Morality, History & Judgement

When I began researching family history my focus was collecting names. I did not realize I was about to stumble upon the stories behind some of those names. I wasn’t pleased when I found 20 year old Horton Howard on the 1790 census listed as head of family, with a free white male of under 16 years in residence (probably his brother, John) and 26 slaves.

Continued research revealed Horton’s role in exploring the Northwest Territory, and leading his group of Quakers to land that would soon become the state of Ohio. This migration was done to escape the tyranny of slavery. The Quakers thought slavery debased the slaves’ humanity and that it debased the slave-owner’s morality even if they were benevolent slave-holders. Laws at that time prohibited freeing of slaves, except under rare circumstances, making this move an attractive option.

When the Quakers left Craven and Carteret Counties in North Carolina, some of their slaves followed them to this land of new-found freedom. Others, especially if they were married to slaves on neighboring plantations, elected to remain behind. In recent conversation, a friend asked me what happened to the slaves of the Howard household. I did not know whether any of the 26 slaves had made it to the Northwest Territory.

Last week, I was working with a letter written in 1807, by Hannah Howard, to Horton when he was away on business. A couple of names in one letter looked familiar: Isaac and “Miner”. I looked back to the estate inventory of Horton’s father and found those same names. These men working for Horton were probably the Isaac and “Minor” listed on that inventory.

It’s challenging to research and write about a slaveholding ancestor – and not a comfortable situation to acknowledge. I’ve not yet found anything, and perhaps never will, to tell us how Horton treated the people who had once been his legal property. In Hannah”s letter we know that Isaac had been too sick to work, and hoped to be well enough on the following day, indicating some degree of autonomy. We don’t know how well he was paid, how long a work day he had or how strenuously he worked.

Perhaps it’s not important to know that much detail. I was glad to learn that Horton provided freedom for at least some of his slaves, and that he and his friends promoted abolition and were involved in other acts of social justice. By the standards of their time, they were progressive.

On our trip to Horton’s part of North Carolina in May, I purchased a book, Blackbeard the Pirate, by Robert E. Lee. He says “it is a common error of mankind to judge the historical figures of a past age by the moral standards of the present. One cannot understand history if one takes men and events out of their moral context and attempts to interpret them by present day values.” Perhaps the actions of men like Horton Howard and his friends provided a starting place that allowed the Civil War, the Civil Rights Movement, and the election of a black president to happen at later dates. I wonder what progress or regression we will continue to see in our lifetimes.


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