Bearing in Mind Moral Relativity When Judging Historical Figures

Mary Broadbent, Staff Writer

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The president of the University of Virginia received heavy backlash following a school-wide email she sent out in late fall last year. The source of the rage is President Teresa Sullivan’s choice to include a quote by the school’s founder, Thomas Jefferson. Students and staff alike appealed to the school’s president to cease quoting the school’s founder in future communication documents. They reasoned that regardless of the subject Jefferson was referring to in the quote, he should not have been referenced due to his history of slave ownership. Ironic as this particular situation may be, rejecting the ideas of prominent American historical figures has become increasingly common among modern day Americans.
In recent years, the founding fathers have been subject to scrutiny in regard to unfavorable aspects of their characters. It is argued that contributions made by founders such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson should not be praised, but rather disregarded. Some have followed the example set by the University of Virginia, making similar strides to remove tributes to founding fathers, suggesting that schools not be named after founders that owned slaves and stating that it is never appropriate to recite their philosophy.
This particular mentality is the byproduct of a failure to separate oneself from the modern-day perspective that some of us were fortunate enough to grow up having.
Although all in today’s society can acknowledge the inherent evils of slavery, the same cannot be said for most patriots during the early American era. It is easy to allow ourselves to believe that if we were born into the same timeline as the patriotsm, we would maintain a modern day perspective on the issues of slavery and racism. While this is a comforting notion, it’s also a fairly inaccurate one.
In those days, even the most progressive influencers who supported the abolitionist cause still held prejudiced viewpoints and believed that African Americans were the inferior race.
By today’s standards, Abraham Lincoln would have been considered incredibly racist, but no one can dispute that his contributions were paramount to the abolitionist movement.
In judging historical figures, it is crucial to consider the moral and social standings of their particular time periods. Just as it would be considered unjust to convict someone of a crime that was not considered illegal at the time it was committed, it would be unfair to hold someone of the past to the standards of a time period that differs from their own.
In the words of David Carpenter, an American History professor at BYU, “ It doesn’t matter exactly what Jefferson was thinking when he wrote “all men are created equal,” what really matters is that he wrote it. Since it appears in our founding document, many in the country have tried to live up to it throughout our history.”
As humans, we need to accept that it is possible to condemn the actions of historical figures and still find value in the contributions they made.

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