Blogs > Jim Loewen > Ten Questions for Yale President Peter Salovey

May 10, 2016

Ten Questions for Yale President Peter Salovey

tags: slavery,Yale,racism,Confederate Memorials

John Calhoun

Sociologist James W. Loewen is the author of Lies My Teacher Told Me.

         Peter Salovey, President of Yale University, announced a surprising decision last week: Yale chose to continue to name a dormitory "Calhoun College," despite protests. One Yale graduate and resident of Calhoun College, Malcolm Pearson, who describes himself as an "old Southern white," called this decision "almost beyond comprehension."

         Surely Pearson is right. The decision prompted me to put ten questions to President Salovey. I emailed the essay to Salovey last week but have not yet received a response.

1. Have you ever read anything by John C. Calhoun?

         I ask because, years before his native state of South Carolina put his writings into effect, he was forthright in his white supremacy and his advocacy of disunion on its behalf. "Abolition and the Union can not coexist," he argued in the Senate way back in February, 1837. Therefore, if Northerners did not eliminate abolitionism within their states, so much for the nation. Meanwhile, slavery "cannot be subverted without drenching the country in blood, and extirpating one or the other of the races." He went on to claim 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?

         Repeatedly, Calhoun threatened disunion to blackmail national leaders 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 pushed to make the South a closed society. He argued that Congress should not even receive petitions about slavery. Sending abolitionist materials through the mail or even merely receiving same should be a crime.

         As time passed, Calhoun took ever more extreme positions favoring the South as a region and slavery as a cause. He called the 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, slaveowners had the right to take their property into any territory. Obviously, since many of the same people who had voted for the Constitution had also voted for the Northwest Ordinance, this argument was neither historically nor judicially sound. Nor did it comport with states' rights, because it required the national government to enforce slavery, even if the residents of a territory had voted slavery down. Eventually, he came to place the interests of his region as he perceived them ahead of the national interest, ahead even of national unity.

         Again, in the words of Yale's Malcolm Pearson

         "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. It's not necessary to judge him by the terms of our culture. We can judge him best by the words of the President under whom he served as Vice President. Andrew Jackson said of Calhoun, 'I would hang him, if I could.' "

3. Do you think Calhoun at Yale is parallel to Woodrow Wilson at Princeton? or to Edwin DeBarr at the University of Oklahoma?

         He is not. Princeton honored Wilson not because he was an arrant racist who segregated the federal government, including the Navy, but despite those things. At least he 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 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." 

         The naming of Calhoun County in Alabama exemplifies Gilmore's point. A historical marker in the county seat, Jacksonville, tells how it 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 slaveowner. Like Calhoun, Benton was an important United States 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 arch enemies. Calhoun, as noted earlier, came to place slavery above all other causes, including nationhood. Benton, on the other hand, 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 1858, in keeping with the growing secessionist sentiment in the plantation areas of the Deep South, pro-slavery extremists in Alabama 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 took place?

         In U.S. history, the era from 1890 to about 1940 is known as the “Nadir of race relations. During these years, the U.S. went more racist in its ideology, its thinking, than at any other time. I ask because, except professional historians, most Americans don't even know the name of this consequential epoch. During this time, race relations worsened for Native Americans, African Americans, Chinese Americans, and Mexican Americans. Lynchings peaked. African Americans got thrown out of the Major Leagues, the Kentucky Derby, and broader job groups such as mail carrier. In the South, they 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, or Native Americans).

         Every historic site is a tale of two eras: what it’s about, and when it went up. In this case, Calhoun College is about Calhoun (c. 1824-1850), but it tells us more about when it went up (1931-33). During that era, toward the end of the Nadir, most white Americans saw nothing wrong with naming a building for someone who stood for white supremacy. Whites in Decatur, Alabama, named a junior college for Calhoun even later, in 1947. By then the Nadir was beginning to ease in the North, but not in Alabama.

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

Swayne Hall at Talladega College, Alabama

5. Do you know who Wager Swayne was?

         Wager Swayne was precisely the kind of graduate whom Yale would never honor with a building, owing precisely to the Nadir of race relations. If you have never heard of him, let me refer you to the campus of another college in Alabama, Talladega, very different from Yale, that did name a building for him – indeed, its most important building. Swayne (Yale 1856) became an officer in the U.S. Army during the Civil War and lost a leg near the end of that conflict. During Reconstruction, Swayne headed the Freedman's Bureau in Alabama, became military governor of Alabama, and helped found Talladega, a black college.

         After Reconstruction ended, Swayne became a lawyer in New York City and 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 city streets. 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."

         During the Nadir, Northern and Southern elites reunited under the banner of white supremacy. Plutocrats like J. P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller joined for the club's prestige, not because of what it stood for. Soon it stood for nothing. Indeed, it began to stand for ideas antithetical to its founding ideals. Now members refused to admit Jews, even though Jews had helped to found the club during the war. In 1901, the club’s management committee, having put caste principles in place regarding membership, now turned to its employees. They decided to fire their black servants and go to an all-white staff. At this point, Swayne intervened. He got up a "petition to bring the matter to an open vote," 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."[1]

         The deepening racism of the Nadir was not to be denied, however. After Swayne's death the next year, the club made all the wait staff black, which they still were in the late 1990s. This pattern perpetuates plantation race relations, implying that the races should be separate and blacks should serve whites. Other clubs and elite restaurants adopted this practice, including Pullman sleeping cars across the United States. 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. Anti-racists 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 seem to: "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."  

 The shallow comments to the Yale Daily News by many Yale alumni who support retaining "Calhoun" show that they don't grasp this distinction either. Putting his name on the dormitory 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 in 2016 that it is still appropriate to honor him. Taking his name off, on the other hand, and putting up a good plaque telling why, would teach future generations at Yale something about the history of the school, as well as the role of Calhoun. It could also enlighten as to the nature of the Nadir and send a message to the future about the changed racial environment of 2016.

7. What have you done, before the murders in Charleston, to make Calhoun College a flashpoint of knowledge seeking?

         We all know that questioning the naming of buildings after white supremacists skyrocketed after Dylann Roof's despicable acts. However, some colleges were already changing their racist names well before it became fashionable to do so. Not Yale. Moreover, if you did nothing to bring to the fore John C. Calhoun's execrable legacy, then your inaction itself undermines your claim that you keep Calhoun's 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. 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.  

9. Wouldn't calling it "Nameless College" spark more continuing dialogue than leaving it "Calhoun?"

         If you study the long process Germany went through while deciding upon a proper monument to the victims of the Holocaust in Berlin, you will find that one (serious) suggestion was: a never-ending process to go through to decide upon a proper monument to the victims of the Holocaust. Of course, it 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 continuing 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..." Their first names too were not their own. They were bestowed upon them by their owners, rather than their parents, and were often deliberately chosen to be ridiculous.

         Of course Yale would install a plaque at the entrance, as noted above, telling that the dorm had been named for Calhoun, giving some facts about him, noting that no one at Yale in 1931 cared about his white supremacy, and describing the changes at Yale and in America that led to "Nameless" in 2016.

8. How do you propose Yale might suggest to people of color in the future that they should feel honored to come to Yale and to live in Calhoun College?

         I heard that you said something about living in Calhoun's shadow will make students "better prepared to rise to the challenges of the present and the future." As an educator, you must know that black students show lower graduation rates at most colleges than do white students. You must know that research shows that people of color face additional hurdles, from a sense of not-belonging, to exposure to micro-aggressions, to lower expectations from some professors. In this context, affirming a decision made in the depths of the Nadir of race relations to name a building for perhaps the most unwelcoming white supremacist in Yale's or our national history, cannot possibly be construed as sound educational practice.

         For that matter, how can you defend your decision to whites? Does it not invite whites to think Yale deems it appropriate to honor Calhoun in 2016? To be sure, your email denied this, but email is ephemeral. The name is chiseled in stone right over the entrance.

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 Gen. Swayne or, so far as I can tell, for any other white anti-racist. 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, and so many other places.

         Maybe Yale should rename Calhoun College Swayne College!


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

         Every year that it retains the name Calhoun College, Yale declares on its campus that John C. Calhoun was a hero worthy of the honor of having a building named for him. That declaration insults every black resident and every nonblack resident who does not believe that treason on behalf of slavery made moral or political sense then or now.

Copyright James W. Loewen

    [1]Quoted in Michael W. Fitzgerald, The Union League Movement in the Deep South (LA State UP, 1989), 222, 234-42.


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