19th Century

John C. Calhoun

Have a drink with: John C. Calhoun
The “cast-iron man,” nullifier, racist.

Ask him about: getting into college


Yale University recently announced that it would retain the name of 19th century politician and slavery advocate John C. Calhoun on one of its twelve undergraduate residential colleges. The decision has been broadly condemned: on Twitter, #FormerlyKnownAsCalhoun quickly topped the trends list, and singer Janelle Monae used Yale’s Spring Fling stage to lead protest chants, calling Calhoun a “white supremacist.”

In a note to the Yale community, university president Peter Salovey justified the decision with the statement that removing Calhoun’s name “obscures the legacy of slavery rather than addressing it.”

But was John Calhoun history’s intolerant yet benign uncle, whom we harmlessly leave at the dinner table to rant, and should we care that his name’s on an Ivy League building?

John C. Calhoun was a lawyer and politician who twice served as Vice President of the United States. Over more than forty years in politics he was also a South Carolina legislator, a Senator, Secretary of State and Secretary of War. A renowned orator and significant legal theorist, Calhoun was known for the “concurrent majority” theory of government, under which sectional veto power acts to protect public interest from the possible biases of a numerical majority.

He led the charge for nullification – the idea that states can reject any federal law they deem unconstitutional within their own legal scheme, on the logic that the federal government exists only out of the consent and participation of individual states. Alongside men like Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, Calhoun was one of the defining personalities of 19th century American politics.

He was also one of the nation’s most vocal racists.

Calhoun’s concern over the autonomy of American states was in large part rooted in his belief that maintaining slavery was necessary to preserve the integrity of the American republic. He believed a too-strong federal government (in his time, one driven by the more populous North) would inevitably overstep its bounds and compromise the liberty of its citizens, most pointedly their liberty to continue the practice of slavery.

That Yale chose Calhoun as a college namesake in the 1930’s is perhaps less shocking than it now seems, since his resume made him at the time one of the university’s most prominent alumni statesmen and political figures, and in the early 20th century, you could still simultaneously be an excellent statesman and a racist shithead.

The decision to preserve John Calhoun’s name on the college at Yale was undertaken with the stated purpose of confronting a legacy of racism, to allow an “open sore” to make its necessarily itchy demands on dialogue and attention. By that logic, to rename the college would be an act of ignorant erasure, essentially shoving our collective fingers in our ears and humming “It’s A Small World” in the face of historical prejudice. But Yale has embraced a false limitation in assuming it has only two choices: either to retain Calhoun’s name and attempt to wring productive dialogue from pain and shame, or to change the name and thereby suffer instant amnesia.

(Let’s put it this way: if you find your dog has gone outside and rolled in poo, it is not an either-or choice to clean the dog or your living room couch.)

If you decide to watch old Tom and Jerry cartoons on your streaming platform of choice, you will likely see an introductory note reading:

“Tom & Jerry shorts may depict some ethnic and racial prejudices that were once commonplace in American society. Such depictions were wrong then and are wrong today. While the following does not represent the Warner Bros. view of today’s society, these cartoons are being presented as they were originally created, because to do otherwise would be the same as claiming that these prejudices never existed.”

But Calhoun College is not a Tom and Jerry cartoon, and the college door doesn’t have a fine-print advisory next to Calhoun’s name noting: “John Calhoun advocated for the positive good of slavery, and let’s please discuss that fact.”  Yale’s suggestions for execution of its responsibility to confront this particular bruise – a digital history project, continued scholarship on Calhoun’s legacy, public art addressing the “realities and consequences” of his life – would be equally effective under a new name.

Yale’s administration is correct to note that editing history is both irresponsible and dangerous. But in the present instance, the university has an opportunity to cultivate the trust of its community without bowdlerizing the past. No one should pretend John Calhoun never existed. We need no longer pretend, though, that he merits a place of pride.

Less-than-fun Facts:

How bad was it? Pretty bad, even by 19th century standards:

In an 1837 speech before Congress, Calhoun referred to slavery as a “positive good,” claiming that “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.”

Convinced that emancipation would lead to the ultimate subjugation of the white race by freed slaves, Calhoun insisted that “social and political equality between [races] is impossible.” When the minister Elijah Lovejoy was murdered in Illinois in 1837 while protecting his abolitionist newspaper’s printing press, Calhoun sided with the angry mob that had shot Lovejoy four times in the chest, praising comparisons to Revolutionary War patriotism.*

Calhoun died amidst debate over the Compromise of 1850, barking in Congress: “No sir! The Union can be broken.”**

Frederick Douglass said of Calhoun that “He speaks as coolly about a man in fetters as he would of a horse in harness,” and as concerns the Mexican-American War, relates Calhoun’s theory that “the incorporation of [Mexico’s] people with those of the United States, would be a death-blow to our ‘free institutions.’”

Remember the Corrupt Bargain? Calhoun ran for Vice President in the loopy 1824 election, realizing he couldn’t make President under the circumstances (though he tried at first).

Additional Reading:

The Atlantic on “Yale’s Confederate Flag.”

* Irving Bartlett, John C. Calhoun: A Biography (1993)

** Clyde N. Wilson, ed., The Essential Calhoun: Selections from Writings, Speeches, and Letters (2000)

Coverage of the Yale decision at Salon, the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor and Conversation X.

Speeches of John C. Calhoun: Delivered in the Congress of the United States from 1811 to the Present Time