Shocked! Shocked!

“The founder of Johns Hopkins owned enslaved people. Our university must face a reckoning,” said the headline in a Washington Post Op Ed recently. Martha S. Jones, the author, is a professor of history at Johns Hopkins University, and director of the Hard Histories at Hopkins Project. 

She was shocked! shocked! that Johns Hopkins, the founder of Johns Hopkins University and Johns Hopkins Hospital, had once owned slaves.  She joined legions of people who are shocked! shocked! that their heroes, from Washington and Jefferson forward and into the 1800’s, owned slaves.

Martha was so upset at this discovery the she prostrated herself on the Opinions Page of the Washington Post, not to mention taking off her Johns Hopkins sweatshirt “in a small gesture of reckoning but a sincere one”. 

Now that’s penance, albeit with a small “p”.

There are a lot of Martha’s out there who are shocked! shocked! at the fact that many of our founding fathers owned slaves.  

The Romans, if one is to believe historians, thought slavery was just fine. It was one of the spoils of war and contributed to the rapid expansion of the Roman Empire.  Slavery – of all races -continued as a spoil of war for centuries, all the way up to the 1780’s when slavery as a spoil of wars in Africa became the subject of a huge debate during the Constitutional Convention. The southern states and northern states couldn’t agree, so they kicked that can down the road and crashed into it 72 years later in the Civil War. That resulted in a legal solution. The associated moral issue of racism is still being resolved.

LGBTQ was accepted in Ancient Greece. That attitude lasted right through Washington’s time and into the 1800’s in this country. But, by the 1950’s, it was verboten, against moral and legal (in some states) law. The 1969 raid by police of the Stonewall Inn, a gay hangout in Greenwich Village, New York, led to demonstrations that many say triggered the eventual acceptance of LGBTQ people today, 50 years later.

In the 1980’s, Congress passed a number of laws that resulted in long sentences for those caught with marijuana. 40 years later, we’re passing laws allowing not just the possession, but also the selling of marijuana, even as we are just starting to think about giving get-out-of-jail cards to those who broke the 1980’s laws. 

We think of morality (especially our own) as absolute, permanent, locked in stone. But, while the wisdom of some morality has remained consistent over time (“judge not, lest ye be judged” comes to  mind), much has not.   

Morality has evolved over time, just as everything else in nature. What the Marthas of this world need to remember is that what is morally upstanding today may be less so tomorrow.

Washington and Jefferson (and most others) were taught from an early age that slaves were part of a healthy economy and that African Americans weren’t completely human. Thus the compromise in the Constitutional Convention describing African American slaves as 3/5th of a white person (at least for population counting.)

As a kid, Johns Hopkins was taught that slavery was OK. Then he and his generation saw the cruelty and immorality of it and taught that lesson to the next generation.

There are numerous examples throughout history of evolving morality. Criminals were drawn and quartered at one time. Thieves hands were lopped off. Pirates walked the plank. Speaking out against a country’s leaders was grounds for death. (and still is in parts of the world). 

It is easy to look back on all of that with an air of superiority. But consider how people might look at us 50, 60, or 100 years from now.

In our current moral certainty we jail people for some crimes and not for others. If you’re black and rob a store, you’ll do more jail time than the white pharmaceutical company owners who hooked hundreds of thousands on pain killers and caused thousands of deaths, not to mention the Wall Street types who bankrupted millions. Lying in court can land you in jail; lying in politics can land you in the White House. 

Will future Marthas look at us and our era with shock! shock! or will they see us as a combination of good and bad, learning and evolving morally as well as physically.

(If you like this, pass it on. If you don't, pass it on anyway. Why should you suffer alone?)