A colleague volunteered some advice the other day about how I might leap into controversies over changing the honorary names of lakes and buildings and generally disinfecting the present from history’s toxic legacies.

I’m not sure it’s wise to join this historical — not to say hysterical — melee. But my colleague’s suggestion is leading me astray.

All I need do to explain the whole issue, my tempter said, is to quote from John C. Calhoun’s infamous 1837 argument that slavery was not merely a “necessary evil,” too difficult to remove, but a “positive good” for both races.

Oddly, after rereading Calhoun’s incendiary thoughts, I’m inspired to attempt a similarly improbable “positive” argument (beyond attachment to what’s familiar) for keeping the name of the fire-breathing antebellum vice president, senator and cabinet member on one of Minnesota’s best-loved bodies of water.

The banishment of Calhoun’s name (and its replacement with the former Dakota name, Bde Maka Ska) is of course just one of several local culture-revolution crusades to have met resistance lately. Elsewhere, the University of Minnesota Board of Regents rejected proposals to expunge from campus buildings the names of former administrators now denounced as segregationists and anti-Semites. And at the State Capitol, Republican senators have pushed budget cuts for the Minnesota Historical Society in response to the agency’s “new vision” for the Fort Snelling historic site, placing an added focus on the injustices of the state’s early history.

As for Calhoun, the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled last month that under state law, the Department of Natural Resources needs legislative approval to rename a lake bearing a long-standing name.

Taken together, these setbacks for the fashionable iconoclasm of our era may begin to answer the rhetorical question often posed by opponents of this movement to rewrite American history as, in large part, one long bill of moral indictment:

Where, critics ask, will this zeal end for sitting in judgment on flawed forebears — who, being dead, are at a disadvantage in defending themselves? Would Washington, even Lincoln, measure up to our standards?

Maybe, as suggested by the regents’ vote, modern progressivism’s moral superiority complex will undergo analysis as we find ourselves condemning people of the past mainly for sharing moral blind spots that were (however regrettably) commonplace in their time — and from which one departed in those days only at risk to one’s status and respectability.

After all the millennia of human history that have produced imperfect generation after imperfect generation in all cultures, it does seem unlikely that we have abruptly produced a generation of pure moral infallibility.

Maybe future generations will judge today’s Americans for failing to oppose signature vices of our time. Like vanity and self-righteousness, or something.

John C. Calhoun shared those very faults. He also shared boldness and zeal with those whose passionate push to end his name’s long tenure in southwest Minneapolis won over many local officials even though they knew, or were advised, that the move might prove legally vulnerable if challenged.

It may not be an accident that resistance finally came in a legalistic ruling from the Court of Appeals, a low-profile body less exposed than others to the hot winds of politics. The administration of Gov. Tim Walz feels compelled to appeal to the Minnesota Supreme Court, as the DNR commissioner explained on these pages last week. And members of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board have promised to defy the court order.

Calhoun would have understood. One of his troublemaking obsessions was his “nullification” theory, under which states could simply ignore federal laws they disliked.

This points to the positive argument for preserving “Lake Calhoun” — that it’s interesting to have a Minneapolis lake carry that name. This is partly because Calhoun was an interesting and important (if disagreeable) historical figure. And it’s partly because his name on a Twin Cities lake illustrates something about the history of our region — that it was a remote military frontier for many decades before real settlement arrived (thus military personnel, disproportionately from the South, named some things).

Indian history is also rich, of course, but Minnesota is well-endowed with names evoking that heritage.

But what of Calhoun’s singular moral vileness in calling slavery a “positive good”? Well, he was horribly wrong. But was it more despicable to be morally misguided about slavery than it was to admit eloquently that slavery was wrong and still own slaves (as Washington, Jefferson, Madison and scores of other American paragons did)?

Take my colleague’s advice and examine what Calhoun said. The world’s economic system, he confessed, was rigged, rather as today’s woke progressives believe it still is:

“… [T]here never has existed a wealthy and civilized society in which one portion of the community did not, in point of fact, live on the labor of the other. … It would not be difficult to trace the various devices by which the wealth … has been so unequally divided … ,  from the brute force and gross superstition of ancient times, to the subtle and artful fiscal contrivances of modern.”

But Calhoun accepted this reality — and went on:

“I might well challenge a comparison between [those contrivances] and the more directmode by which the labor of the African race is, among us, commanded by the European. Compare [our slaves’] condition with the tenants of the poor houses in the more civilized portions of Europe — look at the sick and the old and infirm slave, ... and compare with the … wretched condition of the pauper in the poorhouse.”

Calhoun’s romanticized portrait of slaves’ well-being was delusional. But his claim about the equal wretchedness of the unenslaved poor of his era was not so ridiculous.

Abraham Lincoln said that “if slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.” Yet understanding this, Lincoln was prepared to tolerate slavery in states where it existed if only he could stop its spread and “place it in the course of ultimate extinction.” As late as December 1862, almost two years into the Civil War, Lincoln proposed in a message to Congress a constitutional amendment that would have given the slave states until 1900 to abolish slavery and would have generously compensated slave owners, in hopes of ending the conflict.

Was Lincoln’s willingness to compromise with the evil of slavery morally superior to Calhoun’s failure to see its evil nature? No doubt, but the questions history raises are more complicated than our era often supposes.

And there’s another reminder in that December 1862 message of Lincoln’s. In it he reported:

“In the month of August last the Sioux [Dakota] Indians in Minnesota attacked the settlements in their vicinity with extreme ferocity, killing indiscriminately men, women, and children … . It is estimated that not less than 800 persons were killed … .”

By the end of that year, the Army, under Lincoln’s order, would hang 38 Dakota men accused of crimes against Minnesotans (modern estimates of settler deaths are between 400 and 600) and confine some 1,500 Dakota dependents at Fort Snelling in a “concentration camp” that is a focus of the “new vision” at the fort.

As debated in a number of commentaries on these pages, critics of the Historical Society’s new interpretation complain that while it tells the Dakota story sympathetically, it glosses over the settlers’ tragedy and the provocation it represented.

 

D.J. Tice is at Doug.Tice@startribune.com.