I try not to get into current political stuff here because that is not the purpose of this blog. But there is one thing I’ve heard over and over this past week that had me yelling at the television and my phone.
I was bothered by comments that George Washington (1732-1799) and Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) were slaveholders, BUT they were just “men of their times”. Like they didn’t have any choice. Like everyone else was doing it, so they had to do it. Yeah, did that argument ever work with your parents? Because it didn’t work with mine.
And the thing is, not everyone was doing it.
This is, of course, not a complete history of slavery in the United States. I just wanted to share a couple of thoughts as a reminder to myself and others that historical and current issues are not as simple and one-dimensional as we like to portray them.
During the time of these “men of their times”, there were a variety of abolitionist, anti-slavery and emancipation organizations. Some were black, some were white and some were mixed. They had varying ideas about how quickly the enslaved people should be freed and what should happen to them once they were free. But there was a definite movement in the United States and internationally to abolish slavery.
During the time of these “men of their times”, the reasons given for being ant-slavery were often religious, but often just basic human morality not tied to religion. It was the belief that humans were humans, not property. One of the ideas of our Revolution was that all men are created equal. (No feminist rant. Must stay focused.)
Although the Civil War happened after Washington and Jefferson were both gone, at the peak of the slaveholding years in the southern states, approximately 32% of white families owned slaves. Most of those families did not own huge plantations, but smaller farms with 2-4 slaves. Again, not everyone was doing it, although many who couldn’t afford to be slaveholders did aspire to it as a symbol of wealth and prosperity.
And during the time of these “men of their times”, there’s my favorite story of a man who was a contemporary of Washington and Jefferson. An actual man of their time. His name was Robert Carter and he at one time owned more slaves than Washington and Jefferson combined. And then he freed them. I wrote a blog post about him last year and would love for you to check it out.
Historical figures are people, so are as flawed as the rest of us. We are also marvelously complex, and this type of simplistic argument is a disservice to all. Rant over.