Recently it was suggested in the Minneapolis Startribune to change the name of Minneapolis’ Lake Calhoun.  The lake’s namesake, it is argued, makes the name inappropriate. Why?  John C. Calhoun, it is stated, was a Southern racist politician who championed slavery.  A letter to the editor (6/19)  put it succinctly that “those we honor match our deepest values”.   Two professors from the University of Alabama  wrote an op.ed. (6/8) titled by the paper: POLITICAL CORRECTNESS AND LAKE CALHOUN.   The advocates of name change, the professors argue, are “advocates of political correctness (and) want to corrupt history  for contemporary political gains .”   Political correctness, the professors hold, creates an “environment in which free and unhibited discussion and disagreement can take place.” They trace Calhoun’s career as congressman , twice vice-president, and as one of the “Great Triumvirate” senators with Henry Clay and Daniel Webster. They crafted the Compromise of 1850 that averted the Civil War for a decade. Calhoun, they conclude, “was imperfect, but he remains one of the greatest statesmen in American history”.

A reader’s Letter of the Day (6/11)  was headlined: “Alabama professors ignored Calhoun’s embrace of slavery”.  The letter argues that however one stands on the issue conversation is not restricted. Calhoun, furthermore, was “a deeply committed racist” and the professors failed to “acknowledge he was an ardent supporter of slavery”.  In the professors defense it should be noted they stated Calhoun was “imperfect”.  But they are not clear what that “imperfection” happened to be very clearly.  Also It should be noted that renaming Lake Calhoun as a quasi moral question is what historians call “presentism”.  That means judging the past in terms of the present. That immediately alters the nature of the argument and conversation.   It should also be noted that Calhoun’s fellow Northern compatriots were, in the main, racist  and anti-black. It was Yankee textile enterprise and shipment of cotton to England that made the spread of “King Cotton”  and growth and spread of slavery into the Old Southwest possible.

The past few days I have asked friends what they think about the issue. Most are totally dismissive, some don’t know  much about the lake’s namesake.  Some viewpoints found in Letters to the Editor (6/16 – 6/18) are: ” How about calling it Lake Pansy or Petunia”  to avoid the necessary renaming due to human imperfection;  how about business and the cost of street renaming;  furthermore,the name is synonymous with a particular lake and area.  Finally a reader writes: “I never knew where the name for the lake came from until it became a recent issue  . . . . . it only serves to stir up negativity . . . . .   It’ a place to delight in the moment, not dwell on the injustices of the past”.

Certainly individuals across the ideological and political spectrum might for various motivations seek name change for Lake Calhoun.  The University of Alabama professors already mentioned hold that the political correctness of Lake Calhoun name changing  is the desire “to corrupt history for contemporary political gains”.  Is the issue just a “tempest in a teapot”, or, perhaps,  a “tempest for a teaparty”?

Published by profbartling1

Retired professor Concordia University, St. Paul, Mn. Taught mainly American History. Also taught in other areas of history, philosophy, and theology,


  1. “Presentism” does not interpret the past in terms of past “reality” but in terms of present perceived “reality”. Removal of symbols and memorials to honor past event or personages does not take”memory” seriously. Certainly the past can be analysed in terms of the present but not, I think, by misinterpreting past “fact” as if that was the way it really happened.

  2. This issue reminds me of the recent controversy when the stone ten commandment structure was removed from the court house (where? I forget) under the pressure of a multi religious culture was not accepting of Christian symbols. The US was founded on Christian principals yet, the word “God” is being removed from the Pledge of Allegiance and symbols taken from public spaces. If this is acceptable, then why not be a “presentist?” Maybe as a culture we should constantly be evaluating the meaning behind names and symbols and changing. Perhaps we should start naming places with numbers; Lake 24. That’s non-judgemental!

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