Sin of Contemporaneity: Cleansing History By Applying Today's Standards To Our Ancestors

It is good that the Confederate battle flag has been removed from the South Carolina statehouse grounds. It properly belongs in a museum. Robert E. Lee himself would agree. After surrendering in 1865, he sought to bring the country together. He urged his fellow Confederates to furl their flags. He left instructions that the Confederate flag not be displayed at his funeral. In fact, when Lee surrendered at Appomattox, he was going against Jefferson Davis’s order to fight on. “It’s over,” Lee declared.

What we are witnessing now, however, is a wholesale assault upon our history. The Founding Fathers have been targeted. It has been suggested that the Washington Monument and Jefferson Memorial are inappropriate, since they celebrate men who owned slaves. CNN commentator Don Lemon suggested that we “rethink” any homage to Jefferson. Even in states where slavery was outlawed at an early date, state flags are under attack, because of their depiction of Native Americans. Boston Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham said the Massachusetts flag “is no Confederate flag, but…still pretty awful.” The Memphis City Council voted to dig up the bodies of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest and his wife from their public grave. The rebel flag-clad General Lee automobile from “The Dukes of Hazard” has been removed from memorabilia shops and the show itself removed from re-runs. The Washington National Cathedral is considering breaking its own windows because they contain Confederate flag imagery which was meant to be conciliatory. Louis Farrakhan has demanded that the American flag itself be hauled down. Speaking at a Washjngton church he declared: “I don’t know what the fight is about over the Confederate flag. We’ve caught as much hell under the American flag as under the Confederate flag.”

It’s time for all of us to take a deep breath. Those who seek to erase our history sound a bit like the Taliban and ISIS, who are busy destroying historic structures all over the Middle East if they predate the rise of Islam. History is what it is, a mixed bag of mankind’s strengths and weaknesses, of extraordinary achievements and the most horrible depradations. To judge the men and women of past eras by today’s standards is to be guilty of what the respected Quaker theologian Elton Trueblood called the “sin of contemporaneity.” In the case of those who refer to slavery as our “original sin,” a look at history is instructive.

Sadly, from the beginning of recorded history until the 19th century, slavery was the way of the world. Rather than some American uniqueness in practicing slavery, the fact is that when the Constitution was written in 1787, slavery was legal every place in the world. What was unique was that in the American colonies there was a strenuous objection to slavery and that the most prominent framers of the Constitution wanted to eliminate it at the very start of the nation.

Slavery played an important part in many ancient civilizations. Indeed, most people in the ancient world regarded slavery as a natural condition of life, which could befall anyone at any time. It has existed almost universally through history among peoples of every level of material culture—it existed among nomadic pastoralists of Asia, hunting societies of North American Indians, and sea people such as the Norsemen. The legal codes of Sumer provide documentary evidence that slavery existed there as early as the 4th millennium B.C. The Sumerian symbol for slave in cuneiform writing suggests “foreign.”

The British historian of classical slavery, Moses I. Finley, writes, “The cities in which individual freedom reached its highest expression—most obviously Athens—were cities in which chattel slavery flourished.” At the time of its cultural peak, Athens may have had 115,000 slaves to 43,000 citizens. The same is true of ancient Rome. Plutarch notes that on a single day in the year 167 B.C., 150,000 slaves were sold in a single market.

Our Judeo-Christian tradition was also one which accepted the legitimacy of slavery. The Old Testament regulates the relationship between master and slave in great detail. In Leviticus (XXV; 39-55), God instructs the Children of Israel to enslave the heathen and their progeny forever. By classical standards, the treatment of slaves called for in the Bible was humane. In Exodus (XXI: 20-21) it states that if a master blinded his slave or knocked out one of his teeth, the slave was to go free. There is no departure from this approach to slavery in the New Testament. In a number of places, St. Paul urges slaves to obey their masters with full hearts and without equivocation. St. Peter urges slaves to obey even unjust orders of their masters.

Slavery was a continuous reality throughout the entire history which preceded the American Revolution. In England, 10 per cent of the persons enumerated in the Domesday Book (A.D. 1086) were slaves, and they could be put to death with impunity by their owners. During the Viking age, Norse merchant sailors sold Russian slaves in Constantinople. Venice grew to prosperity and power as a slave-trading republic, which took its human cargo from the Byzantine Empire. Portugal imported large numbers of African slaves from 1444 on. By the middle of the 16th century, Lisbon had more black residents than white.

Slavery was not a European invention, but was universal. Throughout the Middle Ages, black Africans sold slaves to other Africans and to Moslem traders who also brought slaves to Asia. Among the Aztecs, a man who could not pay his debts sold himself into slavery to his creditor. In China, poor families who could not feed all of their children often sold some as slaves. As the Founding Fathers looked through history, they saw slavery as an accepted institution.

What is historically unique is not that slavery was the accepted way of the world in 1787, but that so many of the leading men in the American colonies of that day wanted to eliminate it, and pressed vigorously to do so. Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton were ardent abolitionists. John Jay, who would become the first Chief Justice, was president of the New York Anti-Slavery Society. Rufus King and Gouverneur Morris were in the forefront of opposition to slavery.

One of the great debates at the Constitutional Convention related to the African slave trade. George Mason of Virginia made an eloquent plea for making it illegal: “The infernal traffic originated in the avarice of British merchants. the British government constantly checked the attempt of Virginia to put a stop to it…Slavery discourages arts and manufactures. The poor despise labor when performed by slaves…Every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant. They bring the judgment of heaven on a country.”

The provision finally adopted read: “The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the year one thousand eight hundred and eight…” This clause was widely viewed by opponents of slavery as an important first step toward abolition. The delay of 20 years was considered the price 10 of the states were willing to pay in order to assure that the original union would include the three states of Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina. Even in those states there was sympathy for an end to slavery, but they wanted additional time to phase out their economic dependence on it.

In his original draft of the Declaration of Independence, one of the principal charges made by Thomas Jefferson against King George III and his predecessors was that they would not allow the American colonies to outlaw the importation of slaves. When Jefferson was first elected to the Virginia legislature, at the age of 25, his first political act was to begin the elimination of slavery. Though unsuccessful, he tried to further encourage the emancipation process by writing in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.” In his draft of a constitution for Virginia he provided that all slaves would be emancipated in that state by 1800, and that any child born in Virginia after 1801 would be born free. This, however, was not adopted.

In his autobiography, Jefferson declared, “Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free.” In 1784 when an effort was unsuccessfully made to exclude slavery from the Northwest Territory, Jefferson was one of its leading supporters. Finally, with the passage of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, slavery was indeed excluded from these territories—a further step along the path to the final elimination of slavery, and a clear indication of the view of slavery which predominated among the framers of the Constitution

American history is flawed, as is any human enterprise. Yet those who now call for the removal of statues and monuments commemorating our past are measuring our history against perfection, not against other real places. What other societies in 1787—–or any date in history prior to that time, would these critics find more free and equitable than the one established by the Constitution? Where else was there religious freedom and no religious test for public office in 1787? Compared to perfection, our ancestors are found wanting. Compared to other real places in the world, they were clearly ahead of their time, advancing the frontiers of freedom.

If we judge the past by the standards of today, must we stop reading Plato and Aristotle, Sophocles and Aristophanes, Dante and Chaucer? Will we soon hear calls to demolish the Acropolis and the Coliseum, as we do to remove memorials to Jefferson and statues of Robert E. Lee? Must we abandon the Bible because it lacks modern sensibility. Where will it end? As theologian Elton Trueblood said, “contemporaneity” is indeed a sin. We would do well to avoid its embrace.