by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
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. …
… 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.