Bikinis and Thomas Jefferson

“All I need to know about Thomas Jefferson is that he owned slaves!” a fellow said.

The past is full of social practices that may be abhorrent to us today: killing animals for their fur, bloodletting to cure disease, burning women for suspicion of witchcraft, scalping enemies, buying and selling human slaves, forced child labor … When I hear a condemnation like the above, it makes me wonder whether people today can relate to how people viewed their world a century or more ago.

Is the eighteenth century trapper who sells furs a bad person because two centuries later we’ve condemned the practice? Should we boycott the Waldorf Astoria because it’s namesake dealt in the fur trade?

Undoubtedly, people who lived in the eighteenth century would find some of our practices today to be questionable, deplorable or even sacrilegious.

In the popular TV series Outlander, Claire, a twentieth century woman is transported back to eighteenth century Scotland. Knowing the future outcome of an upcoming battle, and pregnant with the child of her eighteenth century husband, Jamie, she escapes back to the twentieth century for the sake of their baby. Once the child has become an adult, Claire returns to the eighteenth century. Jamie is shocked by one of the photos she brought to show him his grown daughter. To his thinking, the girl is practically naked. Claire explains that wearing a bikini is quite normal in 1968.

While some may only need to know whether Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, others may want to know why the man who proposed ending slavery in his draft of the Declaration of Independence and continued to argue for a plan to end slavery when the Constitution was drafted, didn’t free his own slaves.

We’re all influenced by our present world, but I hope we can also relate to how the times and environment affected people’s actions in bygone days.

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