Can a Slaveholder Ever Be Considered a Good Person?

In an article about the attempt to use DNA to prove that an African-American family has as an ancestor founding father James Madison, one of the participants says something along the lines of, “I’ve tried to see Madison as a good person, but in the end, I can’t: he owned people.”

I recognize that a “good person” is not exactly a characteristic notable for its universally-agreed upon qualities and razor-edged precision of definition.

But I don’t know that I agree with that statement. I have no trouble saying that today, a person that owns slaves is not a good person. And I have no trouble in saying that slave-holding is a despicable practice.

But that wasn’t always a universal truth. We know slave-holding was a practice of humanity dating back to before history was recorded. Can it truly be said that being a slave-owner, at any point in human history, is per se grounds for removal from the master list of “good person?” I tend to believe that the answer is no: that persons in earlier ages believed, in good faith, that slave-holding was not per se wrong. We now see that they were wrong, but that doesn’t make them morally deficient in their own times.

Convince me I’m wrong.

I happen to think a human being is made up of several layers; and that he must be judged by all the layers and not just one. However, de facto this is almost never the case. For example, if one spends their whole lives doing wonderfully good things and yet does something horrible at the end of their life almost certainly they will be remembered for the horrible thing.

I also don’t think slave holder inherently means bad person.
Obviously I am not the one to convince you as I agree with you all down the line.

“Good person” is relative to the mores of the observer. Many serious vegans would have trouble believing anybody who eats meat can be considered a good person. Many fundamentalist Christians feel the same way about homosexuals.

Simple minds try to find simple dichotomies. Reality is a lot more complicated.

“No one is good except God.”

I think a lot of it has to do with what culture, what their slavery looked like, and what the individual slave-owner acted like. In some cultures, from what I understand (and this may be totally wrong) slaves were like family, like aunts and uncles and cousins to the owner’s kids - a woman slave might be nursemaid to multiple generations of one family’s kids and love them as her own children. To forcibly push a person like that out of a household would be cruel. Imagine what Juliet’s nurse would have said if you had told her she had to go away and never see Juliet again. In other times and places, being a slave was not a fixed station in life - Roman slaves had legal protections and could earn their way out of slavery. Some people back then sold themselves into temporary slavery, much like today a teacher might agree to work in a low-income school for 5 years after graduation in order to get their degree paid for. I don’t think a person offering financial help in return for service is necessarily evil.

So yeah, I agree, a slaveholder could be a good person, not only divorced from his status as slaveowner, but even within it.

You can’t apply the standards of today to people of the past. Just as science marches on, society’s values evolve. Madison lived at a time when slaveholding was a normal fact of life. We can’t hold that against him any more than 23rd century historians can condemn current leaders for not allowing gay marriage.

Sure you can. Their lack-of-goodness is surely mitigated by the differing societal views of the time, but I don’t see why you can’t have the same general view of someone now as you would back then – same views/actions, same moral weight.

That said, there may have been times where owning a slave by an otherwise nice person was the best outcome that could be expected for the slave, for instance, at times where manumission was proscribed or limited.

There is also the partially self-serving justification that “well, I treat them better than anyone else would, so if I didn’t buy them, a crueler person would have,” which has some merit in the specific, but in the long run, only serves to increase the demand for slaves.

I’m pretty much in this camp, except that Madison lived at a time when slavery was starting to be viewed as bad. I guess the question is where we expect someone like him to be on the learning curve.

We really didn’t have a good idea of what it meant to be a human being until well into the 19th century, and it wasn’t unreasonable before that to think that there were different types of humans-- certainly that not all humans were created the same (pretty much everyone was a creationist in the 18th century).

Women weren’t considered the intellectual or moral equivalent of men, either. One might ask: Can a person be considered “good” if he didn’t support equal rights for women in the early 1800s?

I should note that I do not support an absolute measure of one’s “goodness”, a quibble which the OP anticipates.

But yes, support for the continuation of the denial of women’s rights does lower my estimation of one’s “goodness” no matter the time period, inasmuch as it can be measured.

I’ve just been reading Mark Twain’s autobiography. He states quite clearly that the people in the towns in the South that he grew up in – Florida, Missouri and Hannibal, Missouri and the place he lived before those – were basically Good Folk who nevertheless practiced slavery, a practice he abhorred and found inhuman and inhumane (See Huckleberry Finn and Pudd’nhead Wilson and Connecticut Yankee and his other works). The thing is that they grew up in that system, had its goodness preached to them in Church every Sunday, and accepted it as a part of life, like breathing the air, that was accepted without question. He also said that it was easier for them to do because the more brutal elements of slavery – savage beatings, mutilation, hangings, breaking up of families – weren’t practiced in those towns, at least to his knowledge.

I could see a person – an Aunt Polly or whoever, who grew up under such an accepted, unquestioning system, and who lived a moral life according to he Bible, being “good”, because they were unaware or uncomprehending of what an offense this facet of their life appears to someone raised outside the system.

So–there are two types of people: “Good” & “Bad”

It’s really more complex. I think that slaveholding is bad. (Duh.) It wasn’t considered so universally in the past. But, as John Mace pointed out, in Madison’s day, there were already anti-slavery beliefs. Some slaveholders did free their slaves–& provide for them. Some people were abolitionists–often from parts of the country where slavery had been abandoned–sometimes for economic reasons.

Generally, I have a more complex system for keeping score. “Slaveholding” is a mark in the “Bad” column. But Madison, Jefferson, Washington, etc., also had good qualities.

Are you people saying “yes” making sure you’ve considered yourselves in the position of being an American slave first?

It also, in general, might be easier to see a slaveholder in the abstract as a “good person” than the guy who owned your family as a good person.

Also, even assuming that someone believed, in good faith, that slaveholding wasn’t wrong, and held slaves thereby, does that mean they’re not a bad person for doing so?

While I see your point, there isn’t anything unique to slavery that we need to put ourselves in a slave’s position in order to understand the concept that what is considered “good” changes over time.

Good point. There certainly was a transition of time for slavery to go from near-universal acceptance to condemnation. Let’s say that the year that 50% of the people rejected slavery was 1850. Then if the distibution is bell-shaped, someone who was against it in 1750 might be quite enlightened and someone who didn’t oppose it until 1840 wasn’t quite as far ahead of the curve. Perhaps Madison wasn’t a beacon of enlightenment, but I still think you need to consider the times and for a Virginian of that period it’s hard to expect a different attitude toward slavery.

Among whom? The slaves were around at that time. Do you think there was consensus among them that slaveholders were good?

I don’t know what you mean by that.

What difference does that make? There were always some people who thought slavery was bad. But in the 18th century, slavery was practiced pretty much everywhere in the world, including the places where the slaves came from.

The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;

Act III, Scene II, “Julius Caesar”

The slaves in the southern states weren’t exactly the same as Greek Helots or medieval serfs. I think that a slave owner during the relatively modern American era committed a much worse crime than the Romans, considering that every relatively modern culture of the time knew slavery was wrong, and usually opposed it vigorously.

Southern slave owners knew they were wrong. They had a hard time using variations of the word “slave” on legal documents, because EVERYONE knew that saying a human being could be someone else’s property was despicable. A modern slave owner can do good things, for sure, but definitely can not be a good person.

Nope. In fact, I carefully picked versions of slavery OTHER than the American Southern Slavery. I don’t think there’s anything defensible about it in that time and form. However, the OP was asking about the very broad brush question, not the specifics of American slavery or even the particular of James Madison (of whom I know nothing - certainly not whether or not he was a good person.)