Much has been written on the renaming of the college formerly known as Calhoun. There have been advocates and detractors, liberal critics and conservative lamenters of the new name and those who have maintained a general indifference toward the renaming from the very beginning. There are issues with arguments from both the advocates and from the detractors, with varying degrees of nuance. However, the lamenters of the old name — people who fought against renaming — purport the more egregious, false stance.
To continue the conversation over whether renaming erases history is to beat a dead horse. Readers, I ask for your patience. Today, I address the very last line of defense in the fight against the Calhoun name: the belief that John C. Calhoun ,class of 1804, should be remembered and honored on the basis of his political theory. Let’s discuss.
The substance of Calhoun’s political theory is derived from his seminal work of American political philosophy, the “Disquisition on Government” completed in 1849. Conservatives on campus view the text as foundational for contemporary American conservatism. They claim that Calhoun argues that government can and should cultivate moral principles in the citizenry, that institutions can and protect minority rights and that the work is a testament to Calhoun’s belief in the moral potential of our country. Taken at face value, I’m convinced. Calhoun sounds great! A beacon of moral rectitude! The pride and joy of Yale! A man I’d like to meet.
Of course, the conservatives forgot a little tiny corner of his philosophical legacy: slavery as a positive, morally justifiable civic good. Seems, at best, logically incongruous.
Other writers on this subject have been right to point out that when Calhoun speaks of “minority rights,” he has a very different idea in mind. He doesn’t mean the rights of the then-disenfranchised woman, nor the rights of the burgeoning class of laborers. He certainly doesn’t mean the rights of enslaved plantation workers. Instead, for Calhoun, “the minority” meant the land-holding southern gentleman, suffering under the tyranny of the abolitionist northerners.
While the Disquisition certainly advocates for the respect of the rights of this specific minority, most proclaimed proponents of this philosophy fail to discuss the means by which this respect would be achieved. These stipulations included nullification, which is the right to completely disregard national laws perceived to be in conflict with state values. Nullification meant that states could, if the situation became too dire, secede.
That begs the question: Why should we consider the political theory of Calhoun when it served as the foundation of a political movement that led to the bloodiest war in American history? Why, in this era of hyperpartisanship, division and madness, should we give even a second thought to a doctrine that advocates for further division under the guise of protecting “minority rights”? Is there any logical coherence between a political philosophy based on virtue … and also slavery? If you view someone as subhuman, can you logically view them as a minority?
Others have pointed out Calhoun’s disturbing treatment of essential American ideals like equality and liberty. To quote from the Disquisition and from a previous writer on this subject, “Liberty was a ‘reward to be earned, not a blessing to be gratuitously lavished on all alike.’”
Ultimately, the discussion about renaming Calhoun is over. The college has been renamed. Grace Hopper GRD ’34, a Yalie and a member of a true minority — women in STEM — has been honored. The forces of good have prevailed. As a result, the moral arc of our universe has ever so slightly bent towards justice. Let us consider this bloodied horse definitively dead and respectfully buried.
But there are those who still cling to this fabricated conception of Calhoun. For any good he might have done, we all know that his views on slavery were wrong. Now, we must acknowledge that his political theory, which supposedly advocates for the protection of minority rights, simply cannot be reconciled with the belief that slaves were not humans. Calhoun’s definition of a minority cannot be conflated with today’s racial, socioeconomic and sexual minorities. With the birth of Hopper College, the winds of history blow toward a better future.
Adrian Rivera is a freshman in Jonathan Edwards College. His column usually runs on alternate Thursdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .