While historians in the first half of the twentieth century often simply accepted that slavery was a part of the Founding, only relatively recently has the issue so divided scholars of the period that some have gone so far as to argue that the Founders meant to abolish slavery from the beginning.
No Union with Slaveholders —William Lloyd Garrison
One of the most difficult aspects of the American Founding period is, of course, the issue of slavery. It is nearly impossible for us to understand how a people that proclaimed the inalienable rights of man could simultaneously allow the vile enslavement of those of African ancestry.
While historians in the first half of the twentieth century often simply accepted that slavery was a part of the Founding, only relatively recently has the issue so divided scholars of the period that some—such as Tom West in his Vindicating the Founding—have gone so far as to argue that the founders meant to abolish slavery (as well as promote equal rights for blacks and women) from the beginning.
Gordon Wood has argued, in Whiggish fashion, that the events of the Revolution set in motion the end of slavery.
Still others, such as the Marxian Gary Nash, have argued that a concrete manifestation of Natural Rights is so improbable as well as nearly impossible as to demand a counter reaction, such as the enslavement of some so the rest can enjoy equality of rights.
Still others, especially on the Right, have claimed that the Founders really had no choice but to maintain the evil institution and that it would be impossible because of state and local regulations, or because restrictions on inheritance. Again, on the Right, scholars such as Tom Pangle have claimed that only six founders really mattered with the rest being “pious dupes.” Knowing that the people as a whole were not ready for radical changes in society, folks of Pangle’s school claim they created a situation in which slavery would eventually fade away.
As everyone in current American politics appeals in some way to the founders, the issue matters. If the founders countenanced slavery—as a permanent or temporary issue—our view of the founders and the Founding itself must be shaped to understand this. It will not do to wish the thing away, no matter how hard we try.
And, to do so, would be an insult to all involved in the eighteenth century.
In 1791 at what is now the University of Pennsylvania, founder James Wilson, one of the six signers of the Declaration and the Constitution, stated unequivocally that slavery was everywhere wrong. “Slavery, or an absolute and unlimited power, in the master, over the life and fortune of the slave, is unauthorized by the common law,” he argued before an audience that might very well have included George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams. “Indeed, it is repugnant to the principles of natural law, that such a state should subsist in any social system.”
But, Wilson’s view had not reigned during the summer of 1787. Well, not exactly. . . .
On July 13, 1787, the U.S. Congress passed unanimously the Northwest Ordinance. As our own sagacious John Willson has claimed many times, this law might very well serve as the highest and best republican law ever written and passed. In its six articles, it brilliantly defined in the most traditional and direct way, the meaning of republican citizenship. It protected religious liberty as well as the right to association. It affirmed the common law, and it very well reflected the natural law. Most importantly, for the purposes of this argument, it forbade the extension of slavery into the Northwest Territory. “There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory,” article six stated.
A little less than a month later and 95 miles to the southeast, a different set of founders debated the issue rather ferociously, reaching a very different conclusion than that reached . The toughest debates occurred on August 8 and again on August 22. It’s worth quoting several of the passages at length, to get a sense of the debate. Just as an infamous nationalist and welfare statist from Germany once said, one could not keep one’s stomach and watch sausage being made, so the same is true with the writing of the U.S. Constitution.
August 8: Mr. King wished to know what influence the vote just passed was meant to have on the succeeding part of the Report, concerning the admission of Slaves into the rule of Representation. He could not reconcile his mind to the article if it was to prevent objections to the latter part. The admission of slaves was a most grating circumstance to his mind, & he believed would be so to a great part of the people of America. He had not made a strenuous opposition to it heretofore because he had hoped that this concession would have produced a readiness which had not been manifested, to strengthen the Genl. Govt. and to mark a full confidence in it.
August 8: Mr Govr Morris moved to insert “free” before the word inhabitants. Much he said would depend on this point. He never would concur in upholding domestic slavery. It was a nefarious institution. It was the curse of heaven on the States where it prevailed. Compare the free regions of the Middle States, where a rich & noble cultivation marks the prosperity & happiness of the people, with the misery & poverty which overspread the barren wastes of Va Mayrd. & the other States having slaves.
August 22. Mr. Sherman was for leaving the clause as it stands. He disapproved of the slave trade: yet as the States were now possessed of the right to import slaves, as the public good did not require it to be taken from them, and as it was expedient to have as few objection as possible to the proposed scheme of Government.
August 22: Col. Mason. This infernal traffic originated in the avarice of British Merchants. The British Govt. constantly checked the attempts of Virginia to put a stop to it. The present question concerns not the importing States alone but the whole Union. The evil of having slaves was experienced during the late war. Had slaves been treated as they might have been by the Enemy, they would have proved dangerous instruments in their hands. But their folly dealt by the slaves, as it did by the Tories. He mentioned the dangerous insurrections of the slaves in Greece and Sicily; and the instructions given by Cromwell to the Commissioners sent to Virginia, to arm the servants & slaves, in case other means of obtaining its submission should fail. Maryland & Virginia he said had already prohibited the importation of slaves expressly. N. Carolina had done the same in substance. All this would be in vain, if S. Carolina & Georgia be at liberty to import. The Western people are already calling out for slaves for their new lands, and will fill that Country with slaves if they can be got thro’ S. Carolina & Georgia. Slavery discourages arts & manufactures. The poor despise labor when performed by slaves. They prevent the immigration of Whites, who really enrich & strengthen a Country. They produce the most pernicious effect on manners. Every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant. They bring the judgment of heaven on a Country. As nations can not be rewarded or punished in the next world they must be in this. By an inevitable chain of causes & effects providence punishes national sins, by national calamities. He lamented that some of our Eastern brethren had from a lust of gain embarked in this nefarious traffic. As to the States being in possession of the Right to import, this was the case with many other rights, now to be properly given up. He held it essential in every point of view that the Genl. Govt should have power to prevent the increase of slavery.
August 22: Mr Pinkney. If slavery be wrong, it is justified by the example of all the world. He cited the case of Greece Rome & other antient States; the sanction given by France England, Holland & other modern States. In all ages one half of mankind have been slaves. If the S. States were let alone they will probably of themselves stop importations. He wd. himself as a citizen of S. Carolina vote for it. An attempt to take away the right as proposed will produce serious objections to the Constitution which he wished to see adopted. General Pinkney declared it to be his firm opinion that if himself & all his colleagues were to sign the Constitution & use their personal influence, it would be of no avail towards obtaining the assent of their Constituents. S. Carolina & Georgia cannot do without slaves.
Objectively, at least in historical terms, the modern scholar can reach only one real conclusion: the Founding Fathers did have a choice, and they chose poorly; they chose the inhumane option. And, they did so for the worst of reasons—expedience and nation building. They could have excluded South Carolina and Georgia (as Edmund Burke had recommended) from the Union. They also could have set slavery on a certain path to destruction, or they simply could have abolished the institution. Instead, they chose power over right.
But, then again, because there was never ONE founding or one meaning to the founding (despite the arguments of the Wests and Pangles of the world), those of us who want to love the founding can appeal to a part of it.
We can cite the U.S. Congress, under the Articles of Confederation in New York on July 13, 1787, as a body possessing far more understanding and wisdom than the fifty-plus who attended the Philadelphia convention of that same summer.
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The featured image is “First slave auction in New Amsterdam,” engraving after illustration by Howard Pyle, 1895. It is the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.