Judging people from the past: a brief discussion


Credit: Foundation for Economic Education

Judging the people of past times is a difficult task. The societies of their times almost always have drastically different standards than the ones that we have. Some people we judge are from eras in which murder and slavery were not only commonplace, but also considered necessary.

When reading about the King of England, William the Conqueror, history is full of murder and deceit. Periodically, he would ravage the countryside, murder peasants, execute or maim dissenters and order assassination plots. All in order to defeat his numerous enemies, never for the fun of it.

Judging those actions by today’s standards of morality alone, he was probably a terrible person. He also treated his oldest son poorly which, to no one’s surprise, made his son into a rebel for the rest of his life. But looking past that he was also, in the end, a stabilizing force for his country and a skilled ruler of the people.

Most people in his era played a dangerous political and military-based game not unlike the one played on HBO’s “Game of Thrones. At this time losing often meant dying, exile, or worse (something along the lines of public humiliation). This explains why much of this medieval era is considered to be among the most violent, with all of the backstabbing betrayals and stunning reversals.

So do we judge by what we perceive as good now, or do we judge by what was considered to be acceptable at the time? It is one of the hardest parts of trying to be a historian. Sure, you list the facts (as part of an outline), describe events, but you also have to be completely objective about everything. You can’t really pick sides, unless the express purpose of your book or paper is presented as an argument, utilizing facts, and sometimes, your own opinion, or else it wouldn’t even be an argument at all.

So if you were writing a book on this English king, you would most certainly want to write about his deeds. Doing so without openly painting him as a tyrant or a saint, because otherwise, history becomes sensationalized fiction. That is what Shakespeare and his plays on English and Scottish history are: fiction that changed public perception. Not only were they fiction, but they were also propaganda that made madmen look like saints, and saints look like madmen.

We could also talk about today’s perception of Thomas Jefferson. For a very long time, people didn’t really acknowledge the fact he owned slaves, nor did they discuss his several illegitimate children that he fathered with one of his slaves. Today, these negative things in his life have come forward and people are not happy about them. In fact, some students at the University of Virginia defaced a statue of Jefferson a few years ago.

Let us not forget the fact that Jefferson is one of the main reasons that America exists. He wrote the Declaration of Independence and he was a major force in the early years of American politics. He was an inventor, writer, diplomat, politician and a president. So now, we have the good things about him, and the bad.

What we should do is take the bad that we perceive and mix it in with the good that we see. When you take the good and the bad, voila! You have just discovered a person! No historical figure has come off completely free from criticism or reevaluation. We have to remember, they were people too, and they succeeded or failed within the boundaries of their own time.

Reed McCoy can be reached at [email protected] or @ReedMcCoy6 on Twitter.