to prejudice. I have lived near the lake for 30 years and helped spearhead an effort to clean up its stormwater-contaminated fluids in the 1990s. The Lake Calhoun water quality committee also studied the process by which the lake was renamed after the Secretary of War, South Carolinian John Cadwallader Calhoun, in 1817. After an open discussion, our citizen’s water-quality committee voted 17-4 (in 1994) to restore the original Bde Maka Ska in an attempt to reassert solid values over transient, political ones.

Here is what we learned via numerous sources, including the 17-volume University of South Carolina Calhoun Collection, and material provided by Paul Durant, historian of the Mdewankaton Dakota of Shakopee: The adding “Calhoun” and eliminating “Bde Maka Ska” was beyond the authority of the entity making the change, the U.S. Topographical Engineers. Also, it seems the expedition resulting in re-naming the lake was in violation of well-known laws, such as altering a property without paying for it, using alcohol to persuade Indians to part with their land, and cheating the natives of monies due them – a practice Calhoun, when not subverting the Union, encouraged.

Our saga begins three decades earlier with the Treaty of 1783, in which the English took over Canada from the French and their indigenous allies. Swallowing Canada, a mostly unexplored country twice as large as the United States, should require a rest period. But English traders and powerful British multi-nationals effectively ruled thousands of miles of U.S. territory northwest of Bde Maka Ska and plotted for more.

The British Northwest Company and the Hudson’s Bay Co’s traders encouraged native people to contest with local fur-bearers, vowing cash to the winner and shipping the loser’s pelt off for Europe without tribute to U.S. Customs.

To assist their enterprise, traders sold the tribes illegal firewater and built Native dreams with the promise of an independent Indian Nation carved out along the U.S./Canadian border. That is, if the new alliance of a few thousand English soldiers mired in ignorance of local geography -- merged with a contingent of poorly-armed American aborigines -- could triumph over a raw but aggressive U.S. army supported by a population of several million.

It was a high-risk proposition. If the English/native alliance failed, gangs of New Englanders were platting every inch of Indigenous patrimony for immediate sale.

In response, the U.S. government commissioned a survey/treaty/purchase expedition by Captain Zebulon Pike up the Mississippi River – the second government exploration, after that of Louis & Clark, of land obtained in the recent Louisiana Purchase . Pike was to look over the area’s major rivers and select the most strategic place to erect a fort to control them. The new nation planned a hundred such redoubts along the disputed border to discourage British adventurism.

Natives guided Pike’s party to Clearwater Creek, a spring bubbling forth from a promontory commanding the state’s two largest rivers, the Minnesota and the Mississippi. For nine square miles along the Mississippi River southward to its the confluence with the Minnesota, and a similar plat at the confluence of the St. Croix and Mississippi, Zebulon Pike pledged the U.S. government to pay $2,000 – or 18 cents an acre - to Chief Little Crow’and Chief Wabasso’s bands. (The established price was $1.25 an acre.)

This 1805 treaty with the “Sioux Nation of Indians,” granted the U.S. “full sovereignty – forever. The U.S. promised to permit the Sioux “to pass, repass, hunt or make other uses of the said districts as they have formerly done.”

In the years following Pike’s treaty expedition, competition between the United Kingdom and the U.S. flared into the War of 1812-14, in which the Brits scored a spectacular touchdown -- torching the US capital -- but logged fewer points. In losing, the English surrendered little more than their steroidal hopes of owning yet another hemisphere. But mid-America’s native peoples lost 99 percent of what they had known and venerated for the past thousands of years.

Incredibly, the stakes grew exponentially after John C. Calhoun took over the War Department (1817-25), conjoining a dark-horse expedition to Minnesota with a devious plot to seize the American presidency and expand Southern-style servitude to every corner of the world.

Calhoun enjoyed a rapid rise to regional prominence for his feisty defense of slavery. He frequently warned that emancipation would result in a blood-bath as freed blacks sought revenge on their former masters.

The New England states declared an end to slavery after the Revolutionary War. In 1808, the U.S. forbid the importation of African slaves. By 1833, an international ban on slavery was enacted with the world’s greatest navy, the British fleet, to back it up.

Even Calhoun’s wealthy neighbors in antebellum Pendleton, South Carolina promised to give up slavery within two decades of joining the union in 1787. Yet the economic upside to forcibly holding another human being in bondage was proving to be too much of a bloody good thing.

Calhoun inherited 30 slaves as a teenager. After marrying into planter society, he owned over a hundred. Graduating from Yale, Calhoun embarked on a political career that led to the South Carolina Senate, the U.S. Senate, Secretary of War and Vice-Presidency. He wanted more.

Calhoun burned with ambition to be president, because he had a message, and that message was that the Union was only worth saving if it was half free and half slave. Guarantee the South equal strength with the North so she would not be kicked around anymore. Or, falling short of his messianic destiny, Calhoun would challenge the very notion of Union, promising to rip the young democracy apart with blood and flames. And it all began in Minnesota.

If Calhoun Was a Great Person, He Was a Great Bad Person
In 1817, few whites – mostly trappers and traders -- lived in the future state. The lakes and fields of the future state were overwhelmingly native: some 40,000 Lakota and 20,000 Chippewa – plus 10,000 persons among several smaller tribes – populated the territory.

It had been a dozen years since the residents of Mde Maka Ska had seen the men who promised them money and goods when Long appeared. In choosing the leader of the expedition which would provide base calculations for siting the fort, Calhoun made an odd choice in Major Stephen H. Long. Other, more experienced explorers were available. But Calhoun wasn’t looking for an all-star. He chose instead to make “rich ‘n famous” a man with an ugly stain on his service record, which would normally render him ineligible for such a plum assignment.

In 1816, a year before Calhoun’s ascent to head of the War Department, Stephen H. Long, West Point graduate, was appointed major in the newly minted U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Topography Dept. The ‘Topogs,’ were surveyors, map-makers and explorers who conducted the engineering behind the War Department’s mission to carve a transportation network from the American wilderness. It was their work to accurately record the landscapes, not to change the names by which they were known.

A competent, even skilled engineer, Major Long soon guided a survey of the Illinois River. He crossed from one military division, where he was stationed, into another without permission of his superior officer, one Gen. Andrew Jackson. Gen. Jackson exploded at Long’s insubordination, demanding that all decisions go through him and likely ending Long’s short Corps career.

Fortunately for Long, General Jackson was scrubbing Florida of any elements standing between his becoming president, when Calhoun installed the major as leader of the expedition up the Mississippi to its confluence with the Minnesota. Secretary Calhoun also cleared Long’s record, ruling the major acted appropriately on the Illinois expedition by informing Jackson of its occurrence.

His career suddenly reborn, Major Long took his cue. Since the Army paid very little, leaders of government expeditions copyrighted their findings and published them. If the accounts of new beasts, awe-inspiring vistas and strange inhabitants were well received, the leader of the expedition reaped the rewards of widespread fame.

Long caught a break. Normally, anyone who crossed Andrew Jackson looked forward to a life of regret, if they were lucky. Long was explicit in his appreciation. “I hope the names of our friends in the Administration (i.e. Calhoun) will remain as long as the ‘perpetual hills’ and never be forgotten ‘til the rivers shall cease to flow.’ Should I find any rivers, mountains, cataracts, caverns or fountains worthy to bear their names, I shall cheerfully assume the functions of the priest, so far as to christen them.”

Such naming was just the adulation Calhoun sought in his campaign for the presidency. A string of 16 monuments bearing the name Calhoun mark Long’s progress like an oil slick, boosting the notion that Calhoun was somehow a great, deserving individual. It’s notable that many are in Northern states. Calhoun needed the support of the North if he was to become president.

Nationalist ‘Fire-eater’

Calhoun got the job of secretary in part because he was a Nationalist, in favor of strong central government and high tariffs to pay for an ambitious expansion of the country westward. It was also believed that Calhoun regretted South Carolina’s major investment in slavery (slaves outnumbered free men), and its slipping a poison pill into the U.S. Constitution during the convention of 1787 that guaranteed slavery until Minnesota gained statehood. Log-rolling between South Carolina and Connecticut, one getting a bond dispute settled its way, the other, a promise not to pester the South on slavery. Give it two decades – and the curtesy of freeing all its slaves on the date it chose – and South Carolina would quit its peculiar institution.

Only it didn’t. The profits of slavery begged a second look. The 1 percenters of the Southern planter class were mulling their debt to the Union when they found the remedy in Calhoun. As a life-long slave holder whose fortune and comfort rested on bondage, Calhoun was too proud to be shamed for his conscripting other men, women and children to a short, poverty-marked life so he could be wealthy.

He had leaped across whatever moral cravass demanded slavery for others, freedom and affluence for me: “There were many in the slaveholding states who, at the commencement of the controversy, believed that slavery, as it existed among us, was an evil to be tolerated, because we could not escape from it, but not to be defended. That has passed away. We now believe it has been a great blessing to both of the races, with great improvement in the inferior African race, and without deterioration of the superior European race.”

Angered by Northern efforts to increase tariff revenue which penalized cotton, the South’s major product, South Carolina’s ‘Oligarchy’ sought a means of strangling all new taxes. Calhoun was directed by the oligarchs to formulate a defense of slavery that would maintain state’s ‘rights’ (i.e. the right to own slaves) all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

The Great ‘Nullifier’
Released anonymously, South Carolina’s ‘Exposition and Protest’ advanced ideas of the secessionist fire-eaters, South Carolina’s radical pro-slavery element. Calhoun led the pack now, his taunts at Unionists rising to a battle cry.

‘Nullification’ was Calhoun’s crowning achievement, an absurd Constitutional challenge. Calhoun, avoiding the word ‘slavery,’ proclaimed in his Exposition the paramount importance of extraordinarily cheap labor to Southern agriculture. Calhoun aimed to turn up the surly on the South Carolina political scene, his sullen logic outlining how the differences between ‘the sections’ had hardened into the ‘irreversible’ logic of a separate confederacy.

Moral issues dispensed with, Calhoun waded into the heart of the matter: the tariff system as practiced does not serve the general welfare, only that of the northern section. In consequence, it is not a law at all, thus lacking force if any state called a statewide convention and rejected it. The U.S. is just another corporation, Calhoun's logic went. The states were free to challenge and nullify any statute which fails to satisfy their interests.

It came to be called ‘Nullification,’ or the end of the nation acting in unison. This is exactly what the oligarchy wanted: a full-throated defense of slavery, an ‘objective’ analysis of Northern thievery, and the path to Confederate citizenship. Carolina began to contemplate life as a new country, one that would fight Northern attacks on Southern ‘institutions.’

Calhoun’s reputation for disputation worked to concentrate Southern opinion in support of slavery. While painting Northern Abolitionists as religious fanatics, he claimed slavery, as practiced in the South, was ‘wise and humane.’

Calhoun’s Carolina doctrine legitimized notions that were too radical for Southern support only months before. Nullification caught fire when he revealed his authorship of the new ‘Declaration of Confederate independence,’ setting the stage for Southern secession.

In 1832, the Nullifiers took over the South Carolina legislature, affirming that the Constitution was a voluntary compact allowing states to nullify federal law, while purchasing 10,000 rifles for the state militia. The Nullifiers also made Calhoun’s ‘Exposition’ official policy and urged it upon the other 10 Southern states. President Jackson reacted quickly, demanding South Carolina collect the tariff or he would ride at the head of 100,000 soldiers and hang the whole treasonous bunch.

The Nullifiers backed down.
Another serious event was the growing number of free states, including Minnesota, admitted to the Union. The clause in the Constitution allowing slaves to be counted as 3/5 of a person for voting was no longer enough to ensure the South’s veto over legislation, its ability to protect slavery dead at last.

The ‘distinct’ culture of the South would be trampled, as Calhoun predicted. A murderous Civil War accomplished the complete destruction of the South. But it was Calhoun’s intransigence, his greed which aimed the gun, his arrogance which pulled the trigger.

For those who resisted a change to the lake’s native name, we ask ‘Why?’ Why does Calhoun represent a higher state of mind when resisting emancipation cost the nation one-quarter of its male population killed or wounded?

No caring person should feel called upon to initiate violent change, to make war on every contradiction and limitation of society. Nor should one feel obligated to pick up every piece of litter which lies amid the track of our checkered history.

Instead, let us manage change, seeking an understanding of who and what we are as we dig deeper and more profoundly into our past. Along with our ‘rights,’ reasonable people have a role in the slow-moving ‘revolution’ of hope, which transforms the world in a civilized way.

Operating from a sense of honesty and justice, and an ardent desire for change, the 1992 Water Quality Committee volunteered their efforts to cleansing the lake both physically and spiritually, working to remove pollutants that most would find repugnant.

The support our initial efforts gained over the years speaks well for a city committed to activism, because there’s no wrong time to do the right thing.