Historical Revisionism and Racial Assuagement: In Defense of Yale’s Response to Inveterate Racism

In a recent article, FPR columnist Paul Ingrassia shrewdly addressed Yale University’s decision to rename a residential college bearing the namesake of former Vice President John C. Calhoun. Ingrassia made a clear and concise argument positing that historical revisionism is dangerous. I sincerely agree with Paul: history’s importance is second to none and politicizing it is damaging to future generations. As the late, Democratic Party intellect Arthur Schlesinger argued in The Disuniting of America, history should not be subject to “current political fads.”

Yet, Yale’s recent decision is not the product of a political fad, nor is it historical revision; it is an attempt to ease the torment experienced by students as a consequence of our imperfect past. Moreover, the removal of Calhoun’s name from the residence hall will certainly not effect our textbooks or historical understanding of our past. Ingrassia seemingly admits this but, instead, worries about the broader implications, or the downstream consequences of Yale’s action. With the lack of sobering reminders of our country’s sins, Ingrassia argues, “Who is to say future generations won’t be more readily susceptible to lapses in moral judgment given modern predispositions to expunge even the slightest of disquieting truths from the public consciousness?” While his concern is thoughtfully articulated, forcing the reader to profoundly contemplate the effects of our simplest actions, I believe this archaic argument plummets down a slippery slope that continues sliding without ever grounding itself in reality. Simply put, the elimination of a name from a wall or a stature in a university’s student commons will never be powerful enough to morally blind us to the moral-lapses of our past.

One of the most notable historical, cultural controversies of our time has surrounded Thomas Jefferson. As the fountainhead of our liberty, Jefferson has received a plethora of criticism since the sixties for espousing our inalienable rights, while owning slaves. For the past 60 years, cultural critics have sought to undermine the mainstream Jeffersonian legacy that considers the founding father divine-like. In 1968, a critic argued that Jefferson was the illustration of racism embedded in the American psyche; in 1970, another declared a freeze upon celebrating Jefferson’s legacy; in 1992 a conference convened to provide a forum to critique America’s understanding of Jefferson’s life, by which at the end, The Washington Post claimed that “Jefferson’s defenders are on the defensive. What tough times these are for icons.” Yet, despite these attempts to morally revise the Jeffersonian narrative, Jefferson continues to, rightfully, stand at the forefront of American history. Even against the gravity of condemnation solicited by Thomas Jefferson, nether his virtues nor his vices have been forgotten.

The truth of the matter is that attempts at historical revisionism are not new to our cultural environment. Historical characters have been slayed at the point of the pen, yet the lessons we learn from these men live on. Whether John C.Calhoun’s name is emblazoned upon Yale’s residence hall does not matter, for I am certain the horrors of slavery will forever stain our country’s conscience. Histories so grave can never be forgotten.

Paul Ingrassia opines that the key point to remember is “that there will always be ugly truths in our past.” I agree but will take him one further: as a society attuned to our history, we should never fear the gift of relief for those who have suffered from the ugly truths of our past.

Yale University removed the name of John C. Calhoun from a residence hall because of the pain caused to students who returned from class each night to the reminder of their families’ subjugation. Namesakes celebrate, history condemns. This slight alteration and others that have occurred at places of higher education do not threaten the history or morality of our future, but instead give solace to a few who suffer everyday the consequences of our country’s imperfect past.