Facing Up to the Deplorable Past
David Lowenthal, May 2016
University students discomfited by physical reminders of slavery and imperialism agitate to remove statues and portraits of men whose views and acts they abhor, and to rename programs and buildings that now honor them. Among those whom reformers would consign to memorial oblivion are Thomas Jefferson (as a slaveholder), Woodrow Wilson (as a racist), and Cecil Rhodes (as an imperialist). Opponents demur that judging past figures by present moral standards is anachronistic and ahistorical. To preen ourselves on being better than our precursors is presentist arrogance. “Sorry, folks, for the brutality of our morally inferior ancestors,” mocked New York Times columnist Russell Baker. “If it had been us in charge, with our enlightened new-age sensitivity, instead of those immoral old-timers, it would never have happened.”1
Defense of the mutability of righteousness goes back at least to Herodotus. But moral absolutism long dominated Christian Europe. “Think not that morality is ambulatory; that vices in one age are not vices in another,” cautioned the 17th-century polymath scholar Thomas Browne.2 Two centuries later, the historian Lord Acton famously inveighed against historical relativists who argued that “our moral notions are always fluid; and you must consider the times, the class from which men sprang, the surrounding influences, the masters in their schools, the preachers in their pulpits, the movement they obscurely obeyed, and so on, until . . . not a culprit is left for execution.” To be sure, Acton allowed, “opinions alter, manners change, creeds rise and fall, but the moral law is written on the tablets of eternity.”3 He faulted H. C. Lea’s History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages (1887) for denouncing persecution but absolving the persecutors, leaving “crime without a culprit, the unavenged victim who perishes by no man’s fault, law without responsibility, the virtuous agent of vicious cause.”4
But, rejoined Lea in his 1903 American Historical Association presidential address, Acton assumed “that absolute knowledge of right and wrong which enables us to pass final judgment on the men of the past, secure that we make no mistake when we measure them by our own moral yardstick. Every foregone age has similarly flattered itself” with the same illusion. Yet “there is scarce a sin condemned in the Decalogue [Ten Commandments] which has not been or may not now be regarded rather as a virtue.”
We are unable to conceive of vicarious punishment as justifiable, yet Hammurabi . . . slays the innocent son and lets the guilty father go scatheless. To us the idea of levirate marriage [to a deceased brother’s widow] is abhorrent, but it has been regarded as legally a duty by . . . the Hebrew and the Hindu. . . . No character in medieval history stands forth with greater lustre than the good St. Louis of France, yet . . . he fostered the nascent Inquisition and enrich[ed] his treasury with the confiscations resulting from the burning of heretics. . . . Who among us would feel justified in condemning the Hebrew or St. Louis?5
A modern historian imagines a “heavenly choir . . . made up of former slaves” alongside such slaveholders as Popes Gregory the Great, Pius V, and Pius VII, countless saints, Dominican and Jesuit missionaries, and Augustinian and Carmelite nuns. Who would “retroactively disqualify from this assembly those who had owned human beings?” asks John T. Noonan Jr. in his eloquent and compassionate account of changing Catholic tenets on slavery, heresy, usury, and other sometime sins. Should we condemn Augustine and Aquinas for defending slavery and religious persecution? Adjudge Washington, Jefferson, and Madison evil because they owned slaves? Rebuke Supreme Court icons Brandeis, Holmes, and Hughes for upholding racial segregation in the schools in 1926?6 Censure all the presidents, professors, industrial leaders, jurists, and social reformers who denied gender equality, opposed female suffrage, and insisted that a woman’s proper place was “in the home”?
It is one thing to deplore past injustice, quite another to blame its perpetrators for falling afoul of today’s standards. If we arraign the deceased for failing our moral precepts, no one will escape condemnation. And censuring predecessors puts us at the like mercy of posterity. We cannot predict for what sins our successors will chastise us. “As we would have our descendants judge us, so ought we to judge our fathers,” advised the historian T. B. Macaulay. “To form a correct estimate of their merits, we ought to place ourselves in their situation, to put out of our minds, for a time, all that knowledge which they could not have, and which we could not help having.”7
Retrospective humility mandates not only remembering the authors of acts and views now condemned, but preserving the honors then or later accorded them, as cautionary reminders that many, perhaps most, previously lauded what we now loathe.
The problem is that shifting morality leaves our hearts at odds with our heads. “We are all convinced that enslaving human beings is bad,” notes Noonan. “Can anyone today contemplate the slave trader and slaveholder without a shudder of disgust? Can anyone empathize with the bigot putting a torch to the stake where the condemned heretic will be incinerated? Abstractly, we may concede that the slave owner and the persecutor thought that they acted justly. In our bones we experience repugnance and even righteous rage.”8
Rage and repugnance fuel reformist zeal. But they blind us to our own biases and obscure our understanding of the conflicted history we inherit. “There is no document of civilization,” Walter Benjamin reminds us, “which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.”9 Just as German history with Goethe but without the Nazis would be unpardonable, American history with Lincoln but without slavery would be incomprehensible. We must learn to live unflinchingly with past totality, as aware of and alert to its injuries and injustices as to its glories and virtues. We need to stomach the vile along with the valiant, the evil with the eminent, the sordid and sad as well as the splendid.
We remain accountable for the whole of our legacy. Rescinding honors was imperial Rome’s damnatio memoriae: destroying or defacing statues, coins, arches, and documents that honored discredited rulers. Renaming buildings does not rectify past wrongs; it forces us to forget them and to fancy ourselves free of them. Excising the unwanted past is a despotic ruse redolent of Orwell’s 1984.
Retrospective humility mandates not only remembering the authors of acts and views now condemned, but preserving the honors then or later accorded them, as cautionary reminders that many, perhaps most, previously lauded what we now loathe. So we do well to retain reminders of actions and agents once acclaimed but since repudiated. They are lessons in the transience of fame, the fallibility of repute, and the risks of hero worship. It is fanatical folly to erase or hide a disconcerting past, for “the good and bad of our past [are] inherently entwined,” as Annette Gordon-Reed said in urging Harvard Law School to retain the crest of the slaveholding endower’s family.10 History can be hard to digest. But it must be swallowed whole to undeceive the present and edify the future.
David Lowenthal is the author of The Past Is a Foreign Country—Revisited (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2015).
1. Russell Baker, “Sorry about That,” New York Times, July 1, 1997, A21.
2. Thomas Browne, Christian Morals [1670s], in his Works (London: Faber & Faber, 1928), 3: 83–146 at 93.
3. John Emerich Edward Dalberg, Lord Acton, “Inaugural Lecture on the Study of History” (1895), in his Lectures on Modern History (London: Macmillan, 1906), 1–30 at 25–28.
4. John Emerich Edward Dalberg, Lord Acton, “A History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages. By Henry Charles Lea” (1888), in Acton, The History of Freedom and Other Essays (London: Macmillan, 1922), 551–74 at 572.
5. Henry Charles Lea, “Ethical Values in History,” American Historical Review 9 (1904): 233–46 at 234–39, https://www.historians.org/about-aha-and-membership/aha-history-and-archives/presidential-addresses/henry-charles-lea.
6. John T. Noonan Jr., A Church That Can and Cannot Change: The Development of Catholic Moral Teaching (South Bend, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 2005), 200.
7. Thomas Babington Macaulay, “Sir James Macintosh” (1835), in his Critical and Historical Essays Contributed to the Edinburgh Review (London: Longmans, Green, 1903), 2: 49–114 at 68.
8. Noonan, A Church That Can and Cannot Change, 197.
9. Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (1936), in his Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken, 1969), 253–64 at 256.
10. Quoted in Anemona Hartocollis, “Harvard Law School to Abandon Crest Linked to Slavery,” New York Times, March 15, 2016,
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution must provide author name, article title, Perspectives on History, date of publication, and a link to this page. This license applies only to the article, not to text or images used here by permission.