Selective Application Of Sensitivity: Why Calhoun College Gets Renamed, But Yale Isn't, Oh, Beatrix Potter U
Consider the reasoning behind changing the name of Calhoun College at Yale: Calhoun was a slave owner. In fact, as Roger Kimball notes in the WSJ, Calhoun even "argued that slavery was not merely a necessary evil but a 'positive good,' because it provided for slaves better than they could provide for themselves."
Uh, a bit of a soft-pedaling, which is to say Kimball leaves out a few choice bits about Calhoun. Lincoln Caplan writes in The Atlantic:
As the historian Sean Wilentz wrote recently, in that era "most white Americans presumed African inferiority." But Calhoun went much further. He believed that the American dream depended on that presumed inferiority and the slavery that was built on it. To Calhoun, the historian John Niven observed, "freedom was based on slavery." That central idea of his was profoundly divisive. It was a major cause of the Civil War. As others passed it forward, it was a significant cause of the racial segregation that lasted in law until the mid-20th century and that endures in reality, and of the reactionary element animated by racism that remains so explosive in American politics. Calhoun's various ideas made him prominent on the national stage for 40 years, but that's the one that came to obsess him and, in the end, to define him.
And then there's the 1837 speech Calhoun gave in the Senate called "The 'Positive Good' of Slavery." Caplan continues:
To Hofstadter [Richard Hofstadter, in "The American Political Tradition"] the speech was important because "Calhoun was the first Southern statesman of primary eminence to say openly in Congress what almost all the white South had come to feel." Nonetheless, as the petition summarizes, "His legacy is built on his vociferous defense of a state's right to enslave blacks." Read from the perspective of the present, the speech is filled with condescending phrases, racist views, and fantastic claims.
Calhoun said in that speech, "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. It came among us in a low, degraded, and savage condition, and in the course of a few generations it has grown up under the fostering care of our institutions, reviled as they have been, to its present comparatively civilized condition."
Okay, so I might not feel so great if I were a black student attending Yale and living in Calhoun cottage. Or -- I might think, "Hah, you slave-owning, slavery-loving fucker, I showed you."
But if we're applying a character test, well, as I've noted before, we should probably rename Yale. Back in the WSJ, Kimball continues:
Calhoun owned slaves. But so did Timothy Dwight, Calhoun's mentor at Yale, who has a college named in his honor. So did Benjamin Silliman, who also gives his name to a residential college, and whose mother was the largest slave owner in Fairfield County, Conn. So did Ezra Stiles, John Davenport and even Jonathan Edwards, all of whom have colleges named in their honor at Yale.
Writing in these pages last summer, I suggested that Yale table the question of John Calhoun and tackle some figures even more obnoxious to contemporary sensitivities. One example was Elihu Yale, the American-born British merchant who, as an administrator in India, was an active participant in the slave trade.
President Salovey's letter announcing that Calhoun College would be renamed argues that "unlike . . . Elihu Yale, who made a gift that supported the founding of our university . . . Calhoun has no similarly strong association with our campus." What can that mean? Calhoun graduated valedictorian from Yale College in 1804. Is that not a "strong association"? (Grace Hopper held two advanced degrees from the university but had no association with the undergraduate Yale College.)
As far as I have been able to determine, Elihu Yale never set foot in New Haven. His benefaction of some books and goods worth £800 helped found Yale College, not Yale University. And whereas the 11th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica praises Calhoun for his "just and kind" treatment of slaves and the "stainless integrity" of his character, Elihu Yale had slaves flogged, hanged a stable boy for stealing a horse, and was eventually removed from his post in India for corruption. Is all that not "fundamentally at odds" with the mission of Peter Salovey's Yale?
Um...yes, but there's a huge problem.
People who've gone to Yale -- a name that carries a lot of prestige -- would like that prestige to be maintained.
Suddenly calling Yale "Acme University" or "Harriet Tubman University" or whatever kills a lot of the value of the diplomas of people who've attended there.
But -- phew -- simply renaming Calhoun college throws activists a bone while not throwing possibility of alumni donations down the crapper.