Tuesday, January 23, 2024

The Founders and Slavery

        The New York Times’s 1619 Project was launched in 2019 – the 400th anniversary of the colonization of Jamestown. Their bold claim was that: “the moment [America] began,” was in August 1619 when about twenty enslaved Africans were brought ashore in Virginia and sold as a form of property. “This incident, the Times writers said, ‘is the country’s very origin.’ Although the nation’s ‘official birthdate’ came long after, it is really ‘out of slavery—and the anti‐black racism it required’ that ‘nearly everything that has truly made America exceptional’ grew.”[1] They also assert that “our founding ideals of liberty and equality were false when they were written.” Shortly thereafter, the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit (unaffiliated with the Pulitzer Prizes), released lesson plans and reading guides aimed at bringing the 1619 Project into classrooms.[2] Occurring almost in synchronization with this, Critical Race Theory and its progeny have become “hot button” topics in education and politics. As a result, much discussion and debate has occurred about the American founding, the U. S. Constitution, and the Framers’ attitudes towards slavery and the natural rights of all mankind.[3] 

        To ascertain the intentions of the Founders with respect to slavery, we may examine original source documents such as James Madison’s Notes of the Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787, the correspondence and speeches of the leading Framers of the U. S. Constitution, as well as pamphlets, broadsides, and newspaper editorials of the time. Bernard Bailyn’s book “The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution”[4] (awarded both the Pulitzer and the Bancroft prizes) synthesized hundreds of pamphlets, letters, newspapers, and sermons from the founding era to ascertain both the historical roots and the primary philosophical ideas of the Founders and their fellow colonists. Somewhat surprisingly, Bailyn observed that as the pending revolution progressed, “[n]ew, and difficult, problems, beyond the range of any yet considered, unexpectedly appeared … No one had set out to question the institution of chattel slavery, but by 1776 it had come under severe attack by writers following out the logic of Revolutionary thought. The connection, for those who chose to see it, was obvious. ‘Slavery’ was a central concept in the eighteenth-century political discourse. As absolute political evil, it appears in every statement of political principle, in every discussion of constitutionalism or legal rights, in every exhortation to resistance.” (emphasis added, p. 232) However, he notes that, “[t]he presence of an enslaved Negro population in America inevitably became a political issue where slavery had this general meaning. The contrast between what political leaders in the colonies sought for themselves and what they imposed on, or at least tolerated in, others became too glaring to be ignored ….” (p. 235) He continues, “[a]s the crisis deepened and Americans elaborated their love of liberty and their hatred of slavery, the problem posed by the bondage tolerated in their midst became more and more difficult to evade.” (p. 241) Possibly then, in one way of looking at their intentions, in the Declaration of Independence the founders declared that “all men are created equal” and that they are each “endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights,” but the natural consequences of these statements were more portentous than what they may have thought in July of 1776. They more fully realized that human slavery had to be confronted. 

        We may possess an advantage in looking back in time with many such historical records, but such perceived advantage can also serve a stumbling block when we view the past through a modern lens. Current societal attitudes and prejudices may jade and skew both our thinking and judgment concerning the founders and their generation. Another method to evaluate and judge the past is to read and study the thoughts and opinions of others who were well-known and who took significant time to review, ponder, and analyze the writings and actions of the Founders with respect to the treatment of slavery under the U. S. Constitution. Preeminent among these is Abraham Lincoln. 

        From his youth through his adulthood, Abraham Lincoln read about and studied the lives and writings of the Founders, especially George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.[5] Additionally, when Lincoln served as a U. S. Congressman, he spent significant time in the Library of Congress and archives reading documents and letters of the Founders, including the thirty-nine signers of the Constitution and the seventy-six members of the first U. S. Congress.[6] 

        During the Illinois senate campaign of 1858, Lincoln engaged in a series of formal debates with the incumbent Senator, Stephen A. Douglas, in a contest for one of Illinois' two United States Senate seats. Although Lincoln lost the election, these debates launched him into national prominence which eventually led to his election as President of the United States. The main theme of the Lincoln–Douglas debates was slavery, particularly the issue of slavery's expansion into the territories. Preceding the debates, in 1857, the U.S. Supreme Court in an opinion authored by Chief Justice Taney, held that blacks “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”[7] 

        The question of the equal rights of “all men” was on the mind of almost all citizens. The long-held and simmering disagreements related to this question, and to slavery itself, led not only to great debates, but to great divisions among the American people (as it does today). In these “Great Debates” with Douglas, Lincoln frequently referred to the language in the Declaration that “all men are created equal” and effectively placed those lofty words in historical context: 

I think the authors of that notable instrument [the Declaration of Independence] intended to include all men, but they did not mean to declare all men equal in all respects. They did not mean to say all men were equal in color, size, intellect, moral development or social capacity. They defined with tolerable distinctness in what they did consider all men created equal — equal in certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This they said, and this they meant. They did not mean to assert the obvious untruth, that all were then actually enjoying that equality, nor yet, that they were about to confer it immediately upon them. In fact, they had no power to confer such a boon. They meant simply to declare the right so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit.”[8] 

Lincoln understood and believed that the Founders meant what they said, but did not have power to miraculously change their society and culture to adopt the divine standard. Achieving such equality would require faith, labor, sacrifice and time. “They [the Founders who issued the Declaration] meant to set up a standard maxim for free society which should be familiar to all,—constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even, though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people, of all colors, everywhere.”[9]  In the candidates’ debate held on October 7, 1858 at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, Abraham Lincoln replied, 

The judge has alluded to the Declaration of Independence, and insisted that negroes are not included in that Declaration; and that it is a slander upon the framers of that instrument to suppose that negroes were meant therein; and he asks you: Is it possible to believe that Mr. Jefferson, who penned the immortal paper, could have supposed himself applying the language of that instrument to the negro race, and yet held a portion of that race in slavery? … I believe the entire records of the world, from the date of the Declaration of Independence up to within three years ago, may be searched in vain for one single affirmation, from one single man, that the negro was not included in the Declaration of Independence; I think I may defy Judge Douglas to show that he ever said so, that Washington ever said so, that any President [including Jefferson] ever said so, that any member of Congress ever said so, or that any living man upon the whole earth ever said so, until the necessities of the present policy of the Democratic party in regard to slavery had to invent that affirmation. 

Lincoln, through his own lengthy research in the records and archives in Washington D.C., could emphatically state that no Founder, no signer of the Declaration, and no member of the first U. S. Congress, ever said or wrote that “all men” did not include negroes or blacks. In this case, what they didn’t say may carry as much weight as what they did say. 

        As President of the ‘United’ States, now divided, Lincoln’s first object in the Civil War was to preserve the Union and the Constitution. But, as he so eloquently stated in his Gettysburg Address, he came to the conviction that the greater cause of the war was human equality: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.”[10]  To Lincoln, “all men are created equal” constitutes the main proposition and dedicatory cause of the nation of America, and the antitheses of slavery. Throughout his life and in his speeches, particularly the Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln stood for the proposition that the Declaration’s bold affirmation of human equality represents the soul of America. As he said, “I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence.”[11] 

        Immediately following Lincoln’s election as President in 1860 the force of events moved very quickly towards secession. South Carolina acted first, calling for a convention to secede from the Union. State by state, conventions were held, and the Southern Confederacy was formed. Within three months of Lincoln's election, seven states had seceded from the Union. On March 12, 1861, few weeks preceding the outbreak of the Civil War, the new Confederate States’ Vice President, Alexander H. Stephens, in his “Cornerstone Speech,” in Savannah, Georgia, declared that the Confederacy stood for the proposition that Jefferson and the Founders were fundamentally wrong in declaring that “all men are created equal” and that the white and black races are fundamentally unequal. Remarkably and sadly, Stephens proclaimed: 

The new [Confederate] constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery as it exists amongst us the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the “rock upon which the old Union would split.” He was right... The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. This idea, though not incorporated in the constitution, was the prevailing idea at that time... Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error... Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition....”[12] 

Thus, in seceding from the Union, the Confederate states actually stood against Jefferson and the signers of the Declaration, basing their constitution on the philosophy of human inequality with a right to sell and enslave men and women as property. Over a period of 80 years, this fundamental difference in philosophy with respect to the natural rights of all men led to the complete division of the country. As Professor Thomas West significantly noted, “Abraham Lincoln, Stephen Douglas and Alexander Stephens agreed on one thing: the cause of the civil war was slavery.” [13] 

        While the Founders had their faults and prejudices, in stark contrast to the world at large in the 18th century, they believed in natural law principles and universal human rights. They pledged their lives, fortunes, and scared honor to the truth that “all Men are created equal.” They lived, fought, and labored to form a new nation based on principles of individual liberty and equality. To do so they were compelled to compromise between two, vested coalitions. If they had intended to promote and preserve slavery, they could have done so by enshrining it in an unmistakable manner for their own and future generations. Instead, they wisely and carefully crafted a government of delegated and separated powers designed to limit slavery’s status and restrict its future under the provisions of the Constitution, which they believed one day would eventually bring the abhorrent institution to its deserved end. Of course, the troubling history of slavery and racial prejudice in America should be acknowledged and taught, and we should all work to eliminate injustice, but those who write and teach that the Founders of our republic did not believe what they said in regard to our Creator endowing us with liberty and equal rights do a great disservice to our nation and to our children. 
1. Timothy Sandefur, “The 1619 Project: An Autopsy” (Cato Institute, October 27, 2020), https://www.cato.org/commentary/1619-project-autopsy, accessed July 28, 2022. 
2. Naomi Schaefer Riley, “The 1619 Project Enters Classrooms” (Education Next, News Vol. 20, No. 4) https://www.educationnext.org/1619-project-enters-american-classrooms-adding-new-sizzle-slavery-significant-cost/, accessed July 28, 2022.
3. Alexander Hamilton stated, “Natural Liberty is a gift of the beneficent Creator to the whole human race.” Address to the People of Great Britain,” Journals of the Continental Congress, Ford, Worthington C., ed. (Government Printing Office, Washington D.C., 1904-37) 1:82, 89. 
4. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press; Enlarged edition (1992) 
5. Ronald D. Rietveld, “Abraham Lincoln’s Thomas Jefferson” (White House Studies, Nova Science Publishers, 2005). 
6. Address at Cooper Institute, New York, February 27, 1860, Roy P. Blaser, ed., “Abraham Lincoln: His Speeches and Writings,” (Da Capo Press, Cleveland, 2001), pp. 517-524. 
7. Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. (19 How.) 393 (1857). 
8. Debate at Alton, October 15, 1858, in The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Roy P. Basler, ed. (Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, New Jersey, 1953), Volume III, p. 283-325. (“CWAL”). 
9. Ibid. 
10. Gettysburg Address, November 19, 1863, in CWAL, 7:22-23. 
11. Speech at Independence Hall, February 21, 1860, American Patriotism, S. Hobart Peabody, ed. (American Book Exchange, New York, 1880), p. 507. 
12. Alexander H. Stephens (Cornerstone Speech), March 21, 1861, In Public and Private: With Letters and Speeches, Before, During, And Since The War, Cleveland, Henry, ed. (National Publishing Co., Philadelphia, Chicago, 1886), pp. 717-729. 
13. Thomas G. West, Vindicating the Founders: Race, Sex, Class, and Justice in the Origins of America (Rowman & Littlefield, 2000), p. 35.