An Obituary for John C. Calhoun College

View of Calhoun College courtyard. (Photograph courtesy of Yale News)

View of Calhoun College courtyard. (Photograph courtesy of Yale News)

John C. Calhoun College was killed, in a public spectacle, in New Haven, Connecticut on February 11, 2017. The Residential College, a part of Yale’s undergraduate system, was 84 years old. After many years of constant attack at the hands of those who want to forget about our troubled history, Calhoun College finally succumbed to its wounds when Yale President, Peter Salovey, plunged in the proverbial dagger and announced that the College would be renamed.

The events taking place on college campuses across the country from Yale and Princeton (Woodrow Wilson) to Clemson and the University of Mississippi (Jim Crow supporting Governors Tillman and Vardaman, respectively), deserve serious and thoughtful discussion. How do we, as a nation, approach our mottled historical record? How do we come to terms with atrocities like slavery and Jim Crow, the forced relocation of native populations, the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War Two, or the decision to close our gates to European Jews during the Holocaust? How do we learn from our past and strive to be better in the future?

Calhoun College is a great case study to help us grapple with these questions. The College was founded in 1933 as part of Yale’s new residential college system (if you are unfamiliar, imagine the Dartmouth house system’s distantly related, effective, respectable, and, generally cooler older cousin). Each residential college at Yale is named for a famous Yale alumnus. John C. Calhoun, who graduated from Yale in 1804, went on to serve as a member of the House of Representatives, Secretary of State, Secretary of War, Vice President, and, most famously, as an outspoken U.S. Senator from South Carolina. Calhoun was an active proponent of slavery, so much so that he touted it as a “positive good” for society. Senator Calhoun also developed and preached the doctrine of nullification, which argued that states had the constitutional right to ignore federal actions that they believed unfairly infringed on their rights. Initially, nullification sought to attack a tariff that endangered cotton exports, but it quickly became the main defense for slavery. Faults aside, Calhoun was also a well-respected and successful statesman. Some of his many credits include overhauling the American defense infrastructure, working to overturn a series of economically disastrous tariffs, and writing a number of respected works on American government and political theory. As a member of “the triumvirate,” alongside Senator Henry Clay and Senator Daniel Webster (Dartmouth Class of 1801), Calhoun was instrumental in the debates surrounding the various compromises of the Antebellum Era.

Clearly, Calhoun’s legacy is convoluted. The cited reason for whitewashing Calhoun’s name from his residential college is his support for the institution of slavery. In the words of Yale’s President Salovey, support for slavery “fundamentally conflicts with Yale’s mission and values.” We should hope so.

That being said, it is ridiculous to hold Calhoun to the same standard that we hold ourselves to today. He was a nineteenth century Southerner, who represented slaveholding constituents in the Senate. Unlike us, he did not have the benefit of 150 years of scholarship, discussion, progress and reflection on race relations. In other words, he does not have the benefit of hindsight. This sort of moral absolutism that supposes that we are enlightened, omniscient, and able to judge the actions of our ancestors without understanding their perspectives and limitations is dangerous. In doing so, we build up a collective hubris that threatens other points of view and prevents frank conversation about tough topics. This moral absolutism assumes that we know everything about what is right and what is wrong. What gives us the right to shred the legacies of our predecessors? What proof do we have that our current actions will stand up to the scrutiny of a century of history?

Another serious side effect of this movement to cleanse our institutions of higher education from unsightly reminders of the past is its implications for our understanding of history. Though it has become clichéd, the notion that history repeats itself and acts in cycles is nonetheless true. When we decide to remove symbols of our past from our daily lives, they are relegated to history books and esoteric conversation. The name Calhoun College forces members of the Yale community, as well as others who encounter the college to ask, “Who was John C. Calhoun?” It forces people to think critically about our history.  Now that it has been renamed Hopper College future generations will instead ask who Hopper was. While Grace Murray Hopper was a remarkable woman and a pioneer in the worlds of computing, math and the military, her legacy does not raise the same questions that Calhoun’s does. She does not force us to wrestle with our demons. Instead she allows us to view our past through rose-tinted lenses. While it might be easier, and more pleasurable, to think about all of our Grace Hoppers, if we fail to engage with our John Calhouns, they return.

Proponents of this “cultural reeducation” will argue that we are not erasing our past, just moving it to places that are more convenient or sensitive. At Yale, for instance, Salovey assured the world that “we must be vigilant not to erase the past,” promising that “we will not remove symbols of Calhoun from elsewhere on our campus,” and provisions for acknowledging Calhoun’s presence at Yale. I argue that this still misses the mark. Why? In understanding the story of slavery, and in fact many of our past mistakes, we have to understand those who perpetrated them. We have to understand that the proponents of slavery included reasoned, highly educated, and respected leaders of the time: the types of men who had and still have their names on buildings and their likenesses carved into statues in public spaces. We have to understand that some of the most visionary molders of opinion in different eras were not all great by today’s standards (41 out 56 the signatories of the Declaration of Independence owned slaves, by some estimates). When we tear down these reminders of our past and scrapbook them into museum exhibits, tiny bronze plaques, and sections of history books—where we can ignore them on a daily basis—we lose sight of the importance and the popularity that they held in their time.

In short, the loss of Calhoun College is not a loss because of who John C. Calhoun was. It is a loss because of the trend it represents. As we remove our past inequities from the public eye and the public discourse, we lose sight of them and risk repeating our mistakes. While I am tempted to finish with a quote from our alma matter about the old traditions, I have decided that it would be inappropriate. Memorializing our black sheep is not about tradition. With that in mind, I think it is helpful to look to Maya Angelou, who said “history, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.” To truly face our history with courage, we must retain our symbols – the good with the bad.