Ideas Featured Institutions

The Folly of Blaming Modern Institutions for Historical Sins

historical monarchy worst king
Jeff Fynn-Paul
Written by Jeff Fynn-Paul

In this essay written for History Reclaimed, Professor Jeff Fynn-Paul of the Institute of History, University of Leiden, takes issue with the current fashion for denigrating modern institutions because their forebears did things that we no longer sanction or support. This is a strategy deployed to undermine the legitimacy of traditional institutions like monarchy. It is used selectively, and also illogically.

One of the most prominent features of the history written by ‘progressives’ in the past decade has been the blaming of modern institutions for the sins of their past.  In this institutional blame game, universities have racked up the highest number of accusations.  They have been blamed for perceived ties to slavery and sexism, while the names of buildings honouring past donors, alumni, and historical figures have come under attack.  Museums have also come in for censure and the legitimacy of their collections called into question. Cities and urban governments have sometimes been singled out for links to slavery or colonialism, particularly when they have erected memorials to now-suspect individuals.  In the Netherlands, groups of historians have spent countless hours (and public funds) creating ‘urban histories of shame’ that detail every house once owned by someone with ties to the slave trade.

There is a consensus among activists that the British royal family carries a particular burden. Charges include not only the usual ones of slavery and colonialism, but also enabling genocide, as well as propagating capitalist exploitation, European patriarchal norms, and various forms of cultural imperialism including the spreading of Christianity and (heaven forfend) a European rationalistic mentality.

Though it makes little sense, parliaments, presidents, and prime ministers seldom accrue similar levels of historical guilt. For example, US presidents are considered less responsible for the sins of their predecessors than British monarchs.  While many blame the United States for any number of sins, few criticisms of President Trump revolved around the accusation that former holders of his office had sanctioned slavery, ordered the ‘Trail of Tears’ on which thousands of native Americans died in the 1830s, or invaded Cuba. Why, then, should King Charles and Prince William become icons of British nineteenth-century sins, while US presidents are absolved of the sins of previous incumbents?

It may be because monarchs, as well as being legal heirs of their forebears, are genetic descendants also. Somehow, by some deep and ancient (il)logic, this seems to tie Charles III more closely to George III, than it ties Donald Trump to President George Washington. In reality, of course, Charles is scarcely more related to George than I am. And to be the legal heir of someone who lived 250 years ago surely cannot involve, as well, the transfer of responsibility for their perceived criminal behaviour across the several intervening generations.

Another factor at play in blaming King Charles for past sins while excusing President Macron, for example, of the sins of French colonialism, is the human penchant for perceiving institutional continuity more strongly in some cases than in others.  For example, we are conditioned to perceive monarchies as long-term lineages, even when they are subject to the sort of disruptions of dynasty and blood line that occurred in Britain between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, the era of the Atlantic slavery. But because presidents of the United States or France change frequently at the behest of electorates, they are viewed differently. Progressives thus take advantage of the fact that humans perceive some institutions in particular ways, placing emphasis on the ‘logic’ of ancestry, that of legal heirdom, and indeed the logic of institutional continuity. All of this has made it very easy to pin historical blame on monarchs as opposed to elected leaders. In reality, Charles III is no more responsible for some perceived or actual historical outrage than any other contemporary head of state.

What is it that motivates activists’ anger at collective institutions such as universities and museums? They seem to resent the continuity of an institutional name, and of ancient titles or offices within that institution. The fact that it is housed in an historical building, and that, as a collective legal entity, it has managed to remain economically solvent over decades or centuries is a further cause for distemper. Activists pretend that property donated in the past is responsible for institutional wealth today. In reality, the proceeds of such donations, some of which become burdens rather than advantages, seldom make up the bulk of a modern institutional budget.

It is common for them to complain that whatever the current social policies pursued by an institution, it is steeped in “capitalist” or “bourgeois” or other kinds of suspect values and can never change its essential character. Once imperialist, always imperialist. Thus Ibram Kendi and Ta-Nehisi Coates have argued that the American government is fundamentally racist because it once accepted the legality of slavery and ‘Jim Crow’ (racial segregation and disenfranchisement in the South after the Civil War). It will therefore continue to be racist, despite Civil Rights reforms or the election of a black President, until such time as a great “anti-racist” revolution occurs.

The progressives’ idea of institutional immutability flies squarely in the face of all historical logic and evidence. Though it is possible to claim that Charles III holds an office founded by Alfred the Great in the ninth century, the British monarchy has changed—dramatically—since that time. Institutions evolve: clubs admit women; black and openly gay officials are elected where once they were excluded. Property comes and goes, new sources of revenue replace the old. It is a fundamental responsibility of the historian to demonstrate and explain this evolution – how distinct the monarchs or institutions of one generation were from another, and why this was the case. Facile charges of ineluctable and continuous corruption abrogate this responsibility, and falsify actual historical experience and evidence of change.

In sum, progressives who attack historical institutions as tainted by historic sin, or by blood money, or by incorrigible and “institutional” racism, falsify history by denying the complexity of what institutions actually are, and how they evolve over time. They take a good and astonishing thing, the rare survival of a public historical institution that gives meaning and direction to our collective existence, and exploit it to exercise their own political agendas. It is far easier to pull down a statue than to create or to commission a new monument embodying the values of the present. To do the latter would be the more honourable and constructive course of action, adding to society and civilisation, and providing evidence of the present for the future. The other course of action is to submit to criticisms of all things continuous, and overthrow institutions that has survived across the centuries. This is the path that a significant minority now seem to prefer.

But how has this worked out in the past?  The French, as President Macron all but admitted on the death of Queen Elizabeth in September 2022, still very much regret abolishing their monarchy in 1793. Without a monarch of their own, some French even felt Elizabeth to be ‘’their queen’’, as well. Many French people still lament the replacement of the old French counties and duchies with bloodless départements, that, while administratively useful, overwrite the historical geography of the country. In Russia and China, Communist revolutions did incalculable damage to institutions of all kinds, rupturing many ties between present and past. In consequence, these states today are free to adopt skewed and distorted views of their past, using these as justification for crimes in the present. In short, almost every ideologically radical revolution has led to a sort of historical void.  Culture hates a vacuum, and these voids have been filled by political instability, or bloodless bureaucracy, as in the French case; or by immensely damaging autocracies in the more recent examples of Russia and China.

The chance survival of historical institutions that enrich the lives of many people should be celebrated if at all possible, and made to work for the present, rather than abolished outright. History shows that once you destroy something, not only is it gone for good, but nothing else can take its place and command similar loyalty. We should be wary of arguments, activists, and organised social interests that seek to blame contemporary institutions for actions that occurred at the hands of an entirely different set of actors, in an entirely different social, political, and economic situation, many generations ago. There is no historical logic to these accusations, and they are usually made for selfish political ends, to the detriment of the greater public good.

About the author

Jeff Fynn-Paul

Jeff Fynn-Paul

Jeff Fynn-Paul is Senior Lecturer in Economic History and International Studies at Leiden University, The Netherlands. He has published widely on Iberian, Mediterranean, and Global History, is a founding editor of the Journal of Global Slavery, and a co-editor of the Studies in Global Slavery book series for Brill. Fynn-Paul won the European History Quarterly Prize in 2016. In 2020, his Spectator article “Myth of the Stolen Country” went viral, enraging large swathes of academic twitter. His book on the history of European-New World encounters will be published by Post Hill Press in 2022.