This column is part of a point-counterpoint on the name of Calhoun College, newly contentious amid debates over the Confederate imagery. Read the other column here.
America is mourning the victims of a racially-motivated massacre in South Carolina, and discussing what to do about one of the alleged killer’s inspirational symbols: the Confederate flag. Governor Nikki Haley of South Carolina announced after the killings that she favored removing the rebel banner from her state’s capitol grounds. Other states will debate similar moves. This has prompted some to ask why Yale continues to call one of its residential colleges by the name of a proto-Confederate defender of slavery, John C. Calhoun, class of 1804. The discussions of the flag and Calhoun are important ones with apparently similar subjects, but I hope to show that their distinct contexts should prompt different responses.
One hundred fifty four years ago, some plantation-owning aristocrats brought forth on this continent a rebel nation, conceived in slavery, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created unequal. Alexander Stephens, the vice president of the Confederacy, actually said his government’s “cornerstone rests upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that … subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.” As Charles Dew demonstrates in his book “Apostles of Disunion,” the great fear of many delegates to secession conventions was the ‘mixing of the races.’ Virtually all of the rebel states’ secession resolutions claimed that the North’s putative assault on slavery in the territories and the Southern states justified secession. So while many Confederate soldiers thought they fought only for their homes against hostile invaders, their leaders gave one, positively evil answer to the great moral question dividing the Union.
Robert E. Lee, more than almost anyone, was responsible for the rebellion’s longevity and military success. The flag we know today as the Confederate flag was made for his army. There are still many people, however, who idolize Lee, and think he fought to defend the noble, conservative institutions distinguishing the South from the industrialized, cosmopolitan North (to dispel any ambiguity: I think Lee was a disgrace). While it would be wrong to impute nostalgia for slavery or segregation to everyone who flies the Confederate flag, pride in it demonstrates, at the very least, ignorance. Celebration of Southern secession evinces not only contempt for our system of government, but association with evil men fighting for evil causes. For this reason, it is important to remove the flag from Southern capitols. It says to people longing for an independent Dixie that theirs is not just another view. It is, indeed, at least an ignorant view, and certainly an anti-American view, inappropriate for a state’s endorsement. Removing the flag, therefore, serves a moral political goal.
So it seems a college named for John C. Calhoun, among America’s most evil politicians, should have no place at Yale. This ignores two related matters, however, which make preserving Calhoun College important. First, so far as I am aware, there are no Calhounists at Yale. No one needs convincing of his evil. Removing his name from a college would therefore serve no political good, only a symbolic good. Certainly, symbolic goods are important goods, and this brings me to the second matter: Calhoun College stands today as a relic of a Yale in which John C. Calhoun was the sort of person thought honorable. It was originally named to praise Calhoun. But it need not, for us, symbolize such praise today. We should, rather, view Calhoun College as Dean Jonathan Holloway once suggested we might: “an open sore.” We do a disservice to the tradition of Yale by expunging from our memories its nauseating aspects. It would be an atoning spirit that justifies keeping Calhoun College. The Confederate flag, by contrast, flies over Southern capitols because many want to keep there in celebration, not mourning.
For many students, Calhoun inspires anger. Some will suggest that students so repulsed by Calhoun ought to be able to choose not to live in the college named for him. It seems to me the administration should honor such requests — it seems unfair to me to take a principled approach to forcing students to live in Calhoun College. But, in addition, who is not absolutely repulsed by Calhoun? Which Yalie does not entirely reject Calhoun’s arguments about black inferiority and slavery’s good? The core question seems to me much more about the spirit in which name is kept. Preserving Calhoun College allows us to bear witness every day to America’s worst sins, and Yale’s worst honor.
Yale should do a better job of commemorating. I propose a yearly vigil on Dec. 20, the anniversary of Calhoun’s home state of South Carolina’s secession. We can read aloud the testimonies of the slaves Calhoun thought subhuman, and of the Union soldiers who fought to destroy his evil dream incarnate. In doing so, we will emphasize what Dean Holloway worries is too often ignored: “that African Americans have a humanity that ought to be respected.” It could be, I think, a solemn institutional repentance. Perhaps Calhoun’s victims would appreciate our piety on their behalf.