Yale is Right to Rename ‘Calhoun College’

As a conservative, an admirer of the Founders, and an historian, I would feel ashamed if my school was named after someone like Calhoun.

By Joshua Charles Published on February 18, 2017

I’m a Millennial, and as strange and oxymoronic as this may sound to many, I’m also a conservative. I believe America, while far from perfect, has been an exceptional nation, and has contributed more than any other to the good of mankind. I’m a great admirer of our Founders, and believe they represent one of the greatest, if not the greatest single collection of human beings to ever appear at the same time and place in human history.

But it is precisely because of my love of American history, the Founders, and the principles they stood for, that I agree with the decision of Yale to rename what was formerly known as “Calhoun College” because of its association with John C. Calhoun, the antebellum politician who, like virtually all the Democrats of his day, was an enthusiastic supporter of slavery.

Calhoun: Abhorrent American

While some of those behind this change no doubt adhere to an ideology I disagree with, even the often wrong can stumble upon the truth from time to time. They have done so here.

Calhoun was far more than a slave owner. He was a defender of slavery itself, as made painfully obvious in an 1837 speech:

I hold that … 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 fearlessly assert that the existing relation between the two races in the South … forms the most solid and durable foundation on which to rear free and stable political institutions.[1]

Nor was this speech an isolated incident. Calhoun actively supported and promoted slavery until his dying breath, making him one of the most abhorrent Americans in history.

Calhoun Was Not Like the Founders

Those who disagree with me might object that this ratifies the logic so often used by the Left to undermine our Founding Fathers, several of whom were slave owners. But the case of the Founders and Calhoun could not be more different. Don’t take my word for it. Take Frederick Douglass’, a former slave who bestowed high praise on the Founders:

The signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave men. They were great men too … It does not often happen to a nation to raise, at one time, such a number of truly great men … I cannot contemplate their great deeds with less than admiration. They were statesmen, patriots, and heroes, and for the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory … With them, justice, liberty and humanity were “final,” not slavery and oppression … They seized upon eternal principles, and set a glorious example in their defense.[2] 

Douglass called the Constitution “a glorious liberty document” which contained “principles and purposes entirely hostile to the existence of slavery.” He also pointed out the hypocrisy of constructing the Washington Monument with slave labor in honor of a man who “could not die till he had broken the chains of his slaves,”[3] and directed his estate to provide many of them with clothes, lodging, and education in perpetuity.[4]

You could also take the word of President Lincoln, the “Great Emancipator,” on Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence:

All honor to Jefferson — to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that today, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.[5]

For Calhoun, slavery was not, as the Founders believed, a temporary evil bound for and deserving of ultimate destruction — but a permanent good to be perpetuated.

Lincoln was right, for the words of this deeply flawed, slaveholding opponent of slavery were hailed by the likes of Martin Luther King Jr., who called them the “majestic words,” and the “promissory note” of America; by Winston Churchill, who honored them as the most famous articulation of “the great principles of freedom and the rights of man”[6]; and by FDR, who during World War II asserted that “[for] Hitler and his fellows,” the Declaration was nothing but “empty words which they proposed to cancel forever.”[7]

Contrast these with the words of Alexander Stephens, the Confederate vice president, who targeted both Jefferson and his generation for their “error”:

Those ideas … were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error … Our new government [the Confederacy] is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.[8]

Yale Made the Right Decision

Calhoun, who died several years before the Civil War began, would have taken pride in these words, for they precisely mirrored his own. For these men, slavery was not, as the Founders believed, a temporary evil bound for and deserving of ultimate destruction, but a permanent good to be perpetuated, justly entitling them to be counted among the genuinely evil figures of American history. The contrast with the Founders could not be more stark.

As a conservative, an admirer of the Founders, and an historian, I would feel ashamed if my school was named after someone like Calhoun. We should always appreciate the complexities of historical figures and their circumstances.  We should also avoid the wholesale application of today’s standards to the past, for in doing so we blind ourselves to both the genuine progress achieved by our ancestors, as well as our own capacity for regress.  But we must never forget to honor those who, while deeply flawed, advanced the human condition, and to condemn those who sought to permanently deface it.

Calhoun was a man of the latter description, and, to borrow his words, it is a “positive good” that Yale has dropped him.


[1] John C. Calhoun, Slavery a Positive Good (February 6, 1837).

[2] Frederick Douglass, What to the Slave is the Fourth of July? (July 5, 1852); Ted Widmer, ed., American Speeches: Political Oratory from Patrick Henry to Barack Obama (New York: Library of America Paperback Classics, 2011), 52.

[3] Ibid.

[4] http://www.mountvernon.org/george-washington/slavery/ten-facts-about-washington-slavery/

[5] Abraham Lincoln, To Henry L. Pierce and Others (April 6, 1859); Abraham Lincoln, Don E. Fehrenbacher, ed., Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings, 1859-1865 (New York: Library of America, 1989), 19.

[6] Winston Churchill, Iron Curtain Speech (March 5, 1946); Winston Churchill, Winston S. Churchill [grandson], ed., Never Give In! The Best of Winston Churchill’s Speeches (New York: Hyperion, 2003), 417.

[7] Franklin D. Roosevelt, Radio Address (December 15, 1941).

[8] Alexander Stephens, Cornerstone Speech (March 21, 1861).

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