The Founding Fathers and the Scourge of Slavery

The Founding Fathers and the Scourge of Slavery

Long before the Civil War ravaged the United States, the country was already deeply divided over the issue of slavery. The controversy existed from the country’s inception, threaded through the wording of the Constitution, even if it was never explicitly stated. Thomas Jefferson, who wrote much of the Declaration of Independence, owned hundreds of slaves throughout his life, only a handful of whom were freed before his death. There is an obvious and painful paradox in the fact that the man who wrote “all men are created equal” was also a man whose wealth depended on the labor of enslaved humans. But Jefferson was not alone. Of the fifty-five delegates to the Constitutional Convention, roughly half of them were slaveowners. With the convention nearly evenly divided between slaveowners and non-slaveowners, it was virtually inevitable that slavery — and more specifically, its abolition — would not be adequately addressed in the Constitution. As it was originally written, the word “slave” never appears in the document.

The fact that some Founders were slaveowners — Jefferson, Washington, Madison, and others — is well-known. But what of their anti-slavery counterparts? Were there Founders who were willing to challenge the slave-owning aristocracy that was already deeply entrenched in American society? The Constitution was a network of compromises and concessions that were necessary to ensure ratification. Little was said regarding slavery to avoid alienating the Southern delegates and putting ratification in jeopardy. But what about at the state level? What did the Founders do in their respective states to end the institution?

Among the Founders, it was Benjamin Franklin who was arguably the most well-known for his anti-slavery views. Though he published advertisements for the sale of slaves early in his career and once owned two slaves, Franklin was a committed abolitionist by the end of his life. The Pennsylvania Abolition Society was formed in the years just before the American Revolution, and Franklin served as its president. The organization, made up mainly of Pennsylvania Quakers, who had long opposed slavery, wanted to end the institution and assist freed slaves by helping them secure education and employment. It is unknown what led to Franklin’s transformation into one of the new country’s most outspoken abolitionists. Still, as one of his last acts, shortly before he died in 1790, he appealed to the US Congress to end the institution.

In New York, which had the third-highest enslaved population in the colonial period, the New York Manumission Society was founded in 1785. It was made up of some of the colony’s wealthiest and most influential citizens, including John Jay and Alexander Hamilton. The society was not without its critics, who were quick to point out that more than a few of its members were slaveowners. Hamilton proposed a rule that would have required potential members to emancipate their slaves to join, but the organization rejected his proposition. For all its faults, however, the society did do honorable work. It was committed to the education of former slaves, and to that end, it established the New York African Free School shortly after its founding. Hamilton also lobbied the New York legislature to end slavery in the state and stop the slave trade. Slavery finally ended in New York in 1827 through gradual emancipation, largely because of the efforts of Hamilton and other members of the Manumission Society.

John Adams, a son of Massachusetts, belonged to a family that never owned slaves, and his opposition to the institution was well-known. There is some speculation that Adams leaked information regarding the relationship of his former friend, Thomas Jefferson, and his enslaved mistress, Sally Hemings. But Adams was not in favor of immediate abolition. Like many abolitionists, Adams favored implementing manumission gradually and was fearful that the immediate abolition of slavery would have chaotic results and lead to “greater violations of Justice and Humanity” than the institution itself. He also believed that slavery was declining, though, in his lifetime, just the opposite was true. His son, John Quincy Adams, would eventually become one of the most outspoken abolitionists in the country.

Though not an abolitionist by any estimation, Jefferson — perhaps the most vexing and controversial of the Founding Fathers — made his own paradoxical efforts to eliminate slavery in his state of Virginia. Jefferson wrote of the immorality of slavery, and at the time of the American Revolution, he was involved in legislation that he hoped would lead to the abolition of slavery. During the war, he drafted a law in the colony that prohibited the importation of slaves. Jefferson, as always, is problematic; though he wrote that slavery was contrary to the laws of nature, he also made no secret of his belief that Africans were innately inferior and were not equipped to live as equals with white people. His maddeningly paradoxical views on slavery might best be captured in his statement that, “We have the wolf by the ears. We cannot hold it for long, but we dare not let it go.” For Jefferson, as with many Americans of his time, slavery was a clear wrong that could not persist in a free society, but the prospect of living as equals with former slaves was inconceivable, even for a man of Jefferson’s brilliance.

In the end, the institution of slavery grew exponentially in the years following the Revolution. When the war ended, one in five Americans was a slave. Concessions made at the Constitutional Convention, such as the three-fifths compromise and agreeing to ban the importation of slaves in 1808, ensured that subsequent generations would be left to grapple with the issue. Both Jefferson and Adams lived long enough (they died on the same day, July 4, 1826) to realize that the institution was not dying and would likely tear the country apart before it ended.