-Malcolm X (attributed)
While most of America still celebrates independence day on the 4th of July, many black Americans tend not to. They see this day as being a white holiday, a day about something that whites enjoy but blacks have no part of. They view those days as being not about independence or liberty, but slavery and oppression.
According to writers such as Howard Zinn and most modern academic historians, the founding fathers were basically awful racists and sexists, men who were white oppressors dominated by false ideals from Europe and Christianity. A general narrative has arisen that early America was a place of ghastly abuse of minorities and women and while they had some good ideas, it was offset by their brutality against native Americans, enslavement of blacks, and oppression of women.
They all had slaves, historians cry; the old story of Thomas Jefferson having a child by a slave girl on his farm has become so mainstreamed that a major Hollywood movie was made about it. If you ask most people around the world about slavery, they seem to think it came from and was primarily practiced in the United States of America.
Even Clarence Thomas, a more right-leaning Supreme Court judge recently claimed that blacks were not part of "We the People," the opening lines of the US Constitution, when it was written. After decades of veneration and honor for the forward-thinking and liberty-loving nature of the founding fathers, now its becoming common knowledge that they were just white racist men. The very constitution its self is proof that these racist white men thought blacks were not fully human, only 3/5ths.
Founded by racist slave owners, the US was built on racism and oppression by white men, we're told. How true is this?
Like most things in this series, there's some validity to the claims, and some nonsense. Almost every single thing that Howard Zinn has ever written was like this, just enough fact to seem plausible, and a lot of fiction mixed in to please the right sort of people.
Something not often understood about American history, is that slavery was imported to the colonies, not a part of its beginning. The original Jamestown colony built in 1607 included about 20 blacks who were not slaves. This was the first attempt by white Europeans to colonize North America, and although it was eventually wiped out, it was not built around slavery.
In fact, slavery was not an institution in America until half a century later and was more along the lines of indentured servitude than life-long racially-based slavery of the 19th century plantations. Indentured servitude was a way of paying off debts such as passage to America by working for someone. Indentured Servitude is a form of slavery, but the original concept was not particularly evil in its self: working your debt off is a pretty honorable system, when it works. It ended at a specific, finite point; it was designed to be temporary.
Justice Benjamin Curtis wrote in his dissent to the Dred Scott decision in 1858 that Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, and North Carolina at the time of the Founding allowed free blacks to become citizens on the same terms as whites, and also gave them the right to participate the elections for the state conventions that ratified the Constitution:
It has been often asserted that the Constitution was made exclusively by and for the white race... [But I]n five of the thirteen original States, colored persons then possessed the elective franchise, and were among those by whom the Constitution was ordained and established. If so, it is not true, in point of fact, that the Constitution was made exclusively by the white race. And that it was made exclusively for the white race is, in my opinion, not only an assumption not warranted by anything in the Constitution, but contradicted by its opening declaration that it was ordained and established by the people of the United States, for themselves and their posterity. And as free colored persons were then citizens of at least five States, and so in every sense part of the people of the United States, they were among those for whom and whose posterity the Constitution was ordained and established.
In other words, despite the court's ruling that black slaves were property in perpetuity, blacks were considered equal citizens to whites in the original colonies and when the US was founded. Amazingly enough, the arguments by men such as Chief Justice Roger Taney in his majority opinion that blacks were never considered free citizens in the founding states are echoed today by white leftists in their attacks on America.
In other words, men like Zinn and other modern leftist academics are echoing the racist, slavery-supporting lies of the guys who decided the awful Dred Scott ruling.
The truth is, when Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, it was very long and included a line about the detestable practice of slavery which England was imposing on the colonies as a reason for rebellion. Because the document was too long, and because some states were so dependent on slavery, that among many other parts were trimmed out to make it a single page.
Another historical fact is that before the founding fathers, there had never been any real attempt to end slavery which was a global fact and practiced in France, England, Spain, and all other European nations at the time as well as the American colonies. Slavery predated the founding of the 13 colonies, it was not a peculiar or unusual American institution. As I wrote a few years back, its still going on, predominantly in Muslim-controlled nations and largely in Northern Africa.
Benjamin Franklin argued that America had to separate from England in part because the crown continually blocked any attempt to end slavery as an institution. Founding fathers such as John Dickinson, Ceasar Rodney, William Livingston, George Washington, George Wythe, John Randolph all freed their slaves. Founders such as John Adams never owned a slave in their lives. Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Rush, James Madison, James Monroe, Charles Carroll, John Marshall, Richard Stockton, and John Jay (as well as many other less-famous names) founded or joined anti-slavery societies in various states, and founder William Livingston wrote about the local society upon becoming governor of New York:
I would most ardently wish to become a member of it and… I can safely promise them that neither my tongue, nor my pen, nor purse shall be wanting to promote the abolition of what to me appears so inconsistent with humanity and Christianity… May the great and the equal Father of the human race, who has expressly declared His abhorrence of oppression, and that He is no respecter of persons, succeed a design so laudably calculated to undo the heavy burdens, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke.
These men took liberty seriously. 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. Almost all new states joining the Union before the Civil War banned slavery in their borders.
But what about the ones who kept their slaves? Men like Thomas Jefferson, for example, did not free their slaves and some were very strongly pro-slavery. There was some trouble getting the US Constitution written at all, because of its language which declared "all men" to be equal and emphasized liberty so strongly. The biggest area of contention was the way legislators were proportioned by state. The US Senate is made up of 2 members per state, no matter how big or small their population. But the House of Representatives is made up of members proportionate to their size. More populous states such as New York have more representatives in the house than Wyoming, which has many fewer residents. Southern states were concerned about their power and influence in congress relative to the northern states, because they had fewer people living in them. So they tried to load up their numbers by including slaves living in their states.
The idea was that if they could get slaves counted as well as free citizens, then their population numbers would swell and they would have more power in congress. The northern states were skeptical; after all, slaves couldn't vote and had no power whatsoever. Further, they reasoned that southern legislators were at best unlikely to represent or even care about slaves, so could they really be considered representatives?
An argument erupted. In a desperate attempt to maintain the meeting and build a successful government, let alone finish the writing of the constitution, a compromise was created. Slaves - not blacks, not free men - were to be counted in states that had them, but only 3 out of every 5. Free men, whether black or white, were counted as one person each. It was the best the compromise could manage between two groups wanting none or all. This was, as I argued in an earlier post not in any way a statement about the worth or humanity of African immigrants in the constitution. If this was a racist statement about blacks, it would have treated all blacks as 3/5ths for representation, but it did not. This clause was a compromise regarding numbers and how the House of Representatives was populated.
In other words, the constitution was not racist, did not demean slaves or their humanity, and did not "institutionalize racism" as some modern, less-educated people claim.
So yes, there was some racism among the founding fathers and yes, most own slaves. Some were so strongly in support of slavery they fought to put it in the constitution and almost wrecked the founding of the nation over the issue. But they were not the majority, and many the ones people generally venerate the most - Madison, Jefferson, Washington, etc - were strongly anti-slavery and some never even owned a slave.
The problem was they were faced with a choice: fight to end slavery and ruin any chance at a nation, or work to end it over time and build a nation that had a chance in the future of doing so.
In closing, here are a few quotes about slavery by the founding fathers:
“I can only say that there is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it.*This is part of the Common Knowledge series: things we know that ain't so.
“Why keep alive the question of slavery? It is admitted by all to be a great evil.”
“As Congress is now to legislate for our extensive territory lately acquired, I pray to Heaven that they curse not the inhabitants of those regions, and of the United States in general, with a permission to introduce bondage.”
“That men should pray and fight for their own freedom and yet keep others in slavery is certainly acting a very inconsistent as well as unjust and perhaps impious part.”
“Christianity, by introducing into Europe the truest principles of humanity, universal benevolence, and brotherly love, had happily abolished civil slavery. Let us who profess the same religion practice its precepts… by agreeing to this duty.
-Richard Henry Lee
“Domestic slavery is repugnant to the principles of Christianity… It is rebellion against the authority of a common Father. It is a practical denial of the extent and efficacy of the death of a common Savior. It is an usurpation of the prerogative of the great Sovereign of the universe who has solemnly claimed an exclusive property in the souls of men.”
“It is certainly unlawful to make inroads upon others… and take away their liberty by no better right than superior force.”