Men of Their Time, Standards of Ours

It’s a common idea that figures of the past — and what this really means, without exception, is heroic or widely celebrated figures of the past — should be forgiven what look like misdeeds to us, because they were “men of their time.” The claim has several variants, some more specious than others. With respect to famous men who enslaved people, or who voiced transparently racist views, for example, it is sometimes asserted that “everyone was racist back then” or even that “everyone” worth worrying about held slaves. The second statement is such obvious nonsense that it can only be interesting as evidence that the speaker excludes the enslaved, along with any other non-slaveholding contemporaries, from “everyone” — unwittingly (one hopes!) repeating and ratifying the dehumanization we often associate with slavery. The first is more slippery, since when punctured it tends to puddle into the rather weaker claim that “everyone believed in group differences” or “everyone disliked outsiders” or even “no-one was anti-racist”. While it is important that none of these means exactly the same thing, it is even more important that none of them is a meaningful historical claim capable of evidentiary substantiation. There is plenty of evidence that not “everyone” thought the same way — arguments from the time against slavery and incipient ideas of fixed race — and there is no evidence that tells us about “everyone” anyway. In short, it’s bullshit.

A more plausible rendition of the “men of their time” idea abandons such eccentric claims about what the past was like and rests instead on the less exacting point that it was, as it were by definition, not like the present. “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”[1] (And yet, consider how that novel ends.) This is an idea that all historians share, in one form or another. Here, it concerns something nebulously described as “values”, “standards”, or “morality”. And indeed it is easily shown that, in many societies, moral ideas, social values, and standards of behaviour have all changed over time. So when the “men of their time” defence introduces the claim that “we should not judge the past by the standards (morals, values, etc.) of the present”, it is hard, on the face of it, to disagree. As a teacher of history, I strive to get students to forget — or, rather, suspend — what they know and assume from the present, because it can hamper careful reading, analysis, and interpretation of sources from the past. This methodological caution is far from a ban on judging “the past” as such. But it bears enough of a family resemblance that some — even some historians — are willing to split the difference.

Suspending my disbelief in this strange equation, however, I want to think a little about what the ban on judgment means, in the abstract and more especially in use. Let us grant that in the abstract, the injunction not to judge the past by the standards of the present rests on a simple (I think accurate) assertion that people in the past held different moral beliefs and, accordingly, held themselves to different standards than “we” do. (And here I think we don’t need to assume, though it sometimes seems to be implied, that there is a “we” in the present with a single, fixed set of moral commitments.) So far, so unobjectionable. But where does this get us, with respect to specific cases? We might infer from it, for example, that a celebrated, slaveholding racist — say, Thomas Jefferson — should not be judged for his slaveholding or his racism to the extent that these are things that seem bad to us but did not seem (perhaps, in an especially ambitious formulation, could not have seemed) bad to him. We can shed tears in the present for his sins, but to condemn him would be to take him out of context, to be ahistorical.

A passing familiarity even with Jefferson’s own life and writing exposes insurmountable problems with this argument. “I tremble for my country,” he wrote, respecting slavery, “when I reflect that God is just[.]”[2] These are not the words of a man incapable of grasping that slavery was wrong. They look like the words of a man enmeshed in a system whose moral flaws he was aware of even as he perpetuated it; a morally compromised man, on his own terms. Even without Jefferson’s ineffectual conscience, however, we do not lack evidence of anti-slavery or abolitionist sentiment in his time and earlier. Contemporaries were not only capable in principle of judging slavery wrong; in practice, they frequently did so. Jefferson’s being of his time is trivially true, but it says nothing about his internal moral consistency, much less his consistency with views held by his contemporaries who were, to a man, woman and child also people of their time. Then, of course, there are the people of their time whom Jefferson and others like him — the class from which we choose to draw “men of their time” to privilege as our sources — enslaved. One might imagine enslaved people’s moral judgments to have run along quite different lines. But one need not imagine, for they rebelled against slavery in fact. That Jefferson should not be judged “by present standards”, then, does not mean he can’t be judged. He was!

If this is so, then one obvious question is whether our reasons for condemning slavery are identical with those voiced or acted on in the eighteenth century. In point of fact, they often aren’t. Notwithstanding the Enlightenment’s outsized reputation as the wellspring of modernity, it was possible to object to slavery (just as it was possible to defend it) on secular, “rational”, or “scientific”, as well as on religious or scriptural grounds. Some arguments against slavery were grounded in ideas we might now consider every bit as racist as the defences: fear, for instance, of racial mixture and degeneration motivated schemes to liberate and then remove Black people from white colonies. It would be anachronistic to call such antislavery arguments “white nationalist”, but it would not be altogether incorrect. Certainly, they were predicated on convictions of white supremacy. Perhaps slightly less so were visions of gradual emancipation that treated the enslaved as children in need of education and civilization to be worthy of their freedom. Celebrated though their proponents — such as Condorcet — now are, the racism of their premisses is not difficult to see.[3]

Examining the relationship between the bases of our moral judgments of historical figures and the principles by which they were or might have been judged by their contemporaries is, it seems to me, a potentially illuminating exercise. At any rate, it is an investigation that the injunction not to judge the past by the standards of the present, taken in the abstract, appears to require. And yet, in practice, it is mostly absent from the public debates in which this injunction is invoked. This might seem mysterious: if we are not to judge past figures by our standards, and yet we are to think about past figures whose actions were judged in their own time, then surely we should be interested in how they were judged, by whose standards, and in the various ways that those multiple standards might compare, contrast or connect with our own. We don’t stop thinking just because it takes a bit of work to think better.

In practice, however, better thinking about complex past figures is rarely the point. If it were, wielders of the injunction not to judge would not apply their counsel so selectively. They would, for example, be as concerned with positive as with negative judgments, as wary of celebration as they are of condemnation. Are they? Hardly. Have we stopped hearing about Galileo’s “scientific” heroism — counterpoised to the dark and mindless superstition of the Church — in nineteenth-century terms? Have we stopped hearing, from judgment’s opponents, about Columbus’s “discovery”? If Jefferson can’t be condemned for his racism because he was a man of his time, then why should he be praised for his belief in “liberty” — which was, in context, decidedly more constrained than it might sound to us? Or did our heroes somehow step outside of their times — striding ahead of history — at just those points where they seem to have agreed with us? There’s a word for the kind of writing that centres on singular historical figures who violate the laws of nature and thereby earn undying praise. That word is hagiography. The practical purpose of the injunction not to judge is not to refine public engagements with history; it is to reinforce established interpretations against the corrosive effects of criticism. It is to save the saints from vandals.

In this sense it is revealing that statuary should loom so much larger in these defences of the past from the judgments of the present than actual historical research does. To believe that wanting statues removed “judges the past” and that removing them “erases” it is to believe that statues — by some mystical transubstantiation — embody the past. But of course, they don’t embody the past; the past is gone. At most, statues, memorials, street and building names, etc., commemorate some aspects of the past to the exclusion of others. To that extent, they offer inherently partial and questionable interpretations. Erasure — or silencing, to use Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s metaphor — is baked in.[4] The only question is who or what is silenced, and who or what gets to speak. As history — that is, as accounts of the past, not its mystical body — they are no more infallible and a good deal less informative than books. As with books, these accounts can be judged, and judgments will change over time, as new sources appear, new questions are asked, and new research is undertaken. If we want to say that statues teach history (I don’t, but some do) then we need to be ready to update our textbooks.

But statues are also obviously, inescapably, and durably public objects in ways that other vessels of historical interpretation are not. They are, above all, parts of the landscape. Here, I think, all pretence that judgment must be suspended breaks down, and not only because the suspension is just as selectively applied here as it is with respect to the reputations of heroes. Why should our cities, our buildings, our parks, our streets, our habits of naming and honouring figures not express our values? To exempt the memorials we live with from the judgment of the living is not to preserve history but to make it a white mausoleum.

[1] L. P. Hartley, The Go-Between.
[2] Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia (1785), Query XVIII.
[3] See Louis Sala-Molins (trans. John Conteh-Morgan), Dark Side of the Light: Slavery and the French Enlightenment (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006).
[4] Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995).

4 thoughts on “Men of Their Time, Standards of Ours

  1. Aren’t you making beef tea out of the word “everyone” when its use was an obvious hyperbolic substitute for the word “most”?

    Sent from my Samsung device


  2. I enjoyed reading this, Ted.
    Would it help the conversations if people could distinguish judgement from condemnation? To me those are different things. The first is probably unavoidable in both history and life. The second may be forgone depending on the degree of charity one is willing to extend to the dead, and who is deemed worthy of it.
    Jefferson, Luther, Cortes, all had the Golden Rule to hand.
    Anthropology also seems to be influencing how different people evaluate both the dead and the current moral evaluations of their deeds. Perhaps by nature people are more Pelagian than Augustinian.
    Thanks for the thoughtful post.


  3. I guess it was “everybody” if you only consider a subset of humanity to be actual people which was and still is often the case. I have more than once read/heard someone state that in Athens it was the beginning of democracy because “everybody” could vote. Some people count and others don’t it seems and “everybody” can therefore be used reflexively despite the majority of human beings not included. History is a story with protagonists (who can represent universal humanity itself) and a supporting cast of extras whos own subjective life experience is at best irrelevant if accepted to exist at all.


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