John C Calhoun

Charles Crehen after Matthew B. Brady, John C. Calhoun, 1850. Lithograph. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Born in 1782 in Abbeville, South Carolina, John C. Calhoun is one of Yale’s most famous alumni. He is also perhaps the single greatest champion of slavery in American history. As a statesman, political theorist, and unapologetic slaveholder, Calhoun authored what’s known as the “positive good” thesis. Whereas slaveholders in previous generations tended to regard slavery as a “necessary evil,” Calhoun argued instead that slavery was a great gift to American society. Slavery, he argued, civilized the otherwise savage slave, produced enormous amounts of wealth, and provided a perpetual underclass, which afforded White slaveholders like himself the freedom to focus on finer pursuits like law or politics.

When Calhoun introduced his “positive good” argument the 1830s, his political star was on the rise. Along with Daniel Webster and Henry Clay, he would eventually become one-third of what’s often called ‘The Great Triumvirate,” a trio of statesman that dominated American politics during the era of the Second Party System. Yet his “positive good” thesis was arguably his most lasting achievement as it became the central idea in a much larger defense of slavery that plunged the country toward the Civil War.

Calhoun began at Yale in 1802 and was a member of the class of 1804. In 1933, Yale named one of eight new residential colleges in his honor. In 2017, following years of student protest and a university-led renaming commission, Yale officially renamed Calhoun College. It is now Grace Hopper College in honor of Grace Murray Hopper, a pioneering female computer engineer and U.S. Navy admiral.

—Bennett Parten, PhD candidate in History, Yale University