According to the BBC, Yale President Peter Salovey announced that Calhoun College would be renamed because John C. Calhoun’s legacy and principles are “at odds with the university’s values.” Calhoun served in the House of Representatives, in the Senate, as Defense Secretary, and as Vice President of the United States. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Yale College in 1804. So what were his principles? During the presidential campaign of 1843, Calhoun put forth these 7 points: “Free trade, low duties, no debt, separation from banks, economy, retrenchment, and a strict adherence to the Constitution.” I would imagine that most readers of this blog would likely support a majority of these points, if not all of them. Moreover, Calhoun’s Disquisition on Government was an original and masterful examination of the nature of man, government, and constitutionalism. It is one of the greatest works of American political theory.
It is doubtful that Salovey or any of the name-change agitators have ever read the Disquisition and are likely unaware of the seven principles mentioned above. What they do know is that Calhoun was pro-slavery, and in our race-obsessed society that’s all they want to know. No further examination or thought is needed. We are awash in a tide of presentism: an unthinking adherence to present-day attitudes with which we interpret past events. It’s a great thing we live in a country where we cannot even imagine owning another human being. But, dear reader, I would venture that both you and I, had we been born in 1782 in one of the thirteen states, we too would have accepted a world in which human bondage was a feature.
Take the example of Abraham Lincoln, who was born in 1809. He did not believe in the social or political equality of blacks and whites and opposed blacks serving on juries, voting, or marrying whites. In 1862, Lincoln drafted a constitutional amendment to preserve slavery in hopes of luring the CSA back into the Union. That same year, Lincoln hosted a delegation of freed slaves at the White House and asked them to support a plan for colonization in Central America. Given what he saw as the natural differences between the two races, Lincoln believed it would be better if blacks left North America and created a home elsewhere. Yes, Honest Abe was no liberal.
As I said before, it’s a good thing that we have a hard time understanding Calhoun’s and Lincoln’s views on race. But just because we have been raised in different times with different values does not give us a license to write either man off because, using the yardstick of 2017, both would be considered racists.
As an old and elite University, Yale should promote the study of history, efforts to learn from history, and a respect for history. Attempting to erase John C. Calhoun from the historical record is an act of intellectual cowardice. Yale, shame on you.
This article was published at The Beacon.