The Official Medallion of the British Anti-Slavery Society (by English potter Josiah Wedgewood, 1787)

Equally Created

 By Joe Richter

“The Mystic Chords of Memory…will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” – Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural address, 1861 ([I], Kearns Goodwin page 326)

            In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the world’s view of slavery was changing, and the men who founded America recognized this changing perspective.  Humanism, an ethical philosophy based on the rights of all men, had immigrated with the Puritan settlers of America.  Unfortunately, the American settlers didn’t include all humans in their humanist ideology.  These American men, with their self-proclaimed desire for the rights of all men, didn’t extend the liberty they coveted to their slaves.  When those New Englanders bailed the tea into Boston harbor, did they cast their morals into the surf as well?

As we know now, A­merica and its groundbreaking republic inspired the world.  This tract will prove that though they made the mistake of allowing slavery to happen, America’s Founding Fathers made strides to eradicate the world of the terrible tradition, and were – like their republic – an example to the world.  If they knew slavery was wrong, what factors kept them from emancipating their fellow man?  If all men were created equal, why weren’t they treated equally?

Winston Churchill talked about the intellectual revolution of the 1600’s and 1700’s in the second volume of his History of the English Speaking Peoples.  Churchill wrote, “In the Middle Ages education had largely been confined to training the clergy; now it was steadily extended, and its purpose became to turn out not only priests but lay scholars and well-informed gentlemen ([II], Churchill page 4).”  Well, how did these “well-informed gentlemen” manage to undertake one of the most abominable acts in history?

Scars of a whipped slave April 2, 1863, Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Overseer was discharged for brutality.

Slavery transported equally created humans from their homelands, from their families, and from their cultures.  Accounts abound about the cruelty and inhumanity of many of the slaveholders.  In Henry Wiencek’s An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America, he chronicles some of the atrocious acts by supposed “gentlemen planters”.  Some of these “gentlemen” would cut off their slaves’ toes to hinder any expeditious escape, and even had legislation passed which pardoned them if the slaves didn’t survive the procedure ([III], Weincek page 46).  Most slaves’ diets were relegated to corn meal, and whatever game or vegetables they could catch or grow for themselves (if they were allowed to hunt, fish, or grow).  We have heard, thanks to the work of many historians, of the malevolence of the overseers – the men who did the “southern gentleman’s” dirty, or punitive work.  Unfortunately, the short length of this article cannot do justice to the myriad number of atrocities.

It should be mentioned again that this article is not seeking to condone this terrible part of American history.  The question is why men in quest of liberty wouldn’t bestow the same liberty on the Africans they had enslaved.  Was it truly a racist sense of ethnic superiority?  Or was there more to the reasoning about why the men who founded this country utilized the cruelest form of labor in history?

There were a number of reasons that led to the adoption of slavery in the American Colonies.  Education, economics, and religion all contributed to the decision.  Slavery wasn’t a new thing to the world when the American Colonies adopted it.  Obviously the French and Spanish were quite adept at it, enslaving many of the South and Central American natives along with African captives.  But this kind of irreparable history precedes America entirely.  Before we scrutinize early America, we should examine the world before us.

Slaves in ancient Roman Empire (courtesy of Pascal Radique)

Egypt, Greece, Rome, China, and the Arabs – all these great civilizations practiced human slavery of some form.  These civilizations are mostly remembered by posterity because of their magnificent monuments.  The pyramids and obelisks in Egypt, and the wonders and Wall of ancient China were constructed by, at least, conscripted laborers.  Although that sounds like some kind of sugar-coated term for slaves, historians believe that there was some light at the end of the tunnel for these workers; they would later be freed, but probably not until the good part of their life was already gone.

The ancient Greeks eventually offered citizenship to many of their slaves, if they performed well, but they would enslave just about anyone.  They would even enslave other Greeks, like the Spartans did with their neighboring Helots ([IV], Plutarch page 74) after they conquered them.  Imagine the parallel of Sparta’s enslaving the Helots to, say, the American Civil War: the North decides after its victory that it would enslave all of Virginia and the Carolinas.  However, Greek city-states such as Athens were appalled at the thought of enslaving anyone other than a “barbarian”.  But barbarians were just people who didn’t speak Greek, so this wasn’t some Taygetus Mountain-high moral stance.  However, the conquerors of the Greeks – the Romans – made Greek slave masters look like missionaries.

The Romans liked to take the best of the cultures they conquered by force, and make the best of these cultures even better.  Slavery was no exception.  In fact, the Romans were a little too good at it.  Slaves of many ages, races, and sizes were taken in war and were sold in the Roman markets.  Once they were in the master’s possession, they were just that – a possession ([V], Gibbon page 63).  Although the back of the hand, or the whip, was the first reaction, the master always had the option for termination – of the “for good” kind.  You want retribution?  If you killed your master, or one of his family or guests, the master family could lawfully murder all the slaves in the house for your transgression.  It might make you think twice.

The Roman orator Marcus Tullius Cicero once said, “The wise alone are free, and all fools are slaves ([VI], Breen page 39).”  While historians debate the true meaning behind this quote, it exemplifies the ho-hum attitudes the ancients had about slavery.  Cicero spoke often about freedom, but he never really included the slaves in that freedom for men he sought – this sounds awfully familiar to our founders.  Also akin to the founders, who sought to supplant the tyranny of King George, Cicero was speaking against a formidable tyrant of his own, Julius Caesar.  Caesar proudly proclaimed his genocide of the inhabitants of Gaul – hundreds of thousands (numbers are debated) in the lowly populated area of Northwest Europe – in his Commentaries on the Gallic Wars.  Caesar’s famous quote of “I came, I saw, I conquered” should have added “I murdered, and I enslaved” at the end.

Both of these men were of incredible fortitude.  Caesar was an utterly brilliant, undaunted general and innovative statesman; Cicero was just as brilliant a statesman as Caesar was a general, and he stood up to powerful generals even under the threat of death (he was eventually murdered for it).  But neither of these geniuses realized the horror of slavery; they actually did more to proliferate it.  Most of their wealth was built on that very practice.  Since the great villas, roads, aqueducts, and arenas like the Colosseum were constructed by slave (but also legionary) labor, would Rome be remembered 2000 years later if they hadn’t used slave labor?

Despite their notorious cruelty toward slaves, the Romans learned through several revolts that it was to the master’s benefit to treat his/her slaves better.  In his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Sir Edward Gibbon – a British contemporary of the American Revolution – wrote about how legislation evolved in the times of the Roman Emperors, giving slaves in Rome what African slaves in America never had – “hope”.  “Diligence and fidelity of a few years would be rewarded with the inestimable gift of freedom (63).”

Urn for the ashes of freedman Tiberius Claudius Chryseros and two females (courtesy of Kleuske)

Slavery didn’t escape the Arabic cultures, either.  According to Albert Hourani’s A History of the Arab Peoples, the most common form of slavery was that of the household servants – mostly women.  But those domestic occupations were also worked by free females.  Slavery in Arab culture “did not have exactly the same associations…as in the countries of North and South America discovered…from the sixteenth century onwards.  Slavery was a status recognized by Islamic law ([VII], Hourani page 116).”  The “legal category of slavery” consisted of mostly non-Muslim men taken in war, but it “was a meritorious act to liberate them (Hourani 116)”.  These “legal slaves” could have rights bestowed on them after being converted and freed – Hourani even said that some could marry their master’s daughters.  Of course, the most well-known freedmen in Arabic cultures were the Mamluks.  The intrepid Mamluks “ruled Egypt and Syria from 1250 to 1517 (Hourani 117)”, and were “self-perpetuating”; so they pretty much ruled that mini-empire on their own for over 250 years.  Not bad for a bunch of ex-slaves.

Arab slave traders

What does all this world history have to do with the founders of America (I hope you’re still with me)?  Our founders were students of history, especially ancient Rome and Greece.  The founders, like the Romans, learned from the past.  Though they took the good things from Rome, like the idea of civic duty, they took the bad things as well, like their justification of slavery.  And both these sets of men had similar educations.  Many of them studied the Greek philosophers.  Thomas Jefferson even admitted to learning more from reading the ancient Greek chronicler, Thucydides, than he did from reading the daily newspaper.  Certainly, they influenced the founders.

The men many consider the founders of education – ancient Greeks Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle – tried to reason themselves out of the guilt inherited in the practice of slavery.  Although Socrates and Plato skirted the subject ([VIII], Stone page 45) – apparently Plato had no problem utilizing slavery in his Utopia – Aristotle called a slave “an instrument for the conduct of life ([IX], Ross page 249)”.  One can already surmise that Aristotle recognized a difference between master and slave, but his method of differentiating gets a bit slipperier.  His idea was that nature created this diversity (he even uses the example of men ruling women) so that one could rule the other, “…where such a difference between two things exists it is to the advantage of both that one should rule the other.  Nature seems to produce such a distinction between men – to make some strong to work and others fit for political life (Ross 249-250).”  Aristotle taught that “some men are by nature free, and others slaves (Ross 249-250).”  One can wonder what Aristotle’s slaves thought of his assessment.  Sir David Ross criticized how Aristotle was “cutting the human race in two with a hatchet (Ross 250).”  However, he defends the philosopher’s few stipulations to slavery.  Included in these, Ross states that Aristotle thought ill of “slavery by mere right of conquest (Ross 250).”  He certainly was against the notion of Greeks enslaving their fellow Greeks.  The English settlers in America seemed to ignore this lesson in their early days, but they then, eventually, transitioned to slaves of other races.  The next couple stipulations of Aristotle that Ross pointed out weren’t followed very diligently by our southern founders, either.  The philosopher felt a master should virtually treat the slaves like children – to adjust their behavior with not a whip, but with “reason”.  The other was that “all slaves should be given the hope of emancipation.”  The American founders did follow Aristotle in the major facet of slavery, on the other hand.  It seemed like Aristotle recognized the evil of slavery, but it was just a necessary institution with which he had grown up – almost a state of nature.  It wasn’t Aristotle’s best logical theorem, but the southern founders of America appeared to think it sufficed in justifying their actions.

It is not just who the early Americans studied that contributed to the social divide, and ultimately to the perpetual slavery of the Africans, but who did the studying.  Even most freed African slaves weren’t allowed the same opportunities that a freed white man had.  In his article “Origins of American Slavery: Education as an Index of Early Differentiation”, Joseph Boskin presents the thesis of Carl Degler, who says, “The introduction of Africans as slaves…unquestionably fostered a sense of superiority among Englishmen ([X], Boskin page 127)” as they exemplified by their treatment of the Irish immigrants, and the Native Americans.  Ethnic hatred was by no means new or uncommon at that time in history, so perhaps the founders of America just hated everybody equally.  But why did they choose the Africans over all others to be lifelong slaves?

James Hopkinson's Plantation- slaves planting sweet potatoes. (Unknown photographer, 1862/63)

The first owner of an African slave was actually a black man (and former indentured servant in South America, himself) – a Virginian settler named Anthony Johnson in the 1650s ([XI], Billings page 286-87).  But he sadly wouldn’t be the last.  With the dramatic influx of African workers in the ensuing decades, many of them captured and sold by rival African tribes, it might be understood that the first reaction is cultural differentiation.  Realizing these polarizing differences in culture between Africans and Englishmen might have been the beginning of the slippery slope.  As Boskin said, the “discriminatory attitudes and behavior conditioned the form slavery would eventually take (127).”  In effect, law after law was passed to further enervate the status of Africans – slaves or not – in the American Colonies, especially in Virginia.  The slippery slope was turning slimy, and there no was no getting back uphill.

If you’ll allow the understatement of the year, the English settlers weren’t known for gently caressing their predecessors, the Native Americans, either.  It should be pointed out, as Boskin reminds us in his article, “that of the two distinct cultural groups they (Englishmen) dealt with in the seventeenth century in the New World, one was marked for destruction and the other was enslaved (128).”  Noting the difference between African and Native American is important here.  As Boskin says, “unlike the Indian who would live apart from the English, the African had to be assimilated into, or accommodated by a culture (the English) which possessed definite ideas of God, family, manners, morals, male-female relations, and which further prided itself on a high degree of accomplishment (130).”  The Africans would not have the same opportunity as the Englishmen to educate himself enough to reach that high degree of accomplishment – slavers would even punish slaves for attempting to learn how to read and write.  As Boskin tells us, “from the scanty evidence that exists…it would appear that the Negro did not receive formal education in the seventeenth century in the colonies (132).”  If they could not be educated like their English neighbors, what chance did they have in the English world?  Their lack of this training certainly couldn’t have helped their status as “accomplished” men.

Family on Smith's Plantation, Beaufort, South Carolina, circa 1862.

Two things should be mentioned before moving on.  First, although people of African descent weren’t allowed education in most areas, “the education of the Indian was specifically encouraged and provided for in legislative articles in many instances (Boskin 132).”  Englishmen deemed that the Native American needed to be “civilized” for cohabitation to be successful.  Secondly, the most prevalent education system of the time, apprenticeship, wasn’t open to Africans.  As Boskin said of colonial apprenticeship, “A perusal in the statutes of colonies…reveals no mention of either bond (sic) or free Negroes and/or slaves (132).”  Even mulatto children were exempt until 1765.  Boskin concludes very succinctly, “it may well be assumed that the Negro was regarded as uneducable.  Certainly…the unaltered direction was toward total rejection (133).”  Or maybe it was just undesirable – an educated slave is a rebellious one.

The majority of the southern colonists saw their slaves as below them, and that the existence of their slaves was just a price of being part of the southern gentry.  But was slavery really profitable?  In his article, “The Profitability of Slavery: A Historical Perennial”, Harold Woodman proved that, at least by the Civil War, it wasn’t.  According to the 1850 census, “…The value of agricultural products in the free states exceeded that of the slave states (when the value of the slaves was excluded [[XII], Woodman page 305]).”  However, a century before, it was a money-maker, whether or not tobacco sales were booming.  Wiencek mentions how George Washington was one of many Southerners who would send one or two slaves to “hold” land that he hadn’t officially settled (Wiencek 27).  Apparently, laws were passed to prohibit plantation owners from holding land on speculation, and Washington had found a loophole – if it appeared that you were working the land, then you weren’t just “holding it” for its future value.  It is necessary to mention, however, that land speculation was not a definite boon.

Although the profitability of slavery has been proven to be inflated, the founders thought otherwise.  If it wasn’t about economics, it was about the southern gentry’s lifestyle.  Somehow, owning slaves was a status symbol – as if owning another human being and forcing him/her to do labor was something to be proud of.  But let’s not just point the finger at the southern colonies.

The institution was tolerated by northern colonies, but suspicions progressively arose.  Just having so many black slaves in the south, almost half their population, made the Northern Colonies worry.  According to Christopher Collier and James Lincoln Collier, “the North had to assume that the South would soon become the dominant section of the country in both numbers and wealth (though that could be debated).  This assumption proved later incorrect, but in 1787, northerners were nervous about the possibility of a government dominated by the south ([XIII], Collier and Collier, page 185).”  These issues would be prominent in the debates at the Constitutional Conventions, but that is for another tract.

Noting that the North was obviously nervous about the South’s nefarious institution for both financial and population reasons, the South might have realized the North’s trepidations.  Perhaps they saw the attempts by the North for Abolition as means to supplant the South in dominance of the new country.  Either way, the North and South believed that slavery was profitable enough to allow it to persist.

Slave auction block at Green Hill Plantation, Pannill family plantation, located Campbell County, Virginia

Since we are examining why the founders kept a half-blind eye to the horror of slavery, we shouldn’t let religion get away so easily.  Where was the church while all this death and cruelty was taking place?  As sad as it sounds, the Catholic Church actually encouraged slavery.  In her article, “The Philosophes and Black Slavery: 1748-1765”, Claudine Hunting explained how “King Louis XIII of France had agreed, however reluctantly, to authorize slave trade in the French colonies, on the express urging of the Catholic Church and its missionaries, for the alleged purpose of saving their souls, more than a century after Portugal and Spain had adopted that policy in their own colonies ([XIV], Hunting page 408).”  Apparently, the mostly Protestant colonists didn’t have the same disdain of this Catholic more as they did with their Papacy.

There are two things to remember about The Church and Slavery.  First, not all Catholics were proslavery.  Many friars spoke out against the inhumanity of some slave owners, and spoke for the humanity of the slaves.  Second, of our Founding Fathers, very few were Catholic.  As we know, many Englishmen came to America to practice their own brand of religion (or to practice a brand of religious intolerance of their own).  This was a new world with a new way of thinking.

Thanks to the brilliant minds of Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Locke, Descartes, and others, a new world was being discovered – not just the American continents.  As Winston Churchill wrote, “The urge to inquire, to debate, and seek new explanations spread from the field of classical learning (4).”  Everything was being learned anew, and everything had to be examined – not even The Church was safe anymore.  Churchill pointed out that this academic drive even set its examining eye “into that of religious studies (4).”  Of course, the Protestant Reformation ran its course, and England was never the same.  The New World would be a perfect setting for this new way of thinking.

The 18th century historian, and contemporary of the American Revolution, Sir Edward Gibbon wrote, “Whatever may be the changes in their political situation, they (America) must preserve the manners of Europe; and we may reflect with some pleasure that the English language will probably be diffused over an immense and populous continent (Gibbon 376n).”  But though the new Americans kept much of British culture, and its language, they would fall way behind the English in regard to slavery.

In 1807, James Clarke Fox’s term as Prime Minister did what Churchill said, “ranked among the greatest of British achievements ([XV], 311).”  Fox abolished the slave trade in England and its provinces – except for some islands where it was still deemed imperative.  But holding slaves was legal until 1833.  Something else to be considered was that Napoleon Bonaparte had recently legalized French slavery, so Britain could just have been taking the proverbial “high moral ground” over France.  Whatever the case, Britain had to be influenced by the Abolitionist factions which were prevalent in America.

As mentioned earlier, the consensus about our Founding Fathers was that they had some (but very few) problems with the South’s intransigence in the slavery issue.  Research shows, however, that most of our well-known founders were seeing the changing of the guard in the rest of the world.  Even the men who owned slaves seemed to see, and desire, the practice’s ensuing death, and they were ready to welcome its passing.

One cannot scrutinize the founders without mentioning our first president, George Washington.  Washington had a somewhat benevolent aura when it came to his slaves, proof of which can be found in his relationship with his favorite servant, Billy Lee ([XVI], McCullough page 42).  Billy Lee wouldn’t be outdone in proving his own sporty prowess, as historian David McCullough said, the “body servant ‘rode like the wind by all accounts, and no less fearlessly than his master (48)’”.  Master, however, is the important word there.  In fact, as McCullough alludes to on his following page, even Washington had to see the irony of these American rebels – many of them slave owners – seeking independence.  One would like to hear what Billy Lee had to say about all this.  Did he enjoy all that horsing around as much as Washington?

Washington and Billy Lee, c. 1780

Washington was a man who knew the value of posterity’s view of him.  He would be glad to know that the story of his relationship with Billy Lee came to light, along with some of the other pleasant stories about how well, compared to many slaveholders, Washington treated his slaves.  However, that is an insult to the families who actually were his slaves, and their hardships.  Washington was no angel, but he was the perfect example of the American Revolution’s ultimate paradox – slaveholders crusading for liberty.  According to Joseph Ellis’ His Excellency: George Washington, Washington made a not so excellent decision after the battle of Yorktown.  “He (Washington) insisted on the return of all escaped slaves in British custody to their respective owners. (Four of his own slaves were included in the contingent of about three thousand carried from New York to freedom by the British navy [[XVII], Ellis page 163].)”  According to Henry Wiencek’s aforementioned book, Washington – someone who seemed to be antislavery –had no problem separating the slave families on his plantation, and threatened troublesome slaves to virtual damnation on the brutally laborious Caribbean islands if their behavior didn’t improve – and it wasn’t an empty threat.

However, contemplative of posterity’s view of Washington, his views were changing.  Something had to be done.  Ellis offered the account Washington composed in April 1786, where Ellis quoted Washington as saying to his colleague Robert Morris, “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 (slavery) – but there is only one proper and effectual mode by which it can be accomplished, & that is by Legislative authority: and this, as far as my suffrage will go, shall never be wanting (163).”

Washington not only thought that emancipation needed to be accomplished legally, but he knew there needed to be some plan for what to do with the emancipated slaves before they set this immense portion of the southern population free.  To his credit, what Washington couldn’t do for all the black slaves in America, he at least took care of his own.  According to Ron Chernow, “Washington emancipated his slaves in his will and even set aside money to assist the freed slaves and their children ([XVIII], Chernow page 212).”  However, one of Chernow’s biographical subjects, Alexander Hamilton, was far more hopeful of emancipation than Washington – and far more fervent in his actions.

If one doesn’t examine the career of Alexander Hamilton fully, then he can be easily written off by some as just a whiz-kid orphan from the Caribbean who liked to dabble with other men’s wives until Aaron Burr shot him for it.  On the contrary, Hamilton was much more complex than that kind of harsh preconception.  In Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton, Chernow proves his subject founder to be a man of the new world; a man of the new way of thinking. “He had expressed an unwavering belief in the genetic equality of blacks and whites – unlike (Thomas) Jefferson, for instance, who regarded blacks as innately inferior – that was enlightened for his day (Chernow 211).”  Chernow said that, “Few, if any, other founding fathers opposed slavery more consistently or toiled harder to eradicate it than Hamilton (212).”  Hamilton’s loss in the duel to Burr prevented him from completing his task.

Other Founding Fathers were unsuccessful in transitioning their disdain of slavery into action.  Chernow explained how “John Adams never owned a slave…yet he did not always translate his beliefs into practice.”  Chernow said, “Adams opposed plans to emancipate slaves joining the Continental Army, contested the use of black soldiers, and opposed a bill in the Massachusetts legislature to abolish slavery (212).”  Adams had bent over backwards, however, to placate the southern colonists – these could be examples of such appeasement.  The issue of independence from Great Britain might have taken precedence from his perspective.

The Father of the Constitution, James Madison, was vulnerable to Chernow’s criticism, as well.  Although “Madison never tried to defend the morality of slavery…neither did he distinguish himself in trying to eliminate it (213).”  Chernow said, “Madison’s political survival in Virginia and national politics required endless prevarication on the slavery issue.”

Isaac Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson's blacksmith slave at Monticello (taken c. 1847)

Speaking of prevarication, Thomas Jefferson was no stranger to it.  In his “Report on Government for Western Territory; March 1, 1784”, Jefferson claimed that “after the year 1800 of the Christian aera (sic), there shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in any of the said states.”  In his autobiography, Jefferson admitted having put off the slavery issue to gain the South’s allegiance in independence from Britain.  He said, “the clause…reprobating the enslaving the inhabitants of Africa, was struck out in complaisance to South Carolina and Georgia, who had never attempted to restrain the importation of slaves, and who on the contrary still wished to continue it.”  He later said, “It is still in our power to direct the process of emancipation and deportation peaceably and in such slow degree as that the evil will wear off insensibly.”  In the end, Chernow said Jefferson “freed only a handful of his slaves, including the brothers of his apparent mistress, Sally Hemings (213).”  Perhaps Jefferson hoped that future generations would have higher morals than his own, a sentiment that appears to be quite common among the founders.

Union Colonel John Wayles Jefferson, grandson of TJ and his slave and lover Sally Hemings

Thomas Jefferson - one can see the resemblance between John Wayles and Thomas

Maybe the most enigmatic founder is Benjamin Franklin.  In Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, Walter Isaacson describes how Franklin, who owned a few slaves over his lifetime, defended charges of hypocrisy in his 1770 publication, “Conversation on Slavery”.  Franklin made erroneous defenses about how few slaves there actually were in America, and made light of the treatment of slaves.  He did, however, cleverly compare the “working poor” in England to slaves.  Isaacson mentions, “At one point, the speaker’s (Franklin’s) argument even lapses into racism ([XIX], Isaacson page 268).”  In other works, however, Franklin shows his slowly diverging perspective.

Isaacson said, “In ‘Observations on the Increase of Mankind,’ he (Franklin) attacked slavery on economic grounds.  Comparing the costs and benefits of owning a slave, he concluded that it made no sense.”  Economics aside, the moral issue was more important, even a question of an owner’s work ethic.  In the same tract, Isaacson points out that Franklin believed owning a slave made whites lazy.  Isaacson quoted Franklin as saying, “Slaves perjorate (sic) the families that use them; white children become proud, disgusted with labor (152).”  It is important to point out that Franklin seemed more worried about the effects of slavery on the master, rather than its effects on the slave.  Isaacson called the article, “quite prejudiced in places.”  He said Franklin “urged that America be settled mainly by whites of English descent.”  Isaacson quotes Franklin, “Why increase the sons of Africa by planting them in America, where we have so fair an opportunity, by excluding all blacks and tawneys (sic), of increasing the lovely white and red (152)?”  It should be noted that Franklin was known for his sarcasm, and might have been trying to be ironic.  His later actions imply that.

Franklin came to understand the importance of abolition very well in his later life.  Isaacson said, “Franklin presented a formal abolition petition to Congress in February 1790 (Isaacson 465).”  As Isaacson quotes Franklin, he says that it was the duty of Congress to ensure “the blessings of liberty to the People of the United States…without distinction of color (465).”  Can a man not change?

Ben Franklin's "An Address to the Public", 1789

In order to really understand their reasons, one must step into the founders’ buckled shoes (silk stockings and powdered wigs are optional).  In one’s search to comprehend why these noble men chose to stand by arguably the worst form of slavery in the history of man, nothing can be found to exonerate them for their behavior.  Sometimes history can be a painful thing.  While learning about this subject is hard to do because of its horror, it is not something we can just forget about.

A lot is still left to learn about slavery, but what stands out is that these poor Africans – and even their descendants – never were given a chance.  Because their culture was considered centuries behind the ethnocentric Europeans, the Englishmen found the Africans to be what we learned Aristotle called, “instruments for the conduct of life”.  It was as if God Himself had given white men the right to be another man’s master – and it was good for both of them.

In an attempt to defend them, however, it can be said that America’s founders planted the seed for emancipation.  Whether their motives were based on ethics or not, they knew it was only a matter of time before the South would concede their dreadful practice.  Franklin was quoted many times as saying, “In time.”  Although our country was slow to actually pass the legislation that many in America were trumpeting, the world took notice of this infant republic.  Yes, America wasn’t the first government to emancipate all their slaves; but after the American Revolution, as many states outlawed slavery, countries around the world began the alleviation of the slavery scourge, as well.

Slavery is illegal throughout the modern world.  Sadly, slavery still lives in parts of Africa (such as Sudan and Mauritania) and elsewhere (parts of China and South America) in an unofficial capacity.  We can hope, however, if we learn why we made this appalling mistake (and continue to do so), that we will learn the folly of it and abolish slavery once and for all.  Look at how far we have come as Americans.  Whether or not we agree with President Barack Obama politically, to see an African-American elected President of the United States of America in 2008 has to make one proud to be an American – even though it took over 140 years.

Our Founding Fathers had their reasons for allowing slavery to persist.  After finding that there were influences like education, economy and religion, one can better understand their flawed logic.  What we cannot condone are the results of their logic, or their harsh methods in the implementation of slavery.  It is hard to be proud of the founders’ steady blind eye to the suffering of their fellow man.  But it is easy to be proud of the great country they created.  Some say our founders allowed slavery to persist when they signed the Constitution with the belief that the dying institution was coughing up its final bad breaths.  Tragically, they thought too highly of the sensibilities of men.  Again it should be said that there was some good out of their foolish assumption – they created this country.  And just because we Americans must live with our cloudy history doesn’t mean we can’t be proud that these founders created a country where we are free to question that history, and criticize those flawed creators.

Were men equally created?  Despite the obvious affirmative answer, man was slow to accept his brethren as being created equal throughout all of history.  By learning how fallible our founders were we will see that it does not take demigods, like history has made of Ben Franklin, George Washington and others, to make a country great.  Times are changing, and so are people.  History has plenty of pages left to write.


(This article is not to be copied without consent of administrator.  Copyright 2012, Joe Richter Media)

[I] Doris Kearns Goodwin. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 2005.

[II]  Winston S. Churchill. A History of the English Speaking Peoples: The New World. vol. 2 New York, NY: Barnes and Noble, Inc., by arrangement with Dodd, Mead & Company, Inc., 1993.

[III] Henry Wiencek. An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003.

[IV] Plutarch. Plutarch’s Lives: Volume I.  Trans. John Dryden.  Ed. Arthur Hugh Clough.  New York: The Modern Library, 2001.

[V] Edward Gibbon. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. vol. 1 The Turn of the Tide. ed. Betty Radice.  London: The Folio Society, 2003.

[VI] Quirinus Breen. “The Antiparadoxon of Marcantonius Majoragius, or A Humanist Becomes a Critic of Cicero As a Philosopher”. Studies in the Renaissance, vol. 5, (1958), pp 37-48. Published by: Renaissance Society of America.

[VII] Albert Hourani. A History of the Arab Peoples. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1991.

[VIII] I.F. Stone. The Trial of Socrates. New York, NY: First Anchor Books, 1989.

[IX] Sir David Ross. Aristotle. New York, NY: Routledge, 1996.

[X] Joseph Boskin. The Origins of American Slavery: Education As an Early Index of Differentiation”. The Journal of Negro Education, vol. 35, no. 2 (Spring 1966), page 125-133.

[XI] Billings, Warren (2009). The Old Dominion in the Seventeenth Century: A Documentary History of Virginia, 1606-1700. Pg 286-287.

[XII] Harold Woodman. “Profitability of Slavery: A Historical Perennial”. The Journal of Southern History, vol. 29, no. 3 (Aug 1963), pp. 303-325.

[XIII] Christopher Collier and James Lincoln Collier. Decision in Philadelphia: The Constitutional Convention of 1787. New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 1986.

[XIV] Claudine Hunting. “The Philosophes and Black Slavery: 1748-1765”. Journal of the History of Ideas, vol. 39, no. 3.  (July – Sept. 1978), page 405-418.

[XV] Winston Churchill. A History of the English Speaking Peoples: The Age of Revolution. vol. 3 New York, NY: Barnes and Noble, Inc., by arrangement with Dodd, Mead & Company, Inc., 1993.

[XVI] David McCullough. 1776. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 2005.

[XVII] Joseph Ellis. His Excellency: George Washington. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004.

[XVIII] Ron Chernow. Alexander Hamilton. New York, NY: The Penguin Press, 2004.

[XIX] Walter Isaacson. Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 2003.


Non-cited references:

1) William J. Bennett. America: the Best Last Hope: Volume I. Nashville, TN: Nelson Current, 2006.

2) Plato. The Essential Plato. New York, NY: Quality Paperback Book Club, 1999.  int: Alain De Botton. tr: Benjamin Jowett, with M.J. Knight.
3) Stanley Elkins & Eric McKitrick. The Age of Federalism: the Early American Republic, 1788-1800. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1993.
4) Carl Van Doren. The Great Rehearsal: the story of the making and ratifying of the Constitution of the United States. New York, NY: Viking Press, 1948.