Let’s replace Ben Tillman with a statue of John Laurens


I had this idea weeks ago. I doubt it’s original, because it seems too obvious. Surely others have thought of it.

But after finally watching “Hamilton” all the way through for the first time on Disney+ (which I need to do a separate post on), and seeing more about taking down statues in Washington, I wanted to go ahead and get the idea out there, in case other folks haven’t thought of it.

Obviously, Ben Tillman has to come down. Not because of protests across the country at this moment (or at least not solely for that reason), but because he was always a horror, and there was never a time when he should have been up there, by the standards of any time. Of course, I’ll admit I’m prejudiced, from way back. The newspaper to which I devoted 22 years was founded to oppose Tillman; that’s what The State was all about. Our first editor (and in a sense my predecessor) gave his life in the cause of opposing the Tillmans. And while I don’t know all the whys and wherefores, I know my family opposed him at the time (although I can’t explain all the causes). He was my great-grandparents’ neighbor on Capitol Hill, and I hear they were appalled when he would tempt my grandmother, as a tiny girl, to come sit on his lap on his porch by offering her apples from his cellar. (Which may sound sort of innocent, but can chill your blood when you think about him.)

Anyway, that’s settled. He’s got to go. We just need to get the Legislature to act on it.1920px-Lt._Col._John_Laurens_crop

But what do we replace him with? I think my idea offers additional incentive that should make us hasten to remove Pitchfork Ben.

Replace him with John Laurens. A South Carolinian through and through, and a hero who gave his life to help found this country.

And he was a hero in more ways than one, espousing ideas that were far ahead of his time, especially in South Carolina. Does that mean he was “woke” by 2020 standards? Probably not. But wow, it took guts for this son of a slave trader to take the public positions he did back in the 1770s and 80s:

As the British stepped up operations in the South, Laurens promoted the idea of arming slaves and granting them freedom in return for their service. He had written, “We Americans at least in the Southern Colonies, cannot contend with a good Grace, for Liberty, until we shall have enfranchised our Slaves.” Laurens was set apart from other leaders in Revolutionary-era South Carolina by his belief that black and white people shared a similar nature and could aspire to freedom in a republican society.[1]

In early 1778, Laurens proposed to his father, who was then the President of the Continental Congress, to use forty slaves he stood to inherit as part of a brigade. Henry Laurens granted the request, but with reservations that caused postponement of the project.

Congress approved the concept of a regiment of slaves in March 1779, and sent Laurens south to recruit a regiment of 3,000 black soldiers; however, the plan was opposed, and Laurens was ultimately unsuccessful. Having won election to the South Carolina House of Representatives, Laurens introduced his black regiment plan in 1779, again in 1780, and a third time in 1782, meeting overwhelming rejection each time. Governor John Rutledge and General Christopher Gadsden were among the opponents….

In other words, he stood against the overwhelming political sentiment in this state, on the state’s most explosive issue ever.

I also liked this observation from a history professor in Tennessee:

Laurens speaks more clearly to us today than other men of the American Revolution whose names are far more familiar. Unlike all other southern political leaders of the time, he believed that blacks shared a similar nature with whites, which included a natural right to liberty. “We have sunk the Africans & their descendants below the Standard of Humanity,” he wrote, “and almost render’d them incapable of that Blessing which equal Heaven bestow’d upon us all.” Whereas other men considered property the basis of liberty, Laurens believed liberty that rested on the sweat of slaves was not deserving of the name. To that extent, at least, his beliefs make him our contemporary, a man worthy of more attention than the footnote he has been in most accounts of the American Revolution….

So in other words this privileged white man of the South Carolina ruling class was saying, in the 18th century, that black lives matter. Which in his day and place, was an extremely radical position.

Maybe there are other good ideas for replacing Tillman. Truth is, almost anyone or anything would be better than Tillman. I was just trying to think of one who embodied something in our history we should be celebrating, for a change…

33 thoughts on “Let’s replace Ben Tillman with a statue of John Laurens

  1. bud

    I think we have enough white men on the statehouse grounds. I’d go with I. DeQuincey Newman. First African American elected to the SC senate post reconstruction. Or we could just plant a big tree. I’m sort of becoming a fan of moving away from statues.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      All good suggestions, including the one about “no statues.”

      But a big part of what appeals to me about Laurens is that it’s a way of completely resetting the kind of state we want to be — starting at the beginning.

      Just think how different SC would be if we’d honored people like him from the beginning.

      When Chernow’s book about Hamilton came along, it had been so many years since I’d closely studied that period that I was sort of startled to discover, or rediscover, Laurens. And I was proud to know about him, and to know he was a South Carolinian.

      Putting up a statue to him would be like pushing the reset button. We’d be saying, let’s start over, and this time, let’s celebrate people from our history who SHOULD be honored…

  2. Ken

    It’s clear to me that Tillman needs to be removed. It’s not clear that he needs to be replaced by anything.

    But if so, then I don’t think another white guy is the answer.
    Instead, how about one of Robert Smalls of Beaufort. Or Mary McLeod Bethune of Mayesville. Or Septima Poinsette Clark of Charleston.
    Or maybe an ensemble work featuring SC-born entertainers “Dizzy” Gillespie, James Brown and Eartha Kitt?

  3. Bryan Caskey

    Laurens would be a good choice. He certainly appealed to what Lincoln referred to as “the better angels of our nature”.

  4. bud

    A statue of the son of a slave trader. Who could possibly object? Really Brad and Bryan this is just an awful idea. Y’all are stunningly tone deaf on this statue issue. Absolutely no one outside the white elite class will see this suggestion in a positive light.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      The son of a slave trader. Not a slave trader, but the son of a slave trader.

      Are we going to refuse to honor and celebrate good people because of what their fathers did?

      If so, we should just completely quit on this experiment called “America…”

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        For me, the fact that he was the son of a slave trader and yet took the stands he did makes him that much more admirable. If he was the son of an abolitionist, I’d be somewhat less impressed…

      2. bud

        Honor him, sure. A statue on the state house grounds? Absolutely not. The guy may have had that better angel side but he is still a white dude from a slave owning family. Let’s just take down the Tillman statue and focus on a bit of empathy rather than defend the indefensible.

  5. Ken

    This is a pretty tone-deaf suggestion – particularly in this BLM moment. Like with the gnashing of teeth at Bree Newsome’s demonstration, it shows no appreciation for the desire for symbols of Black agency.

    Blacks were the MAJORITY in South Carolina from roughly 1708 all the way into the 20th Century. And yet there is no monument on the State House grounds to a single member of that community. Laurens opposed slavery. That’s nice. But his proposal for a Black regiment never got anywhere. And we’re supposed to honor him for that? Robert Smalls, on the other hand, not only freed himself and others, he went on to hold significant public offices and create the first compulsory public schools in this state. He actually did something besides merely having the right attitude.

    1. Bryan Caskey

      “Blacks were the MAJORITY in South Carolina from roughly 1708 all the way into the 20th Century. And yet there is no monument on the State House grounds to a single member of that community.”

      Well, there is this monument on the statehouse grounds. Having said that, I also think Robert Smalls is a good candidate for a statue.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Yep. Smalls is a good suggestion.

        That idea, like mine, is also worth respectfully considering.

        Y’all do understand, right, that when I suggest putting up a monument — you know, one of those things that are supposed to be “for the ages” — I am not trying to match my suggestion to a “moment.” In fact, I’m almost never doing that. I generally take the long view.

        And not just with monuments, although those particularly demand such a perspective — you look for something that would also be relevant 100 years from now, and 100 years ago. (And in Laurens’ case, 200 years ago.)

        Smalls fits that bill.

        Of course, the one strong argument I can think of against Laurens is that you could say he didn’t reflect SC. He was an outlier. But then, you bring me back to my point — honoring him is a way of honoring that which SC historically rejected. It’s a way of becoming a better state. It’s a reset.

        Smalls fits that bill, too.

        Anyway, taking the long view is my habit. Amy Klobuchar was undone by failing to match “the moment.” Which was a shame, because I was thinking in terms of who would be good two or three years from now, if and when a vice president had to step up and become president.

        And since she dropped out, I’ve looked for someone else who fits that description. That’s why I was glad to find Karen Bass, because I think of every name that’s been mentioned, she fits that bill the best. (I hope to hear her name a LOT more.) And fortunately, she possesses attributes that the “moment”-oriented people will appreciate as well. It’s not why I would choose her, but it’s a good advantage to have, given the dynamics of electoral politics.

        By the way, there’s nothing wrong with being “moment” oriented. One reason Abraham Lincoln was our greatest president was that he was the master of reading the American people and taking exactly the right action at exactly the right moment. No one else has been that good at that important political attribute. And I honor him for it.

        But it’s not the way I approach most things…

        1. bud

          Unlike Lincoln Brad is horrible at reading the people. I can’t respect a suggestion that is so grotesquely tone deaf. I’m sorry you’re having such a hard time understanding what a divisive pick Laurens would be. But anyone whose family owned slaves is just not acceptable. You can make this “for the ages “ argument if you wish but we do live in a moment. And sometimes you have to honor the moment. I’m convinced now that we should take down the Tillman statue and not replace it with anything other that landscaping.

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            Bud, what gives you the idea I’m trying to guess what “the people” want to do, and failing to do so?

            I’m sharing what I, Brad Warthen, think would be a good idea — one of many good ideas I hope people will come forward with. And now we’ve seen some of that happen already.

            That’s kind of what I do here on the blog. I don’t do this in a vain attempt to resonate to the currently popular vibration. I just tell you what I think.

            And then you tell me what you think. It doesn’t make you or me right or wrong. We’re just sharing what we think.

            I believe it’s good to have a place to do that…

  6. Mark

    I’d vote for Smalls, too.
    However, I don’t think we should all be too hasty to run away from the conversation about re-exploring the various threads of history that got balled up in the Remembrance of the Lost Cause and the amoral decent into Jim Crow. There hasn’t really been a thorough recounting these other fabrics, the desire to whitewash everything in post-secession SC made sure of that. We shouldn’t be afraid to tell other stories, black, white or native American; we would all be better off with different narratives to reflect upon.

      1. bud

        No Brad, you’re not racist. Nor do you think spray painting a statue is murder. And I don’t really believe defending the honor of Columbia is the biggest issue we face today. I think you’re a decent family man that wants to see everyone be prosperous safe and healthy.

        But (there’s always a but), you have this stunning lack of empathy for people of color. Yes you were a champion for moving the confederate flag, which makes this tone deaf lack of empathy that much more surprising. Can’t you grasp how important it is to push for an inclusive array of our citizens on the capitol grounds? To feature another white man in this moment in a lengthy post diminishes other races and women. And that surprises me. We can’t move forward as a state and nation until we make a concerted effort to demonstrate inclusiveness in all aspects of our community. We just have to get this right.

  7. Ken

    If we are to memorialize those who freed the enslaved for their service in the Revolution, then the honor should go to the British, in particular someone like Major General Samuel Birch, who assembled the so-called “Book of Negroes,” which listed some 3500 former enslaved who were freed for their service to the Loyalist cause and resettled in Canada.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Hey, you know I like the Brits.

      Of course, in those days Americans and Brits were sort of hard to tell apart sometimes. Laurens was in England, to pursue studying law, when he left to come back here and fight for the Revolution. He might have lived a more English life otherwise.

      Of course, he didn’t just abandon law school. He also left behind his pregnant wife — whom he had apparently married mainly because he got her pregnant. Leaving them behind, of course, was far less admirable than other things in his short life.

      But who, among the people we admire, has led a completely blameless life?…

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        … and that, of course, is one of the arguments against erecting monuments to people at all. The finest bronze sculpture has feet of clay in some way.

        I think the problem, though, is in people making more of monuments than they should. Being memorialized by a statue doesn’t make you a god. We shouldn’t act as though it does. Certainly we should not expect perfection…

  8. Bart

    Interesting discussion over statues and whose statue should go and whose should replace it.

    My position has evolved to one that is perhaps the simplest of all. Remove every statue of any individual from any public space not just in South Carolina but across the nation. If one wishes to honor someone with a statue and can afford it, let them pay for the statue and place it in an enclosure that is not available for public viewing. No statues allowed on public property or inside a public building, local, state or federal. This would also include busts on pedestals.

    I am in favor of completely demolishing Mt. Rushmore, returning it to its formal state as much as possible and return the land to the Native Americans. This includes Stone Mountain in Georgia. Remove any traces of carved images on both.

    Am in favor of renaming any street in this country that is used to honor anyone for any reason whatsoever. Replace the name with a number or letter of the alphabet or something from nature like a tree or bird.

    Sound radical? Think not. Mt. Rushmore has four past presidents carved out of stone. Two were slave owners, one was responsible for taking Native American lands and turning them into national parks and one was more than willing to accept slavery if it meant keeping the Union together. As for Stone Mountain, nothing to be added since the carvings represent Confederate officers.

    The sins of the fathers and forefathers are being laid at the feet of the ancestors of each with appropriate labeling for the sins committed. Even the state of New York is finally being exposed for its participation in slavery and defense of it but that is something not discussed in history books or in the conversations about slavery in this country.

    Another prime example is West Virginia and its obsession with Robert Byrd. Byrd was an active member of the KKK when he was first elected to public office and remained so for years. Yet the state is rift with buildings and schools honoring his name. I have driven in and through West Virginia numerous times and based on casual observation, his name on buildings, etc. was as common as dead deer on the interstates and main highways, one about every 10 – 20 miles.

    My point is that if our ancestors are thoroughly researched far enough back in history, a grievance is most likely to be found that is offensive or in direct conflict to the standards of today vs. the standards of their time in history. If the trend is to remove the offensive actions of our ancestors, then do it completely and with finality. That is the only fair way to address the issue and end the ceaseless complaining about the behavior of generations past. Maybe then we can move forward with true equal opportunity for all.

    The last recommendation is to address the naming of the Democratic Party as regards to past racial crimes. When the secession of the 11 states took place, all of the seceding states were controlled by Democrats and many of the states remaining in the Union were Democrat controlled. It was not until secession that the Republican Party was able to take control of the White House and Congress and therefore able to lead the pathway to emancipation of slaves and end the practice in this country. Once the seceding states rejoined the Union, it was not long before Democrats took over again and the beginning of the Jim Crow era in this country. If the intent is to be accurate and hold accountable in name the ones responsible for slavery with history of the time vs. the present standards being applied, the obvious conclusion is that the Democratic Party should be held accountable for being the party of slavery, not Republicans. A distinction that was prevalent until the Civil Rights Act was passed eliminating the Jim Crow laws and the beginning of the end of the era.

    Sound a little extreme? I think not considering the public conversation and removal and destruction of statues by offended groups that has spilled over to some who worked hard to improve racial equality and inequities by the very groups who are offended. Honor no one, respect everyone would be a good place to start healing this nation. Otherwise, the pain will continue and opportunists on both sides will do whatever is necessary to continue and increase the pain until it renders this nation helpless.

    Or to repeat a line in Godfather II, “Senator, we are part of the same hypocrisy, but never think it applies to my family.” Apropos to both sides when trying to deny history.

    1. bud

      Bart we don’t often agree but I think you’re on to something. As Brad noted these men are not gods. So why pretend they are imperfect by memorializing them in stone.

    2. Bob Amundson

      I agree with not naming streets. I used to live at 850 East 8475 South in Salt Lake. Give me a numerical address in Salt Lake and I don’t need directions.

  9. JesseS

    While I applaud you for creating thinking, I gotta give that a big NOPE.

    From here on out, let’s not put up any public art and put our efforts towards removing bronze albatrosses from the body politic.

    Let’s say we are all OK with Laurens coming from a slave holding family because he did the right thing. primitive accumulation aside, I’m sure Laurens said at least 500,000 things that we’d abhor today and if they aren’t things we’ll abhor today, we’ll abhor the tomorrow. At it stands nothing can stand up to the rate of change we face as a society.

    Besides, statues are just a manifestation of political ownership. Someone will dig up a quote from Laurens that makes him pro-TERF or whatever and with the rate of change, it will make us not just complicit, but endorsers of, current political ownership.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      You’re saying all sorts of practical things, Jesse, but when it comes to history, I’m not a “what flies now” kind of guy.

      It’s either a good idea or it isn’t. If it IS a good idea, it was always a good idea and will always BE a good idea, no matter what activists yet unborn say in the future.

      A statue to Ben Tillman? That was always a bad idea, and my editorial predecessor N.G. Gonzales would have told you that at the time.

      All that said — I’m intrigued by the idea of no statues, ever, of anybody. Not saying I’m backing it, but it’s a lot better than putting up a statue for the right reasons now and later bending to current opinion…

      Recently, I was reading about Alexander the Great, in a book written in the mid-19th century. It went on and on about people still arguing over whether he was a great man or a schmuck, more than 2,000 years later. And of course, that question is still open.

      We humans are weird…

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        I was about to add, “At least we’re not furiously arguing whether the city in Egypt should still be called ‘Alexandria’.”

        But then I realized we probably are. I mean, someone on the planet probably is…

  10. Ace

    I honestly think this is a good idea! Though it would be better if we have more black people have their own statues, Laurens is a good choice. He had early socialist ideals, believed in equality regardless of race (though it is important to note that he did have a bit of a white-savior complex), and was quite possibly LGBTQ+.

    You also brought up some other good opinions on statues. Overall, good article!

  11. Loyd

    Thank you for your insight. I too have become more interested in the life of John Laurens after watching Hamilton, especially as a South Carolinian. He deserves more recognition for what gave for the country and what he tried to accomplish.


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