The protestors who pressured Yale University into scrubbing the legacy of John C. Calhoun—racist, slaveholder and forthright apologist for African bondage; statesman, philosopher and critic of excessive executive power and American imperial ambitions; and, unto Saturday, namesake of a residential college at the alma mater where he was valedictorian of the class of 1804—have no palate for moral nuance, so assume they have no taste for irony either. Consequently, they are probably unaware that the identity politics they champion are Calhounian to their core.
Calhoun’s Disquisition on Government, which most commentators—willing to read it for its objective value rather than for the sins of its author—rate as one of the foremost American contributions to the canon of political thought, calls for precisely what the advocates of identity politics seek: respect for every group such that each holds a veto over the community.
Calhoun called this a “concurrent majority.” The idea was that a legislative act must be approved by majorities of both the whole community and of those it directly affected. True, he would have put the idea into the service of slavery, though not only that: It arose from southern outrage over the Tariff of Abominations.
Could this series of vetoes—this demand for respect for the group—manifest itself any more clearly than in the identity politics that are devouring the left? An “Open Letter From 50 Black Yale Alumni” in 2015 asserted that “Black students at Yale are underrepresented, as are Black faculty,” and consequently made a list of demands on their behalf. Yale students demanded that faculty resign after questioning an email about cultural sensitivity in Halloween costumes. When Corey Menafee, an African-American employee of Yale, was arrested for smashing a Calhoun College window depicting slavery, Yale law students wrote to the University’s president, Peter Salovey, to say they “require[d] an unambiguous statement of your support of Mr. Menafee, and through him, the entire community of color that lives, works and studies at Yale.”
One need hardly say there is nothing wrong with seeking respect, especially when respect is attached to qualities that merit it. (They might have also accorded it to the University’s president by “requesting” rather than “requiring” their demands.) It is conceiving of the world in terms of groups that is Calhounian.
Calhoun warned against overlooking diversity: Equating the majority with the community was to err in thinking the parts of the polity “identical” to one another. He was acutely aware of the propensity of the majority to abuse diverse groups. The more diverse a community was, he wrote, “the more easy for one portion of the community to pervert its powers to oppress, and plunder the other.” Government inherently tended toward abuse. Consequently, it was not enough to simply allow everyone to vote. Minority groups, along with majorities, must equally consent to government acts.
Calhoun was, in all this, hypocritical. The Disquisition proceeded to deny political equality and to defend slavery. His part of the community gravely abused the smaller part of the community through the mechanism of chattel slavery.
So what are we to do with the memory of Calhoun? The answer is surely not to erase it. If it were, the erasure would not stop with Calhoun—as, indeed, the protestors do not intend it to. When Salovey initially thought he could compromise by retaining the name of Calhoun College by naming a forthcoming residential facility after Benjamin Franklin—a former slaveholder who became an ardent abolitionist—the protestors’ response was to heave Franklin on the pyre of moral condemnation too. There was also the patent absurdity of abolishing the title “master” for heads of residential colleges, which has an academic pedigree reaching to Oxford and Cambridge, not to the plantation. When Harvard did the same, according to its student newspaper, a dean explained that “that the ‘master’ title can be interpreted in various ways—such as etymologically—[but] he also takes into account ‘the social meaning of words.’” How many ways can we interpret “etymologically”?
The problem with this assault on the sinful in politics is that it has no end. In any field of endeavor, the concomitant of great achievement is often great sin. Politics, which attracts crooked timber to start with, inescapably sullies its practitioners. Many of the Framers thus left the twin legacies of constitutional liberty and chattel slavery. The heroes of Progressivism are not exempt: Margaret Sanger was an open eugenicist, Woodrow Wilson an inveterate racist, Franklin Roosevelt a closet anti-Semite.
Purging the world of villains will sooner or later require purging it of heroes too, at least as long as—and this period would appear to be fleeting—political man retains his capacity for nuance. It will also require forgetting our capacity for sin, since the only ones left to instruct us will be alleged to be spotless paragons of unalloyed virtue. It will require erasing from the annals of human thought all those polluted by unholy ideas. Consider Deuteronomy, Aristotle, Locke, Jefferson and Madison, among others, banished. And Euclid, if anyone can figure out how to roll that one back. They are all tainted by apologia for slavery, which will be the start but not the end of the offenses for which the punishment is expurgation.
Thus Calhoun. How to preserve the memory of a racist who was also a statesman? Yale’s answer is apparently not to. It was not so at first, but the seeds of Saturday’s decision to eliminate Calhoun lay in the manner in which Salovey initially attempted to defend history. Last April, he said the institution would retain the Calhoun College label, not as a lesson in the moral nuance of statesmanship—which, rather than lionizing the man would have been fitting—but rather because of the opportunities it provided for excoriating its namesake. Protestors seem to have concluded, and not unreasonably, that if excoriation was the point, retaining the name seemed an odd way to do it.
When Salovey caved to the protests Saturday, he lamely insisted that he was acting “on principle” because Calhoun—among the first of the generation of Southerners who rejected the moral agonizing of the Jeffersons and Madisons in favor of simply defending slavery as beneficial for all involved—harbored offensive views. He did. He also fought executive overreach, opposed war in Mexico as the beginning of imperial ambitions that would corrupt the nation and hoped, if ham-handedly, that his concurrent majority would save the union.
This is a complicated legacy. The obvious response in a university setting should be to confront complexity. There is no complexity, no moral nuance, in the comparison, one several Yale faculty made, of Calhoun College to a hypothetical Joseph Goebbels College. Goebbels had no redeeming qualities. He contributed nothing to human thought. He was not a statesman in any noble sense of the term. Yet Salovey did not want to confront any such complexities last April. He wanted to pile on to the denunciation.
One complexity is the striking likeness between identity politics and Calhounian politics. Another is that there is simply no point at which the assault on memory ends. Perhaps it would have been better never to have named the residential college after Calhoun, a Yale alumnus who played a major role in American history. Perhaps. But it occurred, and moving backward is now a consequential act, one inescapably of erasure. If the expunging is to continue consistently, “Mr. Jefferson’s University” ought to be stripped of his name, and perhaps, on these grounds, we ought to stop celebrating the Father of the Constitution, a slaveholder, too. Woodrow Wilson should no longer be honored at the university he once led, as indeed protestors at Princeton demand. Assuming an underlying condition of human sin, and an accelerating appetite for excoriation, there is no point at which it stops. Perhaps Calhoun College ought to have stood as a monument, if nothing else, to that.