We’ve all heard it-most likely more than once: the “man of his time” defense.

It goes something like this:

One person criticizes a historical figure on moral grounds. Another person defends that historical figure on temporal grounds.

“We can’t impose our moral standards on the past.”

“This is presentism!”

“He was only a man of his time.”

This defense re-directs blame. One moral charge is met with another: it is not the dead hero who errs, but you, his Modern-Day accuser. After all, they explain, he was only a man of his time. We cannot impose our moral standards on those who lived and died before us, they continue. More than simply unfair, such presentism smacks of arrogance.

In the civil sphere, this defense is most likely to be used when a beloved historical figure is accused of racism.

Yes, slave mastership is wrong, but Thomas Jefferson was a man of his time.

Yes, John Wayne should remain an American hero because everyone “believed in white supremacy” back then.

As these examples show, those who deploy the man of his time defense most need their hero to be not necessarily right, but innocent. He might have been wrong, but he should not be blamed. He simply could not have known better.

We hear this defense in theological and religious circles as well.

Yes, sexism is wrong, but please judge Augustine/Aquinas by the moral standards of his day.

Yes, Catholic magisterial authorities sanctioned slavery for nineteen centuries, but didn’t everyone?

Yes, white supremacy is evil, but how could Junipero Serra have known better?

There are several problems with this line of defense, but I want to focus on just two for now.

One, it’s simply not true. Or, more to the point, it’s true only if we pretend that only certain people existed or think that only certain opinions matter. In the case of Africanized slavery and its ongoing afterlife, for example, surely many of its black victims managed to “know better.”

Although the vast majority of enslaved people were denied the opportunity to write their opinions down on paper, many of them nonetheless left ample evidence of their moral dissent-they ran away, rebelled en masse, placed poison in their mistress’s favorite dish, and aborted fetuses conceived against their will, to name just a few examples among many.

Even still, some did manage to get their moral opinions into print. Frederick Douglass became a national sensation in the 1840s; his autobiography became a best-seller during that same decade. West African-born Ottabah Cugoano began his abolitionist career even earlier, in the 1780s; his theologically-inflected autobiography came to life shortly thereafter.

As these examples show, the man of his time defense mistakes the consequences of racialized power for objective reality. It accords moral priority to a racist white majority under the guise of sober impartiality. In truth, we choose not to remember those we’d rather forget. Nor can we remember those who were forgotten.

Whiteness is no excuse: even a few white people managed to discern the truth about Africanized slavery. German Quakers outside of Philadelphia first denounced slavery in 1688. 1688! Quaker abolitionism would acquire movement status a few decades later in the 1740s. Abby Kelley barnstormed the states of New York and Pennsylvania for the cause of abolitionism in the 1840s and beyond.

And, despite the purported moral impossibilities of their time and place, a few Catholic clerics such as Bartolome de Albornoz cast doubt on the African slave trade from its beginning. Further discrediting the man of his time defense, they did so on the grounds that the transatlantic slave trade did not conform to longstanding Catholic teaching about slavery. Africanized slavery’s apologists were the innovators. But for their efforts, these clerics received not celebration, but censure.

Two, by seeking to let past heroes off the hook, it lets us off the hook as well. It does so in at least one of the following ways. It sometimes implies that white supremacy, like petticoats and stagecoaches, has fallen out of fashion. But this of course is not true.

White people are still habituated into white supremacy just as non-black people are habituated into antiblackness supremacy. Yes, both evils have shape shifted over time, sometimes conceding and other times doubling down. But they live within us nonetheless.

One also wonders exactly when this historical grace period come to an end? When in history did racism become sufficiently unpopular to make those who promote it culpable? Was it 1865, when slavery was mostly abolished? 1870, when black men started becoming Senators and sizable landowners? 1955, when the Supreme Court declared school segregation unconstitutional? 1968, when Congress passed the Fair Housing Act?

As evidenced by a 2019 defense of John Wayne’s white supremacist ideology, for some, not even 1971 is recent enough.

The man of his time defense has a second disturbing implication. Ultimately, since we know white supremacy still shapes us, the man of his time defense also implies that contemporary advocates of racial evil ought to be exculpated as well. Those who proffer the man of his time defense end up creating a situation in which white supremacy exists only when no one can be blamed for it.

If Saints Peter Claver or Junipero Serra, or Thomas Jefferson, or John Wayne cannot be blamed for espousing the racism of their time, how can anyone else be?

10 thoughts

  1. The “man of his times” defense is intellectually lazy in not making the distinction between context mitigating culpability and context erasing culpability. I think sometimes context does make someone less culpable but not all the time and not completely. There is a moral version of Marx’s “from each according to their ability..” George Whitefield, for example, is more morally responsible for his endorsement of slavery given his long friendship with the abolitionist Anthony Benezet than perhaps other 17th century evangelicals.

  2. The issue is not that historical figures did not hold wrong opinions; that’s a red herring. The issue is whether it is ever appropriate to honor anybody who was imperfect in any way. Can we admire Robert E. Lee’s courage, loyalty to his fellow Southerners, self-sacrificing service and integrity in defeat? Or must all these good and heroic qualities be ignored because he accepted slavery? And before we answer, we should recall that slavery was ubiquitous in the ancient world, that slaves ran away then too, and that Jesus is not known to ever have said one single word against it.

    1. In the specific case of Robert E. Lee, the answer is a resounding no. First of all, he didn’t show loyalty to “Southerners.” He showed loyalty to white Southerners who valued slavery above their own country. He was the greatest betrayer of black Southerners, who, had he won the war, would have remained enslaved indefinitely. Second, those attributes you list you dedicated to the achievement of one of the most evil pursuits imaginable, the enslavement of millions of people. And if you don’t believe this, go read the various declarations of secession issued by the various state governments.

      If you wouldn’t honor a Nazi general, not sure why you’d honor Lee. Or, perhaps your fondness for Lee makes it likely that you would think highly of Nazi commanders “sacrifices,” “courage,” and “loyalty” too.

    2. I mean, according to your logic, we should also honor the men who committed cold-blooded mass murder on 9/11 for their “courage” and “loyalty” to other members of Al Qaeda.

  3. Katie, I wonder if you could say a bit more about some of the examples that you have in the beginning (e.g., Aristotle/Aquinas in particular). If someone is saying, “We cannot value anything by Aquinas because he devalued women,” that seems wrong and so arguing that, yes, he devalued women but that doesn’t mean that we should reject everything he wrote seems like an appropriate response. That’s not to say, of course, that we cannot critique what he said about women, just that his opinion on women doesn’t negate his opinion on, say, the Eucharist.

    1. Oh yea, I’m definitely not saying we cannot value anything Aquinas said. (I don’t think I said that, did I?) I’m a Thomist after all, so it would be really strange if I had!

      I’m specifically and only talking about the way people try to exculpate people for specific acts or beliefs.

      The question about how to relate to the rest of said person’s work is a separate, although of course related, question that I don’t deal with here and is probably one that we can only answer on a case by case basis.

      1. No, you didn’t say that directly and I just wanted to clarify because it seems that defending people in that way is–in some form–part of the “man of his time” defense, though it seems different from the rest of your argument when you get into slavery/white supremacy in this post.

      2. Yea. I agree. People often go to that right away even though, as you point out, there are definitely more choices than “everything this person did was amazing” and “everything this person did was evil.” I sometimes feel like people automatically do what you bring up as a way of being passive aggressive or diverting attention by arguing against a straw man. And in the case of people like Aquinas, we are never just talking about Aquinas the actual human being, but the whole long history of people who have interpreted Aquinas and used him to advance certain arguments or power plays in the church.

        Someone like Robert E. Lee on the other hand definitely should be trashed. He is lauded for no other reason than his position in the Confederacy, which was a thoroughly evil organization.

      3. Exactly—and those two examples show very much how (as you said before) on a case by case basis different people in history need to be treated differently and why.

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