I think I was wrong to oppose changing the name of Calhoun College. Let me explain why:
Unless we are a family, the Catholic Church or some other institution dedicated to people’s souls, we honor someone for a specific part of his life. This is entirely appropriate. Not every institution can be dedicated to the private, cardinal virtues. Some, at least in our unredeemed world, will have to confine themselves to second things: making money, botany, politics. There are ethical and unethical ways (besides expert and amateurish ways) to engage in those and all other practices. Yale honored John C. Calhoun, class of 1804, for excellent American statesmanship, which, if it is worth anything, is also ethical statesmanship. But Calhoun was an unethical statesman, and a bad American.
Calhoun rejected America’s “ancient faith” that all men are created equal. He defended slavery, the nation’s original sin and the main threat to the unity and liberty of the republic, as a positive good. He therefore rejected the view of the Founders (defended by Abraham Lincoln in Peoria in 1854) that tolerating slavery was prudent and necessary to graduate America from 13 colonies to one United States. And Calhoun was a sophisticated antebellum defender of secessionism. He was an evil politician, and therefore was and is a poor choice for the honor Yale bestowed upon him. That he attained high office is not relevant. So did Richard Nixon and Aaron Burr.
I have high respect for those who support keeping Calhoun’s name. They argue from good intentions, and are as gracious in dispute as they are supportive of racial equality. I’d like to address two of their points.
First, the “slippery slope argument.” If we scotch Calhoun, what stops us from deleting Jefferson’s name from his memorial? What about Elihu Yale, a participant in the slave trade? Fortunately, the intellectual ground supporting getting rid of Calhoun will not support these other changes. Jefferson ranks among the greatest statesmen and thinkers in American history. His place in our civic religion derives from his political achievements, and should be evaluated on their basis. There are parts of a person’s life that do not directly relate to why an institution honors him. That Jefferson owned slaves complicates his personality. But it should not demote the Louisiana Purchase or the Declaration of Independence in our esteem. Biographers, psychoanalysts and priests — I do not mean to denigrate any — should puzzle over how someone can write that natural rights are inalienable and alienate them from his slaves. Patriots, however, should continue to salute Jefferson as a father of their country. Similarly, Elihu Yale’s eponymous university honors him as a great benefactor, not a great humanitarian.
A second argument is that we should not permit present morals to cancel the vestiges of past morals. This will destroy all continuity, the argument goes, leaving our accomplishments as transient as those we erase. But past decisions do not have a sacred claim on us by virtue of their age. This is just the reverse of the progressive fallacy: that history and morality tend toward the better, and therefore we now know better. The progressive version is scarier, because it puts faith in the unknown rather than the known. But the grounded, conservative version is equally unhelpful in particular cases.
Conservatives have not picked the past as their point of reference for aesthetic reasons, but because doing so leads to good results and preserves good things. Conservatives have always sensed wisdom, articulable in principle but still operative without any explicit defense, latent in institutions like marriage and country. The family is good because it does good things and is a good thing, not because it is an old thing. Or put somewhat differently: Its age is a testament to, and therefore is preceded by, its goodness. When institutions like the family are attacked is precisely the moment to disinter the wisdom within, and display it as fresh — indeed, as ageless. Or to concede that the institutions were rotten and need refurbishing or replacing.
The presumption in favor of tradition is useful. If the mayor of this town decreed that the streets would every day be painted a different color just because, we’d think she’d gone insane. It would be chaos. No one faults her for leaving the streets paved black day after day. Conservatives know that the name of Calhoun College is not trivial, or they would not think it worth defending. Symbols bear value, and any symbol honoring a Yale alumnus that honors a very bad one is a symbol misused. So the choice is not between progress and return, but between progress, return and natural right. Calhoun should go not because his views were outdated (I have no idea what that means) — he should go because he is a poor choice for the honor. No need for self-flagellation. Just a better namesake.
Cole Aronson is a junior in Calhoun College. His column usually runs on Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .