Will Wilkinson rails against relativistic defense of Thomas Jefferson’s slaveholding that posit that it was somehow okay to be a slaveholder in the late eighteenth century because a lot of other people were doing it too:
Now it seems to me that you actually do want to incorporate a slightly relativistic approach to evaluating people. If you compare a dictator like Francisco Franco to a dictator like Charles V, I think it’s got to be relevant that in Franco’s time there was a viable and well-known alternative to dictatorship. As soon as Franco passed from the scene, a morally responsible leader like King Juan Carlos was able to shift the country to democracy rather than simply try to rule as a good dictator. But to blame the sixteenth century heir to a multinational empire for not embracing fundamental liberal political reforms seems silly as such reforms just weren’t part of the consciousness of the time — it wasn’t within the realm of the possible.
Somewhat similarly, when you look back at the record of Abraham Lincoln he said and believed a lot of stuff that would count as unforgivably racist were you to say or believe it today. But he lived in the middle of the nineteenth century and his views were clearly progressive ones relative to the times in which he lived as reflected in the fact that his policies were a boon to African-Americans even though the underlying sentiments didn’t always reach the standards of contemporary egalitarianism.
But this, to me, is really where Jefferson starts to look terrible. The idea that chattel slavery was morally wrong was in wide circulation in Jefferson’s time. Outside of the southern states, it was conventional wisdom that this was a bad institution. And Jefferson was not only aware of the view that slavery was bad, he appears to have found the evidence convincing. But he was too selfish, personally, to make the sacrifices that would have been involved in freeing his slaves and he was unwilling to take any meaningful political risks on behalf of the anti-slavery cause.