A Celebration of Calhoun


John C. Calhoun

John C. Calhoun

I don’t know what I can say about Yale’s decision to retain John C. Calhoun’s name on one of its residential colleges that I didn’t say last week about Andrew Jackson, save that Calhoun’s deeds offer still less reason for celebration. The Carolina planter, despite his best efforts to the contrary, never attained the presidency and so lacked the opportunity to do some of the things Jackson did whilst in the White House. Nor did he ever command an American army, denying him a chance at fame through military atrocity. Serving as vice-president for two different presidents earns Calhoun a spot in the trivia books, but not much else.

Looked at in that light, Yale naming a building after Calhoun seems like a neutral bit of local boosterism, for whatever scant neutrality one can grant to any species of boosterism. He attended the university and went on to high office. That will get any number of mediocrities plenty of things named after them, as comparing a list of nineteenth century presidents to the names of American high schools will tell you. But electoral frustrations aside, Calhoun managed quite a bit more than mediocrity. Nor did he content himself with the horrifying, but common, practice of enslaving people. That would hardly distinguish him from other antebellum politicians, and certainly not in South Carolina. Not every wealthy or prominent Southerner traded in lives, but the vast majority did. Calhoun earned his fame by making himself the most prominent proslavery thinker in the nation’s history. Given the unique American contributions to proslavery thought, this at least puts him in the running for the most important proslavery theorist ever.

Yale named their college after Calhoun back in the 1930s, when such accomplishments still earned general praise. Times have changed, but not quite far enough. Yale’s president, Peter Salovey acknowledged as much, but decided that

Erasing Calhoun’s name from a much-beloved residential college risks masking this past, downplaying the lasting effects of slavery, and substituting a false and misleading narrative, albeit one that might allow us to feel complacent or, even, self-congratulatory. Retaining the name forces us to learn anew and confront one of the most disturbing aspects of Yale’s and our nation’s past.

Does it really, though? In an interview with the New York Review of Books, Salovey insisted that

I would not call naming a residential college for Calhoun necessarily celebrating him, although it does memorialize him.

We do name things after people in an act of mourning, to remember their losses and sacrifices; that hardly counts as celebration. But Calhoun’s losses and sacrifices came about to our manifest benefit. We ought to celebrate them, not gather somberly and declare never again. If Salovey really thinks memorial some kind of neutral alternative to celebration, he hasn’t paid much attention to how people actually behave. Nor, for that matter, does he seem to have noticed that he himself understands naming colleges after people as a form of celebration when he recounts the accomplishments of Anna Pauline Murray (“the best of Yale: a preeminent intellectual inspired to lead and prepared to serve her community and her country.”) and Benjamin Franklin, the latest recipients of the honor, in the same piece. No word about mere memorials for them.

I submit that in making such a distinction without difference, Salovey has failed to learn from the past and has instead opted for the complacent and self-congratulatory narrative. Changing the college’s name would erase nothing, but make a clear statement that Yale no longer considers the man worthy of honoring.

Salovey proposes entirely worthwhile educational initiatives to answer the university’s Calhoun problem. I have no objection to those, but so long as the name remains they pose a more serious problem still. Imagine the freshmen coming in every year and learning all about Calhoun’s lamentable contributions to American history. Let’s say that the programs do a really good job and they come out deeply informed about Mr. Slavery Is A Positive Good. Then they go outside and see the man’s name on the building where some of them live. Has Salovey’s policy given them a useful reminder of all they learned, or undercut itself entirely? Worse still, might it not send the clear message Calhoun deserves recognition not despite his awful achievements but because of them?

Maybe Salovey relishes the chance to explain otherwise to minority students coming into his university every year, but I have my doubts. Yale’s president does note that the students want the change. One might, implausibly, argue that some devlish outside agitators came in and created a problem where none previously existed. It worked for white southerners speaking of abolitionists for long enough, after all. But his answer to that comes right out of Calhoun’s playbook:

The debate about the name of Calhoun College has gone on intermittently for many years. [John C.] Calhoun was a defender of slavery, and he defended it not just as a necessary evil, but as a “positive good.” So this was not an easy decision. We listened to students, faculty, alumni, and staff. We’ve had multiple conversations among the trustees. But this isn’t the kind of question you can put to a vote. You have to decide what is the right principle for an educational institution.

Calhoun justified disregarding majorities to protect his minority of white enslavers in their vital interests. Abolition would bring them ruin, at least financially and probably literally as vengeful slaves rose up and murdered his entire class. However repugnant, we can at least grant that Calhoun and those like him genuinely believed in that threat and acted accordingly. If a mad president ordered a nuclear strike sure to bring about similar retaliation upon us, we might hope someone would ignore the majority that might have elected him in order to stop it.

You can’t put everything to a vote, fair enough. But changing the letterhead and switching some signs hardly seems like the kind of monumental change where we should necessarily proceed with extreme discretion. Nor does it pose any kind of existential threat to Yale. Nor does it erase any history, as Salovey himself knows full well. He proposed historical education, which demonstrates that he knows one doesn’t get history from a name on the side of a building.

But let’s take him at his word for the moment. If Salovey believes that having Calhoun’s name so prominent forces confrontation with his noxious politics and their connection to Yale, as well as the nation at large, then I have a modest proposal for him: why not commission a bronze statue of the man himself whipping his screaming slaves? Put it right out in front of the building; no one could miss it. I can’t imagine a more direct confrontation with Calhoun than that, short of reinstating slavery so everyone could see it firsthand.

This doesn’t make for an ideal solution, of course. That tasteless, vile statue would alienate many. It would offend any person of good sense and common decency. People wouldn’t want to live in a building near it, or perhaps even go to a university where it stands. They would read endorsement in it, understanding that we don’t cast things we hate into heroic bronzes. Even picturing it makes me feel more than a little soiled. No one in their right mind would ask a minority student to walk past such a monstrosity every day. In exposing the central reality of Calhoun’s life and work in such sharp relief, stripped away from the sanitized, generic letters on the side of the building and the bronze plaques we all ignore more often than not, does the compromise still sound so appealing? Or does it sound more like we ought make no compromise?

Many historical figures did terrible things as a matter of course. We have honored them, as often as not, for rather than despite those deeds. Nobody I’ve yet seen challenge Calhoun, or the Confederate flag, or numerous memorials to the Confederacy, demands perfection in order to get yourself a nice landmark in posterity. They all had faults, just as we do. If you lack any, help yourself to my abundant supply. We all, I hope, understand the need to situate people in their own contexts, and understand the nuance and complexities of their lives. Life doesn’t offer us perfect villains, though sometimes it seems to try, nor perfect heroes. But that doesn’t stop us from making decisions about which individuals on the whole have done more good than bad. We all draw our own lines, with nary an objective standard in sight. I don’t know that every problematic historical figure deserves having memorials removed and buildings renamed, but we commemorate far more of them than probably deserve it.

Of those we have celebrated, few come with a greater dearth of redeeming traits than John C. Calhoun. His glare might not adorn our money, but he did far more than passively inherit and then actively continue enslaving people for his profit. He called slavery not necessary and unavoidable, but good and worthy. He built an ideology around its defense that, while not unique, proved uniquely influential and unequivocal. Why continue celebrating him, unless we still think he deserves it?

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