The founding fathers generally were against slavery, but slavery was ingrained in American culture in the South (and the rest of the world) to such an extent that none of the founders ever succeeded in its abolition. History is complex regarding slavery and segregation, but assuming the founders supported the institution or found it morally acceptable is a misreading of the facts and it ignores the abolitionist founders and those who sought to limit and phase out slavery (rather than create a battle over it that might destroy the newly formed Union).
Did the Founding Fathers All Support Slavery?
Slavery was legal when America was founded, but few founding fathers fully supported the nefarious institution. In fact, many founders fought to limit and abolish slavery.
Although the staunch abolitionists were Northerners like the leader of the Federalists Alexander Hamilton, many of the founders fought against slavery. Some fought to limit it, while others fought to abolish it. Those who fought against slavery included Southern Anti-Federalists who owned slaves, including the leaders of the Anti-Federalists Thomas Jefferson who led efforts to limit it in the North and Patrick Henry who said, “I believe a time will come when an opportunity will be afforded to abolish this lamentable evil.”Slavery and the Constitution. “As great as the evil is, a dismemberment of the Union would be worse.” – That is the consensus at the end of the day; we explain this disturbing and difficult aspect of American history below.
The Origin and Purpose of Slavery
In the modern day, it can be easy to look back and say that constitutional compromises like “the three-fifths” or “second Amendment” were meant to uphold the institution of slavery, or that the events leading up the Civil War (and the corresponding compromises) were about slavery. The truth is more complex.Founding Fathers and Slavery.
Even before the Constitution was signed, debates over the Articles of Confederation saw many founders standing up against slavery. In those debates only South Carolina and Georgia fully supported slavery, and the articles prohibited the importation of foreign slaves to individual states.
In practice, most of the positions mentioned above were aimed at ensuring the voting strength and economic prosperity of the rural south. In retrospect, making “the right” to own slaves a matter of “individual liberty” and “states’ rights” is reprehensible, but so are many of our current practices such as modern mass incarceration, which is also unpopular and will likely be criticized by historians in 240 years.
Slavery has a long history on many continents. It has its roots in conquest. When one group of people conquered another, and especially when those people looked different and had different customs and languages, the victors “naturally” concluded the subjugated were “less than” they. See Montesquieu on slavery. This is a more detailed discussion than we present in summary here. Montesquieu used parody to insult the western slave-trade; he was not justifying slavery. See 5.–Of the Slavery of the Negroes from his Spirit of the Laws Vol. 1 specifically, he is making fun of the European and American justifications for slavery here. His Persian Letters are the evidence, as they are written as satire and written earlier. Furthermore, his two volumes on the Spirit of the Laws are some of the political philosophies most ethically-centered works. Perhaps even more than we can call Machiavelli a Republican, we can call Montesquieu an opponent of slavery. Montesquieu originated the separation of powers principle and was the most cited of all authors in Revolutionary America.
Athens had slaves. Sparta had slaves. Rome had slaves. Africa had slaves. The Old World’s colonizing powers, including the middle-eastern powers and the eastern powers, all held slaves. The African slave trade existed for many centuries, especially in the Caribbean where lighter skinned European “workers” were said to be unable to handle the climate. This was theoretically why African slaves were favored in the Deep South. White America got the culture from the British because it had British roots.
Arguments for and against slavery stretch back as far as written history. Aristotle and Plato both wrote arguments for slavery, and the Bible discusses slavery in many forms, debt slavery, sexual slavery, fugitive slavery, working slavery, domestic slavery, and other forms of slavery. We are still fighting human trafficking and other forms of slavery today.How did Plato and Aristotle justify slavery?
However, for as long as some people justified slavery, others stood against it. While the founders of the United States have a complex history and are hard to absolve of many views we may hold, they are in no way alone in their justification, application, or fight against slavery.The Atlantic Slave Trade: Crash Course World History #24.
FACT: According to the ACLU, “The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that at least 12.3 million people are victims of forced labor at any given time, 2.4 million of whom toil in forced labor as a result of trafficking. The U.S. Department of State estimates that 14,500 to 17,500 people are trafficked into the United States each year. However, these numbers do not include the many individuals trafficked within U.S. borders.” Likewise, 3,287 people are sold or kidnapped and forced into slavery every day, the U.S. has more incarcerated citizens than any nation on earth, and some argue a debt-based society lends itself to a form of indentured servitude (which our country is meant to have abolished). We can look to the past to strengthen or resolve, but if we don’t look back with an understanding we may very well miss what is right under our noses.
Understanding the Founding Fathers’ Views on Slavery
- Gouverneur Morris “the Penman of the Constitution” may have been one of the more traditionally conservative founders, but when it came to denouncing slavery, he was one of the most progressive. Morris spoke more than any other founder at the Constitutional Convention, and he, unlike other founders with a progressive streak, never compromised his convictions. See (1787) Gouverneur Morris “The Curse of Slavery.”
- James Madison, the father of the Constitution and Bill of Rights (ironically enough in this case), was generally against slavery, but he held slaves until his death and never freed them. Madison once said of Morris, “he never would concur in upholding domestic slavery. It was a nefarious institution. It was the curse of heaven in the States where it prevailed.” See Madison on Gouverneur Morris, The Constitution, and Slavery. TIP: Madison was a Federalist and Anti-Federalist and a diplomat, where his centered intellectual stance helped to build the country, it is not the most impressive stance regarding slavery. He didn’t approve of it, but he hardly led the pack in condemning it.
- Thomas Jefferson was a slave owner until the day he died, but he wasn’t pro-slavery. During the era of the Articles of Confederation, Jefferson sought to ban slavery in the Northwest Territory, and in his initial draft of the Declaration of Independence Jefferson condemned the slave trade and, by implication, slavery. In the draft, he blamed the presence of enslaved Africans in North America on British colonial policies, and like his inspiration John Locke, he fully acknowledged that slavery violated the natural rights of the enslaved. However, Jefferson ultimately absolved Americans of any responsibility for owning slaves and favored limited government to such an extent he never used its force to seek its full abolition. See The Founding Fathers and Slavery by Britannica.
- George Mason, who wrote the Virginia Bill of Rights (on which our Bill of Rights is based) was against slavery. See George Mason’s Views on Slavery.
- Several individual Northern Founders promoted antislavery causes at the state level. Benjamin Franklin in Pennsylvania, as well as John Jay and Alexander Hamilton in New York, served as officers in their respective state antislavery societies. See also Slavery and the Founding Fathers.
All the founders strongly believed in individual liberty, and this complicated their discussion of slavery. The North didn’t want to tell the South what to do, yet they didn’t believe a man could be property. While they never stood up for the rights of man strongly enough to abolish the institution, one has to wonder if that would have even been an option. America may not have lasted as the United States if the issue became divisive earlier. The country barely survived abolishing slavery when it did. Today, we have to stand up even when it isn’t popular, but we must also remember that things are never straightforward.Slavery – Crash Course US History #13.
FACT: When the last remaining Founders died in the 1830s, they left behind an ambiguous legacy about slavery. They had succeeded in gradually abolishing slavery in the Northern states and Northwestern territories but permitted its rapid expansion in the South and Southwest. When you consider that the Era of Good Feelings ends in 1828 and the Civil War erupts after tension over slavery in 1861, it further calls into question the wisdom in preserving slavery in those initial days. Truly, it is hard to make a judgment call in retrospect. I can’t imagine what it was like then.Slavery & Jim Crow. Slavery ended officially, but the Civil Rights issues of 1964 tell us the wounds haven’t healed.
TIP: Do you want to know what the southern intellectuals thought about states’ rights and slavery in the mid-1800’s? There is perhaps no better American to look to than the South Carolinian John C. Calhoun, Andrew Jackson’s VP and often nemesis. When Andrew Jackson thought someone was unreasonable about a southern states’ rights position, you know the problem is significant. See Jackson vs. Calhoun. See also: Slavery a Positive Good John C. Calhoun February 06, 1837 for Calhoun’s justification for slavery. Clearly, the enslaved Africans were a minority. Their treatment is obviously an abomination in retrospect! However, the slave-owning Deep South saw themselves as an oppressed minority and argued that they cared more for their slaves than the North did. This is something that all Americans owe it to themselves to understand. In the same way that we neglect to mention how prevalent indentured servitude and slavery were in history (Vanderbilt’s grandfather was an indentured servant immigrant for example), we often neglect to show the human side of the non-elite pre-Civil War South. In some circles, we perhaps even fail to see the same “oppressed minority feelings” that still drive some southern politics today. No one likes to be thought of as “less than” even those who ironically see others as “less than” themselves.Founding Fathers: The Immoral Institution of Slavery. Beating King George was easy, beating the institution of slavery and segregation is an ongoing process, but don’t mistake of thinking all the founders supported it. Even on this issue, they were all generally liberals. If anything it was the next generations of Americans who brought the country to Civil War, not the founders although that tale is complex as well.
TIP: All the quotes below are for educational purposes as pulled from Econfaculty.gmu.edu What the Founders Said About Slavery, the table is likewise from The Founding Fathers and Slavery by Britannica.com.
Slaveholders among prominent Founding Fathers
The table is from The Founding Fathers and Slavery by Britannica.com and is presented for educational purposes.
|Founding Father||state||Founding Father||state|
|Charles Carroll||Maryland||John Adams||Massachusetts|
|Samuel Chase||Maryland||Samuel Adams||Massachusetts|
|Benjamin Franklin||Pennsylvania||Oliver Ellsworth||Connecticut|
|Button Gwinnett||Georgia||Alexander Hamilton||New York|
|John Hancock||Massachusetts||Robert Treat Paine||Massachusetts|
|Patrick Henry||Virginia||Thomas Paine||Pennsylvania|
|John Jay||New York||Roger Sherman||Connecticut|
|Richard Henry Lee||Virginia|
|Charles Cotesworth Pinckney||South Carolina|
|Edward Rutledge||South Carolina|
|*Held slaves at some point in time.|
Quotes About Slavery From Founding Fathers
All the quotes below are for educational purposes as pulled from Econfaculty.gmu.edu What the Founders Said About Slavery.
- “The augmentation of slaves weakens the states; and such a trade is diabolical in itself, and disgraceful to mankind.”
— George Mason
- “It were doubtless to be wished, that the power of prohibiting the importation of slaves had not been postponed until the year 1808, or rather that it had been suffered to have immediate operation. But it is not difficult to account, either for this restriction on the general government, or for the manner in which the whole clause is expressed. It ought to be considered as a great point gained in favor of humanity, that a period of twenty years may terminate forever, within these States, a traffic which has so long and so loudly upbraided the barbarism of modern policy; that within that period, it will receive a considerable discouragement from the federal government, and may be totally abolished, by a concurrence of the few States which continue the unnatural traffic, in the prohibitory example which has been given by so great a majority of the Union. Happy would it be for the unfortunate Africans, if an equal prospect lay before them of being redeemed from the oppressions of their European brethren!”
— James Madison, Federalist Paper No. 42
- “Bigotry is the disease of ignorance, or morbid minds; enthusiasm of the free and buoyant. Education and free discussion are the antidotes of both.”
— Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, 1816
- “I believe a time will come when an opportunity will be offered to abolish this lamentable evil.”
— Patrick Henry, letter to Robert Pleasants, January 18, 1773
- “Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free.”
— Thomas Jefferson, Autobiography, 1821
- “[The Convention] thought it wrong to admit in the Constitution the idea that there could be property in men.”
— James Madison, Records of the Convention, August 25, 1787
- “There is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it.”
— George Washington, letter to Robert Morris, April 12, 1786
- “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.”
— James Madison, speech at the Constitutional Convention, June 6, 1787
- “Every measure of prudence, therefore, ought to be assumed for the eventual total extirpation of slavery from the United States … I have, throughout my whole life, held the practice of slavery in … abhorrence.”
— John Adams, letter to Robert Evans, June 8, 1819
- “It is much to be wished that slavery may be abolished. The honour of the States, as well as justice and humanity, in my opinion, loudly call upon them to emancipate these unhappy people. To contend for our own liberty, and to deny that blessing to others, involves an inconsistency not to be excused.”
–John Jay, letter to R. Lushington, March 15, 1786
- Another of my wishes is to depend as little as possible on the labour of slaves.
— James Madison, Letter to R. H. Lee, July 17, 1785 (Madison, 1865, I, page 161)
- [W]e must deny the fact, that slaves are considered merely as property, and in no respect whatever as persons. The true state of the case is, that they partake of both these qualities: being considered by our laws, in some respects, as persons, and in other respects as property. In being compelled to labor, not for himself, but for a master; in being vendible by one master to another master; and in being subject at all times to be restrained in his liberty and chastised in his body, by the capricious will of another, the slave may appear to be degraded from the human rank, and classed with those irrational animals which fall under the legal denomination of property. In being protected, on the other hand, in his life and in his limbs, against the violence of all others, even the master of his labor and his liberty; and in being punishable himself for all violence committed against others, the slave is no less evidently regarded by the law as a member of the society, not as a part of the irrational creation; as a moral person, not as a mere article of property.
— James Madison, Federalist, no. 54
- American citizens are instrumental in carrying on a traffic in enslaved Africans, equally in violation of the laws of humanity and in defiance of those of their own country. The same just and benevolent motives which produced interdiction in force against this criminal conduct will doubtless be felt by Congress in devising further means of suppressing the evil.
— James Madison, State of the Union,1810
- It is due to justice; due to humanity; due to truth; due to the sympathies of our nature; in fine, to our character as a people, both abroad and at home, that they should be considered, as much as possible, in the light of human beings, and not as mere property. As such, they are acted on by our laws, and have an interest in our laws. They may be considered as making a part, though a degraded part, of the families to which they belong.
— James Madison, Speech in the Virginia State Convention of 1829-30, on the Question of the Ratio of Representation in the two Branches of the Legislature, December 2, 1829.
- Outlets for the freed blacks are alone wanted for the erasure of the blot from our Republican character.
— James Madison, Letter to General La Fayette, February 1, 1830.
- [I]f slavery, as a national evil, is to be abolished, and it be just that it be done at the national expense, the amount of the expense is not a paramount consideration.
— James Madison, Letter to Robert J. Evans
- In contemplating the pecuniary resources needed for the removal of such a number to so great a distance [freed slaves to Africa], my thoughts and hopes have long been turned to the rich fund presented in the western lands of the nation . . .”
— James Madison, Letter to R. R. Gurley, December 28, 1831.