John C. Calhoun has become the latest casualty in an ongoing conversation about America’s commemorative landscape and who, exactly, is deserving of continued commemoration and a place of honor within that landscape. After the formation of a committee and much debate (noticeably without the voice of historian David Blight), Yale University has decided to remove Calhoun’s name from a residential college that was established in 1931. Journalist Geraldo Rivera, decrying “political correctness,” announced that he left a position at the university and, unsurprisingly, numerous thinkpieces have emerged making arguments for or against the change. Rivera is free to do what he pleases, although I find this episode a strange cause for which to give up a job. I also respect Yale’s position even though I can see compelling points on both sides of the argument.
One of the more thought-provoking essays I’ve come across since the announcement is Roger Kimball’s op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. Kimball claims that the process by which Yale decided to remove Calhoun’s name was inconsistent and that, just like Rivera’s claim, the change was flawed since a “politically correct circus” of academic groupthink dominated the process. He rightly points out that Yale’s history as an educational institution is loaded with notable alumna and professors with controversial backgrounds, including Elihu Yale himself. In making this argument, however, Kimball downplays Calhoun’s historical legacy and never makes a compelling argument as to why Yale should have kept his name associated with the residential college. Equally important, he doesn’t make an effort to examine Yale’s reasoning for naming the college after Calhoun in the first place.
There are two major problems with Kimball’s thinking, in my view. The first is the way he characterizes Calhoun. Kimball acknowledges that he was a slaveholder and brilliant politician who argued that slavery was a “positive good.” But Calhoun wasn’t just a racist slaveholder; he was a political and intellectual leader of American proslavery thought whose words influenced a generation of proslavery thinkers.
Thomas Jefferson was a slaveholder who maintained an uneasy relationship with the institution. He called slavery a “moral depravity” and contrary to the laws of human nature. John Calhoun told slaveholders to not feel ashamed any longer; slavery was a law of nature and servitude to white enslavers was the correct station in life for black people. Proslavery religious leaders used Calhoun’s logic to argue that enslavement allowed for African souls to be Christianized. Scientific thinkers like Samuel Cartwright said African Americans were biologically inferior and went so far as to invent a new disease, “Drapetomania,” to explain why slaves tried to run away from their enslavers. Proslavery political leaders in the days of the early republic through the 1820 Missouri Compromise were willing to set aside some new U.S. territories from slavery’s expansion in the interest of sectional harmony and free state/slave state political balance. But those proslavery leaders were replaced by new leaders in the 1840s and 1850s who said that compromise on the slavery question was dishonor and that all new territories should be opened for slavery. John Calhoun, in his racism but also his intellectual brilliance that was in part cultivated by his Yale education, played an integral role in fostering these developments, which in turn led to the eventual breakout of the American Civil War, the deadliest war in this country’s history.
These truths are too much for Kimball, however. He states that “You might, like me, think that Calhoun was wrong about [slavery]. But if you are [Yale President] Peter Salovey, you have to disparage Calhoun as a “white supremacist” whose legacy—“racism and bigotry,” according to a university statement—was fundamentally ‘at odds’ with the noble aspirations of Yale University” . . . “Who among whites at the time was not [a white supremacist]? Take your time.”
Wendel Phillips; the Grimke sisters; the Tappan brothers; Theodore Weld; John Brown; Thomas Wentworth Higginson; Gerrit Smith…
Is Calhoun somehow not a racist or white supremacist? Did he not believe that blacks as a race were inferior and that the white race should be able to control the black race through whatever legal means it saw fit? What does it say about Kimball that he becomes infuriated with the words “white supremacist” to describe Calhoun?
The second problem with Kimball’s argument is his “whatabout-ism” in the essay. What about slave trader Elihu Yale or other slaveholders associated with Yale like Timothy Dwight, Benjamin Silliman, and Jonathan Edwards? Shouldn’t they also have their names removed, he asks? Certainly Yale was a more “objectionable” person than Calhoun, right? This line of thinking is a crucial element of Kimball’s argument because it intends to discredit Yale’s process for removing Calhoun’s name and ultimately paint the university’s administration as playing politics with the issue. This is a fair critique, but only to a point. Isn’t it a bit subjective and unproductive to debate whether Yale or Calhoun was “more objectionable” when both said and did despicable things? Aren’t we deflecting from the real conversation–whether or not John Calhoun as an individual, regardless of anyone else’s legacy, is deserving of a place of honor at Yale–by arguing that other people were bad too and that all white people were racist at the time?
Buildings all over the world are named after historical figures whose names were placed there because powerful cultural elites believed that person represented values that were important to contemporary society and were therefore deserving of honor and recognition. Some of these names will remain in their location forever. Some of these names change over time because new people make history and earn a spot within the commemorative landscape while older names are forgotten. And sometimes those names change because contemporary values–which are always a factor in selecting who gets to be a part of a commemorative landscape–change.
It is more than fair to ask whether or not the process of removing Calhoun’s name was legitimate, but it’s a separate question from whether or not Calhoun deserves his place of honor. If we wish to have a productive conversation about John C. Calhoun’s historical legacy, we must be willing to have an honest look at his life, his deeds, and his time. We must be willing to acknowledge that he was a white supremacist and a controversial figure in his time. And we must consider why Yale leaders felt the need to honor Calhoun with a college in his namesake in 1931 and why it was considered acceptable at that time to do so. From there we can begin to debate Calhoun’s individual legacy without resorting to tired “political correctness” arguments or childishly saying that other people were bad too. If Calhoun deserves a college in his name, make a compelling case to justify it based on his merits as a historical figure.