In Condemning Others, We Condemn Ourselves: What History Can Teach Us About Rushing to Judgment

by jmccoy3


Opinion


In Condemning Others, We Condemn Ourselves: What History Can Teach Us About Rushing to Judgment

By David Salzillo Jr.

I used to give tours every Saturday at the Stephen Hopkins House. The museum celebrates the life of Benjamin Franklin and one of two Rhode Islanders to sign the Declaration of Independence. On most Saturdays, I took a shift outside, too, to greet curious onlookers, hand out brochures, and maybe convince somebody to stop in. One day, I saw a man walking by and delivered my usual sales pitch.

“Come to the Stephen Hopkins House! Oldest surviving house in Providence. Hopkins was one of the signers of the Declaration. George Washington slept here twice!”

He turned to me. Then he said, “Did Hopkins own slaves?”

Hopkins owned five. On a tour, I would have told the man their names: St. Iago, Feba, Bonner Jr., Adam, and Primus. I would have discussed their daily lives, what they did after being freed, where St. Iago and Feba originally came from. And I would have laid out Hopkins’ complicated relationship with slavery. I could have mentioned his role in getting the RI General Assembly to pass the earliest examples of antislavery legislation in the country, or his decision to free St. Iago in 1774 because it was against God’s will “to hold [His] rational creatures in bondage.” Or his family’s connections to the slave trade and his refusal to free the rest of his slaves until after his death, even amid pressure from fellow Quakers throughout.

Yet given the circumstances, all I could muster was a simple “Yes.”

At that, the man’s nostrils flared up. “Then burn the f***ing place down!” He shouted, storming off.

         Looking back, I may have responded that burning down the house meant burning Bonner Jr. ‘s crib and Feba’s bed with it; the house was a testimony to their lives also. However, the man’s reaction was—and is—a symptom of something bigger. His hostility arose out of a certain attitude towards history, one that takes less obvious and extreme forms across the country. That does not make it any less flawed. Instead, it reveals this attitude for what it is: a way of shutting down frank discussions about our past and present.

         Why? Because to see history in black-and-white is to miss the point. Consider the Founding Fathers. Were they shameless hypocrites, engaging in mere theatrics? Was their talk of liberty and freedom a cover for pure self-interest? And did they really give a damn about the freedom of others, so long as they themselves weren’t under the whip? Sure, these questions are as old as the Founders themselves; English writer Samuel Johnson famously asked, “How is it that we hear the largest yelps of liberty from the drivers of negroes?” But what the Founding Fathers did was not mere theatrics. They took on the greatest naval power of the time, knowing full well that losing likely meant being hanged for treason—give me liberty or give me death indeed. The tale of such a courageous stand and such a remarkable victory dealt colonialism and imperialism their first major blow, inspiring peoples across the globe to shake the dust of the oppressors off their feet. Their bold vision of a new nation without aristocrats was certainly not the selfish fantasy of rich white landowners. Rather, it was the rallying cry that Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and countless others took up, the call to extend the promise of freedom to the oppressed. Can we call that hypocrisy? No. The stakes were too high, the victory too great to compare them to the performative activists of today. Their war was no empty show.

Still, what explains the Three-Fifths Compromise? The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793? The continuing of slavery for another 89 years in America? Unfortunately, human nature. Too often, we think ourselves immune from the faults of people hundreds and thousands of years ago. Somehow, we think, we are above it all. Aren’t we so much better, haven’t we made so much more “Progress”? It is a comforting lie. The myth of “Progress” has given birth to all the worst of the 19th and 20th centuries. Imperialism and racism had (and have) no better ally. Do we forget that Europe justified its murder of America’s native peoples by calling them bloodthirsty cannibals, “savages” undeserving of being treated as human beings? Do not mistake it: “surely, we are better than they” is the justification for the worst types of hypocrisy. If we forget that now, be sure we will remember later. Truly denial is the most dangerous form of revisionist history. Ignoring our past does not make it go away, nor does passing judgment on it pardon us.    To understand why, let us look again at the Founding Fathers. Why did they delay on the question of slavery? Why didn’t they spare more Black men, women, and children from the beatings, the scars of the whip, the rapists, and the many other unspeakable emotional traumas? Well, the story of why makes a mockery of historical denialism. That is because it is our story too. You see, the Founders agreed with us that a nation established on the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness allowed no room for slavery. Yet they made a terrible mistake. They fell into what historian Joseph Ellis called “the myth of inevitability.” They thought slavery could be wished away. Although they devised plans to abolish it, they did not act quickly enough to break America free of its original sin. Then, they—with the rest of America—became forever entangled in slavery, its formidable presence in their daily lives weakening their desire to get rid of it.

Do we think of ourselves differently? If we do, we must remember that child labor produces our phones, our clothes, and many of the other conveniences we take for granted. Have any of us given these up to take a principled stand against child labor, like we would if they were American children? No, the gap between practice and principle is not a thing of the past. It is a reality we must grapple with every second of our lives. That does not mean we give into it; this reality is a call to action, a call to look carefully at ourselves, a call to find out our own sins and the sins of our time and change our world for the better.

If we fall short—and we will—at least we continue the work of our Founding Fathers.


One thought on “In Condemning Others, We Condemn Ourselves: What History Can Teach Us About Rushing to Judgment

  1. Please let me know in the comments if any of you are interested in a follow-up piece for the fall 2022 semester. Thanks.

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