calhoun college yale

The misguided effort to have Yale University rename Calhoun College is a sign that we contemporary Americans have a tendency to forget who we are, and to engage in what has become known as political correctness. The advocates of political correctness want to corrupt history for temporary political gain, and their efforts are, sadly, a disease on the body politic.

The operatives of political correctness have met with some success of late. With Orwellian irony, they succeeded in having a U.S Navy ship named for a person who hated the Navy (Cesar Chavez) and have imposed “speech codes” (with the actual purpose of restricting speech) on many college campuses—as well as more destructive examples of assaulting First Amendment rights and redefining history. Even President Obama is not above the fray as demonstrated by his renaming of Mount McKinley.

The greatest threat to political correctness is an environment in which free and uninhibited discussion and disagreement can take place. In fact, diversity of thought is the opposite of political correctness, and is at the heart of a free society. The proponents of political correctness—and those who wish to rename Calhoun College—stand on the side of censorship against free and open discussion.

Equally misguided, the defacers want to misrepresent and vilify one of America’s greatest statesmen, John Caldwell Calhoun. Born in 1782 near Abbeville, South Carolina, Calhoun graduated from Yale and Litchfield Law School. He served two terms in the South Carolina Legislature until elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1811. As a congressman, Calhoun’s reputation was that of a moral statesman who regarded limited government and patriotism as synonymous.

President James Monroe asked Calhoun to assume the helm at the War Department (later given the more politically correct title of Department of Defense) in 1817, where he served until 1825, and he is described as the ablest war secretary the country had before the Civil War, while offering a fairer and more humane approach to Native American affairs than his predecessors.

John C. Calhoun

John C. Calhoun

While spending most of his public life in the United States Senate, he was also vice president under both John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, and he served as secretary of state to John Tyler. He is generally regarded as one of the greatest senators ever, part of the “Great Triumvirate” with Henry Clay and Daniel Webster—and each supported the Fugitive Slave Act.

What the petitioners do not want you to know is that Calhoun was not only one of America’s greatest statesmen, but also one of its greatest thinkers. His two treatises on American politics, the Disquisition and Discourse (published after his death), demonstrate his hope that America could avoid the pending conflict of the Civil War.

In Calhoun’s interpretation, America’s greatest hope lay in the interposing and amending power of the states, which was implicit in the Constitution. This alone could save the country by allowing for a greater diffusion of authority and undermining the cause of sectional conflict. Calhoun’s purpose was the preservation of the original balance of authority and the fortification of the American political system against the obstacles it faced.

The petitioners may have good intentions, but as Shakespeare warned, “men are men; the best sometimes forget.” John Calhoun was imperfect, but he remains one of the greatest statesmen in American history.

Leave Calhoun College intact for posterity, and for the rising generation.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

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3 replies to this post
  1. Professor Cheek, I am no admirer of Calhoun’s doctrines and I think he took his state and his region in exactly the wrong direction, for mistaken reasons. However, I fully agree with you about the Yale nonsense. This sort of thing will lead the university down a path similar to that of the late and largely unlamented Soviet Union, which would publish photos of Trotsky with Lenin in one year, only to erase him from that photo the next year. Publius has that line about passing a death sentence on a man one year, then erecting a statue in honor of him the next year, which is the opposite side of the same coin of embarrassment.

    It is unquestionably true that any serious course on American political thought would need to include Calhoun’s writings. He was smarter than some of the people on the Yale faculty today. He deserves to be studied and even if his doctrines do not deserve to be accepted, much less honored, they belong in the curriculum.

    As for the statue, it was originally intended as an honor; if Yale prefers to honor the man no longer, on account of his doctrines, then it should keep the statue as a reminder of the fact that a brilliant man can go wrong. It may even be that there are brilliant people at today’s Yale who occasionally go wrong–astonishing as that may seem–and so Calhoun’s statue can serve as a reminder of that all-too-human possibility. Not a bad lesson for smart students, teachers, and administrators, in any school.

  2. I will add this: Each individual for whom a residential college is named has something about him which could draw the ire of the PC crowd. Why stop at renaming Calhoun College? Samuel F. B. Morse, the painter and inventor of the telegraph, also was virulently anti-Catholic, and a supporter of slavery. Consistency should therefore require the re-naming of Morse College. And Jonathan Edwards’ sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” is far too judgmental for today’s PC sensibilities. One would think a change in the name of Jonathan Edwards College would be at least as high on the list.

    My guess: if the Yale administration cedes the name of Calhoun, the PC warriors will push for other name changes. Feeding the beast only makes it stronger.

  3. If Yale proceeds with this, the forces for Good should petition the university’s accrediting agency to withdraw its accreditation and support for grave offenses against academic freedom, free speech, and good taste.

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