Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Standards of the Day

As a history teacher, I try to remind my students that one of the dangers of studying the past is assuming an undeserved superiority over our predecessors.  In my experience, the Vietnam war is particularly ripe for this treatment: “how could they be so wrong?”

But that reflexive response is due to the simple fact that we know something that policymakers did not know: how the story ends.  Whenever we view the past through that lens, it is easy—too easy—for people in the past to seem unimaginably dumb.  We need to put ourselves in their shoes, and see things as they saw them, if we truly seek to understand history.

So I am sympathetic to the idea that we need to approach the past with a certain humility.  That, however, is not what Randy Burbage, vice president of the Confederate Heritage Trust, was doing yesterday when he defended the gala held in Charleston on the 150th anniversary of South Carolina’s secession:

It’s hard for us to judge the situation that existed then by today’s standards.  I think slavery is an abomination.  But it’s part of history, legal at the time.  I don’t agree with it, but it was.

Indeed, it was.  But as Burbage and the rest of the Confederacy’s defenders refuse to admit, the secession movement was dedicated to insuring that it always would be.

But by referring to “today’s standards,” Burbage cleverly uses the truth I note above.  Today’s standards are not yesterday’s standards.  But what were the standards of 1860?

The unstated implication of Burbage’s statement is that slavery was not considered an “abomination” back then.  And that is simply not true.

People did not discover slavery’s evil in the 20th century.  Patrick Henry in 1773 called it a “lamentable evil” and looked forward to abolition.  Thomas Jefferson called it a “necessary evil.”  Yes, he said “necessary,” but he did not pretend it was anything but evil.  Thus when John C. Calhoun in the 1830s called it a “positive good,” it represented a regression, a forceful denial of what slavery’s earlier defenders readily admitted.

Even before the Declaration of Independence, in 1775, American Quakers formed an antislavery society in the colonies.  In 1783, they petitioned Congress to end the slave trade, which they said was “in opposition to the solemn declaration often repeated in favor of universal liberty.” 

Pennsylvania, in part due to Quaker influence, passed a gradual abolition law in 1780, and six other northern states followed in the next 24 years.

In 1794, the French Republic voted to abolish slavery in its colonies.  In 1833, the British abolished the slavery, and devoted significant naval resources to policing against the international slave trade (thus gaining great enmity among American southerners).

By 1860, most European states—and most other central and South American states—had abolished slavery.

In short, by the standards of western civilization, slavery was already considered an "abomination" in 1860.  Yes, it was legal in the American South.  But it had been outlawed in the rest of the United States, and throughout most of the western world.  The American South was the outlier then.  And the kind of historical denialism represented by the Confederate Heritage Trust and the Sons of Confederate Veterans  is among the reasons that it still remains something of an outlier today.


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