After weeks of embarrassing publicity and political mobilization, Yale University has been forced to rehire Corey Menafee, an African American employee who was fired for smashing a stained glass window at Yale’s Calhoun College that depicted slaves shouldering bales of cotton. For over a year, Calhoun College has been the subject of intense national controversy because it is named after one of America’s foremost defenders of slavery and white supremacy. Menafee’s actions, firing, and now rehiring gave expression, and amplification, to the controversy.
But now there’s a new source of controversy: one of the conditions of Menafee’s rehiring is that he keep his mouth shut about the case.
But in a move more familiar in corporate labor proceedings than in an academic setting dedicated to free discourse, the university included in the agreement to rehire Menafee a provision that he will no longer be able to speak publicly about his case, the university confirmed….Provision #8 in the agreement reads: “The parties agree that neither Mr. Menafee, the Union, nor the University, nor counsel for any of these, will make any further statements to the public.”
The provision sparked outrage from demonstrators who stood in support of Menafee over the past two weeks.
While gag orders like this are indeed routine in corporate litigation and settlements, the restriction on employee speech is even more routine in workplaces across America. Indeed, for workers in the United States, it is the rule rather than the exception.
But that’s not what makes this particular gag order so interesting.
Throughout the controversy over Calhoun College I’ve maintained that the mistaken premise of both sides of the argument is that Calhoun is a voice from the nation’s past, a defender of slavery and thus a relic of the 19th century. But Calhoun’s real significance, I’ve argued, is that he was a theoretician of white supremacy, the proponent of racism as a way for whites to feel that they are the superior class, a racism that outlasted slavery and persists to this day. “His was less the voice of a dying institution,” I wrote, “than a vision of the future that was only just being born.”
But Yale’s gag order of Menafee evokes the long shadow of John C. Calhoun in another way.
Beginning in the 1830s, abolitionists sought to present petitions to Congress seeking restrictions or outright bans on slavery. John Quincy Adams, the retired sixth president of the United States and now sitting representative in the House, was at the forefront of this movement.
In response, pro-slavery forces imposed a series of escalating “gag rules,” which eventually were formalized as a standing rule against Congress even hearing these petitions. John C. Calhoun, Andrew Jackson’s former vice president and now leader of the pro-slavery faction in the Senate, was at the forefront of this movement.
It was in response to an effort to introduce such a petition to the Senate that Calhoun first offered, in 1837 on the Senate floor, his famous formulation that far from being an evil, slavery was in fact “a good—a positive good.” Here’s what he said about the dangers of allowing anti-slavery speech to be heard in the world’s greatest deliberative body:
Encroachments must be met at the beginning…those who act on the opposite principle are prepared to become slaves. In this case, in particular, I hold concession or compromise to be fatal. If we concede an inch, concession would follow concession—compromise would follow compromise, until our ranks would be so broken that effectual resistance would be impossible….The most unquestionable right may be rendered doubtful if once admitted to be a subject of controversy, and that would be the case in the present instance….As widely as this incendiary spirit has spread, it has not yet infected this body, or the great mass of the intelligent and business portion of the North: but unless it be speedily stopped, it will spread and work upwards…
Calhoun lost that vote. But almost 15 years later, in his last major address to that body, he would return to it, like an old sore.
Had my voice been heeded…the agitation which followed would have been prevented, and the fanatical zeal that gives impulse to the agitation, and which has brought us to our present perilous condition, would have become extinguished, from the want of something to feed the flame.
As I characterized that speech in The Reactionary Mind:
In his last major address to the Senate, John C. Calhoun, former vice president and chief spokesman of the Southern cause, identified the decision by Congress in the 1830s to receive abolitionist petitions as the moment when the nation set itself on an irreversible course of confrontation over slavery. In a four-decade career that had seen such defeats to the slaveholder position as the Tariff of Abominations, the Nullification Crisis, and the Force Bill, the mere appearance of slave speech in the nation’s capitol stood out for the dying Calhoun as the sign that that the revolution had begun.
Why, after all these years, did it so agitate him? As I argued in the book:
Every once in a while, however, the subordinates of this world contest their fates. They protest their conditions, write letters and petitions, join movements, and make demands. Their goals may be minimal and discrete…but in voicing them, they raise the specter of a more fundamental change of power. They cease to be servants or supplicants and become agents, speaking and acting on their own behalf. More than the reforms themselves, it is this assertion of agency by the subject class—the appearance of an insistent and independent voice of demand—that vexes their superiors.
Fast-forward to 2016.
After months of watching his social betters at Yale and throughout the nation politely debate the virtues of naming a residential college after a man who not only defended slavery but sought to impose a gag rule on any negative mention of it on the Senate floor, a black dishwasher at Yale decides to take matters into his own hands and smash a stained-glass icon of slavery. After weeks of bad publicity and even worse optics, Yale—an institution that fashions itself, like the Senate over which John C. Calhoun presided, to be a universal bastion of open exchange and deliberative reason—rehires this man. On the condition that he never speak publicly of this wrong again.
There’s a reason Yale decided to keep that name “Calhoun.”
Corey Robin, a graduate of Yale University, is a professor of political science at Brooklyn College and the CUNY.Graduate Center.