Slavery and the Founders
Our Founders were not Ignorant
By John D. Turner
“He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it’s most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warefare, the opprobrium of INFIDEL powers, is the warfare of a CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce”.
The Declaration of Independence: Original Draft
How different American History might have been had these words, penned by Thomas Jefferson in his original draft of the Declaration of Independence, been allowed to stand. Words, which condemned the British king for allowing the slave trade to flourish, and for introducing slavery into the colonies in the first place. Words which the delegations from Georgia and South Carolina, who were unwilling to acknowledge that slavery violated the “most sacred rights of life and liberty”, found offensive and therefore were stricken from the final document.
So what are we taught concerning those founders of our country and the issue of slavery in America?
Does it show them to be hypocrites?
After all, Jefferson, at the time he wrote the above words owned nearly 200 slaves. George Washington, the father of his country, owned slaves as did James Madison, the father of the Constitution. Does this make the birthing of the United States somehow illegitimate? Does this mean that the Constitution was written only for whites? What about that clause stating that slaves count only as 3/5ths of a person. Isn’t that dehumanizing?
In his writing “A Note on Slavery and the American Founding”, author Matthew Spalding addresses these issues much better than I, and I would suggest reading his article, which I have used as a reference for my own. It has been noted that many of the founders owned slaves. Likewise many did not. Whereas some were outspoken in their defense of that “peculiar institution”, others were just as vehemently opposed. Like as not, many in the country probably didn’t care one way or another, as is true on many issues. Be that as it may, many who actually owned slaves were very much against the practice.
Washington, in 1786 wrote concerning slavery:
“there is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it.”
Madison called it:
“the most oppressive dominion ever exercised by man over man.”
Jefferson proposed legislation during his first term in the House of Burgesses to emancipate slaves in Virginia but was soundly defeated.
Our founders were not ignorant. They fully recognized that the issue of slavery was the one great flaw in the founding of America. As John Quincy Adams, the fifth president of the United States and the son of John Adams, our second president stated in 1837:
“The inconsistency of the institution of slavery with the principles of the Declaration of Independence was seen and lamented.”
He went on to say that nevertheless:
“no charge of insincerity or hypocrisy can be fairly laid to their charge. Never from their lips was heard one syllable of attempt to justify the institution of slavery. They universally considered it as a reproach fastened upon them by the unnatural step-mother country and they saw that before the principles of the Declaration of Independence slavery, in common with every mode of oppression, was destined sooner or later to be banished from the earth.”
John Quincy, being only 60 years away from the founding, and having a personal knowledge of some of the men who were actually there (not the least of whom being his own father), should certainly be more knowledgeable concerning such matters that Mr. Clinton, who recently stated that:
“here in the United States we were founded as a nation that practiced slavery…”.
Only in a country peopled by citizens ignorant of the issues and circumstances surrounding its founding and the beliefs and writings of its founders, could such a statement be greeted by the sound of applause, rather than hoots of derision.
But then again, how many of us even know who John Quincy Adams was, much less what he may have said.
If this were a country founded as a nation that practiced slavery, you would think there would be some mention made in the Declaration, certainly in the Constitution, cementing and upholding such an institution. Yet none is to be found. At the time, strong regional interests supported the maintenance of slavery and the slave trade, and mitigated against its abolition at that time. There were over 500,000 slaves in the US at the time, the bulk of which resided in Maryland, Virginia, Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina, comprising over 40% of their population. Just as with the Declaration, compromise with the pro-slavery interests was necessary in order to obtain the unified support needed to ratify and successfully establish the Constitution.
Three compromises were made and approved by the delegates at the Constitutional Convention.
One concerned the slave trade and prohibited Congress from blocking the “migration” and importation of “such Persons as any of the states now existing shall think proper to admit” (Article I, Section 9). This allowed the slave states to continue the slave trade, but only until 1808. Notably, it did not prevent the separate states from passing laws abolishing the slave trade in their own states, which many did. It only prevented Congress from enacting a national prohibition for a period of time. Congress later passed, and President Jefferson signed into law, a national prohibition against the slave trade, effective 1 January 1808, the very first day such a law could be constitutionally enacted.
Another concerned fugitive slaves, guaranteeing the return upon claim of any “Person held to Service or Labour in one state, under the Laws thereof” who had escaped from that state to another (Article IV, Section 2). It has been noted the phrase “under the laws thereof” emphasized that slaves were held according to the laws of individual states, and made it impossible to infer from the passage that the Constitution itself legally sanctioned slavery.
Finally, there is the famous three-fifths rule, part of the section on enumeration, which states that apportionment for Representatives and taxation purposes will be determined by the number of free people and three-fifths “of all other persons” (Article I, Section 2). You will note that the word “slaves” does not appear here. Of course, everyone knows what it means. You will also note that the word “negroes”, blacks, or any other descriptive term for people from Africa is also missing.
The common accepted meaning these days is that this clause was intended to denigrate those of African heritage as being less than a person, of only being “three-fifths” as good as a white man. This is a total misreading of history which can only be made in ignorance of the facts. For one, this provision was proposed by Mr. James Wilson of Pennsylvania, who was in fact an anti-slavery delegate. Its purpose was to penalize slaveholders, who wanted to count each of their slaves as a whole person for purposes of according their states more representation in the House of Representatives.
Remember that a full 40% of the population of the five southernmost states was comprised of slaves. This compromise was an attempt by the anti-slavery faction to decrease the power of the slave states, and therefore reduce their ability to oppose anti-slavery or enact pro-slavery legislation in Congress. It had nothing to do whatsoever with any kind of statement on the comparative “worth” of blacks vs. whites. Indeed, as noted above, this clause does not say anything about blacks generally, but only talks about “free people” and “all other persons”. This is because free blacks (of which there were many) were understood to be free persons, and were enumerated as whole persons.
It is notable that the words “slave” and “slavery” appear nowhere in the Constitution. This is both significant and deliberate. As Madison recorded in his notes concerning the convention, the delegates “thought it wrong to admit in the Constitution the idea that there could be property in men.” The Constitution was designed as an Ideal, the fact that the country at the time failed to live up to the Ideal in no manner invalidates the attempt; the groundwork for eventual emancipation was set.
Frederick Douglas believed that the Federal Government:
“was never, in its essence, anything but an anti-slavery government.”
In 1864 he wrote:
“Abolish slavery tomorrow, and not a sentence or syllable of the Constitution need be altered. It was purposely so framed as to give no claim, no sanction to the claim, of property in man. If in its origin slavery had any relation to the government, it was only as the scaffolding to the magnificent structure, to be removed as soon as the building was completed.”
Far from being just another “dead white guy”, Mr. Douglas was born a slave in Maryland, and later escaped to become a prominent spokesman for free blacks in the abolitionist movement.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. saw this clearly as well, referring to the Declaration of Independence as a “promissory note”, written for future use, applicable to all times, peoples, and places. Is it only in the last 35 years that we have collectively as a nation forgotten the particulars of our founding, settling instead on simplistic platitudes based in “politically correct” falsehoods?
What would Dr King and Mr. Douglas make of Mr. Clinton’s remarks regarding the founding of our nation, this noble attempt to create a nation of laws, where individual liberty reigns supreme, and the government works for the people and not the other way around? What would be our founder’s reaction, to see what they gave of their blood, sweat, and toil so casually demeaned and misinterpreted for the sake of a 15 second sound bite, by one who recently held the office of Chief Executive?
Clearly, it is incumbent upon us, the citizens of the United States of America, to study and understand the history of the founding of our nation. To know the background behind decisions of the past, rather than simply applying the Pravda of today to the world of yesterday.
In order to understand where we are today, and make plans for where we want to go tomorrow, we need to understand the principles of our founding and the issues of the past. We need to know the truth, not what is currently in vogue to believe. We need to know why things happened, in the context of their day, what they were thinking, and their vision for the future. Don’t expect that these things are being taught in the nation’s public schools; they aren’t. We need to research them ourselves. A nation too lazy to study its past has no future; particularly where individual freedom and liberty are concerned.