Our national discourse can be annoyingly ahistorical. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in how both the left and the right discuss our country’s greatest sins: slavery and the treatment of Native Americans. One example in the news today involves a New Hampshire state senator named Werner Horn who created some problems for himself with a Facebook post. He argued that former slave-holding presidents like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson weren’t racist.

State Rep. Werner Horn has deleted a Facebook post on the matter, but has repeated his opinion in multiple interviews since. Horn was responding to a post from state House member who asked: “If Trump is the most racist president in American history, what does that say about all of the other presidents who owned slaves?” Horn replied: “Wait, owning slaves doesn’t make you racist… owning slaves wasn’t a decision predicated on race but on economics. It’s a business decision.” He later told HuffPost: “[Slave owners] weren’t enslaving black people because they were black. They were bringing in these folks because they were available.”

My basic response: our modern concept of racism cannot be retrofitted to apply to a world where white supremacy was taken as a given by the white population of this country. If you don’t immediately understand my point, I suggest you spend some time reading the transcripts of the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates in 1858. By the standards of today, both men were appallingly racist. It’s also clear from the way they each pander to the audiences that the people they’re addressing have never considered for a single moment the possibility of some kind of equality between whites and blacks. The objective conditions of the two populations basically precluded people from making that kind of argument.

Here’s Lincoln in the first debate:

My first impulse would be to free all the slaves, and send them to Liberia,-to their own native land. But a moment’s reflection would convince me, that whatever of high hope, (as I think there is) there may be in this, in the long run, its sudden execution is impossible. If they were all landed there in a day, they would all perish in the next ten days; and there are not surplus shipping and surplus money enough in the world to carry them there in many times ten days. What then? Free them all, and keep them among us as underlings? Is it quite certain that this betters their condition? I think I would not hold one in slavery at any rate; yet the point is not clear enough to me to denounce people upon. What next? Free them, and make them politically and socially our equals? My own feelings will not admit of this; and if mine would, we well know that those of the great mass of white people will not.

Whether this feeling accords with justice and sound judgment, is not the sole question, if, indeed, it is any part of it. A universal feeling, whether well or ill-founded, cannot be safely disregarded. We cannot, then, make them equals.

We can of course insist that Lincoln was a racist, but that really tells us very little, and it certainly doesn’t absolve someone today for holding similar racist views. Washington and Jefferson each inherited the slaves they owned, and they each had their own discomforts with the justice of the system. They had different financial pressures and obligations that affected how they distributed their slaves in their wills. What they didn’t contemplate is the idea that whites and blacks were equals.

So, there’s a sense in which I agree with state Senator Horn. It doesn’t really make sense to use the racial beliefs of our founders to arbitrate who is racist today. On the other hand, black slavery persisted in this country long after white slavery was abolished, and that was a decision made based on white-supremacist beliefs. Even into the mid-1960s, pro-segregationist lawmakers made unapologetically white supremacist arguments to justify the Jim Crow system in the South. This only ceased after passage of major civil rights legislation.

Specific to Senator Horn’s point, people were enslaving blacks not only because they were available (for sale, if you will) but because white slaves were not. They had an economic reason to want free labor, but white supremacy dictated the race of those laborers. That this was viewed as moral and acceptable is a clear example of racism.

Of course, that doesn’t make it okay to still hold those kinds of beliefs today. It doesn’t mean that we can’t condemn the belief system that made black slavery possible. But it does mean that we’d be better off if we didn’t try to judge today’s racists by the standards of people from the past.

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