Revolutionary War Historical Article
Slavery and our Founding Fathers
by James Frassett
Editor's Note: Reprinted with permission of the “Lock, Stock and Barrel” ,
Jim Frasset ,Editor
"The great challenge facing a living history reenactor is the formidable task of maintaining a first person persona within the period being portrayed. The reenactor who attempts this form of living history is required to be dressed in proper period attire, accoutered with the proper implements and capable of using the equipment at his disposal. The formidable task is whether or not you can talk the language and master the customs of the period. Frequently, members of the public, attending these events, put forth “politically correct” questions, which can embarrass the reenactor who is not prepared to address these subjects. This article is written for you to provide an answer to one of the more commonly asked questions – the Founding Fathers and slavery!"
We are all familiar with the atrocities of slavery and the culture that allowed it to exist for over 300 years. We will herein examine the radical fight that our Founding Fathers put forth to end the nightmare of slavery. It is my opinion that we must first establish the fundamental truth that long before our Founding Fathers were conceived, the practice of slavery was a fully established institution.
Slavery had existed in America from the discovery and exploration period, and America’s economy had become dependent upon it. The culture had reconciled itself to acceptance of the practice long before our nation's founders began to articulate their arguments concerning abolition. The battle that our forefathers put forth can and should be likened to an underdog stepping into the boxing ring against an unbeaten world champion. There is no shame in putting up a fight against such a formidable foe and going toe-to-toe for fifteen rounds and losing. What would have been shameful would have been to have seen the injustice of slavery and done nothing at all. If that were the case, perhaps I would agree that our Founding Fathers were bigots and hypocrites as has been bantered around in our society today. They were not. They put up a monumental fight to end the evils of slavery; but unlike the ease with which David’s stone killed Goliath, this battle took the lives of hundreds of thousands of men before an entire nation that had become hopelessly dependent on slavery would require much more than a small stone but with a willing heart and a trusty slingshot. The facts are crystal clear on this issue. Our Founding Fathers began the movement that eventually destroyed the practice of slavery. These were brave and extraordinary men who took it upon themselves to change the face of what America was to become. The arguments that they made and the accomplishments they rendered set the stand for what was to principally define our Nation.
It is important to note that slavery existed throughout the colonies, without restraint, prior to the Revolution. In the north, the antislavery movement began to gain momentum as early as 1773. In Rhode Island, Reverend Samuel Hopkins, became the leader of the antislavery movement. He utilized his position as minister of the First Congregational Church of Newport to preach against the evils of slavery. Reverend Hopkins took the issue to another level by going door-to-door amidst church members and neighbors and pleaded for the release of their slaves. In Philadelphia, with the arrival of Thomas Paine, the antislavery movement took another leap forward as Paine’s first tract entitled “African Slavery in America” was published. Paine’s pamphlet begins with “That some desperate wretches should be willing to steal and enslave men by violence and murder for gain is rather lamentable than strange. But that many civilized, nay, Christianized people should approve, and be concerned in the savage practice, is surprising.”
The abolitionist movement in Philadelphia also benefited from the work of Quaker printer Anthony Benezet who printed numerous antislavery tracts. His good friend, signer of the Declaration of Independence, and later Surgeon General of the Continental Army, Dr. Benjamin Rush, along with other concerned Philadelphians, founded the “Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage.”
In Virginia, Patrick Henry was cut to the heart after reading the antislavery tracts written by Benezet. Mr. Henry, himself a Christian man and a slave owner, declared that he could not justify the institution of slavery as it was, “repugnant to humanity…inconsistent with the Bible, and contrary to the principles of liberty.”
The efforts of these early abolitionists began to pay huge dividends even before the Revolution began. In 1774, the Delegates to the First Continental Congress pledged to stop the importation of slaves to America. The Founding Fathers present at the First Continental Congress included:
John Adams ........................................ Massachusetts
Samuel Adams .................................... Massachusetts
John Dickinson .................................... Pennsylvania
Joseph Galloway ................................. Pennsylvania
Patrick Henry ...................................... Virginia
John Jay .............................................. New York
Richard Henry Lee .............................. Virginia
Phillip Livingston .................................. New York
Thomas Mifflin ..................................... Pennsylvania
Peyton Randolph ................................. Virginia
Roger Sherman .................................... Connecticut
Charles Thompson ............................... Pennsylvania
George Washington ............................. Virginia
In the same year, 1774 Reverend Hopkins and the Congregational Church accomplished their objective and abolished slavery in Rhode Island.
In 1777, Pennsylvania passed its first law for the gradual emancipation and made appropriation for full emancipation by 1780. Both of these colonies dealt with slavery before the Revolutionary War had even been decided.
After the conclusion of the war, during the 1780’s Connecticut outlawed slavery with New York abolishing it in 1799 and New Jersey in 1804.
As the abolitionist movement was gaining momentum in the northern states, it was having a strong effect on the southern states as well. Delaware, Maryland, North Carolina and Virginia all passed laws making it easier for slave owners to emancipate their slaves.
Once the Constitution of the United States was in place, the Federal Government in 1787 passed the Northwest Ordinance outlawing the institution of slavery where many of the new states would be formed. The Founding Fathers passed this law and it was to this law that Abraham Lincoln referred throughout his Presidency.
Although the Southern states never found their way clear to abolish slavery, the population broadly accepted the fact that slavery was wrong. Thomas Jefferson proposed the abolition of slavery in Virginia in 1778 and again in 1796. Delaware and Maryland created societies for the abolition and presented legislation to abolish slavery in 1785 and again in 1786.
Our Founding Fathers found themselves immersed in a battle of the conscience. They fully believed what they had put their signature to: We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights.” They believed every word of what they had signed. They were successful almost immediately once they were in power. They limited and eventually outlawed the importation of slaves. They outlawed slavery in the majority of the states within their lifetime. They outlawed the expansion of slavery into areas where it currently did not exist. They passed or influenced legislatures to pass laws making slavery more humane. Many individual slave owners, largely through the efforts of the founders, voluntarily freed their slaves.
In light of the culture of the times, I find it an extraordinary feat to have accomplished what the founders were able to accomplish without shedding blood and without destroying the nation they had fought so hard to secure.
Perhaps the greatest argument against the Founding Fathers comes from the truth that the Constitutional Convention was unable to abolish slavery. The framers of the Constitution spent many long hours of debate on the issue. It was readily obvious that the Southern states had no intention of entertaining any part of a Constitution that would abolish slavery. They wanted the issue left to the individual states to decide for themselves whether to keep slavery or to abolish slavery. This leads us to a rather interesting point in the argument. If the Framers had decided to coerce the South into abolishing slavery, the South would have seceded from the Union immediately, as they threatened to do over and over. Some might say they should have let them go right then and there.
For the slave, neither decision was going to benefit his life. If the South stayed in the Union, he was still going to be a slave. If the South left the Union, he was still going to be a slave, but without the influence of the Northern abolitionists. The Framers felt that the best position for the slaves was to keep the south united with the North and hope to influence their position on slavery through moral arguments and through antislavery legislation. Slavery was going to continue in the South with or without the United States Constitution. I cannot argue with the logic of the Founders in this regard.
It is true that the Constitution protected slavery, but it did not place any restriction in the way of any state that had a mind to abolish slavery. Congress was given authority to cut off the importation of slaves within twenty years. It outlawed the spread of slavery to new states and to the Northwest Territories. The Constitution gave Congress the power to regulate interstate commerce in slaves. The Constitution was not the problem. The problem of slavery in America and its continued existence for eighty more years was the absence of political will. If the majority of Americans had favored the abolitionist movement, slavery would have been abolished without the loss of 600,000 men during a dreadful Civil War.
A portion of the original draft of the Declaration of Independence denouncing slavery is provided as a transcription below. It was removed from the final document in order to secure the unanimous vote needed for approval, Georgia and South Carolina refused to vote for independence as long as this paragraph was in the Declaration.
“…he has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of 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 warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the 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 restrain this execrable commerce: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them, thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another…”