For an excellent overview of how the founders wrestled with questions
of equality for the poor, women, and slaves, see the Introduction
XV: Equality at the University of Chicago's Founder's
Constitution. The primary sources available in that "chapter"
allow for an investigation of the range of concerns expressed by revolutionary
leaders. St. George Tucker in A
Dissertation on Slavery, in Blackstone's Commentaries exclaims:
Whilst we were offering up vows at the shrine of liberty,
and sacrificing hecatombs upon her altars; whilst we swore irreconcileable
hostility to her enemies, and hurled defiance in their faces; whilst
we adjured the God of Hosts to witness our resolution to live free,
or die, and imprecated curses on their heads who refused to unite
with us in establishing the empire of freedom; we were imposing upon
our fellow men; who differ in complexion from us, a slavery, ten thousand
times more cruel than the utmost extremity of those grievances and
oppressions, of which we complained.. . .Had we turned our eyes inwardly
when we supplicated the Father of Mercies to aid the injured and oppressed;
when we invoked the Author of Righteousness to attest the purity of
our motives, and the justice of our cause1 ; and implored the God
of Battles to aid our exertions in it's defence, should we not have
stood more self convicted than the contrite publican! Should we not
have left our gift upon the altar, that we might be first reconciled
to our brethren whom we held in bondage? should we not have loosed
their chains, and broken their fetters? Or if the difficulties and
dangers of such an experiment prohibited the attempt during the convulsions
of a revolution, is it not our duty to embrace the first moment of
constitutional health and vigour, to effectuate so desirable an object,
and to remove from us a stigma, with which our enemies will never
fail to upbraid us, nor our consciences to reproach us?
of the Early Presidents, and of the Fathers of the Republic, upon
Slavery and upon Negroes as Men and Soldiers As you might imagine
from the title, this is taken from a work originally published in
1863 and is now hosted on a University of Dayton School of Law web
stie on Slavery
and Race Relations.
Know Much About the Civil War, Chapter One: "Wolf by the
Ears" offers a brief easy-to-read introduction to this subject.
Although it lacks the depth of the treatments listed above, it does
include a few statistics suggesting the extent of the founder's slave
For a powerful indictment of the limitations of the Founders and
the constitution, read Thurgood Marshall's "Bicentennial
Speech" delivered in 1987. As a lawyer, Marshall won many
of the court victories that brought legalized segregation to an end
in America. Later, as the first African-American appointed to
the bench of the U.S. supreme court, Marshall helped establish affirmative
action. To learn more about him, go the site for the Juan Williams'
Marshall: American Revolutionary.
House Historical Association sponsors a web site that includes
a timeline of African-Americans
in the White House.
The Revolutionary Rhetoric of Slavery:
How Could the Founders Fight Against "Slavery" for White
Americans While Permitting the Enslavement of African Americans?
To read a newspaper article from 1774 pointing out the contradiction
between the anti-slavery rhetoric of the revolution and the slaveholding
practrices of Americans, see the The
Watchman's Alarm at the PBS
Africans in America site.
Resources on Specific Revolutionary Figures
and Slavery Principles and Practices
the Founders Said About Slavery - a collection of quotations
Is it not amazing, that at a time, when ye. Rights
of Humanity are definted & understood with precision, in a Country
above all others fond of Liberty, that in such an Age, & such
a Country we find Men, professing a Religion ye. most humane, mild,
meek, gentle & generous; adopting a Principle as repugnant to
humanity as it is inconsistant with the Bible and destructive to Liberty.
And yet, only a few sentences later, after declaring
"I shall honour the Quakers for their noble Effort to abolish Slavery,"
Henry ruefully admits:
Would any one believe that I am Master of Slaves of
my own purchase! I am drawn along by ye. general inconvenience of
living without them, I will not, I cannot justify it. However culpable
my Conduct, I will so far pay my devoir to Virtue, as to own the excellence
& rectitude of her Precepts, & to lament my want of conforming
Finally, Henry, usually the fiery voice of freedom,
arrives at the same conclusion that was shared by many of the other
I believe a time will come when an oppo. will be offered
to abolish this lamentable Evil.--Every thing we can do is to improve
it, if it happens in our day, if not, let us transmit to our descendants
together with our Slaves, a pity for their unhappy Lot, & an abhorrence
for Slavery. If we cannot reduce this wished for Reformation to practice,
let us treat the unhappy victims with lenity, it is ye. furthest advance
we can make toward Justice [We owe to the] purity of our Religion
to shew that it is at variance with that Law which warrants Slavery.
Henry regarded slavery as unfortunate but an inevitable part of the
times in which he lived but assumed that it would eventually come
to an end. What may be most interesting is his final comment in the
letter on this sequence of ideas: "I could say many things on
this Subject; a serious review of which gives a gloomy perspective
to future times."
Patrick Henry's letter to Robert Pleasants may be especially
valuable as an example of revolutionary-era commentaries on slavery
because it reflects the puzzling and puzzled mixture of ideas and sentiments
shared by so many of the founders. Repeatedly, the same concerns are
Isn't slavery incompatible with republican ideals?
But didn't the ancient republics own slaves, particularly
regarding some humans born to be "natural slaves"?
Are African-Americans naturally inferior to whites,
or have they only been held back by their circumstance?
Did some Americans need slaves to survive economically?
Was the treatment of slaves incompatible with the
principles of republicanism and christianity?
But wouldn't an attempt to outlaw slavery in America
immediately destroy the attempt to form a union (because some colonies/states
would pull away)?
Would the emancipation of slaves lead immediately
to outbursts of vengeful violence against whites?
What should be done with the slave? Will emancipation
led to: outbursts of vengeful violence against whites; more dependents
who needed to be taken care of by charity; intermarriage?
If we succeeded in becoming a free nation, wouldn't
slavery naturally die out over time?
But won't the continuation of slavery lead to trouble
for the country?
Washington and Slavery and Selected
Quotes: Washington and Slavery at the Mount
Vernon web site. (It seems important to note that the "selected"
quotes all offer comments that express concerns about slavery or benevolent
feelings towards slaves, even though those sentiments do not necessarily
predominate in his correspondence.)
and Slavery at The
Papers of George Washington from The University of Virginia. Also
available there are: Negros
Belonging to George Washington in his own right and by Marriage"
From George Washington's Will, June 1799 and "That
Species of Property" Washington's
Role in the Controversy Over Slavery by Dorothy Twohig, and The
Founding Father and His Slaves by Sarah Booth Conroy.
Washington, First President at the African Americans & Presidents
Jack Warren On the Papers of George Washington, Online News Hour
Washington Papers: The Confederation Series, Essay on Vol. 4, April
1786 - January 1787, "No day was ever more clouded than the present"
from George Washington to Henry Lee on Buying Slaves, 1787
A description of a
letter from George Washington to Robert Morris appealing on behalf
of a friend whose slave was being harbored by Quakers in Philadelphia,
available at the PBS web site for Africans
in America. Washington claims that he is not in favor of slavery
but that abolition can only come from legislation. There is also a
direct link to a
transcription of the letter. George Washington Papers at the Library
of Congress, 1741-1799: Series 4. General Correspondence. 1697-1799;Thomas
Jefferson, June 18, 1792, "Notes
on mr Young's letter" (Slave Labor and Agricultural Notes)
Plantation Bound by Slave History, By Mary V. Thompson and Jennie
Saxon, Mount Vernon Ladies' Association
Slaveholder and Slave Liberator, by Mathew Robinso, an article
that was originally published in the Charlotte World and which is
posted on the site of The Claremont Institute. This conservative response
to the present-day controversy over Washington's ownership of slaves
takes a very different position than the several listed above.
In 1769, I became a member of the legislature by the
choice of the county in which I live, & continued in that until
it was dosed by the revolution. I made one effort in that body for
the permission of the emancipation of slaves,1 which was rejected:
and indeed, during the regal government, nothing liberal could expect
success. Our minds were circumscribed within narrow limits by an habitual
belief that it was our duty to be subordinate to the mother country
in all matters of government, to direct all our labors in subservience
to her interests, and even to observe a bigoted intolerance for all
religions but hers. The difficulties with our representatives were
of habit and despair, not of reflection & conviction. Experience
soon proved that they could bring their minds to rights on the first
summons of their attention. But the king's council, which acted as
another house of legislature, held their places at will & were
in most humble obedience to that will: the Governor too, who had a
negative on our laws held by the same tenure, & with still greater
devotedness to it: and last of all the Royal negative closed the last
door to every hope of amelioration. [Note 1 Under the act of 2d George
II., no slave was to be set "free upon any pretence whatsoever,
except for some meritorious services, to be adjudged and allowed by
the Governor and Council."-- Acts of the Assembly, 1769. No trace
of this "effort" is recorded in the Journal of the House
of Burgesses.]-- from Thomas Jefferson Papers
Series 1. General
Correspondence. 1651-1827. You can see a
digitized version of Jefferson's manuscript
at the American Memory
Yet notwithstanding these and other discouraging circumstances
among the Romans, their slaves were often their rarest artists.
They excelled too in science, insomuch as to be usually employed
as tutors to their masters' children. Epictetus, Terence, and Phaedrus,
were slaves. But they were of the race of whites. It is not their
condition then, but nature, which has produced the distinction.
[Here Jefferson is using the same kind of argument that was employed
by Algernon Sydney]
To our reproach it must be said, that though for a century and
a half we have had under our eyes the races of black and of red
men, they have never yet been viewed by us as subjects of natural
history. I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks,
whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and
circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both
of body and mind. It is not against experience to suppose, that
different Species of the same genus, or varieties of the same species,
may possess different qualifications. Will not a lover of natural
history then, one who views the gradations in all the races of animals
with the eye of philosophy, excuse an effort to keep those in the
department of man as distinct as nature has formed them?
This unfortunate difference of colour, and perhaps of faculty,
is a powerful obstacle to the emancipation of these people. Many
of their advocates, while they wish to vindicate the liberty of
human nature are anxious also to preserve its dignity and beauty.
Some of these, embarrassed by the question `What further is to be
done with them?' join themselves in opposition with those who are
actuated by sordid avarice only. Among the Romans emancipation required
but one effort. The slave, when made free, might mix with, without
staining the blood of his master. But with us a second is necessary,
unknown to history. When freed, he is to be removed beyond the reach
And yet Jefferson concludes:
And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure
when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds
of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they
are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my
country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep
for ever: that considering numbers, nature and natural means only,
a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation is
among possible events: that it may become probable by supernatural
interference! The almighty has no attribute which can take side with
us in such a contest. - But it is impossible to be temperate and to
pursue this subject through the various considerations of policy,
of morals, of history natural and civil. We must be contented to hope
they will force their way into every one's mind. I think a change
already perceptible, since the origin of the present revolution. The
spirit of the master is abating, that of the slave rising from the
dust, his condition mollifying, the way I hope preparing, under the
auspices of heaven, for a total emancipation, and that this is disposed,
in the order of events, to be with the consent of the masters, rather
than by their extirpation.
1830 conversation on slavery as a threat to the continuing
existence of the republic.
In 1797, Jefferson, writing to St. George Tucker,
speaks of the only possible emancipation as "a compromise between
the passions, prejudices, and real difficulties, which will each have
their weight in the operation." Afterwards, in his letters to
Monroe and Rufus King, he advocates a scheme of colonization to some
point not too distant. But let no man, on this account, claim Jefferson
as a supporter of the do-nothing school of the Northern demagogues,
or of the mad school of the Southern fanatics who proclaim this ulcerous
mass a beauty, and who howl at all who refuse its infection. For,
note, in that same letter to St. George Tucker, the fervor of the
Jeffersonian theory: bitter as Tucker's pamphlet against slavery was,
he says,--"You know my subscription to its doctrines." Note
also the vigor of the Jeffersonian practice: speaking of emancipation,
he says,--"The sooner we put some plan under way, the greater
hope there is that it may be permitted to proceed peaceably to its
ultimate effect." And now bursts forth prophecy again. "But
if something is not done, and soon done, we shall be the murderers
of our own children." "If we had begun sooner, we might
probably have been allowed a lengthier operation to clear ourselves;
but every day's delay lessens the time we may take for emancipation."
and Labor at Monticello
, a section of the Jefferson
at the Library of Congress that includes information about
his ownership and treatment of slaves and offers brief comments on the
question of the nature of Jefferson's relationship with Sally Hemings.
Thomas Paine, "African
Slavery in America
," published in Postscript to the Pennsylvania
Journal and the Weekly Advertiser,
Philadelphia, March 8, 1775.
Paine once claimed that this was one of his first pieces to be printed.
Ben: Abolitionist, part of the PBS
Benjamin Franklin web site.
Conversation on Slavery, written by Franklin and published in
the Public Advertiser , 1770
Sommersett Case and the Slave Trade, written by Benjamin Franklin
and published in
The London Chronicle, June 20, 1772
Franklin was the first president of the Pennsylvania Society for
Promoting the Abolition of Slavery. Thanks to the American
Memory site, you can read and view digital images of two of the
society's broadsides: An
address to the public, from the Pennsylvania Society for promoting
the abolition of slavery, and the relief of free negroes, unlawfully
held in bondage ... Signed by order of the Society, B. Franklin, President.
Philadelphia, 9th of November, 1789; and A
Plan for Improving the Condition of the Free Blacks published
in Philadelphia in 1789.
In 1775, Adams proposed a Declaration of Independence.
He also suggested, in a move to secure Virginia's allegiance to the
revolutionary cause, that congress appoint Thomas Jefferson to write
a draft. Adams served as one of the editors. A lifelong opponent of
slavery Adams did not protest when congress cut Jefferson's condemnation
of slavery from the Declaration. Both believed the cause of independence
was more important.
Adams in a letter written to Timothy Pickering (as recorded
in Jefferson's draft of his autobiography):
I was delighted with its high tone and the flights
of oratory with which it abounded, especially that concerning negro
slavery, which, though I knew his Southern brethren would never suffer
to pass in Congress, I certainly never would oppose.
Adams's letter to her husband
referring to slaves as "those
who have as good a right to freedom as we have." Letter at Mass.
Historical Society and available digitally at the Africans in America
Although I have never sought popularity by any animated speeches
or inflammatory publications against the slavery of the blacks,
my opinion against it has always been known, and my practice has
been so conformable to my sentiments that I have always employed
freemen, both as domestics and laborers, and never in my life did
I own a slave. The abolition of slavery must be gradual, and accomplished
with much caution and circumspection.
I have read the queries concerning the rise and progress of slavery;
but, as it is a subject to which I have never given any very particular
attention, I may not be able to give you so much information as