In the July 6, 2019, edition of The Star, the Opinion Editor, Mr. Adrian O’Connor, decries the defenestration of two of the nation’s most revered founding fathers, Messrs. Washington and Jefferson, at the hands of “Progressives” for having been slaveowners. Mr. O’Connor all but excuses Washington and Jefferson’s behavior by the simple expedient of stating they were creatures of their time and place. The plantation system in the antibellum South relied upon slavery to sustain itself; both Washington and Jefferson owned plantations; both Washington and Jefferson were creatures of their time and place; hence both Washington and Jefferson can be excused for owning slaves. There is, of course a certain logic to this admittedly convoluted syllogism.
There can be no question but that slavery in the South as it existed during the lifetime of those two men was brutal and degrading. There can be no question but that anyone who observed slavery at that time, or at any prior point in time, including slaveowners, non-slaveowners, abolitionists, and everyone else, knew slavery was a great moral wrong and a great crime against humanity. Thus, is it not reasonable to assume that Washington and Jefferson realized slavery was inherently evil? Would that not mean that they were guilty of perpetuating an evil that existed only so they and other slaveholders could profit from the institution? Is their sin not greater since they were exceptionally influential?
Consequently, is it is such a far-fetched notion to expect that these men, even given the time and place in which they lived, should have realized the inherent evil of this institution; an evil that was “self-evident.” One might be forgiven for wondering why it took the cataclysm of the Civil War to end the practice? What justification could slaveowners conjure up to perpetuate this evil? Why the exploitation of unrequited labor for “profit”, of course! (Which is not to say that slaves were not exploited for other purposes.)
I am cognizant of the fact that to criticize men like Washington and Jefferson by judging them in hindsight is perilous. In doing so, we invite future generations to rain opprobrium on ourselves for conduct which we currently accept as the norm, or even innocuous, but which those future generations may see as wholly deplorable. How much more then do we open ourselves for condemnation for behavior which is patently odious, even to us in this time and place. But isn’t that entirely fair and appropriate? Man continues to evolve and civilizations continue to refine, hopefully for the better. Why should we living today not expect to be criticized by future generations for our mistakes, particularly those we are aware of and are capable of correcting.
Take for example, our stewardship of the Planet Earth. The vast majority of humankind realize that we are destroying the only home we have, making it unfit for all living things. However, we continue to degrade the Earth because large numbers of people oppose taking reasonable action to correct the trend. Why? Because corrective action will impact the margin of profit on investment. Should we not be judged harshly by future generations if we fail to act to save the planet? Surely we will. I doubt that future generations will excuse our crime against not only humanity but all living things because we were creatures of our time.