Over at civilwarhistory2 (open archives), the always charming Helga Ross asks:
What if our favorite professor had been born a plantation slaveowner in South
Carolina or Mississippi leading up to the 1860′s…..?
It’s easy to say what one would do and value today, 150 years removed. But,
who’s to say it would be true, at the time; and not in hindsight?
Honored as I am to be this group’s “favorite professor,” the question seems problematic. First, let’s observe that it would be highly unlikely to be born a plantation slaveowner. I don’t know of any southern newborns who at the moment of their appearance on earth instantly had ownership of land and slaves. Perhaps Ms. Ross’s reliable research assistant can document one.
Second, of course, if I’m that person, I’m not me, so what’s the point? For example, if I were such a person, I could not be a New York Yankees or a New York Islanders fan, because neither existed at that time. And, folks, it would be hard to be me without being an Islanders or Yankees fan.
Third, this question seems to presuppose a bit too much. It’s not enough to have me transported back in time to be a southerner, even a southerner of means: Ms. Ross also stipulates that I must be a slaveholder who owns a plantation (she does not stipulate that I should be white or male). What if I asked Ms. Ross: “Suppose you were a Nazi concentration camp commandant in 1943? How would you feel about the Holocaust?” What exactly would be the point of that question? What would we learn from it? Would we seriously remark, “It’s easy to say what one would do and value today, 70 years removed. But, who’s to say it would be true, at the time; and not in hindsight?”
I could with as much reason ask, “What if Helga Ross were Brooks Simpson? What would she/he think then?”
And who would care? What would we learn?