When I was a kid, I remember my maternal grandmother defending Richard Nixon for the crimes of Watergate, because, as she put it: “He didn’t do anything any worse than what every other President did.” Knowing, even at six, that this was hardly a morally compelling justification for one’s actions, even if true, I recall how it infuriated me to hear it over and over again, whenever politics were discussed in my grandparent’s home.
Little did I realize that such obfuscation was hardly unique to certain members of my family. Indeed, throughout the years, it seemed like whenever Watergate came up in conversation (as it would for a long time after 1974, and Iran/Contra after that), someone would pull out this same canard, repeating with the precision of an atomic clock, that “so-and-so didn’t do anything that every other President/Senator/Congressman, or whatever, didn’t also do.” And invariably, those who would say these things were always staunch supporters of whatever asshole was being criticized: whether it was Nixon, Reagan, or Bill Clinton.
It’s almost as if stupid arguments spread by osmosis, or some such thing. So we end up with people who have never met each other, nonetheless miraculously spewing the same apologetics, as if they had gotten some kind of memo instructing them on what to say whenever one of their personal heroes stepped in it.
So too, the oft-heard argument that one shouldn’t be too harsh on this nation’s founders, or other early USAmerican Presidents, when it comes to slaveholding, or involvement in Indian genocide, because, after all, they were “products of their time,” and shouldn’t be judged by the moral standards of the modern world.
I heard this one again recently, after an article of mine hit the Internet, in which I discussed, among other things, the depredations of Andrew Jackson: one of this nation’s premier Indian killers.
The person who wrote to attack me as a “PC liberal” who “hates America,” insisted that Jackson, and others like Thomas Jefferson shouldn’t be evaluated on the basis of today’s moral “underpinnings.” And as with every other instance in which something like this has been said to me, in this case too, the comment was made absent any awareness on the part of its author, as to the position’s utter absurdity.
The most infuriating thing about the “men of their times” defense, is that by insisting Jackson, Jefferson and the rest were in line with the standards accepted by all in their day, apologists ignore, in a blatantly racist fashion, that to the blacks being enslaved, or the Indians being killed, slavery and genocide were hardly acceptable.
In other words, the “everybody back then felt that way” argument assumes that the feelings of non-whites don’t count. Some folks always knew mass murder and land theft were wrong: namely, the victims of either. That lots of white folks didn’t, hardly acquits them in this instance. It’s not as if the human brain was incapable of recognizing the illegitimacy of killing and enslavement.
Secondly, beliefs that killing and stealing are wrong hardly emerged in the 20th or 21st centuries. Indeed, the very people who suggest we should cut the founders slack because of the standards of their day, are overwhelmingly the kind of Bible-thumping conservatives who insist morality is timeless, and who clamor for the posting of the Ten Commandments in the public square for this very reason. Yet they appear to have forgotten that among those Commandments (which were not, after all, handed down to Billy Graham in the 1950s, but rather to someone else a wee bit earlier) are prohibitions against murder and theft.
In other words, the founders don’t merely offend by today’s moral standards; they offended by the moral standards set in place at least by the time of Moses.
But there’s something else troubling about this kind of argument: the kind that seeks to paper over past crimes against humanity by insisting we can’t hold old timers to today’s standards (as if today’s standards were really all that much better when it came to justifying war, racism and oppression).
Namely, despite the apparent belief to the contrary, there were also whites in Jackson’s time, and before, who opposed the extermination of native peoples, and who supported the abolition of slavery–and not only on grounds of political pragmatism but morality as well.
In other words, even using the fundamentally racist limitation suggested by the apologists as to whose views mattered, it is simply not the case that all whites stood behind racist land grabs, killings and the ownership of other human beings. Thus, Jackson, Jefferson, and whomever else one cares to mention can hardly seek refuge in the notion of a universal white morality either.
That the apologist (and for that matter, most everyone else) knows little of this history is as tragic as it is infuriating. Because the history of white dissent from the crimes of our kinfolk is so rarely told, too many of us become invested in a view of history that is thoroughly bound up with the narratives and interpretations of elites. So not only is the history we remember a white history, it is a very specific, narrow and cramped white history at that: one that normalizes contributing to the death and destruction of racial others as something quintessentially white, perhaps even the essence of whiteness.
Ironically, this kind of historical understanding is itself racist on two levels then: first and foremost, because it erases the non-white perspective, and secondly because it implies that the white perspective is only that of racism; in other words, it suggests that to be white is to be racist, inherently, almost biologically perhaps, (and to forcelose the possibility of turning against racism).
More than that, the argument even suggests that to be white is, by definition, to be a willing contributor to genocide, and to have no choice in the matter; no human agency to go in a different direction. The argument of the apologist, for this reason, denigrates whites as well.
Is it any wonder that with such a stunted understanding of what it means (or can mean) to be a person of European descent, that so few whites think antiracism their struggle? Is it any wonder that whites who have never been exposed to antiracist white history can’t then see any alternative to going along with the system as they’ve inherited it, all the while making excuses about how “that’s just how our people have always thought?”
But of course there is another history, and however much white antiracism has been trumped quantitatively by white racism and supremacy, it is still vital to learn of this history, so as to put an end to the excuse making for those who chose to oppress others, as well as to point to a different set of role models whose vision young whites might choose to follow.
We could begin with BartolomÃ© de Las Casas, a priest who traveled with Columbus, and after witnessing the cruelty meted out against the Taino (Arawak) Indians by the “peerless” explorer (who we are still taught to venerate in this culture), turned against the genocidal activities of the Spanish crown and spoke and wrote eloquently in opposition to them.
That we know of Columbus, but that most have never heard the name of Las Casas is because of a choice we have made to highlight the one and ignore the other. That Las Casas existed gives the lie to the argument that Columbus can be excused based on the standards of his day.
We could follow up then with the group of whites in the Georgia territory, who, in 1738, petitioned the King of England to disallow the introduction of slavery there, because they considered it morally repugnant and “shocking” to the conscience. The existence of these whites gives the lie to the argument that slavers in the 18th century can be excused based on the standards of their day.
We could then discuss the ways in which colonial elites actually passed laws to punish whites for running away and joining Indian communities: a move they felt compelled to take only because this kind of emigration from whiteness happened so often that it was perceived as a threat.
In other words, it can hardly be claimed that anti-Indian sentiment was “just the way everyone felt,” if indeed many whites ran away to live among Indians, and had to then be compelled to stop on pain of imprisonment or even the death penalty in some colonies.
Likewise, the lack of anti-black racism among most of the white working class in the 1600s, and the recognition on the part of working class, landless white peasants that they had more in common with black slaves than European elites, led those elites to pass laws specifically designed to divide and conquer the class-based coalitions that were beginning to emerge.
Why would that have been necessary, if anti-black racism was already a universally accepted ideology, to which all whites adhered, and for which whites like Jefferson should be excused?
Or what of iconic USAmerican heroes like Thomas Paine, the famous pamphleteer and author of Common Sense, who (as Robert Jensen points out in his upcoming book, The Heart of Whiteness) was an ardent abolitionist, and who condemned so-called Christians for their support of the slave system?
Or Alexander Hamilton, who freed the slaves that became his after marriage, and started the New York Manumission Society. Surely Jefferson and Washington were familiar with Hamilton, to put it mildly, and his example gives the lie to the argument that they can be excused because of the standards of their day, which, after all, was his day too.
Or William Shreve Bailey, of Kentucky, who advocated for the total and immediate abolition of slavery, and who was harassed in the mid-1800s for his opposition to the Fugitive Slave Act, and for operating an abolitionist paper in the heart of a Southern slave state. That Bailey existed gives the lie to the notion that Southern slaveowners and defenders of slavery can be excused, because, after all, “that’s just how everyone felt back then.”
Or Ohio politician Charles Anderson who spoke out against what he called the “myth of Anglo-Saxon supremacy,” as well as the material manifestations of that myth, including slavery and conquest of much of Mexico in the 1840s.
Or John Fee (also a Kentuckian as with Bailey), who was a radical abolitionist preacher, dismissed from his pastor’s position by the Presbyterian Synod for refusing to minister to slaveholders, and who helped to found interracial Berea College in 1858.
Or the celebrated writer, Helen Hunt Jackson, who railed against Indian genocide and the repeated violation of treaties made with Indian nations by the U.S. Government.
Or Robert Flournoy, a Mississippi planter who quit the Confederate army, and encouraged blacks to flee to Union soldiers: an act for which he was arrested. Flournoy, whose name is known by almost no one it seems, also published a newspaper called Equal Rights, and pushed for school desegregation at Ole Miss a century before it would finally happen.
Or George Cable, born to a wealthy family, who became one of the nation’s most celebrated writers at one time, and whose classic, The Silent South, inveighed against the reestablishment of white supremacy in the wake of emancipation.
Or George Henry Evans, leader of the Workingmen’s Party, who published a newspaper defending Nat Turner’s rebellion at a time when most whites viewed Turner’s insurrection as among the most vile acts imaginable. That Evans existed gives the lie to the notion that whites can be forgiven for their racism at that time, and in that place.
Or for that matter, poets like James Russell Lowell, or intellectuals like Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, or William Lloyd Garrison, or the Grimke sisters. The list, however much longer it should be, is far longer than most probably realize. And every single one of them gives the lie to the apologists’ position: that somehow the morals of the day excuse the racist depredations of people like Andrew Jackson.
To be sure, not every one of these persons was free of racist sentiment, and not all of them opposed both slavery and Indian genocide (some, rather, chose to focus their ire on one or the other), but all of them suggest that there was not only one way of thinking about either of those subjects, even among whites, to say nothing, of course, of Indians or African Americans themselves.
To accept the idea that the nation’s founders should only be judged by the moral standards of their own time is to ignore that there has been no single set of morals accepted by all, at any point in history.
The victims of human cruelty have always known that what was being done to them was wrong, and have resisted oppression with all their might. As well, some among the class of perpetrators have seen clearly to this fundamental truth. And their lives, and perspectives give the lie to the arguments of those who would rather excuse murderers than praise and emulate true heroes.
Tim Wise is the author of White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son (Soft Skull Press, 2005) and Affirmative Action: Racial Preference in Black and White (Routledge, 2005). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and his website is www.timwise.org. Hate mail, while neither desired nor appreciated, will be graded for content, form and grammar.