History's Lessons Unlearned

Emmett Tyrrell
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Posted: Feb 16, 2017 12:01 AM
History's Lessons Unlearned
WASHINGTON -- The so-called alt-right has apparently lost another battle. It is the racially preoccupied movement that champions the cause of white nationalism and populism. This time it was Yale University that beat it back.

On Saturday, Yale President Peter Salovey and his colleagues of the Yale Corporation -- that is, the Yale board of trustees -- decided to rename the John C. Calhoun College, a residential college named for the 19th century political theorist and statesman, for Grace Murray Hopper. 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 to those who wear pussyhats 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. And they were other things. 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 University -- where he was president -- will come. Princeton named a whole school after 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 building. 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 Calhoun's, and the historical record Calhoun represented will be a fading memory. Someday, thanks to the raging mob of ignoramuses, the history of slavery, of a tragic civil war and the arguments of a brilliant but wrongheaded South Carolinian will be no more. New generations of wrongheaded theorists and proponents of romantic causes will replace Calhoun as they rise from the ether. Those who oppose them, much as the abolitionists and unionists opposed Calhoun, will not have his example to admonish. 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 its argument for fragmenting America into racially divided groups will be made easier by erasing the name of Calhoun from buildings, and with it 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, 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. He argued for sectionalism, agrarianism, minority rights and free trade -- many good things. But he was wrong on other things, namely slavery, as President Abraham Lincoln and thousands of casualties of the Civil War have attested.

Calhoun's principle of nullification is being toyed with in California right now. Californians are taking the first steps on the road to what Calhoun never lived long enough to see: civil war. We who oppose nullification today -- 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 the North and South supported it, and slavery was even practiced in the North. Benjamin Franklin, whose name adorns a new residential college at old Yale, owned slaves, as did Elihu Yale, the fellow for whom the whole university was named. Moreover, Yale was a much more severe slave owner than the relatively humane Calhoun. President Wilson never owned slaves, though he admitted 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 pussyhats and the guys dressed in black would ever dream it could be. And actually, who cares whether they ever learn history or learn anything from their courses on anger management and rape prevention. But it is unfortunate that students at Yale or 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.