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Different Times---Different Standards

John W. Pinkerton


Not long ago I watched a public personality, a talented fellow from New Orleans, on one of those TV shows that traces people's roots as far back as they can.

This particular personality began to squirm when the prospect was raised that an ancestor of his may have been a slaveholder or might have fought on the side of the South in the Civil War.  He gave the impression that he would be totally crushed if either proved to be the case.  The ancestor in question turned out not to be a slave owner and not a Rebel soldier.  He was so joyful at the news I thought he was going to pee on himself.

I was embarrassed for this fellow.  He seemed prepared to throw his ancestors under the bus if they didn't meet his Twenty-first Century standards.  His standards…not the legal and ethical standards of his ancestors' times.

In New England in the Colonial years, hunting, trying, and executing “witches” was an acceptable practice.  It was legal and within the purview of the courts.  I wonder how he would have felt about one of his ancestors being a party to this “witchhunt”?

Indentured servitude was a common practice in our early history.   (By the way, Benjamin Franklin was an indentured servant to his older brother, but he ran away to avoid the agreement.)  Did any of Mr. Crescent City's ancestors participate in this practice?

Through  most of our history, treating Indians “poorly” was perfectly acceptable by most folks.  “The only good Indian is a dead Indian,” was a common phrase in our lexicography.   Did any of his ancestors contribute to the mistreatment of Indians?

Well into the Nineteenth Century, debtors' prisons, which were for folks who couldn't pay their bills, were common. They do not exist today.  Did any of his ancestors cause anyone to be incarcerated for debt?

When the Irish arrived on our shores in hordes as a result of the Potato Famine, rejecting them socially and keeping them out of the work place was the standard of the time.  Where did his ancestors stand in regard to the treatment of the “Donkeys”?

Until 1920 women were not allowed to vote.  The legal norm before that time was that only men voted.  Denying women was totally legal and supported by lots of folks.  What would Mr. Big Easy feel about his ancestors fighting against women suffrage?

We rounded up all the West Coast Japanese and placed them in internment camps as a security measure during WWII.  At the moment, it seemed perfectly reasonable.  What about it, Mr. New Orleans?  Did any of your ancestors contribute to this program?

Slavery was legal and acceptable in America from its beginning until the Civil War and the “Emancipation Proclamation” did away with it.  Washington, Jefferson, and many other founding fathers participated in slavery.  Hell, even blacks owned slaves: 3,776 free Negroes owned 12,907 slaves.  The numbers aren't huge, but it's a fact that many folks don't realize or choose to ignore.  By the way, slavery continues in other countries to this day around the world.

Of course, slavery is a horrible practice as was killing “witches,” hunting down Indians, sending people to prison for debt, kicking the Irish and other minorities to the curb, and denying women the vote.

That's my point.  According to the standards of the day, many of our past actions were not only legal but also socially acceptable.  Judging Americans of yesterday by today's standards is ridiculous.

Back to the talented fellow from New Orleans.    Congratulations, your relative was not a slave owner or Confederate soldier.  Most folks' ancestors were not slave owners and few were combatants for the South.  So…what if your ancestor was a slave owner?  What the heck does this have to do with you?

I'm not a Little Mary Sunshine about the progress of man, but I must admit, we're getting a little better about the way we treat our fellow Americans.

I wonder how future Americans, a hundred or two-hundred years from now, will judge the beliefs and behavior and what is legal of folks alive today. 

Oops, didn't think of that, did you?