Should Historians Judge People by the Standards of Their Time?

Why Study HistoryI get this all the time: “Let’s not judge slaveholders based on present-day morality because they were products of their time.”

Indeed, slaveholders were products of their time.  The historian’s primary goal is to try to understand them in context so that we can better grasp why some people believed slavery was a good thing.  Some historians believe that their work stops at this point.  They let the activists, pundits, and critics decide how to use their historical research to advance present-day arguments or agendas.  This perfectly fine. When it comes to world-changing work, the historian plays a limited role.

Other times, however, historians are not satisfied with mere understanding.  They feel called to move beyond “what happened” or “why what happened happened” to moral judgments about whether what happened was good or bad.

I have argued that historians are primarily responsible for uncovering and explaining the past.  I am not opposed to moral criticism–and I have done plenty of it here and elsewhere–but such criticism must always come after we have grasped a particular subject in its historical context.  I actually prefer to introduce audiences–students, readers, hearers–to the moral critiques of people who lived in that time period.  For example, rather than expounding on how slavery is immoral, I prefer to call attention to slavery-era abolitionists or other opponents of slavery and let them do the work.

Erin Bartram gets it right in her recent piece at Contingent Magazine, Don’t We Have To Judge People By The Standards Of Their Time?”  Here is a taste:

…let’s consider one way the cliché is frequently used by white people in the United States: in conversations about the history of enslavement, especially ones about “Founding Fathers” who enslaved people. It is right to say they were products of their time—products of a time that affirmed in law the right of people like them to own other people. It’s why they set up innovative new systems of government that still preserved their right to own people.

To shield them from criticism or judgment because the rightness of enslavement was a “standard” view is to erase the fact that no society, even a culturally- and religiously-homogeneous one, has a “standard” view of anything. There are always disagreements and factions. Moreover, there’s no situation in which everyone who holds one view doesn’t at least have a sense of opposing views.

And this is why bolstering this argument with the idea that some people just didn’t know is so wrong. It wasn’t about knowing or not knowing, in this case. It was about believing and choosing. There were a lot of people who believed that enslavement was wrong. Enslaved people believed it was wrong. Free black people believed it was wrong. Even some white people believed it was wrong. People in all three of those groups allowed their beliefs to guide the choices they made, including small and large public and private resistance where and when they could, sometimes at great risk to their lives.

On the other hand, many white Americans were aware of abolitionist sentiments but didn’t agree with them, and instead made choices based on their own belief that chattel slavery was a necessary evil—or even a positive good. What I suspect is more distressing to white Americans, however, what provokes the use of this cliché more often, is the idea that many white people in the past believed enslavement was wrong and chose to keep their mouths shut and participate anyway, even as secondary recipients of its “benefits.” In this sense, perhaps the “standard of the time” we’re talking about is moral cowardice, though I doubt that’s what people who use the phrase are thinking.

Read the entire piece here.