Good morning and welcome Class of 2019, family members, and colleagues sharing the stage with me. To our entering students: I hope this is the most exciting day of your lives…so far. And to the parents and other family members joining us today: I hope this day is your proudest (also so far)!
Toward the end of June, I began to consider this address, and I was meditating what I might say about the joys and challenges that Yale will inevitably present to you. Without warning, I found myself shocked by events in which I had not participated and over which I had no control. (This happens more often than you might think.) In the weeks that followed, Dean Holloway and I realized that we could and should bring before you a quite particular aspect of the Yale College experience, both because we want to open a campus conversation about it, and because we saw no better time than now for you to begin using your intellectual capacity to address complex and substantive issues that concern an entire community.
Like everyone else here, I was confronted earlier this summer by a horrifying massacre in a Charleston, South Carolina, church – a house of worship founded nearly two hundred years ago by slaves praying for their freedom. On a warm summer evening, nine African Americans were gunned down by a twenty-one-year-old white man with a history of ranting in public about white supremacy – a man whom, an hour earlier, the congregants had welcomed into their bible study. That evening, the killer participated in prayer and discussion and then stood up, argued about scripture, made racist statements, removed a .45 caliber handgun from a backpack, and began shooting at the others in the room. He reloaded his gun five times, and fired dozens of shots. He also appears to have posted a vile manifesto on the internet, along with photographs of himself posing with the Confederate battle flag.
In the days that followed, the nation heard Barack Obama deliver a eulogy that could rank as one of the most powerful addresses of his presidency. Many of us wept as we listened to family members of the victims forgive the deranged killer of their loved ones. And we saw the people of South Carolina consumed with an examination of how signs and symbols of the Confederate past had abruptly and inescapably become questions about the present. Widespread public discussion resulted in the removal of a Confederate battle flag that had long flown over the state capitol. Similar discussions began regarding a battle flag incorporated into the Alabama state seal, the use of the battle flag in everything from rock concerts to street parades, and the status of various other memorials and symbols of the Old South.
But what does this have to do with Yale and with you and me? Well, as the events in South Carolina shook the nation, many members of our own community could not avoid considering a matter that ties us here in New Haven to similar questions of history, naming, symbols, and narratives.
Our residential colleges at Yale, into which you are being inducted this weekend, constitute one of our most cherished means of fostering an unusually close sense of community among undergraduates. About one in twelve of you has been assigned to Calhoun College, named when the college system was instituted in the 1930s for John C. Calhoun, a graduate of the Yale College Class of 1804, who achieved extremely high prominence in the early 19th century as a notable political theorist, a vice president to two different U.S. presidents, a secretary of war and of state, and a congressman and senator representing South Carolina.
Calhoun died a decade before the outbreak of the American Civil War, and so he did not take part directly in the politics of secession and the breakup of the original Union. However, historians have long recognized that the secessionists of the time rested much of their thinking on Calhoun’s political theory of nullification. Moreover, and what is more relevant to the concerns of the moment, Calhoun mounted the most powerful and influential defense of his day for slavery. In fact, he believed that the highest forms of civilization depend on involuntary servitude. Not only that, but he also believed that the races he thought to be inferior, black people in particular, ought to be subjected to it for the sake of their own best interests.
I am not exaggerating. In a famous speech on the floor of the United States Senate in 1837, Calhoun said, “I hold that in the present state of civilization, where two races of different origin, and distinguished by color, and other physical differences, as well as intellectual, are brought together, the relation now existing in the slaveholding States between the two, is, instead of an evil, a good – a positive good.”1
A year later, in another Senate speech, he noted, “Many in the South once believed that slavery was a moral and political evil. That folly and delusion are gone. We see it now in its true light, and regard it as the most safe and stable basis for free institutions in the world.”2
Calhoun really believed these repugnant ideas. Moreover, he never wavered in these views. Considering his life a few years before he died, he wrote, “In looking back, I see nothing to regret and little to correct.”3
So it was not surprising that within a short time of the massacre and subsequent debate in South Carolina, we found that the issues of honoring, naming, and remembering that have occasionally surfaced regarding Calhoun College returned to confront us again. The Yale Daily News launched a forum that has drawn impassioned comments on all sides. Alumni and faculty have written to me and to Dean Holloway from varying perspectives, some at length and with considerable force. And inevitably we found ourselves wondering, and not for the first time, how best to address the undeniable challenges associated with the fact that Calhoun’s name graces a residential community in Yale College, an institution where, above all, we prize both the spirit and reality of full inclusion.
So in the first moment of hearing all this, and in light of the tragedy in South Carolina this summer, you may be wondering what the challenge here might be. Why not simply hold a meeting of the relevant authorities and decide to rename Calhoun College, thereby sending a clear message that Yale definitively rejects this association with the past history of white supremacy and slavery and those who attempted to justify it, John C. Calhoun in particular?
Things are rarely so simple. You – the freshmen starting Yale today – have arrived at a college that has held a central place in American history for over three hundred years. Dean Holloway will soon illustrate for you in his remarks that Yale’s ties to the past are complicated and sometimes surprising. They are also entangled with virtually every moral and political controversy the United States has encountered in its history, since well before the former colonies became a nation. Our buildings and programs echo with the names of individuals, both greater and lesser, who played their parts in those controversies. So we must be wary about ways in which we might seek to alter markers of the past for the sake of present purposes.
We should consider the dangers, for instance, of judging past figures according to views and standards that evolved and developed after their own times. We also must consider what it means to attempt to efface or distance ourselves from our own history. Some have sought to control our thinking about the past by selectively wiping away its traces, eliminating or softening its inconvenient or unflattering or dangerous elements. Are we perhaps better off retaining before us the name and the evocative, sometimes brooding presence of Yale graduate John C. Calhoun? He may serve to remind us not only of Yale’s complicated and occasionally painful associations with the past, but to enforce in us a sense of our own moral fallibility as we ourselves face questions about the future. We will also be reminded to consider the fact that generations of Yale students have recreated Calhoun College in their own images, just as you will in your own colleges, and that these alumni associate its name not with a remote historical figure, but instead with the beloved place where they learned to live, to love, to think, and to imagine.
I do not believe that I have the answer to the question of whether we should rename Calhoun College. However, I am standing here before you raising these considerations because I do have a strong mind about two things. The first is that, catalyzed by this summer’s events in Charleston and the particulars of John C. Calhoun’s life and beliefs, the time has come for us to have a thoughtful and public discussion of what we ought to do. The second is that everyone connected to Yale will have something to contribute to the discussion, whether faculty, staff, students, or alumni; whether historian or philosopher or psychologist; and whether one initially sees the issue as central or peripheral to the way we understand ourselves as a community.
But let me be clear with you about what I am proposing and what I am not proposing. I cherish Yale’s traditions and her history, and I do not believe we should undo them motivated solely by events or emotions of the moment. I am neither championing changing the name of Calhoun College nor am I arguing for retaining the status quo. This issue is complex, and you will see that there are substantive arguments on both sides. Good people – moral and principled people – can and will disagree about it.
I am suggesting, rather, that we give careful consideration to what criteria we could and should use to change the institutional names and associations we have with some particular historical figure, while in the process avoiding renaming exercises to alleviate an entire range of historical grievances or current discomforts. That is, I am not suggesting that we should reconsider just any name or the use of any symbol that some find offensive; there would be no end to that process.
Of course, John C. Calhoun is not just any historical figure, nor is the name of Calhoun College just any name. So I am asking the Yale community, in all its parts, to engage on this matter with the kind of reflective, thorough and civil consideration that I believe it clearly deserves. Without denying free expression to any opinion or to any form of communication, I am also happy to express my view, which I hope is widely shared, that we can best conduct this conversation in ways that go beyond competing petitions or protests, anonymous blogging or social media intimidation. We should pursue, instead, the kind of rational, open discourse that characterizes an intellectual community committed to lux et veritas – to light and truth. If this kind of conversation cannot or does not happen on the campuses of the nation’s colleges and universities, then we should be concerned whether it can happen anywhere.
And freshmen of the Class of 2019, while you are very new here – both excited and anxious, purposeful and confused – and thinking most immediately about setting up your rooms, taking language exams, and finding your way around the campus – why do we engage you in this issue? It is very simple. You have come to a place that matters in the world of ideas, and for the rest of your lives, you will be using ideas to wrestle with difficult, many-sided questions. Members of the Class of 2019, here is your first hard problem. Welcome to Yale!
In a moment, one of Yale’s principal scholars of the African American experience, the author of a distinctive memoir on the era of Jim Crow,4 but also, and not incidentally, the former master of Calhoun College itself – your dean, Jonathan Holloway – will begin our institutional process of reflection.
I take as my final words today a part of what President Abraham Lincoln said at the battlefield near Gettysburg:
The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain….5
In using phrases such as “the unfinished work” and “the great task remaining before us,” Lincoln reminds us that we always have more to do. As an institution of higher education, what are our obligations with respect to how we represent ourselves to the world and to each other by virtue of whom we choose to honor and remember? What things contribute to or detract from the accurate remembering of the past, and contribute to or detract from our ability to think wisely about the future? As entering Yale students of the Class of 2019, what are your obligations to wrest from this place an education that encourages you to question tradition even while honoring it, to chart your own history even while learning from the past, to enter fully into difficult conversations even while respecting contradictory ideas and opinions?
I know in the next four years, you will make progress on figuring all this out. Let’s get started together. Let’s get started today.
1 Calhoun, J.C. (February 6, 1837). Slavery a positive good. Speech delivered from the floor of the United States Senate. See TeachingAmericanHistory.org (http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/slavery-a-positive-g…).
2 Calhoun, J.C. (January 10, 1838). Speech delivered from the floor of the United States Senate. See Cralle, R.K. (Ed.), The works of John C. Calhoun (1853).
3 Calhoun, J.C. (February 10, 1844). Letter to Duff Green. See Starke, W.P. (Ed.), Correspondence of John C. Calhoun (1900).
4 Holloway, J.S. (2013). Jim Crow Wisdom: Memory & Identity in Black America since 1940. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
5 Lincoln, A. (November 19, 1863). The Gettysburg Address (Bliss Copy).