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It is in the prosecution of some single object, and in striving to reach its accomplishment by the combined application of his moral and physical energies, that the true happiness of man, in his full vigour and development, consists. Possession, it is true, crowns exertion with repose; but it is only in the illusions of fancy that it has power to charm our eyes. If we consider the position of man in the universe,—if we remember the constant tendency of his energies towards some definite activity, and recognize the influence of surrounding nature, which is ever provoking him to exertion, we shall be ready to acknowledge that repose and possession do not indeed exist but in imagination. - Wilhelm von Humboldt, The Sphere and Duties of Government (The Limits of State Action) (1854 ed.)

Saturday, July 19, 2008

They Could Have Known Better, Therefore They Should Have

It is always difficult when we review History and make moral/ethical judgments of famous figures of the past. How are we to assign blame or praise? Should we even attempt to do so?

In order to live a "better" -- a more reflective and intentional -- life, it is useful to review History. Only in this case, I believe, can we legitimately make judgments of the past.

One area recently brought to my attention is the opinions of Thomas Jefferson w/r/t to African Americans and slavery.

Jefferson, by pretty much any standard, was enlightened during his day:
Nobody wishes more ardently to see an abolition, not only of the trade, but of the condition of slavery; and certainly, nobody will be more willing to encounter every sacrifice for that object.
Thomas Jefferson to Brissot de Warville, 1788. ME 6:428

But of course he might have been better:
To these objections, which are political, may be added others, which are physical and moral. ... The circumstance of Superior beauty, is thought worthy attention in the propagation of our horses, dogs, and other domestic animals; why not in that of man?
Madison was pretty much in agreement:
It is due to justice; due to humanity; due to truth; due to the sympathies of our nature; in fine, to our character as a people, both abroad and at home, that they should be considered, as much as possible, in the light of human beings, and not as mere property. As such, they are acted on by our laws, and have an interest in our laws. They may be considered as making a part, though a degraded part, of the families to which they belong.
James Madison, Speech in the Virginia State Convention of 1829-30, on the Question of the Ratio of Representation in the two Branches of the Legislature, December 2, 1829.

And Washington:
... there is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do to see some plan adopted for the[ir] abolition ...
But, there was one man who was on the modern side of this morality (and on most other topics):
As these people are not convicted of forfeiting freedom, they have still a natural, perfect right to it; and the governments whenever they come should, in justice set them free, and punish those who hold them in slavery.
The best that can be said for the Founding Fathers is that they were being practical in this regard:
I can say with conscious truth that there is not a man on earth who would sacrifice more than I would to relieve us from this heavy reproach in any practicable way.
Thomas Jefferson to John Holmes, 1820. ME 15:249

But as the new subtitle of this blog states:
Everything revolutionary is impractical

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