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PAX, LUX ET VERITAS SINCE 1965
Post John Ashby, London Merchant; on Historical Presentism
Created by John Eipper on 04/08/17 4:58 AM

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John Ashby, London Merchant; on Historical Presentism (Timothy Ashby, -Spain, 04/08/17 4:58 am)

John E asked if I found it equally troubling and fascinating to research my direct ancestor who was an investor in the Royal African Company. While in a modern context I consider slavery and the slave trade reprehensible, I believe that it is wrong for modern historians to try to interpret motivations and judge people who lived in the more distant past through the prism of our contemporary morality. (I say "more distant past" because there are people alive today who were members of the SS.)

John Ashby considered himself a businessman (in his 1699 Will he refers to himself as "Merchant of London"). If asked, he probably would have been gravely insulted to be called a slave trader. The RAC dealt in a variety of "commodities," and sadly, black slaves would have been thought of as such. He was a shareholder in the RAC but had no management role. He exported deer skins, furs and indigo from Carolina to England, and bought slaves to work on his Quenby Plantation on the Yadhoo River near Charleston.

John raised an excellent questions out what prompted the rise of the Abolitionist Movement which I am unable to answer. Perhaps fellow WAISers can provide some insight?

JE comments:  "Presentism," the judging of the past by the standards of the present, is a double-edged sword.  Of course it is anachronistic to pronounce judgment on a bygone era, but only by judging the past can we avoid Santayana's trap of repeating it.  And without presentism, one might argue, history itself becomes a bland exercise of royal succession, wars, and sundry dates.

Regarding slavery, we've pointed out that even the Peculiar Institution's defenders knew it was unsavory--note the sordid reputation of slave traders, and the plantation mistress's dismay at her husband's dalliances with the young house servants.


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  • Thoughts on Historical "Presentism" (Tor Guimaraes, USA 04/09/17 6:30 PM)
    Timothy Ashby's post of April 8th provides much food for thought. I understand and to some extent agree with Tim that it might be wrong to "judge people [like slave holders, traders, and members of the Nazi SS] through the prism of our contemporary morality." I see an important difference between these groups.

    The Nazi SS monsters committed crimes against humanity but they followed Nazi morality, if one defines morals as the science of the local social customs. They were trained and sworn to do their nasty deeds by their beloved Nazi nation. To non-Nazis they must be condemned as criminals against humanity.


    In contrast, to the slave holders (demand) and traders (supply), Africans should have been viewed as assets, not candidates for extermination. Nevertheless, the crimes against humanity in this case were justified by world history, and business necessity. The thing that boggles my mind is how can a nation that supposedly follows and fervently preaches Christianity allow slavery in its midst for so many years?


    This obvious contradiction is very likely the primary answer to John Eipper's question about "what prompted the rise of the Abolitionist Movement." After all slavery should be unthinkable for decent nations like England and America, and anathema to any real Christian.


    Last we have the widespread phenomenon where humans, after committing horrendous crimes, tend to reject criticism based on their contemporary morality and other excuses. Thus, we still have proud Nazis who "just followed orders," proud Confederates who think slavery was OK because it is actually an ancient custom, etc. By such logic, mass murder by terrorism or by drones can be merely advancing a deliberate agenda of one sort or another, justified as being in defense of freedom, noble private interests, or plainly just the will of God. Truthfully, no matter how heinous or expensive the deed, it can always be explained by a combination of perpetrator's convenience, insanity, religious fervor, and/or continuous thirst for power or money.


    JE comments:  I'm quite sure that Tim Ashby has no problem with applying "presentist" morality to the SS.  Regarding slavery and Christians, there was many a passionate defense of the institution based precisely on Biblical scripture.  Look no further than the speeches of South Carolina fire-belly John C. Calhoun.

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