Why History Is Not Erased Because Calhoun Is No Longer Named At Yale
Yale University announced that a residential college would no longer be named after John C. Calhoun, secretary of war under James Monroe, vice president of the United States under John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, senator from South Carolina, and secretary of state under John Tyler. Calhoun was a pro-slavery fanatic. My favorite Calhoun quote:
I hold that in the present state of civilization, where two races of different origin, and distinguished by color, and other physical differences, as well as intellectual, are brought together, the relation now existing in the slaveholding States between the two, is, instead of an evil, a good — a positive good. . . . I hold then, that there never has yet existed a wealthy and civilized society in which one portion of the community did not, in point of fact, live on the labor of the other.
Yale is not alone here. Last year, Princeton University removed a painting of President Woodrow Wilson and considered chipping Wilson’s name off buildings. Some students at the University of Missouri wanted a statute of Thomas Jefferson removed from campus; in 2014, Washington and Lee University removed a Confederate flag from its chapel. The University of Maryland removed staunch segregationist Curly Byrd from it’s stadium.
Yale Has Not Erased John C. Calhoun From History
Many claim history is being erased by changing the names of builders from the names of slaveholders and segregationists, or by in other cases removing symbols of racism and bigotry. We put people’s names on buildings and other things to honor them. There’s a distinction to be made between deciding to no longer honor someone with a building (or statue) and pretending they never existed. The history books are alive and well with Calhoun’s long career even though they no longer have Calhoun on a residential house.
The reasoning that history is supposedly being erased by not honoring these names is really quite strange. Expunging names from buildings is equated to re-writing history, but history isn’t written on buildings. Names arrive there as an outcome of political processes. Drive through West Virginia and you will find it difficult to find a highway not named for Senator Robert Byrd, the former Grand Kleagle of the KKK. If objective processes were in place for named buildings, highways, ships or even ice cream, many named things we celebrate today would not stand, including “Cherry Garcia.” Objective honor as the standard would produce plenty of other candidate names than those from the political or celebrity arena.
Names, flags and statues were not erected by our ancestors so that we, some centuries later, could reflect upon the moral complexity of human achievement in the light of subsequent events and experiences. They were erected to honor the people and principles so depicted. Nobody is saying that the memory of J.C. Calhoun, the confederate flag or Woodrow Wilson should be expunged from history; but there is a time and place to reflect and learn from history. There is also a time and place for the populace to be motivated and inspired by these symbols and people. These images and figures no longer do either.