I suspect we've all had versions of this conversation at some point in our lives: we express shock or displeasure at some aspect of the society our ancestors lived in -- slavery, Jim Crow, dropping the bomb, that sort of thing -- and a more senior relative tsk-tsks us for imposing own morals on an earlier generation. We're told that we don't understand that "things were different then" and "people saw these things differently" and "people didn't have the benefit of hindsight."
It's always a claim about an earlier era's "people," or an earlier day's "society," as though those things ("people" and "society") were monoliths. "People" thought one thing about racial differences or the need to end the war in Japan or the appropriate roles of men and women back then.
I've never understood why anyone accepts this argument. It's so obviously false as a description of the world that we live in (what, pray tell, do the "people" of today think about, say, factory farming or offshore oil development?) that I can't imagine why anyone would accept the idea that "people" used to be more single-minded.
But every now and then you come across a historical document that destroys the myth of the monolith.
Consider this petition, dated February 15, 1830, in which sixty women from an Ohio town protest the proposed removal of American Indians from their ancestral land to western points unknown:
In despite of the undoubted natural right, which the Indians have, to the land of their forefathers, we are told, to force them from their native soil, and to compel them to seek new homes in a distant and dreary wilderness. ... We solemnly and earnestly appeal to save this remnant of a much injured people from annihilation, to shield our country from the curses denounced on the cruel and ungrateful, and to shelter the American character from lasting dishonor.
The linked article focuses on the extraordinary fact that the authors of this 1830 petition were women. And rightly so.
But to my eye, the document is also valuable because it allows us to see so clearly that the choices of earlier generations were actually choices -- choices whose moral character was openly contested at the time, and not just with the benefit of hindsight.