Should The Historian Make Moral Judgments?

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If history “tells us” anything, it tells us that standards, values, and principles have varied greatly from age to age and from society to society; indeed, that they have varied greatly from one generation to another within the same society. Popes chosen for their learning and their virtue were certain that morality required that they put down heresies with fire and sword, cruelty and torture; sixteenth-century Europeans had no compunction about killing Indians because the Indians had no souls; learned and upright Puritans readily sent witches to their deaths.

Consider a problem which has confronted and perplexed American historians for a hundred years: slavery. Surely if anything is wrong, slavery is wrong. No social institution more deeply offends our moral sensibilities than this; no other collective experience induces in us a comparable sense of shame. Slavery, we are all agreed, corrupts alike the slave and the master; slavery corrupts the body politic, the poison still infects us.

This is the vocabulary of morality, and it is this vocabulary that we invoke, almost instinctively, whenever we discuss what was long euphemistically called the “peculiar institution.”

Yet when we come to pronounce judgment on slavery we are met, at the very threshold, with the most intransigent consideration—that generation after generation of good, humane, Christian men and women not only accepted it but considered it a blessing. What are we to say when confronted by the fact—a formidable body of evidence permits us to use that word—that our own forebears, only two or three generations back, embraced slavery, rejoiced in it, fought to defend it, and gave up their lives confident that they were dying in a good cause?

Clearly we cannot fall back on the simple explanation that all of these men and women—those who owned slaves and those who sustained the slave system—were bad. These beneficiaries of and defenders of slavery were neither better nor worse than their cousins north of the Mason and Dixon line who had managed to get rid of the “peculiar institution” one or two generations earlier; they were neither better nor worse than we are. Whatever may be said on practical grounds for the moral righteousness and self-righteousness of the abolitionists, it can be said that no comparable pressures weigh upon us as historians. It is absurd in us to pass moral judgment on slaveholders, absurd to indict a whole people or to banish a whole people to some historical purgatory where they can expiate their sins. Lincoln saw this, Lincoln who saw so much. The people of the North and the South, he said in his second inaugural address, “read the same Bible, and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not, that we be not judged.”

We can agree now, most of us, that slavery was an unmitigated evil, but we cannot therefrom conclude that those who inherited it, were caught in it and by it, who supported it and fought for it, were evil men. What we can say is that but for the grace of God, or the accident of history, we might ourselves have been caught up in slavery, and bound by it, and habituated to accepting it, just as our forebears were. What we can say is that if earlier generations—in the North and the South alike—bore the burden and the guilt of slavery, we have born the burden, and the guilt, of racial discrimination.

And here is a third argument against moral judgment in history—that the historian is not God. He is not called upon to judge the quick or the dead; indeed he is not called upon to judge. If he sets himself up as a judge he changes the whole pattern of his intellectual and professional role from one dedicated to objective inquiry to one devoted to prosecution or defense. As the distinguished historian of the Russian Revolution, E. H. Carr, observes, the attempt to erect standards of historical judgment is itself “unhistorical and contradicts the very essence of history. It provides a dogmatic answer to questions which the historian is bound by his vocation incessantly to ask: the historian who accepts answers in advance to these questions goes to work with his eyes blindfolded, and renounces his vocation.” And how interesting that Allan Nevins, who, in the first edition of his classic Gateway to History , asserted the necessity of the application of rigorous moral standards which “ought to be held absolute and applied equally to all modern ages,” and who cited Acton to his fellow historians with approval, later abandoned this position entirely, and substituted the simple assertion that “what is important is not to denounce Abdul Hamid for his crimes, but to understand what gave birth to Abdul Hamid and his policies.”