Should we judge historical figures by the morals of today?

The removal of monuments to controversial figures in countries around the world has sparked heated debates between politicians and activists. But should we use common moral standards of today as benchmarks by which to judge past behaviour? Six historians explored this contentious topic in 2018 for BBC World Histories Magazine

Statue of Admiral Horatio Nelson in Trafalgar Square London

Note: this article was first published in print in 2018, but we are now posting it online in light of recent events including the toppling of a statue of Edward Colston by protestors


Andrew Roberts: “If we topple Nelson, what do we do about the pyramids, built at least in part by slave labour?”

Although it is completely illogical, ahistorical and unfair to natural justice to judge the people of the past by today’s morals, it is also very hard not to. If we merely judge them by the morals of their own times, that doesn’t tell us very much. If we don’t judge them morally at all, we let off the likes of Hitler and Stalin in a welter of moral relativism. Yet because Oliver Cromwell might not have believed in socialised medicine, say, but did believe in slaughtering Roman Catholics in Drogheda at a time when that religion was widely thought to pose an existential threat to Britain, what does that really tell us about him – or them, or us?

The way to approach this minefield is not to assume that our morals are superior to those of the people of the past, because we will indubitably be judged in our turn by our descendants – who will think it truly abhorrent that we allowed children to have mobile phones, or opposed multi-sex lavatories, or appeased Kim Jong-Un when he was so clearly about to incinerate Chicago. Just as we cannot know what we will be indicted for, so Nelson could hardly have known that, two centuries after Trafalgar, there would be calls for him to be toppled from his column because of his (supposed) support for the then-perfectly legal and ancient institution of slavery.

The Great Pyramid and Sphinx at Giza, Egypt
The Great Pyramid and Sphinx at Giza, Egypt. “If in our smug, virtue-signalling world we topple Nelson, what do we do about the pyramids… which were built at least in part by slave labour?” Asks Andrew Roberts (Image by pius99 / Getty Images)

If in our smug, virtue-signalling world we topple Nelson, what do we do about the pyramids, the Parthenon and Rome’s Forum, all of which were built at least in part by slave labour? Should Thutmose, Pericles and the Caesars have somehow anticipated that the morals espoused by the likes of the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ movement are ultimately more important than their own desires to enter heaven gloriously, laud the goddess Athena and house the Roman senate? Should Winston Churchill be knocked off his plinth in Parliament Square because he was a racist, at a time when almost everybody else – on the left as well as the right – also was? I believe not – and I couldn’t care less what my descendants might one day make of it.

Andrew Roberts is visiting professor at the War Studies Department at King’s College, London and the Lehrman Institute Lecturer at the New-York Historical Society. His books include Elegy: The First Day on the Somme (Head of Zeus, 2015)

Charlotte Riley: “It is completely appropriate to critique those figures from the past whose morals fall short of our own values”

On one hand, it is true that a historian’s primary aim is rarely to make a moral balance sheet of the past. Our work is about interpreting primary sources, thinking about how people behaved and why they acted the way that they did. We do not often set out to write a list of history’s biggest villains, judged by our own standards. And it can sometimes feel reductive to point out, for example, every instance of sexism in the past; it shouldn’t be a startling revelation that historical figures held values that were different from our own.

Despite this, however, I am wary of the idea that people from the past should escape our moral judgement. Historians can never approach the past as neutral observers – we all, as historian EH Carr wrote over half a century ago, have a bee in our bonnet about certain issues, and readers of history need to listen for the buzzing. Part of what we bring to our study of the past is our moral framework and, though it is important for us to try to understand figures from the past on their own terms, it is impossible to avoid thinking about them in the context of our values.

This approach is particularly important when we think about figures that might still be celebrated today for their achievements, despite their dodgy moral record. As a historian of the British empire, I feel that it is highly inappropriate for universities with diverse student bodies to have lecture theatres named after Francis Galton, a eugenicist with deeply racist views, or to display statues commemorating and celebrating men such as Cecil Rhodes, who subjugated and oppressed African people as part of British imperial expansion. British imperialism was based on racism, greed and callous violence; and though many profited from imperialism, many also rejected imperial values or resisted imperial subjugation.

It is completely appropriate to critique those figures from the past whose morals fall short of our own values, as well as celebrating those who questioned, critiqued or resisted the systems and beliefs of their time.

Charlotte Riley is lecturer in 20th-century British history at the University of Southampton

Olivette Otele: “We have created grey areas that allow us to ignore sinister sides of human nature”

When asked if people learn from history, humanities experts and scientists acknowledge that studying the past has enhanced our understanding of societies and the motives of people in given situations. The past has taught us, for example, that if a third world war breaks out, there will never be a clear winner. Medical discoveries of the past continue to save lives to the present day.

We have also learned that, despite the uniqueness of each context, the predictability of our behaviour in given situations implies that we have been conditioned to abide by a set of societal rules. These rules have become our principles. These morals do not obey the confines of time and places. They have become acceptable learned behaviours transmitted from generation to generation. They have even been tested by examples of the past.

Yet asking whether we should judge people of the past by today’s morality implies that morals are like the tides, forever changing, prisoners of the whims of human aspirations. Let us consider two paradoxical examples. A Nazi soldier who participated in the killing of millions of Jews is abhorrent to 21st-century men and women to the extent that, 72 years after the end of the Second World War, Nazi officials are still being brought to justice. Yet many people are reluctant to acknowledge that transatlantic slavery, another deplorable episode in human history, was a failure of morals and a triumph of greed.

Many people are reluctant to acknowledge that transatlantic slavery, another deplorable episode in human history, was a failure of morals and a triumph of greed

We pick and choose who should be held accountable. We have created grey areas that allow us to ignore sinister sides of human nature. “Man is a wolf to man”, as the old Latin proverb has it: a manipulative beast capable of bending his or her own rules and ruthlessly redefining morals to reach his or her goals. In that sense, the present with its imperfections takes precedent over alleged humanist values inherited from centuries of social interaction. Taking the roles of victim and perpetrator, judge and executioner, we have finally granted ourselves the right to question the relevance of our own morals.

Olivette Otele is Professor of History of Slavery at Bristol University. Her book African Europeans: An Untold History will be published by Hurst in October 2020.

Robert Cook: “In general terms today’s morals are not as different from those of the past as some commentators profess to believe”

The question seems to assume that today’s moral code is significantly different from that of previous generations. This is certainly the assumption of people who argue that we shouldn’t judge the British empire or pro-slavery Confederates by ‘today’s morals’. Leaving aside the thorny issue of defining what these morals are, the chief problem with this line of reasoning is that it lacks a probing historical sensibility and is likely, perhaps wittingly in some cases, to sustain racial oppression in the present.

For the truth, as I see it, is that in general terms today’s morals are not as different from those of the past as some commentators profess to believe. In the 19th century, for example, significant numbers of Britons thought that empire-building was wrong and that slavery was a sin that had to be eradicated.

The current controversy over the future of Confederate statues in the United States has prompted the defenders of those statues to assert that their removal would mean judging the past by modern standards. In reasoning thus, they ignore the fact that the South’s ‘Lost Cause’ and its associated rituals, symbols and statues have always been controversial and contested in the United States. When Confederate president Jefferson Davis wrote a history of the Confederacy that downplayed the role of slavery in causing the civil war, one Northern reviewer denounced it as “factitious history”. When Southerners raised a huge statue to Robert E Lee in Richmond in 1890, several Republican newspapers denounced the general as a pro-slavery traitor.

As the Lost Cause concept took root during the era of segregation, African-Americans became the strongest opponents of racist statuary. As long ago as the 1920s their opposition played a key role in the decision by congress not to erect a stone tribute to the ‘black mammy’ in Washington DC.

Protesting white supremacism posing as history and heritage is nothing new. We should be wary of its defenders conjuring false dichotomies between past and present morals.

Robert Cook is professor of American history at the University of Sussex, and author of Civil War Memories: Contesting the Past in the United States Since 1865 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017)

David Abulafia: “Historians are engaged in a sort of battle, trying to rein in the tendency to approve or disapprove of what they see in the past”

Historians like to say that they are impartial, objective, dispassionate. That, of course, is impossible: however hard one tries, all of those writing about the past are influenced by their political outlook, or by current issues such as climate change. This means that historians are engaged in a sort of battle as they tap away at the keys of their laptops, constantly trying to rein in the tendency to approve or disapprove of what they see in the past. Yet this does not mean that one cannot pass comment on acts or events that defy the values of our own time. What is important is that the writer makes a distinction, clearly declaring his or her voice before returning to the attempt to stand back from events in a non-judgemental way.

Jewish men being rounded up before leaving for a nazi concentration camp
Jews are rounded up in Athens, Greece, during the Second World War. The majority died in concentration camps – an example of a subject “about which it is perfectly acceptable to express horror,” says David Abulafia (Photo12 / Getty Images)

Two examples of subjects about which it is perfectly acceptable to express horror in print are the Holocaust and the slave trade. Those who perpetrated the Holocaust cannot hide behind the argument that they operated according to the moral standards of the regime under which they lived, which imagined that it was ‘purifying’ Germany and the world by annihilating Jews and others. In my history of the Mediterranean, The Great Sea, I found myself describing the deportation and slaughter of about 43,000 Jews from Salonika in 1943. First, of course, one relates the facts, which are horrifying simply in their narration. But at the end I quoted the poignant words of the Biblical Apocrypha: “some there are who have no memorial,” bearing in mind also that the vast, vanished Jewish cemetery of Salonika now lies underneath the broad campus of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki.

Writing about the slave trade for the book I am currently completing, I do not think I should hold back from describing as deeply repugnant the trade itself, and the conditions under which slaves were transported across the Atlantic. To be sure, those who sold, transported and bought slaves were practising the moral code of their time, and that has to be explained in a matter-of-fact way. But I hope I do so in a way that separates the plain description of those awful conditions from what are clearly my views, which I invite the reader to share.

David Abulafia is professor of Mediterranean history at Cambridge University. His books include The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean (Allen Lane, 2011)

Jonathan Clark: “Many authors think it sufficient to record their moral disapproval of anti-Semitism without explaining how Hitler adopted it”

Historians should do their utmost to encourage people to judge the past by today’s morals – but only on the sound Leninist principle that things must get much worse before they get better. Present-centred judgement (let’s call it presentism for short) is so widespread that it can easily be made to look respectable. Polite dissent from this new orthodoxy is convincingly depicted by presentists as moral partisanship on the wrong side. So presentism must be pushed to its logical conclusion before derision can open the way for historical research.

What is that logical conclusion? Nothing less than that historical enquiry is unnecessary, since presentists already have all the authority they need to hand out moral judgments. But, once satire has highlighted this premise, historians can ask their unwelcome questions: how do the presentists come to have the morals that they do? How do things come to be as they are? Presentism actually prevents answers, even among historians. There are many biographies of Adolf Hitler, for example, some of which reveal that before 1914 his loathing was focused on Jesuits, not Jews. How did he transfer his antipathies to the second? We are not told, because many authors think it sufficient to record their moral disapproval of anti-Semitism without explaining how Hitler adopted it.

We need, instead, more contemporary history, focused on the presentists themselves. How did they become activists? How did they come to think that demolishing statues, or banning books, or persecuting politically incorrect speech, is justified? How did they come to believe that their personal moral values stand for the moral values of their societies? How did they adopt the parochial assumption that their society, even if it has a single morality, can impose it on others around the world? All these are important questions, but they are historical ones. And they show that historians – real ones, that is – are the subversives in the new era of electronic collectivism and anonymous denigration. In a contest between history and moralising, history wins.

Jonathan Clark is a historian of the long 18th century, and Hall Distinguished Professor of British History at the University of Kansas. His next book examines the social and political thought of Thomas Paine


This article was taken from issue 7 of BBC World Histories magazine, first published in January 2018