Slavery and the Founding Generation

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Slavery and the Founding Generation

The United States was founded upon an apparent paradox: the new nation was conceived in liberty but preserved slavery. In 1780 about half a million people, one-sixth of all Americans, were enslaved; 40 percent of southerners were slaves. The institution was not confined to the South: in the Revolutionary era, for example, slaves made up 3 percent of the population in Connecticut and 14 percent in New York. Historians still struggle to document and understand the political, social, legal, and moral aspects of how the founders dealt with slavery. Some modern-day observers have taken the founders to task for not abolishing slavery; others say that the founders deserve credit for putting slavery on the road to ultimate extinction.

Thomas Jefferson and John Jay, two leaders of the time, both wrote that in the decades prior to the Revolution the majority of white Americans, in the South and the North, had little cause to question the justice of slavery. Even the deeply religious communities of Puritans and Quakers held slaves in the colonial era. The evangelist George Whitefield, who owned a plantation in Georgia worked by seventy-five slaves, said in 1751 that slavery was lawful, that God had made the colony of Georgia an ideal place for slave labor, and that slaves should be treated with Christian forebearance. David Brion Davis has written that, in the worldview of many people of the time, slavery "conformed to the natural structure of the universe, which evidenced an infinity of gradations and subordinations" (1975, p. 152).

By the 1760s, however, slavery was being denounced by religious leaders like John Wesley and political thinkers like the Boston patriot James Otis. Otis's pamphlet Rights of the British Colonies (1764) proclaimed, "The Colonists are by the law of nature free born, as indeed all men are, white or black… . Does it follow that tis right to enslave a man because he is black?" As the Revolution gathered momentum, the moral contradiction between slavery and the ideals of the Revolution became more and more evident to the founders. In 1775 Abigail Adams wrote to her husband, John Adams, "I wish most sincerely there was not a single slave in the province; it always appeared a most iniquitous scheme to me [to] fight ourselves for what we are daily robbing and plundering from those who have as good a right to freedom as we have."

When Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that "all men are created equal," he likely meant to include African Americans as among those who possess the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In an earlier statement of grievances against the Crown, the Summary View of the Rights of British America (1774), Jefferson declared, "The abolition of domestic slavery is the great object in [these] colonies, where it was unhappily introduced in their infant state. But previous to the enfranchisement of the slaves we have, it is necessary to exclude all further importations from Africa." In 1776 he unsuccessfully proposed a clause in Virginia's new constitution whereby "no person hereafter coming into the state would be held in slavery." Jefferson thus sought the emancipation ("enfranchisement") of the slaves, though he wanted them to enjoy their rights elsewhere—his subsequent proposals for emancipation hinged on forced exile of the people freed.

the gathering movement toward emancipation

Thousands of African Americans bore arms for the American cause from the first day of fighting at Lexington to the last at Yorktown. When George Washington took command of the American army at Cambridge in July 1775, he found black men, both free and enslaved, among his soldiers. In a series of orders issued in the summer and fall of 1775, Washington barred recruiters from accepting any blacks. In December Washington reversed himself and allowed free blacks to serve. Amid acute manpower shortages later in the war, Washington initially supported a plan put together by his aides John Laurens and Alexander Hamilton to emancipate thousands of slaves in South Carolina and Georgia, with compensation to the owners, and form the freedmen into battalions. As Hamilton wrote, the army will "give them their freedom with their muskets." The Continental Congress unanimously approved the plan, which William Whipple of New Hampshire declared would "lay a foundation for the Abolition of Slavery in America." At a critical moment Washington withdrew his support from the plan, which at any rate the legislatures of South Carolina and Georgia also rejected. Numerous slaves served in the Continental Army as substitutes for their owners. The British offered freedom to slaves who could reach their lines, and after the war the British evacuated some thirteen to fourteen thousand former slaves over vehement American objections.

Military service by blacks exposed, for the first time, a North-South divide on the subject of slavery. In the autumn of 1775 Southern delegates to the Continental Congress, led by Edward Rutledge of South Carolina, demanded the expulsion of all blacks from the army. Though Congress voted down the proposal, thereafter some northern political leaders hesitated to take any action that would incite Southern slaveholding interests. Fearful of offending the South Carolinians, John Adams spoke against the abolition of slavery in Massachusetts and opposed the formation of an African American home guard unit in New Jersey. The need to preserve national unity began to emerge as the overriding factor in any political discussion regarding slavery.

George Washington seems to have believed that the Revolutionary War presented an opportunity to launch some broad mechanism of emancipation, but the moment was lost. He wrote that "the Spirit of Freedom" evident early in the war, a spirit that would have sacrificed anything, had subsided by 1779 and was replaced by "every selfish Passion." After the war Washington expressed the hope that support for emancipation would "diffuse itself generally into the minds of the people of this country" so that an emancipation "by degrees" might be effected "by Legislative authority." Washington's cautious, gradualist approach—grounded on a desire for a structured, legally sanctioned process of emancipation supported by a consensus of whites—probably reflected the thinking of other whites sympathetic to the idea of emancipation. The Revolutionary ideal of liberty for all collided with another ideological tenet—the sanctity of private property. Freeing some slaves, with the consent of their owners, would jeopardize the slave property of other owners, since people remaining in bondage would grow restive and attempt to escape or rebel. The ideological conflict was summed up in the remark of a judge who rejected one slave's claim to freedom: "I know that freedom is to be favored, but we have no right to favor it at the expense of property" (quoted in Finkelman, p. 39).

A patchwork of emancipation plans emerged. In 1782 Virginia passed a law allowing private manumissions, overturning a ban that had stood since 1723; Delaware and Maryland enacted similar legislation. Vermont, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire abolished slavery in their constitutions, but those states had relatively few slaves. Pennsylvania enacted a gradual emancipation plan in 1780, followed by Connecticut and Rhode Island in 1784 and by New York in 1799. In 1784 Jefferson proposed an ordinance for territorial government that would have banned slavery after 1800, but the bill failed in Congress by just one vote because a New Jersey representative was sick; in 1787, however, Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance, which banned slavery in the territory that would form the future states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin. (After attaining statehood in 1824, Illinois held a referendum to legalize slavery, which was voted down.)

This fragmented, halting movement toward emancipation confronted an onrushing economic tide. Popular belief has long held that slavery as an institution was waning in North America during the Revolutionary period and that it was revived only by the invention of the cotton gin in 1793, but the opposite was the case. Even before the cotton gin, slavery was rapidly expanding into the southern piedmont and new western lands. Slaves formed about one-sixth of the population in Kentucky and the Southwest. So at a time when the institution might have been challenged politically, slavery was growing and becoming more entrenched in the economy than it had ever been. After the Revolution the slave trade revived; indeed, it accelerated. With New England providing most of the ships and Georgia and the Carolinas receiving most of the cargoes, more enslaved Africans were brought into the United States between 1790 and 1807 than in any previous twenty-year period.

Foreign visitors to the new Republic were appalled by slavery and its consequences. With some shock, the Polish traveler Julian Niemcewicz wrote of seeing slaves clad in rags, described wretched housing at Mount Vernon, and wrote that most Virginia masters "give to their Blacks only bread, water, and blows." In his will Thaddeus Kosciusko left funds to emancipate American slaves, a bequest that was not carried out. The marquis de Lafayette begged both Washington and Jefferson to end slavery.

slavery in the constitution

As the founders hammered out a new constitution in the summer of 1787, the issue of slavery was discussed, but no one proposed abolishing it. Delegates denounced the injustice and immorality of slavery and the slave trade, but the main thrust of Northern antislavery arguments was against the extra political power that slave states would obtain by virtue of possessing slaves who could be counted in apportioning representation. Southern delegates feared any clause that might at some future time be used against the institution of slavery, but no one proposed any language aimed at abolishing or limiting slavery in the future, except a ban on the international slave trade after 1807. In general, Southerners adamantly protected slavery; Northerners were largely indifferent, except in cases where they believed proslavery clauses gave the South too much power. The issue of how to count slaves in determining a state's representation in Congress, and thus in the electoral college as well, was resolved by a compromise: three-fifths of the slave population would be added to the white population of a state.

The morality of slavery surfaced most powerfully in the convention in the debate over the slave trade. Luther Martin of Maryland declared that importing slaves "was inconsistent with the principles of the Revolution, and dishonorable to the American character." John Rutledge of South Carolina replied, "Religion and humanity have nothing to do with this question. Interest alone is the governing principle with nations. The true question at present is whether the Southern states shall or shall not be parties to the Union." He added that it was in the financial interest of the Northern states to allow an increase in Southern slaves: "If the Northern states consult their interest, they will not oppose the increase of slaves, which will increase the commodities of which they will become the carriers." Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut agreed: "Let every state import what it pleases. The morality or wisdom of slavery are considerations belonging to the states themselves. What enriches a part enriches the whole, and the states are the best judges of their particular interest." Pennsylvania delegate Gouverneur Morris said that a compromise was needed if the Southern states would not yield: "These things may form a bargain among the Northern and Southern States."

Slave interests won important victories in several clauses of the Constitution, beginning with the manner of electing the president. James Madison preferred a direct election, but realized that this method would give the advantage to the North, and so he threw his support to the electoral college system, in which the added three-fifths weight of the slave vote gave the advantage to the South. The ban on taxing exports, ardently sought by the South, favored their international commerce in slave-grown tobacco, cotton, and rice. The fugitive-slave clause allowed owners to pursue escaped slaves in free states. The slave-trade clause, an exception to the federal power to regulate commerce, allowed slaves to be imported for another twenty years. The guarantee clause compelled the federal government to put down slave rebellions.

The compromise in the Constitution over slavery was challenged in 1790 when a Quaker group petitioned Congress to consider an immediate end to the slave trade and a gradual emancipation. The proposals enraged Southern representatives, who asserted that the Constitution had settled the issue of slavery, that slavery was a necessary evil, and that prejudices held by both blacks and whites precluded the two races from ever peacefully getting along together—an idea most famously developed by Thomas Jefferson in Notes on the State of Virginia. The Southerners heaped ridicule on the Quakers, asking whether they would mind having their sons and daughters take black spouses. The House passed a resolution declaring that Congress had no authority to promote the emancipation of slaves or to interfere in the treatment of slaves within any of the states, further tightening the protections given slavery in the Constitution.

george washington's dilemma

Just before taking office as the first president, George Washington spoke to an aide of his regret over slavery and his wish to see it end. Twice during his presidency Washington planned in secret to free his own slaves and those held by his wife's family. He likely had in mind the pleas of Lafayette, who had urged Washington to free his slaves and set an example that might render manumission a general practice. Washington was frustrated in his attempts to free his slaves while in office. In a private letter he expressed fears over the political repercussions of a sitting president freeing his slaves, an act which might divide public opinion. He had earlier stated that the greatest evil faced by the nation was disunion, though he would also say that nothing but the rooting out of slavery would preserve the Union. Washington freed all of his slaves in his will, written in 1799. A quarter century later, Jefferson, at his death, freed a handful of slaves but left about 130 to be auctioned. Both Washington and Jefferson foresaw that slavery would bring catastrophe upon the United States. Their fellow Virginian George Mason had said that slavery would "bring the judgment of Heaven."


The founders' intent with regard to slavery became an issue in the nineteenth century. In deciding the Dred Scott case in 1857, Chief Justice Roger Taney found that, for African Americans, the Constitution recognized "no rights which the white man was bound to respect." Taney stated that the Constitution gave Congress the power and the duty to protect the property rights of slave owners. In his Gettysburg Address and other statements, Abraham Lincoln gave primacy to the principle of equality in the Declaration of Independence over the recognition of slaveholders' property rights in the Constitution. Ironically, John C. Calhoun, an apologist for slavery, shared Lincoln's view that the Declaration included blacks in its proclamation of individuals' rights, but this, he said, was a grave error by Jefferson. Contrary to the wishes of the founders, but perhaps not contrary to their expectations, the issue of slavery was finally decided not by legislative or judicial deliberation, nor by a popular consensus attained through the political process, but by war.

See alsoAbolition of Slavery in the North; Antislavery; Law: Slavery Law; Natural Rights; Property; Proslavery Thought; Revolution: Slavery and Blacks in the Revolution; Slavery: Overview .


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Henry Wiencek

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Slavery and the Founding Generation

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Slavery and the Founding Generation