Culture

We Can’t Erase History — Or Simplify It

Detail of engraving of John C. Calhoun, from a portrait by Matthew Brady (Library of Congress)
Why are we so sure we’re morally superior to our forebears?
 

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Over the weekend, Yale University announced that a residential college would no longer be named after John C. Calhoun, secretary of war under James Monroe, vice president of the United States under John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, senator from South Carolina, and secretary of state under John Tyler. Calhoun was a pro-slavery fanatic. Here’s what he had to say on the topic:

I hold that in the present state of civilization, where two races of different origin, and distinguished by color, and other physical differences, as well as intellectual, are brought together, the relation now existing in the slaveholding States between the two, is, instead of an evil, a good — a positive good. . . . I hold then, that there never has yet 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 knew full well the consequences of his position. In 1850, he told Senator James Mason that within twelve years, there would be a dissolution of the country that would “explode in a presidential election.”

None of this has been any secret. Calhoun’s nasty legacy of racism was well known in his time and since. Yet Yale saw fit to remove his name only now. President Peter Salovey stated, “I made this decision because I think it is the right thing to do on principle. John C. Calhoun’s principles, his legacy as an ardent supporter of slavery as a positive good, are at odds with this university.”

Salovey also stated that the heads of residential colleges would be renamed “heads of college” instead of “masters.” This, of course, is oversensitive foolishness. The term “master” comes from the Latin magister, a title given in the Middle Ages to people who had mastered their craft; no one seriously believes that those who live in the dorms are slaves to the RAs.

Yale isn’t the first college to cave to this sort of historical expunging. Last year, Princeton University caved to pressure to remove a painting of President Woodrow Wilson and considered chipping Wilson’s name off buildings. Some students at the University of Missouri wanted a statute of Thomas Jefferson removed from campus; in 2014, Washington and Lee University removed a Confederate flag from its chapel, even though General Robert E. Lee served as the university’s president and is buried beneath the chapel.

The newfound enthusiasm for erasing history is meant to serve two purposes: first, as a final acknowledgment of the evils of American history; second, as a revisionist desire to wipe away the change and complexities inherent in American history.

It’s the second element of erasure that sticks in the craw of so many Americans. Clearly, John C. Calhoun wouldn’t be honored with a statue today; nobody is clamoring for a John C. Calhoun School of Law. But leaving his name on a building at Yale helps teach us how far we’ve come. More important, it recognizes that we must be ever wary of evil — that we shouldn’t be so benightedly complacent about our own moral standing, so confident that we would never make the moral errors of our forebears.

Calhoun’s name on buildings reminds us that Calhoun was once honored for his perspective rather than derided for it. It is a reminder that evil once held sway in our world, and that we cherished it. It also reminds us that brilliance and patriotism and good and evil can all exist in the same human being: Calhoun’s slavery advocacy existed alongside his desire to build up a strong, robust American military; he created the Bureau of Indian Affairs at the same time that he stumped for the expansion of slavery into the Western states.

One of the goals of chopping away at history is to simplify it into a simple battle between the good, who remain, and the evil, who are wiped away. But that’s not the way history works, nor is it the way politics works.

That’s even clearer with regard to Woodrow Wilson, a dyed-in-the-wool racist who screened Birth of a Nation at the White House and worked ardently to re-segregate the federal work force, but who also presided over America’s victory in World War I. Wilson’s vision of a progressive government led by experts still defines our political debate today, for good and ill. We shouldn’t chisel his name off buildings in an effort to disassociate him from ideas that are now discredited.

Most human beings throughout human history have stood with an evil of some sort or another.

History is important only if we recognize that it isn’t some sort of Punch-and-Judy drama to be acted out with puppets in black hats and white. Most human beings throughout human history have stood with an evil of some sort or another. FDR, whom leftists embrace, interned the Japanese and turned Jews away from America’s shores during the Holocaust. JFK reportedly attempted to turn Sammy Davis Jr. away from his inaugural gala because Davis was dating a white woman. Bill Clinton drafted “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and did nothing during the Rwandan genocide. Barack Obama opposed same-sex marriage until it became inconvenient to do so, and he stood by while Bashar al-Assad murdered tens of thousands of his citizens. Should all of their names be wiped from buildings? Or should we teach history as it actually happened, with all of its ugliness and all of its bravery?

Leaving names on buildings, and flags in churches, and statues on campuses isn’t about honoring those names, flags, and statues. It’s about recognizing the past, which is brutal and complex. Doing so reminds us that our present isn’t too clear-cut, either, and that anyone approaching current events with the smooth self-assurance of ultimate virtue simply hasn’t been judged by history yet.

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