A Perspective on Slavery and Racism
A foreword: This section is not a justification for slavery but rather an attempt to put it in appropriate perspective and demolish some myths at the same time. I will discuss a brief history of slavery; then briefly explain the reasons for - and attempt to dispel - the myth that Founding Fathers were racists.
Slavery and the Americas:
Slavery is an institution that is as old as recorded human history. It was introduced to the region, and later to the colonies by the British (originating with the Spaniards and the Portuguese who were introduced to it by Arabs and African slave masters) during the two centuries preceding the independence mainly for purposes of tobacco (and later sugar cane and rice) cultivation. In the 18th century British merchant ships were the largest element in the "Middle Passage" which transported millions of slaves to the Western Hemisphere. Most wound up in the Caribbean (others in Brazil and rest of S. America), where the Empire had highly profitable sugar colonies, and the living conditions were bad for which African slaves were (physically) ideally suited.
A great reference source, as I discovered in my research for this paper, is a book by Kenneth Morgan titled “Slavery and the British Empire”. In the book, Morgan writes about how deeply embedded slavery was in British domestic and imperial history - and just how long it took for British involvement in slavery to die, even after emancipation. Slave trade itself was abolished in the empire through the Slave Trade Act of 1807 (long after the Revolutionary war) but not slavery itself (which was supposedly abolished in a court case – Somersett’s case – in 1772 but remained legal in most of the Empire until Slave Abolition Act of 1833)
Many attempted to theoretically justify slavery including Thomas Dew (Review of the Debate, 1832), George Fitzhugh, John Calhoun, and James Hammond.
In holding with its acceptance in the British Caribbean, the British settlers in Jamestown did not object to slavery as an institution. After all, labor was in short supply and the settlers came from the same culture that had embraced the practice of slavery. The practice was, in fact encouraged by the Colonial masters who had first hand experience with the profitability of the institution.
Throughout early American history, slavery remained primarily a southern practice where traditional Christian values were not particularly strong.
Founding Fathers and Racism Accusations:
Contextually, the Founding Documents, as written, are the biggest obstacle to progressive goals of achieving social justice and economic equality through collectivism (government policies). Progressives, to lay the groundwork for their attack on our Constitution, must demean and criticize its authors. The framers' views about natural law must be trivialized or they must be seen as racists (as you seem to think also). After all, Alinsky (the darling of the left) tactics demand no less from its disciples: Attack, slander, demean, and ridicule.
Founding fathers, in a feeble attempt to weaken their image, have also been claimed by some to be atheists. Even this is clear slander as many were Christians while others were simply deists with deeply spiritual beliefs as the founding documents make abundantly clear. Once again, such slander – though personally meaningless to me – is used to weaken the foundational principles of our Constitution through weakening the Founders’ image.
Well, those accusations are not accurate as I will attempt to demonstrate at two different levels: factual and philosophical.
First, we must be aware of the prevailing norms of the era. No one can reasonably expect, thus judge, norms of 200+ years ago by the standards of today. Doing so would be the height of intellectual dishonesty. For all we know, the mores of 50 years from now might openly accept those who practice pedophilia. Does that make those of us who abhor the practice somehow less noble today than we would be considered in the future? The moral: No one should look back at history through the prism of today's morality. Change comes slow regardless of the era as evidenced by the length of time it took for modern day acceptance of bi-sexuality.
So, how do we know that slavery was not a factor in shaping any of our Founding Documents (especially since neither the Articles of Confederation nor the Constitution called for an end to slavery)? Well, that is why I asked if you were familiar with them (especially the Federalist Papers, for clarification purposes) and U.S. history. It is all there, in plain words, for those who are willing to view events from the perspective of the era and truly understand them.
The prevailing mores of the era would not have tolerated any modern day view of individual right to be free for all. The founding fathers were well aware of this and had to work around it while encouraging movement towards modern day views. In fact, one of the reasons given by Thomas Jefferson for the separation from Great Britain was a desire to rid America of the evil of slavery imposed on them by the British. Benjamin Franklin also explained that this separation from Britain was necessary since every attempt among the Colonies to end slavery had been thwarted or reversed by the British Crown.
To set the record straight, not all founding fathers (a total of 204) owned slaves (only about a third did); in fact half of the key ones (excluding the other signers of the Declaration) did not own or condone slavery. Of the ten key (those with the most influence) founding fathers (Franklin – till 1781, Washington, J. Adams, S. Adams, Jefferson, Jay, Henry, Madison, Paine, and Hamilton), only Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Henry, and Madison owned slaves. Of those, Washington (who was known to be very charitable towards his slaves, thus the reason for the popularity of his name among blacks for generations) and Franklin emancipated theirs. Franklin went as far as co-founding the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society/Abolitionist Society.
Of the rest of the Founders, many including Richard Bassett, James Monroe, Bushrod Washington, Charles Carroll, William Few, John Marshall, Richard Stockton, Zephaniah Swift were also prominent members of various abolitionist societies. In fact, based in part on the efforts of these Founders, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts abolished slavery in 1780; Connecticut and Rhode Island did so in 1784; New Hampshire in 1792; Vermont in 1793; New York in 1799; and New Jersey in 1804. Furthermore, the reason that the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Iowa all prohibited slavery was a federal act authored by Rufus King (signer of the Constitution) and signed into law by President George Washington which prohibited slavery in those territories.
Next, you have to examine the political ramifications of taking stronger action towards abolishing slavery during that time. The primary purpose was obviously for the states to gain their independence from the British Empire. Although many of the founding fathers (including Washington and Franklin) wrote about their distaste for slavery, the southern states (yes, the Democrat ones for those who keep on ignoring the fact that Democrat states were the ones – all the way through the 1960s – advocating at first for slavery, and later for segregation) made it quite clear that they would side with the British, let alone ratify the Constitution, if it called for an outright end to slavery. The eventual compromise reached would allow for slavery to die naturally within a 20-year period. Nevertheless, the contradictions between the viewpoints were never resolved and eventually led to the Civil War.
To those with anti-slavery sentiments, Union was more important than ending slavery, which they believed was declining anyway (which it was - until the cotton gin’s emergence in 1789-1790). Putting slavery before independence would have made no sense since the British encouraged the practice for their own reasons – more prosperous colonies meant more revenues to the Crown. In other words, independence had to be gained first, thus the larger goal of securing it subjugated the issue of slavery.
Anti-Slavery Quotes by Founding Fathers:
The anti-slavery sentiments of the founding fathers are also well documented in their writings. Here are some examples:
“I can only say that there is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it (slavery).”
- George Washington
“My opinion against it [slavery] has always been known… Never in my life did I own a slave.”
- John Adams
“Why keep alive the question of slavery? It is admitted by all to be a great evil.”
- Charles Carroll
“As Congress is now to legislate for our extensive territory lately acquired, I pray to Heaven that they …curse not the inhabitants of those regions and of the United States in general, with a permission to introduce bondage (slavery).”
- John Dickinson
“Christianity, by introducing into Europe the truest principles of humanity, universal benevolence, and brotherly love, had happily abolished civil slavery. Let us who profess the same religion practice its precepts… by agreeing to this duty.”
- Richard Henry Lee
“It ought to be considered that national crimes can only be and frequently are punished in this world by national punishments; and that the continuance of the slave trade, and thus giving it a national sanction and encouragement, ought to be considered as justly exposing us to the displeasure and vengeance of Him who is equally Lord of all and who views with equal eye the poor African slave and his American master.”
- Luther Martin
“Domestic slavery is repugnant to the principles of Christianity… It is rebellion against the authority of a common Father. It is a practical denial of the extent and efficacy of the death of a common Savior. It is an usurpation of the prerogative of the great Sovereign of the universe who has solemnly claimed an exclusive property in the souls of men.”
- Benjamin Rush
“Slavery, or an absolute and unlimited power in the master over life and fortune of the slave, is unauthorized by the common law… The reasons which we sometimes see assigned for the origin and the continuance of slavery appear, when examined to the bottom, to be built upon a false foundation. In the enjoyment of their persons and of their property, the common law protects all.”
- James Wilson
“It is certainly unlawful to make inroads upon others… and take away their liberty by no better right than superior force.”
- John Witherspoon
John Jay, one of the authors of The Federalist wrote in 1786, "It is much to be wished that slavery may be abolished. The honor of the States, as well as justice and humanity, in my opinion, loudly call upon them to emancipate these unhappy people. To contend for our own liberty, and to deny that blessing to others, involves an inconsistency not to be excused."
Oliver Ellsworth, one of the signers of the Constitution wrote, a few months after the Convention adjourned, "All good men wish the entire abolition of slavery, as soon as it can take place with safety to the public, and for the lasting good of the present wretched race of slaves."
Patrick Henry, the great Virginian patriot, refused to attend the Convention because he "smelt a rat," was outspoken on the issue, despite his citizenship in a slave state. In 1773, he wrote, "I believe a time will come when an opportunity will be offered to abolish this lamentable evil. Everything we do is to improve it, if it happens in our day; if not, let us transmit to our descendants, together with our slaves, a pity for their unhappy lot and an abhorrence of slavery."
Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, which, famously, declares that "all men are created equal," wrote, "There must doubtless be an unhappy influence on the manners of our people produced by the existence of slavery among us. The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other.” Jefferson thus acknowledged that slavery violated the natural rights of the enslaved.
More generally, founders, with the exception of those from South Carolina and Georgia, exhibited considerable aversion to slavery during the era of the Articles of Confederation (1781–89) by prohibiting the importation of foreign slaves to individual states and lending their support to a proposal by Jefferson to ban slavery in the Northwest Territory.
Despite initial disagreements over slavery at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, the Founders once again demonstrated their commitment to maintaining the unity of the new United States by resolving to diffuse sectional tensions over slavery. To this end the Founders drafted a series of constitutional clauses acknowledging deep-seated regional differences over slavery while requiring all sections of the new country to make compromises as well (Article 1, Section 9 where a 20 year limit was set for the continuation of importation of slaves; the three fifths compromise in counting slaves in the Enumeration Clause – which by the way was not a measurement of human worth but rather an anti-slavery provision to reduce the number of slavery proponents in the Congress; as well as using the same ratio in taxing the slave holding states).
When the last remaining Founders died in the 1830s, they left behind an ambiguous legacy with regard to slavery. They had succeeded in gradually abolishing slavery in the Northern states and Northwestern territories but permitted its rapid expansion in the South and Southwest. Although they eventually enacted a federal ban on the importation of foreign slaves in 1808, the enslaved population continued to expand through natural reproduction.
Finally, I would like to point out the instances of anti-slavery sentiment expressed in the Federalist Papers (referring to #s 14, 16, 41, 48, 54, 72, 75 at a bare minimum that I could find). I shall refrain from quoting from them here but I encourage you to look them up.
In totality, considering the pointlessness of holding the Founders responsible for the mores of their era, the history of slavery, recorded evidence of distaste of the institution by clear majority of them (including the slave holding ones like Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin), and both repentance in words as well as in deeds, one cannot make a credible argument that the founding fathers were a bunch of racists as progressives put it. Yes there was pro-slavery sentiment on the part of a minority of Founders but, in the absence of any influence on the documents themselves, that is not a reason to condemn in any way the legitimacy of the group as a whole or the fruit of their efforts.
On a philosophical/logical level, the reason that, by the measure of their era, they were not racists is also compelling.
Let’s examine the key parts of the first two paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence:
“When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
In the face of these words, one side might say “but the slaves were not considered men” while the other side takes the meaning literally as we understand it. Which is right?
We already know the sentiments of great majority of the Founders from the previous section. The Declaration would logically have to apply to all men – including the slaves. If not, why all the anti-slavery sentiments and deeds by slave holders and non-holders alike? In fact, many scholars have made the connection of abolishing this practice to morality and even Christianity.
By the same token, one would have to condemn Christianity if the Founders are to be condemned despite their sentiments. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, slavery is anti-human and such, naturally, was shunned by the Founders who were deeply spiritual (in very few instances not as fervent Christians as others) men for the overwhelming part. The slave holding minority’s earlier actions, as reprehensible as they are by modern standards, were the product of the norms then. Overcoming this abhorrent institution naturally would have taken time and courage as they displayed later during the founding.
I shall sum this section up by pointing to the Founders deeply held moral and religious values in general, recorded events of the era, and the Founders’ own words to make my case against outright accusations of racism that are circumstantial in nature at best.