Monday, March 9, 2009

Judging Those of the Past...Right, or Wrong?

In an undergraduate Historical Methods course, I was introduced to an idea that I had rarely thought about before taking the class, but which has pursed me with dogged determination to this day. That idea is it fair to judge those of the past against our values today? Or, how about a deeper thought, but along the same lines...why have some people in history been forward-thinking enough to break from convention and act on what they believed was right, and then later, their actions be proven correct by future generations? Were they on to something, or was it just dumb luck?

Where this idea appears most for me is in my almost obsessive study of American slavery and how slavery has influenced American history. I must admit that this topic fascinates me. Not so long ago I used to use the old "states' rights" defense for Southerners as their motivation for secession and desire for independence. That argument always rang a little hollow for me...states rights for what? A closer look at the primary sources and contemporary accounts, rather than later historical interpretation, shows that the primary motivation for secession (beyond doubt for me) was the fear that slavery would not be allowed to expand to the western territories by a Republican president and a growing Republican congress, and thus, if not allowed to expand, slavery would eventually die out. Southerners, led by the planter-politicians, believed that if slavery died out so would the South's social, economic, political, and cultural way of life, and that was not an option.

But, back to the original question. Is it fair to judge Southerners as wrong for holding slaves? Slavery after all was legal, and although not mentioned in name, it was sanctioned by the Constitution. Slaveholders saw slavery as their means of social and economic advancement, and of course the best possible method of social control of a large black population that they saw as potentially threatening if free. Racist? Yes, of course slavery was racist, but you didn't have to be a slaveholder or even a Southerner to be a racist in the 19th century. See for example the people that participated in the New York City Draft Riots of 1863. These rioters saw blacks as they cause of the war and took out their frustrations on black men, women, and children. But is it fair to say that slaveholders were wrong in doing what their society and culture demanded?

I often tell myself that it was a different time and that people had different standards, that people had not been exposed to each other's cultures and therefore didn't have the opportunities to get to know one another...that blacks had not been allowed opportunities to prove their worthiness as citizens and equals. But then, as their usually is when one goes to thinking...there are exceptions. There was a small group of people, largely considered mad in that day, who saw slavery as morally and socially wrong, and economically backward. The abolitionists. And although some abolitionists were racist themselves, how was this small group forward-thinking enough to see slavery 160 + years ago as most all Americans would come to view slavery in the present day? I don't have the answer as to how or why. Maybe they felt a spiritual motivation, or maybe there was an economic motivation. I know many anti-slavery proponents feared the expansion of slavery because it potentially limited opportunities for whites in the western territories. So, as you see its not a cut-and-dried as one might think.

No doubt these questions will linger in my mind, and that is probably not a bad thing. I have always liked things that spur my curiosity and make me think in different directions. But still, another part of me likes the satisfaction of obtaining a firm grasp on a conundrum. I suppose those exact reasons have made me a life-long learner. Let the learning continue!

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