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The Founders and Slavery: Misunderstood

Abolitionist founder, Thomas Jefferson

The Founders, in the way the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were worded, set the stage for the elimination of slavery in the United States. The Civil War was indeed about slavery, it was phase two of the American Revolution, completing what the Founders had started. Although the Confederates had many brave soldiers and officers, and certainly not all of them were fighting per se to save the institution of slavery from their own personal perspectives, the politicians who ran the south knew very well that succession occurred to save slavery.

The Confederacy was fighting against the Founding and its principals of equality and freedom, it was attempting to sabotage the great experiment launched by Jefferson, Franklin, Madison, Hamilton, Adams and the rest, and under which we are fortunate enough to live today. It may not be perfect, but it's the best in the world.
Slavery and states rights were inextricably connected at the time of the founding. To try to separate the slavery issue from the states rights question at the time of the Civil War is wrong: The slavery issue brought the states rights issue to the front burner. It is clear that the U.S.A. would not have survived had the confederacy completed its mission of expanding slavery to the west, and maintaining it in the south. It (slavery) was not dying a natural death at the time of the Civil War, but in fact was increasing from a high birth rate, in spite of an end to the slave trade (I believe in 1808).

Those who believe that the Founders were secularists and favored slavery could not be more wrong and the use of the words slave and slavery. I have listed some quotes below from the time of the American Revolution for the reader's edification:

George Washington:

“There is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it.”

John Adams:

“Every measure of prudence, therefore, ought to be assumed for the eventual total extirpation of slavery from the United States...I have, through my whole life, held the practice of slavery...abhorrence.”

Benjamin Franklin:

“Slavery atrocious debasement of human nature.”

Alexander Hamilton:

“The laws of certain states...give an ownership in the service of Negroes as personal property...But being men, by the laws of God and nature, they were capable of acquiring liberty-and when the captor in war...thought fit to give them liberty, the gift was not only valid, but irrevocable.”

James Madison:

“We have seen the mere distinction of color made in the most enlightened period of time, a ground of the most oppressive dominion ever exercised by man over man.”

Thomas Jefferson:

“He [the king of Britain] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere...Determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought and sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce.”

Jefferson supported abolition, but as a slave owner deeply in debt, he was not legally able to free his slaves, because the law placed a lien on them in favor of his creditors. After his death, they were sold to pay his debts.

When the Founders were struggling with forces from the slavocracy south during the constitutional convention, they were forced to compromise, hoping that slavery would fade away, that it was an evil, and recognized as such, would be abolished within a few years. Had they no compromised, the nation we now live in would not have succeeded, and slavery would have persisted in all of its brutal forms for many more decades beyond the Civil War in parts of North America.

The quotes that I listed certainly had no bearing on the actual legality of slavery, but clearly show the mindset of the Founders. The quote that I printed previously was from Jefferson's first draft of the Declaration of Independence. He was dissuaded from including it, because the slave owners would not have signed it. The terrible choice facing the Founders was no union, no nation, or a temporarily flawed one. The forces of the slave owning south would not have ratified a constitution that explicitly outlawed slavery. The following quote from Thomas Jefferson illustrates this struggle:

"We have the wolf by the ears, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale,and self-preservation in the other."

Yes,the 13 original colonies were all slave-friendly up until the revolution, and since they were part of England at that time, the major player in the slave trade, this shouldn't surprise anyone. What is interesting is what began happening as the revolution approached.

James Otis, in 1764,said:

"The colonists are by the law of nature freeborn, as indeed all men are, white or black."

This linkage between the struggle of the colonialists with the issue of slavery of Africans grew stronger and more obvious to the revolutionaries as the revolution approached, and in the period following. Actions in individual colonies to end slavery began in 1774. Eight states abolished slavery (some of these abolition laws were gradual in nature) during the founding period, beginning in Vermont in 1777. By 1804, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Hampshire,and Massachusetts had also abolished slavery by state law. Pennsylvania passed a gradual emancipation law in 1780. Even in the south, actions were attempted. For example, Thomas Jefferson authored a proposed law in the Virginia Legislature to abolish slavery in his home state Virginia, and another in the congress. (they failed).

So to those who condemn the Founders because they failed to abolish slavery in 1787: You are greatly misinformed about these God-fearing and moral national heroes.

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