Standing in the Forum of Rome after the gruesome murder of the most prominent man in the republic, Marc Antony readies to speak to the masses gathered to bury Julius Caesar. Calling for the attention of the crowd, the statesman declares: “The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones.” So, friends, Yalies, countrymen, lend me your ears: this two thousand year old statement rings as true as ever today, in the light of ongoing conversations about the naming and renaming of campus buildings.
While many members of the Yale community claim to be guardians of “light and truth,” they are in fact blinded by hypocrisy. In prioritizing the evil over the good, or vice versa, in judging the legacies of historical figures, Yalies exhibit double standards. What is needed is an even-handed consideration of a man’s actions and contributions. This standard should be common sense, which has sadly been lacking in recent controversies.
Let us begin with Benjamin Franklin, the namesake of one of the two new residential colleges. From his work in the physical sciences to his influential role in shaping the system of government of the bourgeoning American republic, Franklin’s good lives after him whereas his evil is interred with his bones. At the same time, it is true that he owned slaves, was constantly entangled in relationships with prostitutes and had a mistress in France. Both proponents and opponents of Benjamin Franklin College privilege one narrative over the other, doing violence to the complexity of Franklin’s character.
Elihu Yale is another example of a man whose virtues have been brought to the light but whose evils remain, at worst, hidden and, at best, ignored. One of the first benefactors of the Collegiate School, both students and administrators usually highlight these moments of generosity and willfully neglect to mention his wickedness as president of the East India Company in Madras. Yale was heavily involved in the slave trade and enforced a law whereby ships bound for Europe had to carry no fewer than ten slaves. Moreover, he imposed cruel punishments on slaves during his tenure. Yet nobody seems to be picketing Woodbridge Hall because of him; no one is petitioning for the removal of Yale from their diplomas.
By contrast, the contributions of John C. Calhoun, Class of 1804, have been downplayed. Before anybody accuses me of bigotry, let me be clear: I firmly oppose the institution of slavery and racism. What Calhoun is most well known for advocating is deplorable. Yet, slavery is part of our nation’s history, and if we wish not to repeat it, we must never forget it. Just as we must not deny his role in the formulation of the Nullification Theory and the defense of slavery, we must not overlook the positive aspects of his legacy. For instance, he opposed the Mexican-American War, which he feared would put the union at jeopardy and was the leading political theorist in proposing the Theory of the Concurrent Majority. The latter doctrine curtailed mob rule in democratic societies by allowing minorities to block unilateral majoritarian measures. Yet many seem to overlook these contributions of the nation’s former vice president, deciding to leave the good interred with his bones.
Double standards and hypocrisy must be rooted out of our community to create a space for productive intellectual discussion. Men have flaws, but they also have positive contributions worth commemorating. We must take time to reflect on these individuals in a balanced manner. It is our job to promote rationality and critical thought on all questions, not just those that present themselves within the confines of a classroom. I ask that we evaluate both the good and the evil that historical figures have done and avoid favoring one or the other to fit our ideological aims. So, friends, Yalies, countrymen, let us not arrive at rash judgments. Let us be patient and thoughtful when arriving at decisions, for judgment is “fled to brutish beasts” and through it “men have lost their reason.”