What the Iconoclasts Forget

Years ago, a friend who doesn’t eat meat told me that he thinks that in a few generations people will remember their carnivorous forbears – like me – with the same sense of shame now felt by the descendants of American slave owners. His comment didn’t convince me to change my eating habits but it did set me thinking about how societal norms sometimes undergo radical changes.

Until late in the eighteenth century, slavery was more or less universally accepted as the way of the world. Every empire-building conqueror and even the thought-leaders among the great ancient civilizations took the buying and selling of human beings for granted. The Bible, the Koran and other foundational religious texts refer matter of factly to slavery (while generally forbidding the enslavement of, or setting rules for preferential treatment of, their co-religionists). It had ever been thus.

If you go back far enough, I would bet that pretty much everybody on Earth is descended from slave owners, just as we are all almost certainly descended from slaves – slavery and interbreeding were both too widespread for it to be otherwise.

Do many of those now demanding that statues of slave-owning Founders or slavery-defending Confederate generals be torn down even know the name Wilberforce? Do they have any sense of the intellectual ferment of the Enlightenment that first led the American revolutionaries – the very Founders they now abhor – to empower all white adult males, on the basis of principles which, over time, led to more and more people of all descriptions becoming similarly empowered? These same principles of liberty and individual rights, for which the Founders risked their lives, eventually, ineluctably led their society to the conclusion that slavery, like other tyrannies, was always and everywhere wrong. Martin Luther King, Jr brilliantly described the Declaration as a promissory note – not a description of the state of affairs at the time, but a portent of things to come.

Today’s protesters act as if the early American slave holders and the Confederates who followed in their footsteps were uniquely guilty of one of history’s greatest sins. What they really were, were the last generations in the West that hadn’t yet incorporated the full implications of the Enlightenment’s new perspective on human rights into their understandings of the world. Meanwhile, in much of the rest of the world, slavery would die away more slowly, often as a result of military interventions by, or the cultural and economic dominance of, the very same Western nations that had recently committed to the ideal of universal human rights.

In 1860, the US population was about 31 million – less than 10 percent of today’s total. Counting casualties from both sides, the Civil War accounted for more US combat deaths than all other US wars combined. In other words, the Civil War’s toll was simply unfathomable by today’s standards – and it was a war fought over the relatively new (at that time) principle that all human bondage was immoral and insufferable.

The Confederates had the understanding that slavery was no longer acceptable beaten into them at the breathtaking cost of losing 18 percent of all white Southern males between the ages of 13 and 43 (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Civil_War). Imagine the need to grieve – and to honor those who died defending their culture as they had understood it – in a society that has born such losses.

Were the South’s leaders bad men? No more so than their slave-owning forbears, except perhaps insofar as they were from that part of Western society which – for reasons of economics – was slower on the uptake about changing mores than were those of their contemporaries who lived in the areas where slavery hadn’t been an integral part of daily life.

Those who now wish to dishonor Lee and Jackson – and Washington and Jefferson – want to hold them to a standard that did not yet fully exist at the times in which they lived; that standard, as first and most powerfully articulated in the Declaration of Independence, was just aborning at the time of the Founders; it was coming into being in no small part because of their courageous – if imperfect by today’s standards – behavior, and would come more fully into its own, paid for with rivers of blood, in the Civil War.

If my friend’s prognostication about carnivores like me – and, odds are, you – some day comes true, I hope that those who come after us will remember our achievements and the better aspects of our characters, while forgiving us for not yet having come to see the world exactly as they do. Otherwise, I’m afraid, they will have little understanding of those who came before and, however imperfectly, made their world.


M.H. Johnston

4 comments to What the Iconoclasts Forget

  • Anonymous  says:

    According to Statista and its Global Slavery Index there are 45,000,000 slaves in the world – the largest number in India and none of the top 50 countries where slavery is to be found is the US. Parenthetically, I had a young man from Argentina with me last night. His family is in the meat business and ‘processes’ 1200 cows per day. He told me the rib eye beats the Filet Mignon. Gave me some cooking tips and I am off to the store slobbering (salivating) like a cave man. Can’t wait.

  • B Burnaman  says:

    Well said, as ever. To be a woman in Saudi Arabia would be to experience another earlier episode of our nation’s history that may become as topical.

  • Dennis Paine  says:

    Thumbs up to both of you, above.

  • Vivian Wadlin  says:

    I have tried the essence of the argument above with my liberal friends. They seem to see the light for a moment, but as soon as they are back with their peer group it is as if they never heard the idea. It is too comfortable to simply go along with the conventional wisdom of the flock. I believe this is most likely because they have no foundational education of the long way we (the human race) have come in evolving the framework of individual freedom. If I am not mistaken, slavery was formally outlawed as recently as 1960 in Saudi Arabia. Well, that is, except for women.

    Just finished the book “Unbroken.” What an eye-opener that was as to how a cultural belief can turn people into beasts. That, the “Rape of Nanking” and “Animal Farm” should be read by every high school student. It is so easy to become convinced there are human beings who are “lesser” than others.

    Your quote about the Declaration of Independence being a promissory note is so valuable. Thank you for that and this entire article.

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