Colonialism Cultural Anthropology Rhode Island History Slavery

Everyone’s a Victim of Their Time!

The idea of people being "victims of their time," and why I think that's both limited and fallacious, as well as why I think it could also be very well suited to anthropological thought...when taken literally.

Pedal Powered Anthropology has definitely been an educational experience. For me, at least as much as (if not more than) my audience.

My primary training and research focuses within anthropology have been in biological anthropology. Moving around sand grains with little sticks or dental tools, or measuring weird bits of bases of skulls to find out how things vary within a species. Stuff like that.

Going through K-12, and into college, the older the better for me as far as topics were concerned. It started with an infatuation with ancient Egypt and ancient Greece, eventually giving way to interest in the amorphous (and outdated) notion of “cavemen.”

If it occurred within recorded history, I wasn’t interested. It was interesting, but so much is known about it. Scouring the savanna for bits and pieces of our earliest ancestors interested me so much more than scouring historical society archives for bits and pieces of an event that happened maybe 150 years ago.

It still does interest me more, but I’ve found so much more value in our own, immediate history.

As an anthropologist though, I try to zoom out a bit and see how an event fits into the puzzle that is our overarching culture. Historians do that, too. But in anthropology I think the focus is more on the big picture, whereas history tends to focus on the events. Not valuing one over the other (anthropology rules!), just slightly different lenses through which to view the same topics. And the outcome and presentation varies accordingly.

As I’ve become more and more invested in modern cultural history, and especially in light of some events and weird paradigms or flash points that occurred over the last several years, I’ve found myself thinking more and more about the phrase “victim of their time.”

You’ve heard it. “Oh, so and so only piled rocks on that old man until he died because everybody did it back then. They were a victim of their time; certainly if they existed today, they wouldn’t think that way.”

And…you kind of let them off the hook. It makes sense to, on the face of it. You can’t view people in the past through a 21st century lens and apply to them the same criteria you’d apply to your peers. They didn’t have the same tools and advancements available to them. And all that jazz.

But taking that concept literally, I started thinking about it a bit more.

No. You can’t. You can’t look at the 19th century kidnapping/murdering/buying/selling/trading/industrial-scale farming of human beings from a 21st century standpoint. I mean, you can. But you can’t project yourself into their mindset while adhering strictly to the values of a 21st century society.

And that makes perfect sense. But I think a lot of us stop there. We see horrible, barbaric things perpetrated in the past (with consequences reaching into today), and we use our assumptions about what they knew then to sort of distance ourselves from the relationship we might otherwise feel.

But go past that. Don’t be complacent. Don’t just say that they’re victims of their times–learn what their times had to offer. Gain insight into the world of the average 19th century (or whenever) schmoe, and try and look through their lens.

I’m going to talk (briefly, I hope) about three examples that I think everyone can really relate to (or that everyone is at least familiar with) in the hopes you get the theme of what I’m talking about, rather than just getting familiar with the examples.

In chronological order:

The first is just before the American Revolution. Well, before the American Revolutionary War, anyway. Revolutionary sentiment had been growing in the colonies, and had sort of come to a head after things like the Stamp Act, the Townshend Acts, and the (earlier) Navigation Acts that restricted and imposed taxes on trade and purchase within the colonies. This, understandably, pissed people off.

They’re people who for generations had been living in America, many of whom had never set foot on British soil. People were getting sick of being a satellite of a crown to which they felt no particular affiliation.

So there were agitators that tried to keep tensions high and pressures on to push more and more of the colonists into the mindset of revolution.

One of these men was John Brown. You know the name, though almost more than likely you know the name of Civil War era John Brown. Just as rambunctious, but different pivotal moment in American history.

Revolutionary era John Brown was worked up partly as his fortune had been made in the slave trade. That aforementioned sailing over to Africa and murdering and kidnapping people, only to hold them and their families and descendants permanently in unpaid bondage.

He was a freedom fighter–but only insofar as it served his business prospects.

He was an agitator, he rebelled against the British Crown and helped push Rhode Island to become the first of the colonies to renounce allegiance to Britain. But he was a slave trader. He built his fortune and helped to build this country as one predicated on human bondage.

But! Surely he was a victim of his time! The United States didn’t even exist back then! Surely we didn’t know any better!!

Well, not exactly.

Taking a look at that time, of which he was a victim, he had a lot more available to him than just the notion that non-whites were inferior. Abolitionist sentiment was already growing, and his own brother, Moses would have a falling out with him later in life, as Moses would become more and more staunchly abolitionist, while John remained active in slaving.

Advocating for the rights of non-white folks was nothing new in John Brown’s time, even if Moses was active in slaving earlier in his life. That’s almost all-the-more reason for John to have been swayed. Clearly whoever had the ear of Moses didn’t have quite the same impact on his brother.

But even in the late 18th century, abolitionist sentiment was nothing new–especially in Rhode Island.

Rhode Island was founded in 1636 by Roger Williams. He got booted out of Massachusetts because of religious disagreements, and also not being too thrilled with the confiscation of Native American lands.

By 1652, Rhode Island had already passed the first laws restricting slavery in America. In essence, this law said that nobody could be held in bondage–forced or voluntary–for a period exceeding 10 years. Unless they entered/were put into bondage before their 14th birthday. In those cases, the individual would be emancipated upon their 24th birthday.

This wasn’t just a law for white folks, either. When passed, it included black people. And 10 years later, it was extended to include Native people.

Now. I’m not going to try to argue that this legislation was well-enforced. But the sentiment existed long before John Brown was even born. My argument is that the power of men like Brown shaped paradigm more than good intentions, and that the profitability of slavery surpassed the ability of the State of Rhode Island to enforce the ban, and so things continued.

In this case, John Brown was less a victim of his time than His Time was a victim of John Brown.

The next one, the second most recent, and the trickiest to explain without writing a book, is Abraham Lincoln. One of the few true geniuses to hold the office of the United States Presidency, and one of the fewer still to be produced by the social climate in the Civil War.

The Great Emancipator, Lincoln was personally opposed to slavery even before his run for office. His wife, Mary Todd, was raised in a border state that permitted slavery. Some of her own family members fought for the Confederate States during the American Civil war. She would go on to support Lincoln in his efforts to preserve the Union.

Lincoln was able to remove himself from his own mind though. He didn’t completely disregard his feelings, but he was able to accurately look at the climate of the nation and the overall will of the people in it, and the trajectory on which it was headed. He may have been a victim of his time, but perhaps only because he was able to clearly see it.

He was personally opposed to slavery. But he was committed to the country. So much so that he was willing to completely ignore his own disgust of slavery and permit it across the country if that’s what it took to preserve it. Personally, I can’t decide if that’s a strength or a weakness, but it’s definitely one of the truest adherences to the country in a literal sense out of anybody who’s held that office, and it absolutely did not make his life any easier.

He had to take that lens and disregard himself. I’m not defending him or his lack of pushing his own anti-slavery sentiment. But in this case, he was completely letting the time in which he lived dictate where all of his power and intellect would be focused throughout his time in office.

He knew that his best chances for preservation of the Union would be to read the people. He passed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863…which was almost symbolic. It freed the slaves within the Confederate states. But the Confederacy claimed to be a separate nation.

But the (now former) slaves got wind of it. They were free. They were free….to head north and pick up arms to fight for their right to be free. It made the abolition of slavery the explicit goal of the Civil War, despite the fact that the acts of secession unanimously stated slavery as the reason for secession, that the Confederate Constitution explicitly provides continuation of slavery and of the importation of enslaved people from Africa, and also goes on to stipulate that all territories added to the Confederate States would enact slavery along all the same principles.

The Emancipation effectively broke the back of the Confederate economy, and Lincoln knew it. But it did nothing regarding the status of slaves in Union-loyal border states. And he also knew that were the constitution not amended before the end of the war and the reintroduction of the [formerly] Confederate states, the passing of the amendment would be unlikely.

Passing the 13th Amendment was more certain while the Confederacy remained, and upon its passage, the morale and hope of the Confederacy to keep the United States going as it had been through history was impossible.

Lincoln was a brilliant individual, a masterful politician, and a deeply troubled and flawed man. He navigated the United States through the biggest challenge it has ever faced, was reelected during Civil War, and the country emerged intact on the other end, more progressive than ever dreamed just a few years earlier.

But he wasn’t without his critics. He didn’t go far enough for many. He may have done the most he felt he could legally do within his powers as president, and he may have been right about that.

But he was led by those around him. He tempered back the abolitionist sentiment until it was a pill less bitter for the majority of people to follow. But he made his decisions not based solely on his personal platforms, but by what he could see made the most sense for the country.

Because of that, in some ways his personal standards were compromised. He wasn’t a revolutionary abolitionist–he was a genius politician. Had he read different sentiments and patterns from the people of the United States, his decision making would potentially have been shaped very differently.

For context, and before I move on to the next example, Wendell Phillips, a contemporary of Lincoln and a strict and radical abolitionist, called Lincoln a “first rate, second rate man.” Meaning that he had the purest adherence to the principles he’d set out to represent, however his principles in and of themselves were not quite pure enough.

 

Lastly, and most recently, in the time period following the American Civil War, as the railroads began expanding westward and rebuilding the southern economy with them while connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. People began seeing more of the world than they’d dreamed and as they moved along the rails and into the Great Plains, they encountered buffalo for the first time.

Millions of them. The herds would damage the rails. Their meat would feed the rail workers. Their pelts were all the rage. They seemed endless. They were seen as stupid animals and were easily killed for sport and profit because they’d never encountered anything so destructive. The Native Americans hunted them, sure, but they did so sustainably, and not entirely like any other natural predator stalks and kills its prey. Some would be killed, most would be fine. No terror of humans had yet been instilled.

And so in just two years after the railroad was completed, as many as 3 million buffalo were killed. Horns became things like knife handles, pelts became things like cloaks, rugs, and coats.

buffalobones1

But how could “we” know the devastation we were causing? The herds on the Great Plains were endless. Numbering more than we could ever exhaust. Nobody could have forecast the impact we would have on the populations, eco systems, and the way of life of the Native Americans, right?

Well…again. Look no further than their time to find out what their time thought. Certainly plenty of people, upon seeing the herds, must have thought they were a limitless population.

But many people of the time grew quickly concerned with the amount of buffalo hides and horns suddenly available to purchase. Maybe they’d seen the herds, maybe they hadn’t, but there was absolutely growing concern about these populations.

Reporting about the decrease in populations caused widespread concern, and legislation was introduced in 1874 to protect the buffalo. This legislation made its was through Congress, only to be vetoed by President Ulysses S. Grant, who would go on to offer free ammunition to those who hunted the buffalo.

One such hunter, Frank Mayer, seemed to know full well what he and his fellow hunters were doing, and the havoc they were wreaking. He called it “Buffalo Fever,” and said that, “all I knew was that there were millions of wild animals loose on the plains and I needed money.”

 

People within their times are not stupid. They’re well aware of what they’re up to. While it isn’t fair to judge them with the culture we’re existing in today, it’s also not fair to treat them as though they existed in a vacuum, without progress or influence outside their own heads. So when learning about what happened in the past, maybe don’t judge them like you’d judge someone today who’s advocating slavery or genocide or mass slaughter and trophy hunting. But don’t let them off the hook, either. Find their lens, find the tools they had available to them, and judge them based on the society in which they lived.

 

Frank Mayer also made one of the most poignant, telling, and perhaps disgusting comments that I think speaks well to this entire discussion, and it’s that quote where I’ll stop, because it makes my point better than I every could:

“Maybe we had served our purpose in helping abolish the buffalo. Maybe it was our ruthless harvesting of him which telescoped the control of the Indian by a decade or maybe more. Or maybe I am just rationalizing. Maybe we were just a greedy lot who wanted to get ours, and to hell with posterity, the buffalo, or anyone else. Just so long as we kept our scalps on and our money pouches filled.

I think maybe that is the way it was.”

I have a degree in anthropology from Rhode Island College. My focus was in biological anthropology but I also have a broad interest in cultural anthropology, archaeology and linguistic anthropology. Pedal Powered Anthropology is an anthropological educational initiative that seeks to bring profound travel experiences to a local level while encouraging others to get out and explore the world around them. This blog details all aspects of my work as Anthrospin, including my take on topics within four fields anthropology as well as bits about a lot of different aspects of culture, primarily race, gender, privilege, the environment and my own personal relationship with anxiety.

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