The Chronicle Review

10 Questions for Yale’s President

Katherine Streeter for The Chronicle

May 25, 2016

Peter Salovey, president of Yale University, announced in April that, despite protests, the university would continue to name a residential college after John C. Calhoun, an alumnus, senator from South Carolina, vice president, and leading proponent of slavery in the 19th century. One Yale graduate and former resident of Calhoun College, Malcolm Pearson, who describes himself as an "old Southern white," calls this decision "almost beyond comprehension."

Pearson is right. The decision prompted me to put 10 questions to President Salovey. I emailed them to him but have not received a response.

1. Have you ever read anything by Calhoun? I ask because he was forthright in his white supremacy and his advocacy of disunion on its behalf. "Abolition and the Union cannot coexist," he argued in the Senate in 1837. Slavery "cannot be subverted without drenching the country in blood, and extirpating one or the other of the races." He claimed that African-Americans (and Africans) were so inferior that slavery was "a positive good" for them, because without it they are "low, degraded, and savage."

2. Do you understand Calhoun’s role in U.S. history? Calhoun repeatedly threatened disunion as a form of blackmail to get what he wanted. He explained his strategy to a friend in 1827: "You will see that I have made up the issue between North and South. If we flinch we are gone, but if we stand fast on it, we shall triumph either by compelling the North to yield to our terms, or declaring our independence of them."

At that time, Calhoun had written that states’ rights let Northerners distance themselves morally from slavery. "A large portion of the Northern States believes slavery to be a sin, and would consider it as an obligation of conscience to abolish it if they should feel themselves in any degree responsible for its continuance." By the 1840s, however, he opposed states’ rights when those rights had anything to do with freedom, a move he knew would sow sectional discord. Also by the 1840s, Calhoun had no more use for democracy. He argued that Congress should not even receive petitions about slavery, and that sending abolitionist materials through the mail or merely receiving them should be a crime.

Calhoun took ever more extreme positions favoring the South as a region and slavery as a cause. He came to call the 1820 Missouri Compromise, which he had supported at the time, unconstitutional because it banned slavery from territories north of Arkansas. Because the Constitution protected slavery, he insisted, slave owners had the right to take their property anywhere. He placed the interests of his region, as he perceived them, ahead of the national interest, ahead even of national unity.

In the words of the Yale alumnus Malcolm Pearson, who says that he is a direct descendent of slaveholders: Calhoun was the proponent of a theory of the moral good of slavery thought ridiculous and self-serving in his own time. He was the intellectual father of nullification and secession, at whose feet we may lay the Civil War.

3. Do you think Calhoun’s role at Yale is parallel to Woodrow Wilson’s at Princeton? Or to Edwin DeBarr’s at the University of Oklahoma? It is not. Princeton honored Wilson not because he was an arrant racist who segregated the federal government, but despite that. And Wilson at least gave lip service to democracy. Not Calhoun. Oklahoma honored DeBarr not because he was the statewide leader of the Ku Klux Klan, but because, as the plaque on what used to be DeBarr Hall says, he "built the chemistry department from the ground up, heading it for 31 years, and was also the head of the School of Pharmacy … the University’s first Vice President … and the longest-serving member of the original faculty." Calhoun did no service to or at Yale. As your own professor of history, Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, put it, Calhoun’s "fame came from his guiding role in a racial regime that enslaved people, inspired secession and formed the specious legal foundation for a century of discrimination."

John C. Calhoun was the proponent of a theory of the moral good of slavery thought ridiculous and self-serving in his own time.
The naming of Calhoun County in Alabama exemplifies Gilmore’s point. A historical marker tells how the county got its name: "Calhoun Co. originally was Benton Co., named for Col. T.H. Benton, Creek War officer, later U.S. senator from Missouri. Renamed in 1858 for John C. Calhoun, champion of South in U.S. Senate. Benton’s views by then unpopular in South." Like Calhoun, Thomas Hart Benton was a wealthy slave owner. Like Calhoun, Benton was an important senator representing a slave state — Missouri, in Benton’s case. Both were national leaders of the Democratic Party, and both were considered for the presidency. Gradually, however, Calhoun and Benton diverged in political philosophy until they became archenemies. Calhoun came to place slavery above all other causes, while Benton pointed out that Southern Democrats had opposed secession when New England Federalists had threatened it during the War of 1812. "The leading language … south of the Potomac was that no state had a right to withdraw from the Union," noted Benton, "… and that any attempt to dissolve it, or to obstruct the action of constitutional laws, was treason."

In keeping with the growing secessionist sentiment in the plantation areas of the Deep South, pro-slavery extremists in 1858 renamed Benton County for Calhoun. They took this step precisely because Benton stood for the United States, while Calhoun did not.

4. Do you know about the era when the naming of Calhoun College took place? The period from 1890 to about 1940 is known as the nadir of race relations. During those years, the situation worsened for Native Americans, African-Americans, Chinese-Americans, and Mexican-Americans. Lynchings peaked. In the South, African-Americans lost the right to vote. The "sundown town" movement swept the North, including Connecticut, resulting in thousands of communities that kept out African-Americans (and sometimes Jewish, Chinese, Japanese, Mexican, and Native Americans). Some even posted signs at their corporate limits such as, "Nigger, Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on You in Manitowoc," displayed in Manitowoc, Wis., north of Milwaukee, well into the 1960s.

Every historic site is a tale of two eras: what it’s about and when it was built. In this case, Calhoun College is about Calhoun (c. 1782-1850), but it tells us more about when the residential college was established (1931-33), a time when most white Americans saw nothing wrong with naming a building for someone who stood for white supremacy. Whites in Decatur, Ala., named a junior college for Calhoun in 1947.

Yale would never have named anything for Calhoun in 1880. Wager Swayne would never have let that happen.

5. Do you know who Wager Swayne was? If you have never heard of him, let me refer you to the campus of another institution in Alabama, Talladega College, which did name a building for him — indeed, its most important building. Swayne (Yale Class of 1856) became an officer in the U.S. Army during the Civil War and lost a leg in battle. During Reconstruction, he headed the Freedman’s Bureau in Alabama, became military governor of Alabama, and helped found Talladega, a black college.

After Reconstruction, Swayne became a lawyer in New York City and a vice president of the Union League Club, an elegant institution that still stands in Manhattan. Republicans had organized the club to combat pro-secessionists who dominated New York City early in the Civil War. After the Emancipation Proclamation, its members organized and equipped a regiment of black troops and sent them to the front, first marching them triumphantly through the streets of New York. During Reconstruction, the club helped start Union Leagues across the South that helped African-Americans and white Republicans organize politically. In 1880 the club still required prospective new members to "agree with the principles of the Republican Party as hitherto expressed."

Every year that it retains the name Calhoun College, Yale declares that John C. Calhoun was a hero worthy of the honor.
During the nadir, Northern and Southern elites reunited under the banner of white supremacy. Plutocrats like J.P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller joined the Union League Club for its prestige, not because of what it stood for. Soon it stood for nothing. Indeed, it began to undermine its founding ideals. Members refused to admit Jews, even though Jews had helped to found the club. In 1901 its management committee decided to fire the black servants and go to an all-white staff. Swayne intervened. He got up a "petition to bring the matter to an open vote," and, in the words of a contemporaneous observer, "spoke in favor of the Negroes, and after several others had talked on the same side the … decision was overthrown."

The deepening racism of the era was not to be denied, however. After Swayne’s death, in 1902, the club allowed only blacks on the staff. Other clubs and elite restaurants adopted the practice, which was extended to Pullman sleeping cars. Most of these institutions adopted Southern etiquette as well, calling the staff members by their first names while demanding that they use courtesy titles and "sir" or "ma’am" in reply. Antiracists like Swayne were dying off. The nadir was settling in.

6. Do you understand the difference between heritage and history? Your email to the Yale community implies that you do not:

"Removing Calhoun’s name obscures the legacy of slavery rather than addressing it. … Erasing Calhoun’s name from a much-beloved residential college risks masking this past, downplaying the lasting effects of slavery, and substituting a false and misleading narrative, albeit one that might allow us to feel complacent or, even, self-congratulatory."

Putting Calhoun’s name on the residential college in the first place was an act of heritage, not history. It told nothing about Calhoun except that he was great and we should honor him. Leaving his name on the building signifies that Yale thinks it is still appropriate to honor him. Taking his name off, on the other hand, and putting up a plaque explaining why, would teach future generations something about the history of the university, as well as about Calhoun. It would also send a message to the future about the changed racial environment of 2016.

7. What did you do, before the murders in June 2015 at the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, S.C., to make Calhoun College a flash point of knowledge-seeking? We all know that questioning the naming of buildings after white supremacists skyrocketed after Dylann Roof’s despicable acts. Some colleges were already changing their racist names well before it became fashionable to do so. Not Yale. If you did nothing to bring to the fore Calhoun’s execrable legacy, then your inaction itself undermines your claim that you’re keeping his name so as to keep alive the critique of him. You wrote:

Yale’s motto is "light and truth," and we cannot seek the truth by hiding it. As a University, as students and faculty, we search out knowledge and pursue discovery. We cannot inhibit this pursuit by marking the ugliest aspects of our own nature "off-limits." We must confront even those ideas that disgust us in the search for progress and an honest understanding of the human condition. If we understand the past, and know ourselves, we can make positive change.

I suppose no one can dispute the last sentence, since it has no content. You also proposed a web-based "interactive history project" about the entire campus, but starting with Calhoun College, and "a juried competition, open to the entire Yale community, to select a work of art that will be displayed permanently on the grounds of Calhoun College," to contextualize Calhoun. Putting material on the web, however, cannot adequately counteract the statement that "Calhoun College" makes on the landscape. Neither can a work of art to be named later.

8. Wouldn’t calling it "Nameless College" spark more continuing dialogue than leaving it "Calhoun College?" If you study the long process that Germany went through in deciding on a proper monument in Berlin to the victims of the Holocaust, you will find that one (serious) suggestion was: a never-ending process to decide on a proper monument to the victims of the Holocaust. Of course, that was not selected; in a sense, it could not be. The proposal was meant to be paradoxical.

Renaming Calhoun College "Nameless College," however, would not be contradictory and would provoke discussion through the ages. "Nameless College" would also commemorate those who, in the words of Ecclesiasticus, "have no memorial; who are perished, as though they had never been; and are become as though they had never been born; and their children after them," such as the enslaved generations in America. Countless slaves have been lost to history, even to the census, because they had no last names, or because their owners did not bother to provide names to the enumerators but merely said, for example, "male, mulatto, age about 22 …" Even their first names were not their own. They were bestowed upon the slaves by their owners, rather than their parents, and were often deliberately chosen to be ridiculous.

Yale would, of course, install a plaque at the entrance of Nameless College explaining that it used to be named for John C. Calhoun and describing the changes at Yale and in America that led to the name’s being changed to "Nameless" in 2016.

9. How do you propose that Yale might suggest to people of color that they should feel honored to come to Yale and to live in Calhoun College? As an educator, you must know that black students have lower graduation rates at most colleges than do white students. You must know that research shows that people of color face additional hurdles: a sense of not belonging, exposure to microaggressions, lower expectations from some professors. In this context, affirming a decision to name a building for perhaps the most unwelcoming white supremacist in our nation’s history cannot possibly be construed as sound educational practice.

10. Does Yale honor any white male for his opposition to slavery or racism? In keeping with the racism of the nadir, Yale has named no building for General Swayne or, so far as I can tell, for any other white antiracist. So Yale winds up with a landscape of white supremacists and black humanitarians (Pauli Murray), just like the University of Texas, Monument Avenue in Richmond, Va., and so many other places.

The policies, writings, and beliefs of John C. Calhoun have caused much harm in the world. Yale can’t change what its graduate did. Yale can change what it thinks and says about Calhoun’s deeds. Naming a building for Calhoun reveals Yale in 1931 to have been active in supporting white supremacy. Leaving it "Calhoun" affirms that position today.

Every year that it retains the name Calhoun College, Yale declares that John C. Calhoun was a hero worthy of the honor of having a building named for him. That declaration should insult anyone who does not believe that treason on behalf of slavery made moral or political sense then or now.

James W. Loewen is an emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Vermont and the author of Lies My Teacher Told Me (New Press, 1995) and a co-editor of The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader (University Press of Mississippi, 2010).