The US Founders on Slavery

Session 7

The US Founders on Slavery

Session 7

Equality and Slavery

By C. Bradley Thompson, Ph.D. 

Executive Summary

Thompson is a Canadian-American political scientist at Clemson University. We summarize Chapter 5 of America's Revolutionary Mind (2019).

1. Slavery had existed for millennia, and “few Americans (or anyone anywhere else for that matter) before the 1760s seriously questioned the moral status of slavery.” (125) James Otis was among the first to connect “Lockean philosophy of equality and freedom” to rejecting slavery as “the most shocking violation of the law of nature.” (128)

2. Quickly the founding generation of Americans came to believe, with Thomas Jefferson, that some humans are not “born with saddles on their backs, nor are others born booted and spurred to ride them” (123). Further: “there were no proponents of slavery as a positive good during the period of the Revolution and founding.” (143)

3. So, the Founders believed, the “‘first object of government’ is the equal protection of the laws.” Individual differences in intelligence, birth, wealth, or virtue do not alter the obligation that “laws must be applied equally to all individuals in society” (124).

4. Yet we must face the fact that “the author of the Declaration and more than half its signers were slaveholders” (124). Why did they not end slavery immediately? For example, when younger, Benjamin Franklin had two personal slaves but came to believe slavery an evil and freed them. (141)  

5. Others, like Patrick Henry of “Give me liberty or give me death” fame, were wracked with guilt over owning slaves. He asked: “is it practicable by any human means, to liberate them, without producing the most dreadful and ruinous consequences?” (132) Jefferson proposed laws to end slavery but did not emancipate his own: “We have the wolf by the ears, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go.” (134) So “after 1776, the weight of guilt tugged at the conscience of revolutionary Americans … with increasing pressure.” (136)

6. Yet that generation did believe in the ideals of the Declaration. “In the thirty years after 1776, all of the northern states began the process of dismantling slavery.” (146) Even in the south the freeing of slaves accelerated. Within 30 years more than 100,000 slaves had been freed. “It was the largest emancipation of slaves in world history.” (147)

7. Thompson concludes, “The great achievement of the American Revolution was to launch forces that would lead over time to the reconciliation of moral theory and moral practice” (140).

8. How much time? Thompson offers a metaphor: the Declaration of Independence ignited “a slow-burning civil war between freedom and slavery” (152). The Civil War was the full explosion, with Abraham Lincoln its inheritor: “He understood that the Declaration’s noble ideals were true, but he also knew that they might take decades to percolate down and through American society.” (154) 

Find America's Revolutionary Mind here. Summary by Stephen Hicks, 2021.

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