I have no way of knowing whether Johnson’s belief is a representative belief of the black community. But I do know Johnson’s belief serves to highlight my own ambivalence on the topic.
On one hand, pointing a finger at a person from history because they do not hold the enlightened beliefs we have today seems unfair to me. To blame specific historical individuals for not supporting progressive causes that no one else at the time that we know of was even proposing is basically unfair. This concerns the doctrine of “presentism” which is explored in the book, Presentism: Reexamining Historical Figures Through Today's Lens which is described as a book about how removing statues has brought the reassessment of historical figures to the fore. “It has raised questions about whom we choose to venerate; how historical narratives form; and whether it is best to erase problematic figures from the historical record, present a new interpretation on them, or attempt to be as unbiased as possible by contemporary attitudes when regarding them. Readers will learn more about this timely and complicated issue through a wide range of perspectives.”
Presentism is the anachronistic introduction of present-day ideas and perspectives into depictions or interpretations of the past. Some modern historians seek to avoid presentism in their work because they consider it a form of cultural bias, and believe it creates a distorted understanding of their subject matter. The practice of presentism is regarded by some as a common fallacy when writing about the past. The historian David Hackett Fischer in his book Historian’s Fallacies, Toward a Logic of Historic Thought, identifies presentism as a fallacy also known as the “fallacy of “nunc pro tunc.” It is the mistaken idea that the proper way to do history is to prune away the dead branches of the past, and to preserve the green buds and twigs which have grown into the dark forest of our contemporary world.
For instance, many believe that our democratic ideas have origins with the ancient Greeks. But the ancient Greeks supported slavery. Interesting enough, outside an isolated reference to slavery as being “contrary to nature” and “unjust” in Aristotle’s Politics 1.1253b, translated by H. Rackham, there is no mention of slavery as being wrong and certainly nowhere is there a working plan to abolishing slavery (say by a civil war) in Greek texts.
It seems to me to be unfair, therefore, to blame Aristotle for not supporting progressive causes that no one else at the time that we know of was even proposing. Even great thinkers of a time live in that time, not our time.
So it is clear, however, I am not saying “Well, slavery was ok in ancient Greece because, you know, morals were different back then and slavery was acceptable.” That is an endorsement of a form of moral relativism that can take us to some seriously dark, disturbing places. If morality is dictated solely by society and whatever society says is just must therefore be just, this would mean that, if most people suddenly decided—for no apparent reason—that raping and murdering people was morally good and that not raping and murdering people was evil, then it would actually become morally good to rape and murder people and anyone who did not rape and murder anyone would be not only considered wicked, but actually wicked. Clearly, this is an absurd conclusion. Clearly, social conformity does not necessarily equate to morality.
So does this excuse people like Thomas Jefferson who boldly proclaimed that “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” but had slaves? No. Like many Founding Fathers, it has to be admitted Jefferson was a liar on the question of slavery.
As stated by Spencer Alexander McDaniel, B.A. Classical Studies & History, Indiana University Bloomington, Jefferson hypocritically owned slaves but Jefferson authored numerous treatises in which he unambiguously condemned slavery as immoral. He deplored slavery as a “moral depravity,” an “abominable crime,” and a “hideous blot.” He even claimed that it was the greatest threat to fledgling American democracy. Jefferson supported the gradual abolition of slavery, believing that slavery could not simply be abolished all at once. Like many of the other Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson believed that slavery would eventually die out on its own without any form of government intervention. Jefferson himself only ever set a few slaves free over the course of his entire lifetime. Unlike Washington, Jefferson did not even set his slaves free in his will. Nor can it be said that in his own lifetime Jefferson was unaware of his hypocrisy. Black abolitionist writer Benjamin Banneker wrote an eloquent letter to Thomas Jefferson pointing out to him his own blatant hypocrisy over slavery by quoting the words of the Declaration of Independence back to Jefferson. So the determination of Jefferson as a hypocrite on the issue of slavery is not made from the point of view of today, but from the point of view of yesterday. Does that mean Jefferson was an evil man? No. It means he was a flawed person like any other person.
A person from history lived in history not today. And even flawed persons have a place in history. If for no other reason than for us to learn from their mistake.