8 HST Blog - Casting of Stones

Casting of Stones    -   October 31, 2020

Judging Historical Figures By Today’s Standards – Hubris To the Max

The Preface to each History Speaks Today book cautions the reader to “Resist the urge to make moral judgments … Applying moral values will tend to cloud lessons to be learned.”  We should adopt a similar discipline when judging the behavior of historical figures.

The introduction of present-day perspectives into interpretations of the past is called presentism.  It seems to be common practice when talking or writing about the past.  But careful historians seek to avoid presentism because it creates a distorted understanding of history and historical figures.

Many of America’s founders, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, owned slaves, a common practice worldwide for thousands of years.  Many did not.  But all agreed to found a new nation based on “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”  To get consensus on that goal, they had to work out compromises on many issues, chief among them, slavery.

The Constitution they gave us only a few years later was also born of compromise on many issues, including slavery, and other leaders who owned slaves made great contributions to a developing America.  After the Civil War former slave owners were among those helping to build a nation, and for another century others, many of whom today are assigned the stigma of white supremacist, also gave us great advances in arts and sciences and industry and government.

We live in an America with freedoms, economy and security never experienced in most of the countries of the world.  And all the benefits of living in America flow from what leaders of the past contributed, personal imperfections notwithstanding.

America is a work in progress.  All who have contributed to that work deserve to be honored for what they have contributed.  Disparaging them and erasing the history of their contributions may seem to be an expression of atonement or justice or national penance, or holier-than-them superiority.  But it exhibits lack of appreciation of the circumstances of their times and how difficult it was to achieve (contribute) as much as they did.  It’s an arrogant assumption that, in their place, we would have accomplished everything they accomplished, with no moral compromises.  Hubris to the max!

It is dangerous to ‘cancel’ America’s historical figures, to remember their sins and discount their contributions.  If we go down that road we may feel better for a brief time, but we’ll extinguish the values that have guided us to ever nobler living.  And we’ll be the worse for it.

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