Happy Fourth of July, everyone!
One of the widely-held claims by the political left these days is America was founded on slavery and white supremacy. They claim the nation’s Founders were all white, male slave-owners, and they were trying to protect their white, male slave-owning privilege. Thus, the system they set up and everything they said or did is discredited.
For starters, this claim ignores the fact that many Americans opposed slavery from the very beginning, including people involved in the founding or our nation. Let’s not forget we fought a bloody civil war where slavery was one of the central issues.
As for the Founders, things were a lot more complicated than the leftists would have you believe. The Founders were hardly of one mind when it came to slavery.
Some of the Founders, Benjamin Franklin and John Jay among them, hated slavery. Franklin co-founded one of the first abolitionist societies in America in 1774.
John Adams called slavery a “foul contagion in the human character.”
Although a slave owner himself, James Madison called slavery “the most oppressive dominion ever exercised by man over man.”
Thomas Jefferson appears to have been conflicted on the issue of slavery, even as he owned slaves. As a first-term member of the Virginia colonial legislature, the House of Burgesses, he introduced legislation that would’ve abolished slavery in the colony. It was soundly defeated.
Jefferson didn’t like slavery, but he didn’t know what to do about it. Ultimately, he did nothing. However, he expressed a hope that future generations would abolish it.
George Washington was one of nine American Presidents who owned slaves, and he was the only one to free his. While he accepted slavery at first, his attitude began to change during the Revolutionary War. Among other things, he accepted Alexander Hamilton’s suggestion that slaves who volunteered for the Continental Army should be given their freedom when the war ended.
In his will, Washington decreed his slaves would be freed upon the death of his wife. The old and infirm were to be taken care of while they lived, and the children would be taught to read and write and trained in a useful skill.
Consider this: In the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, these same Founders made it illegal for slavery to be expanded into the new territories that eventually became the states of Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois and Wisconsin.
Perhaps the best way to describe the Founders is they accepted slavery as a matter of convenience. They were trying to forge a coalition to fight the British, and then they were trying to turn these former colonies into something resembling a nation. They had to make negotiated compromises. They accepted slavery because that’s what was needed to achieve a greater end.
Perhaps the Founders didn’t do more about slavery because they thought it would die out on its own. In the 1770s and ‘80s, they had good reason to believe this. Of the 13 original states, eight had outlawed slavery by 1776. Many were finding Adam Smith was right in “The Wealth of Nations” when he said slavery was not cost-effective and was highly inefficient. By the time of the American Revolution, slavery appeared to be slowly dying in America.
That changed with the invention of the cotton gin in 1793 by Eli Whitney. Suddenly, cotton became a viable cash crop and slavery became very profitable.
Late in his life, Washington said the biggest mistake the Founders made was not ending slavery once and for all.
What about the Constitution? The Constitution had the rule that slaves counted as three-fifths of a person. Wasn’t that racist and endorsing slavery?
The Constitution never specifically mentions slavery, simply stating that apportionment in the U.S. House of Representatives would be based on the number of free people and three-fifths “of all other Persons.” It was actually proposed by an anti-slavery delegate to the Constitutional Convention, James Wilson of Pennsylvania. This rule was meant not to dehumanize slaves, but to penalize the slave states. The message was clear: if you want full representation in Congress, get rid of slavery.
Frederick Douglass, the escaped slave turned abolitionist leader, believed the government created by the Constitution was an anti-slavery government. He said the Constitution did not in any way make anyone the property of anyone else. He noted that slavery could be abolished and it would not change a work or syllable of the Constitution.
Slavery was abolished by the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, but no other changes to the Constitution were needed.
So, it really can’t be said America was founded on slavery. It appears it was actually founded on the hope that slavery would soon be gone on its own. The tragedy was that economic factors kept that from happening for almost 90 years after the Revolution.
The leftists might want to read when the Founders said about slavery for themselves. It might open their eyes to the real origins of this nation.