Yale has been having a lot of trouble over nomenclature lately. It changed the title of its undergraduate residential colleges' senior faculty member from "Master" to "Head of College" because of the former's resonance with slavery. Yet it's simultaneously refused to do the same with one of the colleges named after a leading proponent of slavery.
Calhoun College--my college, by the way--was named after John C., longtime South Carolina Senator and pre-Civil War Secretary of State and Vice President. Not merely a slaveholder, he was also a rabid proponent of the institution who favored its expansion into the western states. His presence is all over his namesake. Not only does his portrait hang in the faculty lounge, but his walking stick is the College's ceremonial mace, and incredibly, its weathervane features a slave family.
Initially I thought the Calhoun controversy sprang from the same swaddling as safe spaces and trigger words, that it was motivated by a desire to censor away the uncomfortable realities of our history. But I was wrong.
That it was possible to name a residential college after Calhoun--or for that matter a university after Lee--in the first place is a consequence of the veil we've drawn over the bone-deep evil in which our nation was conceived, and the apocalypse its beneficiaries unleashed in an attempt to preserve it. Slavery was a slow-motion holocaust that at its peak, just before the Civil War, subjugated around four million people in conditions of almost unbelievable cruelty for the economic good of a couple of thousand slavocrats. And not only economic benefit, but political as well--under the "three-fifths compromise," a slave was counted as sixty per cent of a person in the Constitutionally mandated census. Thus, even though slaves couldn't vote, they padded slave states' populations for the allocation of Congressional seats, giving the south disproportionate political power. To maintain that ill-gotten wealth and power, the southern elites were prepared to tear the nation apart.
Before proceeding, I have to call bullshit on the self-serving myth that southern apologists roll out whenever a Civil War anniversary pops up: that is, that the War was fought over something other than slavery. The list of alternate causes is long, but first on it is invariably states' rights. Let's look at a couple of uncomfortable facts. First is that the only states to secede were slave states. The only state right that the secessionists were afraid of losing was their property interest in other human beings. Second is that the Constitution of the Confederacy itself. You would think that if the whole point of secession was the defense of states' rights, the Confederacy's organic document would protect the rights of independent, sovereign states to govern their own domestic affairs. Yet Article I, Sec. 9(4) prohibits these independent, sovereign states from abolishing slavery within their own borders. Article IV, Sec. 2(1) similarly bars the individual states from passing laws impairing the rights of visiting slaveholders in their human chattels. So the secession and consequent war were motivated by nothing but the south's desire to hang onto a slave economy larger than any seen since the fall of Rome.
Similarly we have to disabuse ourselves of the notion that there was anything noble about the war or the southern generals who fought it. They were traitors to a man. All had been officers in the United States Army before the secession. All had sworn an oath to uphold the Constitution and defend the United States. All broke that oath when they took up arms against the nation they'd sworn to defend. That they weren't hanged at war's end is a peculiar perversion of justice springing from several sources: first, the Union's desire to bind up the nation's wounds--at least, the white nation's; second, the natural hesitance of victorious Union generals to round up and execute their West Point classmates.
Inexplicably, the same process that allowed the southern generals not only to survive their treason but prosper in peace also somehow validated their war's purpose. Postwar apologists created the myth of the "Lost Cause" prosecuted by plucky southern patriots who fought only to save homes and a way of life that parenthetically may have included the occasional floury mammy or grinning stablehand. Perhaps forgiving the soldier required that we forget what he fought for.
But the amnesia became permanent. So much so that a a hundred and fifty years after the war's end the Confederate battle flag, dyed as deep in suffering and blood as the Swastika, is permitted to fly in public as an emblem of "Southern pride." And unlike ourselves, the nation over which the Swastika flew has come to terms with its guilt--there are no Himmler Colleges or Goebbels Parks.
I don't suggest that every southern soldier was as guilty as his generals. Nor do I think that every slaveholder's name should be erased from public view. And that Woodrow Wilson failed to transcend the bigotry of his time and place of birth is a stain on an all too human character that doesn't justify expungement of his name from the university over which he presided.
It's no longer possible to give Lee the hanging he deserves. But it's also time to snap out of the trance in which we've forgotten what he fought for. We should no longer memorialize any soldier or statesman who fought for slavery.
That includes John C. Calhoun