John C. Calhoun at Yale

Part of the problem with Yale’s position in the Calhoun College controversy is the assumption that John C. Calhoun’s sins are exhausted by the institution of slavery, that his crimes belong to the first half of the 19th century.

Yale President Peter Salovey’s recent email message about this controversy, in which he affirms Yale’s decision to keep the name “Calhoun College,” constantly invokes the terms “slavery”, “history,” “reminder,” and “past.”

Calhoun’s real contribution to the canon of American evil, however, is not as a defender of slavery but as a theorist of white supremacy. His was less the voice of a dying institution than a vision of the future that was only just being born.

Nearly a century before DuBois coined the notion of the “psychological wage,” Calhoun envisioned racism as a way of cleaving the American polity in two, of eliding the divisions of class by emphasizing the divisions of race, of folding class into race:

With us the two great divisions of society are not the rich and poor, but white and black; and all the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class, and are respected and treated as equals.

To hear in this statement a voice of the past is to miss all the ways in which Calhoun was part of a theoretical avant-garde, whose labors would come to fruition only after slavery was abolished and would persist into our own time as well.


  1. bacchus422012 April 30, 2016 at 9:58 am | #

    Thank you. This ought to be on the front page of the New York times.

  2. Nolan April 30, 2016 at 11:45 am | #

    There’s also the fact that his constitutional theorizing (sometimes picked out by scholars as extricable from his dedication to slavery) is tied to his ideas of white supremacy and race-building. See for example his definition of liberty as granted by merit not to individuals nor “the people” but “a people” in his Disquisition on Government:

    “Liberty, indeed, though among the greatest of blessings, is not so great as that of
    protection; inasmuch, as the end of the former is the progress and improvement of the race—
    while that of the latter is its preservation and perpetuation. And hence, when the two come into conflict, liberty must, and ever ought, to yield to protection; as the existence of the race is of
    greater moment than its improvement. It follows, from what has been stated, that it is a great and dangerous error to suppose that all people are equally entitled to liberty. It is a reward to be earned, not a blessing to be
    gratuitously lavished on all alike—a reward reserved for the intelligent, the patriotic, the virtuous
    and deserving—and not a boon to be bestowed on a people too ignorant, degraded and vicious, to
    be capable either of appreciating or of enjoying it. Nor is it any disparagement to liberty, that
    such is, and ought to be the case. On the contrary, its greatest praise—its proudest distinction is,
    that an all-wise Providence has reserved it, as the noblest and highest reward for the development
    of our faculties, moral and intellectual. A reward more appropriate than liberty could not be
    conferred on the deserving—nor a punishment inflicted on the undeserving more just, than to be
    subject to lawless and despotic rule. This dispensation seems to be the result of some fixed law—
    and every effort to disturb or defeat it, by attempting to elevate a people in the scale of liberty,
    above the point to which they are entitled to rise, must ever prove abortive, and end in
    disappointment. The progress of a people rising from a lower to a higher point in the scale of
    liberty, is necessarily slow—and by attempting to precipitate, we either retard, or permanently
    defeat it.”

Leave a Reply