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After I moved to South Carolina in 2005, for years, to me John C. Calhoun was just one of those old white guys whose name was on lots of stuff.

I assumed (incorrectly) he was a Civil War general, or something like that, a Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson type. I grew up in Chicago, and what I’d learned in school or in passing about the Civil War was puddle-deep. Even after working at Clemson for a couple of years, I knew Calhoun as the guy who once owned the land on which the university was ultimately built. I figured he was a lot like other old-timey white men – your Jeffersons, your Washingtons – who had slaves because it was a different era, the thing to do if you’re a white landowning gentry type. It’s not great, but you know…different times, different contexts. History has thankfully marched on and we can separate the accomplishments and importance of those historical figures from their sins as slave owners.

Indeed, this is the defense one sees in the discussion following Yale University’s decision to rename their Calhoun residential college after Grace Murray Hopper, Yale PhD and rear admiral in the United States Navy.

But if the standard for renaming buildings or removing statues is whether or not the individual owned slaves, the resulting demolition and construction across our nation might be serve as a Trump administration infrastructure stimulus bill.

Where is it going to stop? Will we have to change the name of our nation’s capital? What about Washington state? We can’t simply apply 21st century morality to the past and erase history.

Agreed. History should not be erased. It should be understood, fully. We must grapple with the facts of John C. Calhoun. He should be much better remembered, as a matter of fact. My own longstanding ignorance about the man whose name you cannot avoid in South Carolina is a testament to this idea.

Calhoun was a senator from South Carolina and Vice President of the United States. He was a champion of states and minority (meaning Southerner) rights, and in 1957 named by a Senate committee as one of the “five greatest senators in U.S. history.” 

Calhoun’s name is on the street where white supremacist terrorist Dylan Roof walked into the Mother Emmanuel Church and murdered nine worshippers.

In protest of Yale’s decision, Geraldo Rivera resigned his position as “Associate Fellow” of Calhoun College, tweeting, “Been an honor but intolerant insistence on political correctness is lame.” 

I find simplistic and unproductive debates on “political correctness” lame, so instead, I want to discuss John C. Calhoun and whether or not he is a man deserving of being honored in this way. I wonder how much of this Geraldo Rivera knows.

We understand the danger of judging Calhoun by contemporary standards, so we should also know more about the man in the context of his own time. Here I am drawing significantly on the work of my College of Charleston colleague, Professor Joseph Kelly and his book America’s Longest Siege: Charleston, Slavery, and the Slow March Toward Civil War, which enlightened me to the history I have been living among.

Calhoun was neither of the Revolutionary War era, nor the Civil War era, having been born in Abbeville, SC in 1782. He was elected to the U.S. House in 1810 at the age of 28, and became a career politician, dying in office as senator from South Carolina in 1850.

But Calhoun is most notable as the godfather of the “positive good” theory of slavery, enumerated in a speech to the Senate in 1837. As far back as the American Revolution, it was widely believed, even among the slaveholding class that slavery was, in Jefferson’s words a “moral depravity,” an affront to the principles that the nascent country was founded upon. This is not to say that Jefferson and his ilk were believers in racial equality. Jefferson was fairly typical in his view that slaves should be “repatriated” to Africa, that whites and blacks could not live in harmony in America both because of the legacy of slavery and the different natures of the races. 

As Kelly argues in America’s Longest Siege, Jefferson’s view prevailed, even in the southern hub of Charleston where slaves outnumbered whites many times over. With the international slave trade banned in 1807, the widespread belief was that ultimately, slavery would end “naturally,” over time.

Calhoun thought differently as he expressed in his 1837 senate address. Calhoun believed that slavery was not a sin, but a marker of greatness in a society, saying, “Never has existed a wealthy and civilized society in which one portion of the community did not, in point of fact, live on the labor of the other.”

Calhoun even favorably compared the “patriarchal mode” of slavery with similar practices of the past, saying, “…in few countries so much is left to the share of the laborer.” For Calhoun, not only were slave owners generous by historical standards, slavery was “civilizing” for enslaved Africans, “Never before has the black race of Central Africa from the dawn of history to the present day, attained a condition so civilized and so improved, not only physically, but morally and intellectually.”

“Instead of an evil, [slavery] is a positive good.”

Contrast this with Jefferson, or George Washington who viewed slavery as morally evil, and as early as 1786 expressed a desire for abolition, provided it be done legislatively. 

Compare Calhoun to Robert E. Lee, who in 1856 echoed some of Calhoun’s rhetoric about the “civilizing” effects of slavery, but nonetheless said, “There are few, I believe, in this enlightened age, who will not acknowledge that slavery as an institution is a political and moral evil.” 

Calhoun was a radical, out of step with the founding principles and values of our country. He was not merely an imperfect man like Jefferson or Washington or Martin Luther King Jr. or every other human who has ever drawn breath. He birthed the intellectual and “moral” rationale for an endless perpetuation of slavery that would ultimately take us to Civil War.

John C. Calhoun is most known for what even those in his own time believed to be evil.

Similar to the raising of the Confederate battle flag over the South Carolina in statehouse in 1962, which was not a gesture towards preserving “heritage” but instead an overt expression of resistance to integration, Yale’s Calhoun college was not named for the man in 1931 despite his white supremacist views, but because of them.

To retain Calhoun’s name in this context is to continue to honor those principles. No doubt, as recent events have shown, there is a non-trivial number of our fellow citizens who maintain white supremacist beliefs. They are welcome to defend continuing to honor Calhoun on those grounds. But don’t defend “history” or “tradition,” abstractions without meaning in this context.

Defend the man, both in his own time and ours.

I believe honoring John C. Calhoun is inconsistent with core American values as well as the purposes of higher education. Recognizing this man with a position of honor is simply wrong, as the Yale committee decided.

We’re just many decades too late in recognizing this injustice. Better late than never, I suppose.

But we should not forget the man. Indeed, I hope Yale’s act means we will come to better know the full truth of John C. Calhoun. Yale will “memorialize the fact that Calhoun was a residential college name for 86 years.” No erasing of history here.

Let’s have more of these debates, school by school, case by case.[1]

We all may learn something in the process.




[1] Honestly, Calhoun isn’t even a close call. Neither is Benjamin Tillman, a white supremacist who terrorized free black people in South Carolina, and whose name still adorns the Clemson University honors college. 

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