By David A. Carrino, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2013-2014, All Rights Reserved
Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the December 2013 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.
Many people share the blame that there was not a peaceful resolution of the issues of secession and slavery, but the person who is perhaps most responsible for starting the fire on which the fire-eaters dined is John C. Calhoun. He has been called by some historians the patron saint of secession, a distinction that he indisputably merits. Calhoun is revered in the South as a steadfast champion of states rights and Southern rights, and he is reviled in the North as a pigheaded partisan of states rights and Southern rights. Born in South Carolina, Calhoun’s hand rocked the cradle of secession until that state became the standard-bearer for disunion.
Calhoun did not live long enough to see the movement that he nurtured become reality. But if deceased persons are able to drive events from the grave with their spiritual energy, there is no doubt that Calhoun was doing this in the years just before the Civil War. In fact, after Calhoun’s death one of his staunchest adversaries, Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton, made this caustic comment about Calhoun when he expressed his disagreement that Calhoun be honored with a eulogy in Congress. “He is not dead. There may be no vitality in his body, but there is in his doctrines.” If Calhoun was influencing events from his grave, then where was the location of the source of this spiritual energy? The answer to this question may seem obvious, because John C. Calhoun is buried in his native South Carolina. However, Calhoun also has a tomb in Washington, D.C. in the Congressional Cemetery.
Congressional Cemetery sits on 35 acres of land that was accumulated starting in 1807 to serve as the final resting places for government officials who died while in office. At that time, the long transport times made it difficult to return the remains of such people to their homes, and burial in Washington was more practicable. A vice president, a Supreme Court justice, and 90 members of Congress are buried in Congressional Cemetery. The first Congressman to be buried there was Connecticut Senator Uriah Tracy in 1807. Like John C. Calhoun, Tracy was a champion of secession, not of the South, but of New England due to the policies of Thomas Jefferson and his followers, which Tracy felt were curtailing Northern influence. Also buried in Congressional Cemetery are J. Edgar Hoover, John Philip Sousa, Mathew Brady, Lincoln conspirator David Herold, Robert Mills, who designed the Washington Monument, and Choctaw Indian Chief Push-Ma-Ta-Ha, who fought with Andrew Jackson against the British in the War of 1812, died in Washington when he traveled there to lobby for compensation for lost Choctaw land, and was buried with full military honors.
In addition to actual tombs, Congressional Cemetery also contains 165 cenotaphs. The literal meaning of cenotaph is empty tomb, and cenotaphs are tomb sites that honor someone who is buried elsewhere. The cenotaphs in Congressional Cemetery are marked with a distinctive monument that was designed by Benjamin Latrobe, and the markers are named after him. The Latrobe markers are made of sandstone from the same quarry as that used for the Capitol Building and the White House. The markers consist of a low square base, a stout block, and a conical apex. The style is much more modern than grave markers for that time, and public opinion of the Latrobe markers was not always favorable. In Congressional Cemetery, the term “cenotaph” is used to denote not only empty tombs, but also actual burial places that have a Latrobe marker. Of the 165 cenotaphs in Congressional Cemetery, 50 are actual burial sites. After 1835, the remains of most government officials who died in Washington were sent to their home states and were interred there, but cenotaphs were still erected for them.
In 1876 the practice of erecting cenotaphs for government officials who died in office was discontinued. The motivation for discontinuing this practice came from a remark about the Latrobe markers by Massachusetts Congressman George Frisbie Hoar, who said, “The thought of being buried beneath one of those atrocities brought new terror to death.” Only two cenotaphs have been erected since 1876. One was in 1972 for Hale Boggs and Nicholas Begich, whose bodies were never recovered after a 1972 plane crash and who share a cenotaph. The other was in 1994 for former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, although his cenotaph is not in the Latrobe style.
One government official who is honored with a cenotaph is John C. Calhoun, who died in office while a member of the Senate. Calhoun’s actual grave is in Charleston, South Carolina, but because of his cenotaph he also has a tomb in Washington. Calhoun’s cenotaph is next to that of Henry Clay, a fellow senator and sometimes adversary of Calhoun. This is ironic, because Calhoun once said of Clay, “I don’t like Clay. He is a bad man, an imposter, a creator of wicked schemes. I wouldn’t speak to him, but, by God, I love him.” Daniel Webster, the third member of the famous Senatorial Triumvirate comprised of Webster, Calhoun, and Clay, is interred in Massachusetts.
Because John C. Calhoun has a tomb in Washington, his spiritual energy did not have to project all the way from his actual tomb in South Carolina in order to influence events in the nation’s capital during the final decade before the Civil War. It is also fortunate for Northerners that John C. Calhoun has a cenotaph in Congressional Cemetery, because people in the North can make a pilgrimage to Calhoun’s tomb without traveling all the way to the mecca of secession, Charleston, South Carolina. This makes it easier for Northerners to ‘pay their respects’ at the tomb of John C. Calhoun with whatever gesture they deem appropriate for the patron saint of secession.