Lake Calhoun is the largest and most heavily used of four lakes in south Minneapolis. I once lived on the lake’s north shore. In the summer, it is packed with sailboats, canoes, runners, rollerbladers, bikers and beach-goers. I have lived in the Twin Cities for over 30 years, but have never known (or cared) how Lake Calhoun got its name.
It turns out that it is named for John C. Calhoun, whose greatest fame was achieved as a pro-slavery South Carolina senator. The lake was named after him long before that, however. Apparently it recognized his service as Secretary of War from 1817 to 1825, during which time he ordered the establishment of Fort Snelling, one of the earliest settlements in the territory that became Minnesota.
Now the lake’s past has caught up with it: a local resident is requesting that the Park Board change Lake Calhoun’s name to something more politically correct:
His request to the board Wednesday came under a 1999 policy that allows nominations to name or rename a park or facility so long as there’s no “political or frivolous motivation.” …
Winters, 65, has known of Calhoun’s slavery stance since grade school, he said, and can recite passages from his speeches by memory. He said Friday that he decided to push for the Lake Calhoun name change after a recent disagreement with his sister about the root cause of the Civil War.
I am no fan of John Calhoun (whose political theories, as Scott has pointed out more than once, animate some aspects of current liberal ideology), but the proposal to rename Lake Calhoun strikes me as misguided. It is of a piece, albeit on a less serious level, with efforts in the South to remove the names of traditional heroes like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson from schools, etc., on the ground that they were pro-slavery. Such airbrushing is not only pointless, it also threatens to perpetuate political disagreements of all kinds.
Conservatives, for example, could argue that public buildings and monuments that honor Franklin Roosevelt should be renamed because modern scholarship has shown his domestic policies to have been disastrous. Others would say that Andrew Jackson should be taken off the $20 bill because he was cruel to Indians and fought duels–what kind of example is that for our children? Or Grant should be deleted from the $50 bill because he drank (although that image is overblown at best), or Benjamin Franklin from the $100 bill because he fathered an illegitimate child. And how about Thomas Jefferson? How can anyone who wants to ban Calhoun permit the memory of Jefferson, a slaveholder and defender of slavery, to be honored in public places? If we start down this road, there won’t be a school left with the name of a Democrat on it.
The effort to rename Lake Calhoun is particularly silly since no one could imagine that the lake’s name signified approval of Calhoun’s views on slavery. I doubt that prior to the current news story, one percent of Twin Cities residents knew that the lake was named after the South Carolina senator. Minnesota joined the Union just in time for its citizens to fight, heroically, in the Civil War. There is zero tradition of sympathy for slavery in the state.
It is also noteworthy that the person who petitioned the Park Board also proposed a new name for the lake: Lake Humphrey. This would seem to contravene the board’s policy that permits such proposals as long as they have no “political motivation.” And talk about opening a can of worms: if we are going to rename Lake Calhoun, why not Lake Reagan? Or Lake Pawlenty? This really is not a road that the Minneapolis Park Board should choose to go down.