The Myth of the Admirable Founders, Part 2

“If there be an object truly ridiculous in nature, it is an American patriot, signing resolutions of independency with the one hand, and with the other brandishing a whip over his affrighted slaves.”–Thomas Day

Today, I want to start off my criticism of the Founding Fathers by addressing the common argument issued in their defense that they ended the African slave trade. The argument goes that the Constitution was somehow anti-slave trade/that Thomas Jefferson signed legislation outlawing the trade, and that this means that the Founding Fathers were antislavery in a meaningful sense. Well, first of all, the Constitution did not prohibit the African slave trade. It forbade Congress from banning the trade for twenty years, after which time, it stipulated, Congress could but was not obligated to ban it. Very well, the apologists say, but after the 20 year timetable was up, Jefferson almost immediately banned the trade. That’s true. However, people who use this fact to defend the Founding Fathers are making the mistake of confusing opposition to the African Slave Trade with opposition to slavery in general. This is inaccurate for several reasons. Since we live in a predominantly antislavery world, it may seem strange that someone could oppose the African Slave Trade and support slavery in America. In fact, however, this was a common opinion. In the first place, many sanctimonious slave owners could reconcile themselves to owning people born into bondage but could not stomach the kidnapping and importation of people who might have been born free, especially when said people were transported across the ocean in cramped, disease-filled ships. Second, much of the opposition to the trade was economic rather than moral. This was illustrated at the Constitutional Convention. Antifederalist and Virginia delegate to the Constitutional Convention, George Mason, complained that the Constitution did not protect slavery in the South, but he also railed against the African Slave Trade and demanded that Congress ban it. When Mason tried to defend his views on the Slave Trade by lecturing on the evil effects of slavery, Connecticut delegate Oliver Ellsworth astutely suggested that if slavery was as destructive as Mason suggested, Congress should ban slavery itself, not just the trade. This was a stand that George Mason could not bring himself to take. Other Virginia delegates were similarly in favor of banning the African Slave Trade. In his book, Slavery and the Founders: Race and Liberty in the Age of Jefferson, Paul Finkelman describes how Virginians felt that importation of slaves from outside the state decreased the financial value of every individual slave. After all, an important law of economics is that supply decreases demand. Having already amassed a large labor force of enslaved blacks, Virginia’s powerbrokers decided that it was in their best interests to support ending the African Slave Trade. Finally, having too many slaves could lead to a situation where whites were outnumbered and a slave rebellion took place. With these facts in mind, it is no surprise that slavery in the United States continued for nearly sixty years after Congress banned the trade. To claim that founders like George Mason and Thomas Jefferson were antislavery because they opposed the African Slave Trade ignores the political nuances and economics of the era. Another argument made in favor of slave-owning founders is that they could not free their slaves because the law did not allow them to. It is true that well-meaning slave owners were often inhibited from freeing their slaves due to red tape. However, this excuse does not exonerate the Founding Fathers. A slave-owner who truly wanted to free their slaves but was prevented from doing so by law could be expected to work for abolition while covertly encouraging said slaves to run away and not enforcing the system of slavery in any way. Not one of the most revered Southern founders—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, George Mason, Patrick Henry, James Madison—did all of these things. When Oney Judge, a slave on Washington’s plantation ran away, George Washington unsuccessfully tried to have her recaptured. Additionally, he signed a fugitive slave law as president. Thomas Jefferson’s refusal to respect the humanity of African Americans is well illustrated in the case of a slave he owned named Billy. The book Jefferson and Monticello: The Biography of a Builder skillfully describes the attempts by Jefferson to crush Billy’s rebellious spirit. Pushed to the breaking point, Billy ran to Monticello to appeal to Jefferson, but the author of the Declaration of Independence sent him back to the overseer. In another case, a slave named Hercules ran away and was jailed. Jefferson showed leniency, but the way he went about it shows his acquiescence to the system of slavery. In a letter encouraging his overseer to be lenient toward Hercules, Jefferson made two damning statements. First, he referred to Hercules’ running away as “folly” and stated that he deserved punishment. Second, he warned his overseer not to reveal to Hercules that it was Jefferson who had suggested leniency. Jefferson did not want slaves to believe that they could run away and expect him to shield them from punishment if they were caught. In a similar situation involving a slave named Phil, Jefferson wrote that, “altho I had let them all know that their runnings away should be punished, yet Phil’s character is not that of a runaway.” Jefferson treated his slaves in a manner less cruel than some masters but not liberally enough to make them forget that they were his property. Slaves who repeatedly refused to obey his rules were sometimes whipped. In this respect, James Madison may be judged less harshly, since he avoided whipping as a punishment. Still, he instructed an overseer to, “treat the Negroes with all the humanity & kindness consistent with their necessary subordination and work.” A favorite story of Madison’s defenders is of how he arranged for a rebellious slave named Billey to be freed. Indeed, part of Madison’s motivation in this case was humanitarian. However, he also wrote that, “I am persuaded his mind is too thoroughly tainted [from living in Philadelphia, where slavery was illegal] to be a fit companion for fellow shaves in Virginia.” When Madison died in 1836, his will stipulated that slaves who were deemed to be misbehaving could be sold. In the case of George Mason, one might have expected a slave-owner who so hated slavery to support a law abolishing it. Yet as referenced earlier, Mason balked at the idea that the Constitution might allow Congress to end slavery. (In reality, the Constitution, at least in the form that it was ratified, said the exact opposite.) And what of Patrick Henry? He wrote that he owned slaves because he was, “drawn along by the general inconvenience of living without them.” Pathetic. Of these five Virginians, only George Washington freed all of his slaves. Washington did so in his will, demonstrating that he knew slavery to be wrong and decided to keep his slaves in bondage until he was dead and no longer needed them. While all five men had moral compunctions about slavery, every one of them embraced their role as master.


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