The Sin of Slavery
Slavery was not the direct product of nor was it introduced by the Founding Fathers. Slavery existed centuries before our founding.
As we know, detailed studies about American history and heritage have been reduced to just a few morsels in classrooms throughout the nation. To confirm this, some years ago, I had the opportunity to browse through the teacher’s store. This establishment was quite large, about the size of what we would know growing up to be a “five and dime.” Throughout this superstore, there were rows upon rows of documents that looked like coloring books. These booklets guide teachers that instruct grades 1 through 12. Opening a sample of these documents revealed many illustrations but minimal text. Upon opening one about “United States History,” there was scant information about the topic at hand. There was no reference to our essential documents, but of course, there was a section about slavery. So much for the textbooks, that baby boomers had as youngsters.
Before continuing, it is essential to note that this author abhors slavery. Several of the Founding Fathers owned slaves. This paper is in no way an apology but a repudiation of this terrible injustice.
Slavery was not the direct product of nor was it introduced by the Founding Fathers. Slavery existed centuries before the Founding as President of Congress Henry Laurens explained in 1776: 1
“I abhor slavery. I was born in a country where slavery had been established by British Kings and Parliaments as well as by the laws of the country ages before my existence. . . . In former days there was no combating the prejudices of men supported by interest; the day, I hope, is approaching when, from principles of gratitude as well as justice, every man will strive to be foremost in showing his readiness to comply with the Golden Rule.”
Slavery has existed throughout the world since the beginning of recorded history. It still exists in parts of the world today. But we rarely hear about this modern slavery because of the god of political correctness (hint, hint – Sudan). Nevertheless, the American Revolution was the turning point against slavery, and the Founding Fathers contributed to that transformation. Many of the Founders complained about the fact that Great Britain had forcefully imposed slavery upon the Colonies. For example, Thomas Jefferson criticized that British policy: 2
He [King George III] 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 or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. . . . 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.
In a 1773 letter to Dean Woodward, Benjamin Franklin confirmed that the British thwarted the American attempt to end slavery because: 3
“. . . a disposition to abolish slavery prevails in North America, that many of Pennsylvanians have set their slaves at liberty, and that even the Virginia Assembly have petitioned the King for permission to make a law for preventing the importation of more into that colony. This request, however, will probably not be granted as their former laws of that kind have always been repealed.
Just ask any child or young adult engaged in “social studies” about the above, and we get a non-response. As such, it can be said without any doubt the children in today’s schools do not measure up to the academic achievement of the past. Today, we are at the bottom of the barrel compared to the rest of the world. The main culprit for the lousy academic achievement is that much of the time spent in classrooms involves the ideological twisting of our history.
Most people automatically think about the injustice that African Americans suffered because of slavery. That is undoubtedly true. And it is also true that some African Americans today still suffer the lingering effects of past slavery manifested by racism. However, slavery included people of every race and color up until modern times. How many people know the following facts?
On the eve of the Civil War, about 4,000 black slave owners (some writers say these slave owners were mixed-race) and American Indians owned black slaves. Note – this author indeed accepts that this aspect is a small part of the sin of slavery in this country.
The elite Africans sold their people to the international slave trade
In many parts of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, slavery persisted into the 20th century. Ethiopia outlawed it in 1942, and Saudi Arabia and Yemen in 1962.
Slavery has existed in Sudan for thousands of years, and today the slave trade persists. The Sudanese Civil War that resumed in 1983 continues between the Arab north and the black south. Permitted and even encouraged by the Arab-dominated Khartoum government, the military has captured countless Christian women and children from the south and sold them into slavery in the north. In the year 2000, there were over 100,000 black slaves in Sudan. Today, a comparable situation exists in the little-known nation of Mauritania.
During the Founding of our nation, many white Europeans placed themselves into indentured servitude. These people subjected themselves to this form of slavery to obtain free passage on sailing ships. They would work without pay for seven years to “pay back” their planter masters, who bankrolled their transportation to the new world. Before gaining their freedom at the end of their seven-year term, masters sold indentured servants just like the black slaves. In Virginia, white indentured servants outnumbered black slaves in the seventeenth century.
In Virginia in the late 1600s, the children of mixed couples (white women and black or Native American men) were required by law to enter servitude for up to 30 years.
White convicts from Great Britain were subject to shipping to the Colonies and sold as slaves.
North African pirates abducted and enslaved more than 1 million Europeans between 1530 and 1780 in raids. Thousands found themselves seized every year to work as galley slaves, laborers, and concubines for Muslim overlords. Scholars have long known of the slave raids in Europe, and historian Robert Davis has calculated that the total number captured - although small compared with the 12 million Africans shipped to the Americas in later years - was far higher than previously recognized. His book, Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters: White Slavery in the Mediterranean, the Barbary Coast, and Italy, 1500-1800, concludes that 1 million to 1.25 million ended up in bondage.
The total number of people in forced labor in the Soviet Gulag system included up to 25 million souls dung Stalin’s regime (1927 – 53). There was an annual death rate of about 30 percent in this system.
It is proper to point out that slavery existed throughout the world up to the Civil War with this background. Slavery was also being eliminated outside North America during this period, but we were the only nation that suffered a civil war, principally due to slavery. The dichotomy of slavery existed even in the north during the Civil War. Specifically, it was not just Southern generals who owned slaves, but some northerners owned them as well. Northern General, Ulysses Grant, owned slaves later freed after the Thirteenth Amendment (1865). Also, how many history professors bother to tell their students that some slaves in the Colonies could bear arms to hunt for themselves? That tidbit indeed will cause gun control advocates to become unglued.
The notable founding fathers that owned slaves then turned against the practice in the 18th century included George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Patrick Henry. Their moral rejection of slavery was unambiguous, but what to do had them baffled the practical question. That would remain so for more than half a century. It is also important to note that there was no repudiation of slavery in Africa, Asia, or the Middle East.
The historical records show that the founders had to compromise on the slavery issue. Slavery was the most contentious issue debated during the Constitutional Convention and, in the end, counted each slave as three-fifths of a person in deciding the number of representatives in each state. Even today, scholars continue to debate if the success of the Convention required such a veiled acknowledgment of slavery. While we will never know the outcome if there was no compromise, we will always consider that the Union may not have occurred due to some states such as South Carolina. That was ironic as the southern states felt slaves were not persons but compromised to consider them partial persons, giving them more representation. On the other hand, the northerners thought that the south had an unfair representative advantage, as there were more slaves in the south.
Nevertheless, the three-fifths clause was not a measurement of human worth but an attempt to reduce the number of pro-slavery proponents in Congress. By including only three-fifths of the total numbers of slaves into the congressional calculations, Southern states denied pro-slavery representatives in Congress. It was during the Constitutional Convention that James Madison recorded the debates. George Mason of Virginia was an example of those from the south who derided slavery:
“Slavery discourages arts and manufacturers. The poor despise labor when performed by slaves. … Every master is a pretty tyrant… [slavery] brings on the judgment of Heaven on a country… As nations cannot be rewarded or punished in the next world, they must be in this. By an inevitable chain of causes and effects, Providence punishs national sins by national calamities.”
Article 2, Section 9 of the Constitution stipulated that it was not until 1808 that Congress could enact any commerce laws restricting slavery. This issue finally came to a head because of the War Between the States. In this conflict, one life perished for every six people freed.
As we know, the Declaration of Independence states, “… all men are created equal, that their Creator endows them with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” That is the most often referenced statement invoked by those who wish to debase the Founders when it comes to the question of slavery. Despite what the postmodern secular humanists may say, this is a religious statement that men are spiritually equal. It also asserts that men should be equal under the law. In the face of the inherited slavery system, this statement bars slavery from man to man. The founders knew this, and they struggled with the issue of slavery and it was around the time of the framing of the Constitution that Congress acted to ban slavery in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. Slavery was an existing stain in 1776; there was the slow pace of its eventual abolition. Nevertheless, an open mind realizes that the fact of slavery in America need not lessen the value of the Declaration’s statement of equality under God and the law. Indeed, this fact magnified the concept behind this proclamation.
By 1776, several of the Founders who owned slaves were concerned about the need to abolish the “peculiar institution” [e.g., Washington, Jefferson, James Madison, and George Mason (see above)]. Some treated their slaves very well, with Madison being a notable example. He was concerned for the safety of any of the slaves that he may have freed. They may have ended up in worse conditions because of the harsh treatment blacks received in society in general, or they could have ended up under tyrannical slave owners. It is also important to note that slaves worked to death in the West Indies and South America and replaced them with more imported slaves. In the colonies, slaves lived on, and the slave trade dwindled in time because the black slaves in the Colonies lived and procreated. Nevertheless, there were legally sanctioned cruelties against slaves in the colonies, such as cutting off toes to prevent them from fleeing. Whipping in response to disobedience was another nasty cruelty against slaves that we all should deplore.
It is also important to note that the word “slave” is not in the Constitution. In his notes on the Constitutional Convention, James Madison recorded that the delegates “thought it wrong to admit in the Constitution the idea that there could be property in men.” There is no question that slavery was wrong, and it is unsound to say that the U.S. Constitution supported it.
Frederick Douglas, the great black abolitionist writer, publisher, and speaker, was born a slave. In 1846 he bought his freedom, and he believed that our form of government “was never, in its essence, anything but an anti-slavery government.” He also said, “Abolish slavery tomorrow, and not a sentence or a syllable of the Constitution need be altered.”
A majority of the Founders opposed slavery, but North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia leaders strongly favored it. In 1790, Elias Boudinot, President of the Continental Congress, responded to those who favored slavery by proclaiming that: 4
[E]ven the sacred Scriptures had been quoted to justify this iniquitous traffic. It is true that the Egyptians held the Israelites in bondage for four hundred years, . . . but . . . gentlemen cannot forget the consequences that followed: they were delivered by a strong hand and stretched-out arm and it ought to be remembered that the Almighty Power that accomplished their deliverance is the same yesterday, today, and for ever.
With the above and much more historical information, most of the Founders were opposed or were saddened to be a part of this stain on mankind. One of the more famous of the Founders who did not own slaves was John Adams, and he said, “[M]y opinion against it [slavery] has always been known . . . [N]ever in my life did I own a slave.”
Also missing from the classroom history books are the important efforts by several of the Founders to end slavery. In 1774, Benjamin Franklin and Benjamin Rush founded the first antislavery society. John Jay was president of a similar society in New York. Other important Founding Fathers who were members of societies for ending slavery included Richard Bassett, James Madison, James Monroe, Bushrod Washington, Charles Carroll, William Few, John Marshall, Richard Stockton, Zephaniah Swift, and many more. It is also important to note that the most significant push to end slavery worldwide came from Christian churches and secular organizations.
Because of the efforts, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts abolished slavery in 1780; Connecticut and Rhode Island did so in 1784; New Hampshire in 1792; Vermont in 1793; New York in 1799; and New Jersey in 1804. Furthermore, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Iowa all prohibited slavery. That was a federal act authored by Rufus King (signer of the Constitution) and signed into law by President George Washington outlawing slavery in those territories.
Rest assured that the elitists who review books will always use slavery as the core criterion when critiquing books about the U.S.history. Like it or not, books that explore other elements of the Founding in detail will be subject to slander for not “fully” addressing the core question (in their minds) of the republic’s early years. For example, the cover of the December 14, 2003, issue of The New York Times Book Review sums it up this way: “Never Forget: They Kept Lots of Slaves.” The keyword is “never.” The elitists’ agenda becomes apparent as a glass eyeball - slavery is the overarching element to measure the Founding Fathers. As such, certain intellectual snobs consider them to be villains. Forget that Washington worked hard at the end of his life to ensure freedom for his slaves after his death. This worldview also charges the Founding Fathers that did not own slaves because they signed the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Should we blame all the Supreme Court judges for the fiat legalization of abortion?
We must be honest to admit that several of the founders owned slaves. However, do we believe some of the wacky conspiracy theories that the Founders sought to perpetuate slavery or set up an elitist white plutocracy? Indeed, despite their inconsistency about slavery, they created the legal system necessary to demolish this evil.
Those who were for slavery from the Founding through the Civil War argued that those poor people were less than human. That is the same (hidden) argument used by the pro-abortion crowd.
In closing, it is profoundly disturbing that there is little in the mainstream about the slavery that exists right now in North Africa. Is it possible because it is politically incorrect to mention this modern horror because some aspects of a particular religion are engaging in this activity? Of course, some will say that there is no oil in those countries, so we do nothing. Frankly, I am tired of that demotic quip.
An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America by Henry Wiencek, Publisher: Farrar Straus & Giroux; (November 15, 2003)
Vindicating the Founders by Thomas G. West, Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishing; (January 15, 2001)
James Madison: A Biography by Ralph Louis Ketcham, Publisher: University of Virginia Press; Reprint edition; (May 1990)
Christianity on Trial by Vincent Carroll and David Shiflett, Publisher: Encounter Books; (2002)
It is essential to make this observation about the author David Barton. Like a lot of research, we all depend on the available information about the topic at hand. All of Mr. Barton’s research takes a hit by the secular humanists in general as they have taken one or two of his quotes from his work that may be questionable. Nevertheless, most of the research is excellent. That is just like David McCullough’s fantastic book “John Adams.” In this book, McCullough uses a typical quote about Adams that may not be correct. For just this one item, there are those that trash the entire book. The intellectual giants with the pea brains need to get a life — some constructive criticism of the few questions would be more gentleman-like.
Cogent author and publisher, Frederick R. Smith
Cogent Editor, Sean Tinney
“The Founding Fathers and Slavery” by David Barton at http://www.wallbuilders.com: Frank Moore, Materials for History Printed From Original Manuscripts, the Correspondence of Henry Laurens of South Carolina (New York: Zenger Club, 1861), p. 20, to John Laurens on August 14, 1776.
Ibid. Thomas Jefferson, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Albert Ellery Bergh, editor (Washington, D. C.: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Assoc., 1903), Vol. I, p. 34.
Ibid. Benjamin Franklin, The Works of Benjamin Franklin, Jared Sparks, editor (Boston: Tappan, Whittemore, and Mason, 1839), Vol. VIII, p. 42, to the Rev. Dean Woodward on April 10, 1773.
Ibid. The Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States (Washington, D. C.: Gales and Seaton, 1834), First Congress, Second Session, p. 1518, March 22, 1790; see also George Adams Boyd, Elias Boudinot, Patriot, and Statesman (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1952), p. 182.