There is a new theory, popularized by the New York Times, that America was founded in order to preserve slavery. The first slaves were brought to the colony of Virginia in 1619, but slavery as an institution has existed for most of human history and presumably since the beginnings of civilization, before there were written records. The survivors of losing battles often became slaves of the victors. The Aztecs, along with many other native Americans, including some Iroquois, practiced slavery. There were even a number of black American slave owners, notably in New Orleans. The Bible, not frequently mentioned at Ethical, but still studied and highly regarded among many, has numerous references to slaves and how they should act, but doesn’t call for them all to be freed. Slavery was abolished in France in 1794, the UK in 1833, the US in 1865, the Spanish colony of Cuba in 1886 and Turkey circa 1920, which means it has been widely accepted for about 96% of recorded history. And it is still with us. The 2018 Global Slavery Index found 40 million slaves in the world, 70% female, with Africa having the most. One could make a good case that most of the population of North Korea and Cuba, among other places, are de facto living in slavery. But even though Joe Biden in 2012 told voters that the Republicans, if elected, would “put y’all back in chains”, I am confident there is no significant support in this country or any of our close allies for a return of slavery.
This leads to the question of whether we should judge historical figures based on current sensibilities. Carried to its logical end, such a standard would mean that anybody of note who lived until quite recently should be ignored as unworthy of attention. For a while the San Francisco school board planned to replace school names that honored anyone who owned slaves, oppressed women, or inhibited societal progress. Some of those to be replaced were George Washington, Paul Revere, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, Abraham Lincoln, Herbert Hoover, John Muir, and even Dianne Feinstein. Lincoln may have freed the slaves, but he still thought that most Negroes would not be the intellectual equals of whites, thus he was a racist by current standards. Martin Luther King, Jr. is practically a saint, but he had numerous extra-marital affairs. Should that render him unsuitable as a paragon of peaceful resistance? Those of you who have children may recall an incident when you became exasperated with them and lost your temper. I’ve heard of people who disowned their parents because of such real or imagined treatment.
I’m pretty sure that Felix Adler would have never supported gay marriage. Should we disown him because of that? More recently, Barack Obama was opposed to gay marriage until about 2010. Is that forgivable?
Suppose that in 50 or 100 years it becomes very unfashionable to eat meat. Should the works of those of who were not vegetarians be consigned to the dustbin of history? I can imagine a conversation like this will happen: “Did this come from Grandma?” “Oh, we don’t talk about her anymore. She used to cook chicken”.
There is a German proverb dating back at least 500 years, used by Martin Luther, among others. Translated it is “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water”. My hope is that we can exercise enough discrimination to honor the achievements of historical figures and appreciate the wisdom that they offered while realizing that they had failings, as all of us do.