The Myth of the Admirable Founders, Part 1

“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

Every year, around this time, we get inundated with tributes for the Founding Fathers and their deeds in the Revolutionary War, or, as many of our Canadian friends to the North call it, the War of Rebellion. After all, July 4, 1776 was the day on which the Declaration of Independence was ratified by the Continental Congress. (Interestingly, the signing took place on August 2.) The Founding Fathers are a sacred cow in America. You could probably damage your political career more by bashing the Founding Fathers than by telling black people to be grateful for slavery. For many years after emancipation, the fact that so many of the Founding Fathers owned slaves and that many who did not allowed a proslavery Constitution to be drafted, was not even discussed. Interesting, during the days of slavery, both Southern slave masters and anti-Constitution abolitionists had pointed out these very facts. But as even old school white Southerners admitted that abolition (although not the abolitionists) had been for the best, this aspect of history was swept under the rug. Then, on the heels of the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movement, the skeletons of individuals like Thomas Jefferson began to come out of the closet. Textbooks were rewritten to include Founding Fathers’ slave ownership, opposition to women’s suffrage, and support for Native American removal. What happened next is mind boggling. Having just experienced essentially a revolution that successfully ended Jim Crow in the United States and at least tacitly repudiated white supremacy, one would have expected to see American historians and political scientists, as well as the general public, rush to discard most of the Founding Fathers as heroes. One would have also expected them to replace these Founding Fathers with a cast of white anti-racist heroes—Lydia Maria Child, Wendell Phillips, John Brown, Joel Spingarn, Mary Ovington, among others—to stand alongside popular black heroes like Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and MLK. Instead, what we saw was a lot of rationalization and turd polishing. Hence, I have decided to do a series of three blog posts arguing that most of the Founding Fathers should not be considered heroes. My second and third blogs will be posted tomorrow and on the Fourth of July, respectively.

A popular 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, one of Mason’s reasons for opposing the ratification of the Constitution was that he incorrectly feared that the document gave the federal government authority to abolish slavery. “They [the framers of the Constitution] have not secured us the property of the slaves we have already,” lamented Mason. “So that they have done what they ought not to have done, and have left undone what they ought to have done.” (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. In the 1790s, Oney Judge, a slave who had been the property of Martha Washington’s first, now deceased husband, fled all the way to Portsmouth, New Hampshire. In 1796, George Washington sent a letter to Secretary of the Treasury Oliver Wolcott, Jr., asking him to aid in recapturing Judge. Washington called her an “ungrateful girl” and ironically claimed that she had been treated more like a daughter than a slave. Joseph Whipple, the Portsmouth Collector of Customs, was informed of Washington’s desire to apprehend Judge and managed to locate the runaway slave. Whipple stated that Judge had offered to return to the Washington’s plantation as a slave in exchange for being granted her freedom upon the death of George and Martha. The president adamantly refused. Thankfully, however, Oney was never sent back into slavery, as Whipple warned that attempting to forcibly capture and re-enslave her in Portsmouth was likely to create a riot. While all five men had moral compunctions about slavery, every one of them embraced their role as master.


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