America's Founding Fathers, admired and revered by generations of grateful Americans, have been increasingly disparaged over the past 100 years. The progressive left would have you believe the Founders were all rich, white, uncaring, racist slave owners --- but the truth is something entirely different. What did the Founding Fathers think about slavery? Were they all slave owners who refused to free their slaves? This definitive four-part series on the Founders and slavery sets the record straight.
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Slavery and the Founders Part I: Thomas Jefferson
Fifty-six Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence. Of those 56, we know that 15 owned slaves and did not release them, nor did they want to. This minority of Founders is what we would call, in effect, racist. So what about the other Founders, those who did not own slaves or those who did but wanted to free them? Thomas Jefferson, in particular, has been singled out as a hypocrite who spoke against slavery, but didn't free his own slaves upon his death. Why?
Let's begin with the obvious: America's Founding Fathers grew up in colonial America under English tradition and English rule. The colonies were an extension of Great Britain. It was the British, not our Founders, who brought slaves to this continent, and they did so for about 140 years. Thomas Jefferson, who grew up in 1700s Virginia where landowners owned slaves, began inheriting slaves at 14 years old. Even so, as he matured and considered the issue, Thomas Jefferson became decidedly anti-slavery.
So why didn't Jefferson end slavery in his own home? State law in Virginia was very clear, and Jefferson wrote about it, saying the laws would not permit him to "turn them loose." One law regarding slavery stated that if there was debt, slaves could not be freed and must be held to pay off that debt. Jefferson was, in today's dollars, $2.5 million in debt. So by state law, he could not free his slaves.
Black civil rights leaders from multiple eras --- Benjamin Beneker who personally knew Jefferson, Henry Highland Garnet, Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King Jr. --- praised Jefferson for his relentless efforts to end slavery.
When he was elected to the legislature of Virginia and took office in 1769, one of the first measures he introduced, along with senior legislature Richard Bland, was to end slavery in the entire state of Virginia. They were severely chastised for the measure with a clear message: You will not speak out against slavery --- but Jefferson continued to do so. He went to court on two occasions and fought for slaves to receive freedom, pointing out that all men were created equal with equal rights under their creator. When he was elected to the Continental Congress, he introduced a measure to end slavery in all of the United States. That measure fell by one vote.
In his diary and memoir, Jefferson lamented that slavery did not end:
Oh, to God, that he would have changed one heart. What one heart, one vote of one man would have done.
Jefferson sought measure after measure, both at the state and national level, to end slavery. He even became involved in international efforts to end slavery. Two weeks before his death, Jefferson was still saying slavery had to end.
Slavery and the Founders Part II: George Washington
America's Founders are often painted as selfish, hypocritical and evil because, while men like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington spoke out against slavery, they both owned slaves. It's forgotten that these men from the 18th century are being judged by 21st century sensibilities. Additionally, slavery was instituted and engrained in colonial society by the British. The Founders were simply recipients of a system that had been in place for well over a century.
It was the British who stopped the original abolition movement in America. In 1773 and 1774, states like Rhode Island and Connecticut and Massachusetts and Pennsylvania passed anti-slavery laws. But in 1774, King George III vetoed every anti-slavery law in America. That's what caused Thomas Jefferson to write a clause in the Declaration which favored ending slavery (three southern states demanded it be removed). When America separated from Great Britain in 1776, those states were the first ones to end slavery. Once America was free from the British empire, the ending of slavery began. By 1800, every northern colony had abolished slavery in America.
George Washington and the other Founders who favored abolition knew they could not immediately end slavery in the United States and still have a United States. They would have instantly lost all of the Southern colonies, weakened the union and wound up without a nation. That's why Washington favored a gradual or, shall we say, "progressive" end to slavery.
Despite having inherited his first ten slaves when he was 11 years old, Washington grew to despise the practice. Upon his marriage to Martha Custis, Washington took possession of many more slaves. Martha was a widow when she married her second husband, George, and she brought to the marriage close to 100 dowry slaves. Washington argued and fought from the very beginning to end slavery, with no success in the legislature. When his and Martha's slaves began marrying and forming families, his hands were further tied, as he refused to sell slaves and break up families. He waited until his death and Martha's to free his slaves saying, "You can't free the slaves till after I die and till after she dies. Because once we're both dead, then you can keep the families together."
Historian David Barton further explains:
He could have made a ton of money if he could have sold his slaves, because he says it takes me twice as much to feed them as I make off the land. But he said, "I refuse to sell slaves. I refuse to participate in that practice of selling slaves. It's wrong." So he goes broke, rather than practice something that goes against his conscience, which is selling slaves. And he would not free his slaves because that would separate families.
And Virginia law, of course, did not recognize slave families or slave marriages, but he did. And that's why he took those families. He paid them for what they raised. He paid them for what they did. He did not treat them like slaves. He treated them like family, which is why, after he released them, the blacks for so long came back and took care of Mount Vernon, took care of his grave, took care of Martha's grave, because they so loved him. He was like a father figure to them.
Phyllis Wheatley, a 22-year-old slave and poet was so impressed with the respect and kindness Washington had shown her that she wrote a poem --- His Excellency General Washington --- to honor the man she so greatly admired when he was made commander in the Continental Army in 1775. Washington responded by inviting Ms. Wheatley to his headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he received her as if she were a visiting dignitary.
In a time when the world was just emerging from languishing in the Dark Ages for over 1,000 years, dozens of enlightened men, certainly not perfect men, but definitely brilliant, inspired and enlightened, laid the foundation for what would become the greatest hope ever offered to mankind. And they dealt with the complicated nightmare of slavery as best they could. There were barriers put in place that had to be chipped away, piece by piece.
It was President George Washington who set the tone and example, leading the way to end slavery.
Slavery and the Founders Part III: Benjamin Franklin
Critics of the Founders point to the three-fifths clause in the United States Constitution, which counted blacks as three-fifths of a person, as proof of their racism. To use this as proof of the Founders' hatred for black people shows a painful lack of knowledge.
The three-fifths clause had nothing to do with the worth of the human being. The argument in question was over the census and counting people in various states for Congressional representation and taxation. Many southern delegates argued that slaves, as their property, should be counted as a full person. Why? Because that would increase their representation in Congress, and thus their power and ability to keep slavery intact. The northern delegates who sought the eventual end to slavery knew that more representation meant more power for the south. And if they allowed that, slavery may never end. The compromise was the three-fifths clause.
During the constitutional convention of 1787, the slavery debate threatened to derail any attempts to form a new government. The southern states would not have entered the Union if slave trade had been abolished. Thus, the delegates agreed to end the slave trade in 1808. James Madison wrote, "Great as the evil is, a dismemberment of the Union would be worse."
The Founders put an end to the slave trade in 1808. From the ratification of the Bill of Rights in 1791 to 1808, the slave trade lasted a total of 17 years in the United States of America. Ending slavery altogether would take a civil war and the lives of 600,000 Americans, 57 years later.
In the early 1770s, before America declared independence from England, two Founding Fathers --- Benjamin Franklin and Benjamin Rush --- tried to eliminate slavery from the American continent. Franklin's journey towards abolitionism had started ten years earlier with a visit to a school for black children, created by the Reverend Thomas Bray. For Franklin, it was an eyeopener, and he financially backed the Bray Associate School in Philadelphia.
Historian David Barton explains:
While Pennsylvania was still a British colony, Pennsylvania passed an anti-slavery law, but King George III vetoed that law passed by Pennsylvania. At that point in time, in 1774, Ben Franklin joins with fellow Pennsylvanian, also soon to be signer of the Declaration, Benjamin Rush, and they start the first Abolition Society in Pennsylvania. It was an act of civil disobedience against King George III. He said, "You can't end slavery." They said, "Watch us." But Franklin had already taken actions well before that.
Back in 1768, Ben Franklin had joined with Francis Hopkins, who was also soon to be a signer of the Declaration, and they started a chain of schools across Pennsylvania and across New England for black Americans. And it was to teach black Americans the Bible and academics. Now, that doesn't seem all that notable today, but it was then. Because under British policy, you were not to be educating blacks. Because if you educate blacks, they don't make good slaves.
And, by the way, if you teach them to read, they're probably going to read the Bible because that was the book. And if they read the Bible, they'll probably end up praying. And if they end up praying, you know what they're going to pray for, is an end of slavery. And that's just not a good thing, to have an educated slave. So under British policy, you tried to avoid education for slaves.
Now, that was carried forth in America in the southern states. And at the time of the civil war, it was a capital offense to teach a black to read. If a white person taught a black person to read, you both got kill. That was a capital offense.
Benjamin Franklin, president of the Pennsylvania anti-slavery society, thought differently and wanted to see blacks educated. When the first Congress of the United States convened in 1789, Ben Franklin introduced a petition asking Congress to abolish slavery. He died shortly after in 1790, without seeing his efforts to end slavery come to fruition. But he was one of the many Founding Fathers who worked to end slavery in America, recognizing that civil rights came from God's creation, that all men were created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, including life and liberty.
Franklin realized that being in bondage as a slave, having no free will, being governed by fear, and most likely abused on a regular basis, would take its toll on its victims. So he not only fought to free slaves, but also set up a way to help once they were freed. Franklin and his friends decided to expand the activity of their Abolition Society to include assistance in the immediate post-slavery period, helping former slaves make the transition to freedom by providing advice, assistance in finding jobs, educating children and learning how to exercise and enjoy their new civil liberties. He did all of this with private funds and private effort and without any government interference or intervention.
Slavery and the Founders Part IV: Abolitionists
Just as some Americans refuse to believe that America's Founders built this nation on Christian-Judeo principles, there are those who can't accept they also did their best to set up the eventual abolition of slavery. The laws of the time prohibited owners from freeing their slaves. These men were playing with the hand they were dealt, until such a time they could figure out a way to obtain a new deck of cards, a new set of laws --- without toppling the game itself.
George Washington and Thomas Jefferson
Tried to abolish slavery by including abolition in the original Declaration of Independence. Delegates took it out.
Opposed the practice of slavery and sought to end it, eventually becoming president of a Philadelphia abolition society.
The second largest slaveholder in Fairfax County after George Washington and a long-time abolitionist. At the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, 1787, he said, "Every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant. Slaves bring the judgment of heaven on a country, as nations cannot be rewarded or punished in the next world. They must be in this. By an inevitable chain of causes and effects, Providence punishes national sins by national calamities." Mason, widely regarded as the father of the Bill of Rights, refused to sign the Constitution, in large part because it did not specifically and immediately end slavery.
Revolutionary war hero and author of several of the Federalist Papers. He eventually became the first Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. As governor of New York, he signed legislation to abolish slavery in his state.
Signer of the Declaration of Independence and member of the Continental Congress who was an early advocate for ridding the nation of slavery. He published an influential anti-slavery pamphlet in 1773.
No discussion of slavery, the Founders and abolitionists would be complete without mentioning some of the black heros who were Founders themselves of the anti-slavery movement.
Born into slavery in 1822 in Maryland, she was routinely whipped and beaten by her owner, sustaining a serious head injury that caused health issues for the rest of her life. Tubman was a devout Christian and a fearless freedom firefighter. She escaped slavery in 1849, at the age of 27, and immediately headed back to Maryland time after time to rescue members of her own family and lead them to freedom. Tubman became an important member of the Underground Railroad, a network of blacks and whites who used secret routes and safe houses to help blacks escape slavery. During the Civil War, Tubman joined the Union Army as an armed scout and spy. She was the first woman to lead an armed expedition in the war, guiding a raid which liberated more than 700 slaves. Harriet Tubman lived to witness the end of slavery in the United States and died a free woman in 1913 on her own property.
Born into slavery as well in 1818, Douglass experienced the horrors of slavery during his youth and young adulthood before finally escaping from Maryland to Pennsylvania in 1838. He became a licensed preacher and began honing his oratory skills, for which he would later become famous. During his first years of freedom, Douglass studied at the feet of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison who taught him that the Constitution was a pro-slavery document. Once Douglass read the Constitution himself and studied the words of the Founding Fathers, his entire outlook on the document and America changed. Douglass said, "I became convinced that the Constitution of the United States not only contained no guarantees in favor of slavery, but on the contrary, it is in its letter and spirit an anti-slavery instrument, demanding the abolition of slavery as a condition of its own existence as the supreme law of the land." Frederick Douglass went on to become a best-selling author, diplomat and a member of a fledgling anti-slavery, pro-abolition political party named the Republican Party.
While the Founding Fathers and courageous black leaders brought the United States to the brink of ending the evil of slavery, it was the great emancipator, Abraham Lincoln, with his steady hand, inspired leadership and resolute commitment that pushed the nation over that edge. Many say that Lincoln's willingness to go to war had little or nothing to do with slavery, but that simply isn't true. During the Civil War, Lincoln said he had always believed slavery was unjust and couldn't remember a time in his life when he thought differently. He didn't necessarily have all of the answers about what the nation would look like after slavery ended, but he did want to end it.
When virtually everyone in his administration and life insisted that he abandon the pursuit, Lincoln forged ahead. In 1863, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation which states: That all persons held as slaves within the rebellious states are and henceforward shall be free.
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