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 … Continue reading Men of Their Time, Standards of Ours

Perpetual Motion: Technology, Slavery, and History

Once we stop thinking of the past as a failed but noble attempt at the present, many of its inexplicable, repulsive, or ridiculous aspects take on a new colour. A good example is alchemical transmutation, an evident impossibility that nevertheless occupied -- and not just occupied, but motivated -- the likes of Newton or Boyle, … Continue reading Perpetual Motion: Technology, Slavery, and History

Irish Slaves, from Myth to “Debate”

At the risk of stating the obvious, it is important that historians try to get the past right -- to describe it accurately, to base their claims about it on evidence, and to represent the sources from which that evidence is drawn fairly. Historians face mounting challenges in public discourse from dishonest, misleading, or made … Continue reading Irish Slaves, from Myth to “Debate”

Hobgoblins: fear and politics in the 17th and 21st centuries

Like our own, the political culture of seventeenth-century England was shaped in no small part by its constituents' fears; it was defined, as academics might say, by its Others, its excluded, resented, suspected, oppressed. In fact, it has been argued at least since Winthrop Jordan's massive and still worthwhile study White over Black that the very same racist … Continue reading Hobgoblins: fear and politics in the 17th and 21st centuries