“Be Kind”

Posted on February 11, 2015 by

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I really need to get back to J.K. Paulding, and hope to do so soon, but in the meantime…

Lacking in my knowledge of the Crusades (apart from the romantic efforts of antebellum Virginians to recapture a little of that), I spent some time recently (thanks to a recent event that made news), looking at a couple resources in an effort to set myself straight as to what is correct and what is not. In doing so, I ran across a quote from the conclusion of Stephen Runciman’s History of the Crusades:

The historian as he gazes back across the centuries at their gallant story must find his admiration overcast by sorrow at the witness that it bears to the limitations of human nature.

It might go without saying… it was one of those adult A.D.D. “tangent moments”, inevitably leading my brain down another path.

To me, this quote is applicable to far more history than just the Crusades, and, knowing that I’m one who studies the Civil War and antebellum South, one can probably imagine why. For one, how often do we look back into the past and find ourselves criticizing the morality of those in the past? I have to ask, however, is that really fair for us to do?

Let’s take slavery in the United States, for example. While we, today, certainly find the idea of slavery repulsive, are we fair in assessing people of the past through our contemporary moral lense(s)? Are we, in fact, perched upon our own “high horse” for doing so?

Before I bring down some sort of wrath, let me explain a little more.

All too often, I’ve seen people assess people of the past, critically, and under a rather far-reaching net or blanket… to the point that any American who ever owned a slave is surely condemned to the deepest regions of hell. On the other hand, others know that there are individual circumstances that demonstrate a different character among different slaveholders… and I’m not simply talking about a comparison between a “good” and a “bad” slaveholder. Or maybe I should start at that point…

Alright… so, the “good” and “bad” slaveholder… sure. After all, I’ve seen examples whereby even people in the antebellum era (even non-slaveholders, by the way) recognized that there were “good” and “bad” (even “cruel”) slaveholders, based upon the way in which they treated their slaves. In the course of my research, I’ve even seen examples of these “in-time assessors” in the Valley. Of course, under today’s moral lens (and, under the moral lens of many who lived in that time, I might add… even in the South) even the “good” slaveholders walked a rather precarious line… and sometimes (as in the case of Thomas Jefferson) they knew it… even noting conscious, Biblical-based concerns (while others used the Old and New Testaments as justification for slavery… and that puts another spin altogether on the idea, then, as to how a slaveholder may have been seen as “good” may have been) for what they were as slaveholders (I recall something about Jefferson being concerned, as a slaveholder, about the justice of God).

I know the next question this raises… “then why did they continue to do it?” That’s an excellent question.

In some cases… yes, it was economics, whereby some slaveholders couldn’t get past the thought of the potential for greater economic gains, and, others thought how mass emancipation would spell out economic ruin. It’s best assessed on a case-by-case basis, but… yes, some (too many, perhaps) put the dollar ahead of morality.

To others, there was the threat of what emancipation might mean in the social hierarchy. Let me be frank… they were afraid of many things, from threats to employment to intermarriage… even anarchy. No matter how it is viewed today, those were their fears at that time.

In other cases, there were owners who knew the moral wrong of slavery, yet felt they were doing (and, yes, using the Bible, some helped to rid themselves of that moral dilemma) something to (and, let’s be clear… I’m using words I’ve seen from slaveholders themselves) “advance the race”. Of course, to many people at the time, anything other than what was perceived as the “norm” in the “civilized world” needed to be corrected by one method or the other (… and to that, I’ll add… do we not, today, continue to do this through other means? Bringing “modernisms” to better other civilizations? Do we not continue to label some regions as “third world”, thinking that we can make them better?).

I’ve spent a good deal of time writing about the “typical” (as both, how they saw it then, and how we see it now) “good” and “bad” slaveholder… but what about other variations? Take the example of those about whom I’ve read, in western Maryland, who purchased slaves with the intent of educating and training in a trade… before freeing them. Or, even here in the Shenandoah Valley, where there was a very active (at least for a number of years) chapter of the American Colonization Society which even sent out an Episcopal bishop to purchase slaves in Mississippi… with much less sinister plans in mind than one might think. I’ll be writing more, soon about these folks in this particular chapter of the colonization society and their actual ideology.

For those who follow this blog, or might follow from this point forward, please keep all of this in mind… and that, as written, it’s not a static frame of mind, but an expression of fluid thought from one who is in the midst of reading through a lot of 19th century literature, either from or about the Shenandoah Valley… which actually includes a fair amount about slavery in the area. I’ve been blogging long enough to know what sort of reaction this might bring in some, but keep this in mind… and keep an open mind.

Anyway, the point is… despite how so many would like to stereotype groups, it’s often the case that… “it’s more complicated than that.”

Now, I’ve digressed from that initial quote… and the title of this post. So, allow me to try to pull it all together.

Just yesterday, I posted the Runciman quote on FaceBook. As I’ve already stated, I found it an amazingly powerful assembly of words when referring to history. It seems (and logically so) Runciman wanted to exit on a strong point. Undoubtedly, he was passionate about the period in time (the Crusades), and I think he addresses that passion… indeed, his fascination with “their gallant story”. If I’m reading him correctly, it seems he looks with fascination, but then with “sorrow at the witness it bears the limitations of human nature”.

Before the end of the day, my post received a comment from a friend and cousin:

The “limitations of human nature” will always be with us. So, be kind.

I’m not positive I’m reading her comment correctly, but I think, whether I read her meaning correctly or not… I take it as a plea.

I take it as her imploring those who look at history, no matter their reason or profession, should be “kind”… even that, perhaps we should acknowledge that in our own assessments, we too have “limitations of human nature”… the “flaws” in our own “lenses” (“lenses” being understood as covered by a broad range of human flaws and baggage, by the way) in our assessments of the past, and we should be mindful of that. Coupled with an effort to be religiously MINDFUL of our need to be objective, I think that’s some pretty good advice.