Along with the push to rename Calhoun Street in Charleston, there is also a movement at Yale University to rename Calhoun College.
John C. Calhoun was a graduate of Yale University and Litchfield (Connecticut) Law School. As a native of Connecticut who has lived in South Carolina and worked on Calhoun’s old plantation (Clemson University) for almost 50 years, I celebrate the connection between two beloved states, and I find both proposals highly inappropriate. I am proud of my adopted state for addressing the flag issue with dignity and sensitivity, but as many people have said, it’s time to move on. Moving on means coming to terms with the fact that some of our state’s leading lights in earlier times do not meet the expectations of the 21st century.
I have been involved in the effort to persuade Clemson University’s trustees to rename Tillman Hall on the Clemson campus. Tillman was the violent, racist rabble-rousing post-Reconstruction governor and senator as well as a founder of Clemson University. It is generally believed that he was involved in lynching African-Americans and shooting an unarmed black senator. In the course of that renaming controversy, the question was raised, where do we stop? Do we rename the University? Thomas Clemson, Calhoun’s son-in-law, owned slaves. Or Calhoun Honors College? The Strom Thurmond Institute? I believe that the debate about Tillman can shed some light on how we address our less than perfect heroes in a way that promotes healing rather than opening old (and not so old) wounds.
Those of us who have supported changing the name of Tillman Hall back to Old Main, its name until the 1940s, have tried to make a distinction between the Pitchfork Ben Tillmans and those, like John C. Calhoun, who made significant positive contributions to the state and nation but who were also products of their culture and context. Perhaps they are entitled to some degree of forgiveness for their failings. We could include Washington and Jefferson as well as Calhoun on that list.
Yes, Calhoun made derogatory remarks about Africans, but he was not unique in doing so. Beliefs about the inferiority of people of African ancestry was widespread, and used to justify slavery. Calhoun’s support for states’ rights was focused on two issues, slavery and the tariff. He was on the wrong side of the slavery issue but the right side of the tariff issue. Both issues were important to him for the future of South Carolina, whose development was handicapped by tariffs and whose wealth was invested almost entirely in human slaves rather than factories and machinery. Events proved his worries to be valid.
Calhoun was a remarkable character. He served as senator, as vice president under two different presidents, and as secretary of state, in which office he played a major role in the settlement of the Mexican War. His favorite child, confidante and correspondent was his daughter Anna Maria, in an era when women had no legal rights and most received little education. He made a number of significant contributions to political theory, many of them related to the protection of minorities — not racial ones but minority views and minority states — against the tyranny of the majority. His career and his contributions are worthy of honoring, while acknowledging his imperfections.
My ancestors lived in New England, and during that era the prime industry was textiles. Many Northerners who owned no slaves relied on cheap Southern slave-grown cotton to fuel their textile factories, and were not about to fight for emancipation. There are no clean hands.
If our ongoing work of reconciliation between North and South, black and white, is to succeed, we need to rise to the challenge of engaging our shared history and the people who carried it. Keeping the name Calhoun Street in Charleston and Calhoun College at Yale University would create an opportunity to educate future generations about acknowledging the imperfections of our forebears and a reminder to do better. Instead of shrinking the pool of our ancestors whom we honor, perhaps we should expand it. Where are the streets named for Sarah and Angelina Grimke, Charleston natives, abolitionists and feminists who paved the way for full participation in society for both women and former slaves?
Where outside of Beaufort do we honor the daring and courageous slave Robert Smalls who stole a Confederate ship and delivered it to the Union? They, too, are an important part of our history. Let’s have more heroes rather than fewer, heroes that represent women and minorities, role models for all of our children as they grow up in one state under one flag.
Holley Hewitt Ulbrich is alumni distinguished professor emerita of economics at Clemson University.