Yale’s Folly

By H. Lee Cheek, Jr. and Sean Busick

The effort to rename Calhoun College at Yale University has won the day.  After initially deciding not to rename Calhoun College last year, a special presidentially-appointed taskforce recommended the renaming, guided by set of new renaming criteria.  Unfortunately, Calhoun College is no more.

Of course, colleges and universities have the option to name or rename structures on their respective campuses, but Yale’s attempt constitutes nothing less than the tendency of contemporary Americans to demonstrate how we “forget who we are” and engage in what has become known as political correctness. The advocates of political correctness want to corrupt history for temporary political gains more than they desire to keep or restore it, and their efforts are, sadly, a disease on the body politic.  In fact, under the new renaming guidelines given to the special taskforce, a building should not be renamed unless the original name is at odds with the mission of the institution, or if the overall “legacy” of the namesake is seriously deficient in some regard.  At the end of the day, Calhoun should have passed the test.

Yale now joins the many operatives of political correctness who have met with great success of late.  With Orwellian irony, they succeeded in having a U.S. Navy ship named for a person who hated the Navy (Cesar Chavez) and have imposed “speech codes” (with the actual purpose of restricting speech) on many college campuses–as well as more destructive examples of assaulting First Amendment rights and redefining history.  Even former President Obama was not above the fray as demonstrated by his renaming of Mt. McKinley.

The greatest threat to political correctness is an environment in which free and uninhibited discussion and disagreement can take place. In fact, diversity of thought is the opposite of political correctness, and is at the heart of a free society.  The proponents of political correctness–and those who have succeeded in renaming Calhoun College–stand on the side of censorship against free and open discussion.

Calhoun’s “legacy” is indeed complex and subject to debate.  However, in denying Calhoun’s vital role in American political life, they have committed a great injustice to the rising generation of Americans.  The untold story, now diminished even more by the Yale decision, is Calhoun’s importance to American political thought and history.

While spending most of his public life in the United States Senate, he was also vice president under both John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson–and he served as secretary of state to John Tyler.  He is generally regarded as one of the greatest senators ever, part of the “Great Triumvirate” with Henry Clay and Daniel Webster–and each supported the Fugitive Slave Act.

What Yale does not want you to know is that Calhoun was not only one of America’s greatest statesmen, but also one of its greatest thinkers. His two treatises on American politics, the Disquisition and Discourse (published after his death), demonstrate his hope that America could avoid the pending conflict of the Civil War.

In Calhoun’s interpretation, America’s greatest hope lay in the interposing and amending power of the states, which was implicit in the Constitution. This alone could save the country by allowing for a greater diffusion of authority and undermining the cause of sectional conflict.  Calhoun’s purpose was the preservation of the original balance of authority and the fortification of the American political system against the obstacles it faced.

The debate is over, and the Yale taskforce may have possessed good intentions, but as Shakespeare warned, “men are men; the best sometimes forget.” John Calhoun was imperfect, but he remains one of the greatest statesmen in American history.  In the world of the Yale taskforce, neither the past nor the future deserve our attention, and we are only left with the option of muddling through the present.

About H. Lee Cheek, Jr.

Dr. Cheek's books include Political Philosophy and Cultural Renewal (Transaction/Rutgers, 2001, with Kathy B. Cheek);Calhoun and Popular Rule, published by the University of Missouri Press (2001; paper edition, 2004); Calhoun: Selected Speeches and Writings (Regnery, 2003); Order and Legitimacy (Transaction/Rutgers, 2004); an edition of Calhoun's A Disquisition on Government (St. Augustine's, 2007); a critical edition of W. H. Mallock's The Limits of Pure Democracy (Transaction/Rutgers, 2007); a monograph on Wesleyan theology (Wesley Studies Society, 2010); an edition of the classic study, A Theory of Public Opinion(Transaction/Rutgers, 2013); Patrick-Henry Onslow Debate: Liberty and Republicanism in American Political Thought (Lexington, 2013); and, The Founding of the American Republic (Bloomsbury, 2014). He has also published dozens of scholarly articles in academic publications, and is a regular commentator on American politics and religion. Dr. Cheek’s current research includes completing an intellectual biography of Francis Graham Wilson (I.S.I. Books), a study of the American Founding (Bloomsbury, 2014), and a book on Patrick Henry's constitutionalism and political theory. More from H. Lee Cheek, Jr.

You might also enjoy these articles...