History’s Lessons Unlearned - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
History’s Lessons Unlearned


The alt-right has apparently lost another battle. The alt-right is the racially preoccupied group that champions the cause of white nationalism. This time it was Yale University that beat them back.

There at Yale on Saturday President Peter Salovey and his colleagues at the Yale Corporation — that is, on the Yale board of trustees — decided to rename John C. Calhoun College, a residential college named for the 19th century political theorist and statesman, the Grace Murray Hopper College. The reason for this name change is that Calhoun, a champion of Southern sectionalism and minority rights (as defined by him), has become known as a “white supremacist” by those who wear “pussy hats” or dress in black or participate in the nation’s current climate of rage. These malcontents also consider Woodrow Wilson, the 28th President of the United States, a “white supremacist.” And by the way, both men were white supremacists. They were other things, too. For instance, one was a Unitarian, though there is no record of his ever practicing aerobics, and the other was a Presbyterian. Doubtless Wilson’s day of judgment at Princeton, where he was president, will come. Princeton named a whole school for him.

The Yale decision reversed a decision its leaders made last April when, braving demonstrators and gangs of historical illiterates, they decided to keep Calhoun’s name on the residential college’s building. Then-President Salovey said — rather perceptively — that renaming the building “could have the opposite effect of the one intended,” because “removing Calhoun’s name obscures the legacy of slavery rather than addressing it.” Now the name of Ms. Hopper will replace it, and the historical record Calhoun represented will be a fading memory. Some day, thanks to the raging mob of ignoramuses, the history of slavery, of a tragic civil war, and the arguments of a brilliant but wrong-headed South Carolinian will be no more. New generations of wrong-headed theorists and proponents of romantic causes will replace Calhoun, as they arise from the ether. Those who oppose them, much as the abolitionists and unionists opposed Calhoun, will not have his example to admonish against. It will be more difficult to objectify their warnings.

So on second thought maybe the alt-right was not defeated at old Yale last week. Maybe their argument for fragmenting America into racially divided groups will be made easier by erasing the name of Calhoun from buildings and, with it, erasing the lessons that can be learned from his example. Calhoun was, it should be added, a great man. He served as a representative and senator from South Carolina, the United States’ secretary of war, secretary of state, and seventh vice president. He is also generally accepted as one of the country’s greatest political theorists, though on slavery he was wrong. He argued for sectionalism, agrarianism, minority rights, and free trade. Many good things, but he was wrong on other things, as Abraham Lincoln and thousands of casualties in our Civil War have attested.

Right now Calhoun’s principle of nullification is being toyed with in California. These Californians are taking the first steps on the road to what Calhoun never lived long enough to see, civil war. Today we who oppose nullification — as we would have in the 1850s — can point to Calhoun’s legacy of nullification as a legacy with consequences.

By the way, Calhoun was not the only defender of racial division in the country during his day. Americans from both north and south supported it, and even in the north slavery was practiced. Benjamin Franklin, whose name will adorn a new residential college at old Yale, owned slaves as did Elihu Yale, the fellow for whom the whole University was named. Moreover, Elihu was a much more severe slave-owner than the relatively humane Calhoun. Woodrow Wilson never owned slaves, though he readmitted racial segregation in our government and was, by all accounts, a staunch racist. He was also a Democratic icon.

Sometimes history is more complicated than the gals in the pussy hats and the guys dressed in black would ever dream it could be. And actually, who cares if they ever learn history or anything from their courses in anger management and rape prevention? But it is unfortunate that students at Yale or, of course, at Princeton will depart these ivied halls with only a superficial grasp of Herodotus’ or Gibbon’s or Henry Adams’ discipline. They might very well someday be condemned to relive the errors of our past.

R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr.
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R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr. is the founder and editor in chief ofThe American Spectator. He is the author of The Death of Liberalism, published by Thomas Nelson Inc. His previous books include the New York Times bestseller Boy Clinton: The Political Biography; The Impeachment of William Jefferson Clinton; The Liberal Crack-Up; The Conservative Crack-Up; Public Nuisances; The Future that Doesn’t Work: Social Democracy’s Failure in Britain; Madame Hillary: The Dark Road to the White House; The Clinton Crack-Up; and After the Hangover: The Conservatives’ Road to Recovery. He makes frequent appearances on national television and is a nationally syndicated columnist, whose articles have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun, Washington Times, National Review, Harper’s, Commentary, The (London) Spectator, Le Figaro (Paris), and elsewhere. He is also a contributing editor to the New York Sun.
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