Another Edvard Munch moment (palms-to-the-cheeks, eyes and mouth wide open) in the Phoenix paper’s recent article regarding a historic figure who was a slave owner.
Seems that the founder of Johns Hopkins Hospital and School of Medicine owned (according to the U.S. census) a slave sometime between 1840 and 1860, throwing into question Hopkins’ long-held, all-important reputation as an abolitionist.
My first observation is that it’s not an either/or proposition. Many of our founders and others of their generation lobbied for abolition while holding on to the slaves they had. Kind of like voting for prohibition but opting to polish off the bourbon in your cabinet before the law goes into effect.
Secondly, we’ve talked before about the absurdity of judging our ancestors by today’s standards and that is apropos to this discussion.
The next time you hesitate over whether to toss your jeans in the laundry or get one more wearing out of them, ponder for a moment the laundry habits of our forebears.
In the 1700s, many people owned only two to four outfits and it was common for those togs to never encounter soap. Ever.
A woman’s shift would be made of linen and would serve as both nightgown and slip. She might own only a couple of them and would wear it night and day, for weeks or more at a time (especially in winter) without laundering. Neither underpants nor toilet paper existed, so a woman would wear absolutely nothing under her disgusting shift. Men’s underpants didn’t exist yet, either, and before a man pulled up his breeches he tucked his shirt up around his legs somewhat like a diaper. You’ll be thrilled to hear that we’re not going further into those people’s toileting practices.
Some fellow named Edward Park said:
“… eighteenth-century troops stank. The citizens of Williamsburg (Virginia) would have smelled pretty ripe, too. It’s safe to assume that we would have found…all thirteen colonies afflicted with B.O. And since everyone stank, no one noticed it or recorded it for history.”
Our ancestors were a vile, filthy bunch if judged by today’s standards. But we don’t do that, do we? No, we give them credit for doing the best they could with the materials and history available to them. We admire any old portraits we may encounter and don’t cringe at the way they would have smelled.
Why is it so impossible to view the concept of slavery through that same prism? Yes, slaves were humans, but their history didn’t give many of our forefathers that insight. From the beginning of time there had been slaves, so why would it occur to most people of the 1700 and 1800s to question it? It was prominent in their bibles and history books as an accepted way of life.
We do ourselves no favors by cherry-picking which aspects of antiquity to put into their correct historical perspectives and which to damn because they don’t measure up to today’s standards.
Let’s do wash our jeans occasionally, though.