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.

(10) comments


So right on! I was raised with a black nanny in 1950’s Atlanta who I loved supremely and was treated with common courtesy by my entire family. But did we drive her home and pick her up everyday at her home across town? No, she rode public transportation both ways. Did we pay her an equitable wage in that time? I was young but I’m pretty sure we did not. Disparaging our forefathers for the common practices of their time and culture is like judging someone today before you’ve walked a mile in their moccasins. And the older I get, the more I’ve come to realize that I am nobody’s judge. There is but one Judge, and He is the Lord.


Susan... What a great perspective. Thanks for sharing!


And we do ourselves no favors when we criticize those who want to make a better world, including those who support Black Lives Matter or those who condemn racism in today's world, which I think is the underlying message in your article.


Are you trying to excuse slavory and your stinky ancestors by saying they didn't know any better because that was the way it was always done? This is just so classic Northern AZ white supremist. You guys have much to learn.



That means that every torture (such as loppings, brandings, beatings, burnings and other such methods of punishment) which were normal in the 18th century are excused because it was widespread then, and is therefor not prohibited by the Constitution's banning of "cruel and unusual punishments"?


There was no discussion of 'excusing' any behavior. There was discussion of judging acts in the context of the times they were done rather than by today's standards.


Do you realize that you are judging our ancestors as having fithy, dirty,unhealthy habits that in our modern age we, you included, no longer find acceptable or wise. Times change, civil societies change. People get smarter, better educated, hence they learn to better differentiate between moral and immoral, right and wrong. They learned that that the pigmentation of a person's skin should not exclude anyone from being considered a human being. And with the aquirement of that insightful knowledge that slaves were indeed people, pops the question that bothered our founding Fathers, ancestors,educational and religious institutes, Is it morally, ethnically right to enslave other human beings if we are to have a moral, civil and just society? President Abraham Linclon thought not, but others thought that it was their right to own other human beings and would fight and lose a war against the United States to try to preserve slavery. So the proposition before us is to make a descision as to what we want our children and grandchildren to emulate, those that fought for human slavery or those that fought against human slavery. If morality, justice, civility, patriotism are the standards by which we judge ourselves, then any portraits or statues erected should be only of those that fought against the enslavement of other human beings and the preservation of our country.


ooops correction, should be "for" the preservation of our country.


This is a complex matter and there is more to it than first meets the eye. We know from human history that there is no such thing as a universal moral code. All morals are situational. We first decide how we will live and then adjust our moral precepts to justify that life. Slavery was thundered from southern pulpits as divine will. Even so, with the advent of agriculture, we transitioned from wayfaring to communities to grow annual crops and defend that cropland. We learned that collective living was better for safety and security and created the social contract which necessitated laws. For the most part we recognized that such things as murder, rape, torture, and other such violence threatened our security and safety from within.

Every person wishes to be secure in her person, papers, and property. This acts as the universal standard for minimally accepted conduct and has little to do with any such standards created by religious entities for their own purposes. By simple observation we can verify that most political jurisdictions have a palette of laws which are similar but not uniform. Other places have laws which we Americans find objectionable and vice versa. In fact, we long ago recognized the danger of religious intrusions into our lawmaking processes and instituted the separation of church and state.


Thoughtful dissertation, Ron. I don't think you're in conflict with the column in question. Nice to see you back!

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