Slavery in Early America:
What the Founders
Wrote, Said, and Did

 E Pluribus Unum

 

 

For an excellent overview of how the founders wrestled with questions of equality for the poor, women, and slaves, see the Introduction to Chapter 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?
[The complete text of A Dissertation on Slavery: With a Proposal for the Gradual Abolition of It in the State of Virginia (Philadelphia: Matthew Carey Pub, 1796 and 1861) by Professor of Law (William and Mary University), and General Court Judge, St. George Tucker is available as part of a site offering Evidence that Pre-Civil War U.S. Slavery was Illegal and Unconstitutional.)

Opinions 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.

Don't 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 holdings.

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' autobiography, Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary.

The White 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?

Algernon Sidney's Discourse on natural law and slavery.

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

 

Patrick Henry

What the Founders Said About Slavery -  a collection of quotations denouncing slavery.

Like Tucker, Patrick Henry in a 1773 letter to his friend Robert Pleasance expressed his abhorrence for the inconsistency of fighting for freedom for one group while enslaving another. He refers to slavery as an "Abominable Practice . . . a Species of Violence & Tyranny" and asked:
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 to them.
Finally, Henry, usually the fiery voice of freedom, arrives at the same conclusion that was shared by many of the other founders.
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 raised:
  • 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?

George Washington

George 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.)

George Washington 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.

George Washington, First President at the African Americans & Presidents Website

Professor Jack Warren On the Papers of George Washington, Online News Hour

The George Washington Papers: The Confederation Series, Essay on Vol. 4, April 1786 - January 1787, "No day was ever more clouded than the present"

Letter 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)

George Washington’s Plantation Bound by Slave History, By Mary V. Thompson and Jennie Saxon, Mount Vernon Ladies' Association

ONA JUDGE STAINES: A Thirst for Complete Freedom & Her Escape from President Washington, by Evelyn Gerson from Seacoast NH.Com. The story of one of Washington's slaves, who escaped from the Executive Mansion to seek freedom.

Washington Frees Slaves in Last Will and Testament 1799 and a transcription of Washington's Will are available at the PBS Rediscovering Washington site There is also a classroom exercise fore K-12 that includes questions and commentaries on George Washington and The Problem of Slavery.

Bushrod Washington and The Mount Vernon Slaves, Gerald T. Dunne, originally published in The Supreme Court Society's 1980 Yearbook and available in digitized format courtesy of The Supreme Court Historical Society. An essay on how Washington's nephew and executor (and one of the organizers and the lifetime president of the American Colonization Society) dealt with the slaves he inherited when Mount Vernon became his property.

Washington: 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.

The First Lady: Martha Dandridge Custis Washington

Lafayette and Slavery, an online exhibit at the Department of Special Collections of the Lafayette College Library -- tells of the experimental plantation that Lafayette hoped that Washington would help sponsor.

 

Thomas Jefferson

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 site.
Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, Queries 14 and 18, 137--43, 162--63, 1784 (A slightly shorter but perhaps more readable excerpt of this material can be found in Thomas Jefferson on Slavery at A Hypertext on American History)

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 of mixture.

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.
A Letter from Benjamin Banneker to Thomas Jefferson, and Jefferson's Answer, 1791. Banneker, an African-American, sends a copy of an almanac he has written to Jefferson, along with a letter pointing out the contradiction between Jefferson's actions and the sentiments he expressed in the Declaration of Independence. For a biographical sketch of Banneker, see Benjamin Banneker: Mathematician, Astronomer at Princeton's African-Americans in the Sciences site. (Be sure to take advantage of the bibliography and links at the end of the sketch.) You can also see the text and digital image of Jefferson's reply at American Memory.

Jefferson was not alone in his "scientific" assessment of the potential of slaves.  See Southern Nature: Scientific Views of the Colonial American South, an online exhibit from the American Philosophical Society

Jefferson on The Missouri Compromise: "A Firebell in the Night," at Brittanica's site About the American Presidential Elections

1830 conversation on slavery as a threat to the continuing existence of the republic.

Jefferson and Slavery, by A. D. White, an article that originally appeared in The Atlantic in 1862 and is now available at The Atlantic Online. You can also read a more recent article, Jefferson and the Character Issue, that appeared in 1992, and a collection of essays on slavery linked to Forgotten Heroes of Freedom. Here is an excerpt from the White essay:

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."
Resources on the Jefferson-Hemings controversy on the Monticello Website sponsored by the Jefferson Foundation. At the same site, see also the sections on The Plantation and Index of Brief Reports on Jefferson and slavery.

Aaron Garrett's "Of Racism and Remembrance," Common-place, vol. 1, no. 4, July 2001

Conor Cruise O'Brien's "Thomas Jefferson : Radical and Racist," The Atlantic Monthly; Volume 278, No. 4, October 1996, pages 53-74.

Jefferson's Blood: Thomas Jefferson, his slave & mistress Sally Hemings, their descendents, and the mysterious power of race. Frontline, PBS

Life and Labor at Monticello, a section of the Jefferson Exhibit 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.

 

James Madison

Slavery at Montpelier, Madison's Estate (Brings together quotes from visitors, including Lafayette)

Madison and Slavery at the James Madison Museum. See also at the same site: A ColoredMan's Reminiscences of James Madison by Paul Jennings from a work originally published in 1865. This short work can also be found at a number of other sites, including at the University of North Carolina's Documenting the American South (where you can view the text and selected digitized images), and a version transcribed directly from the 1865 manuscript at the James Madison Center of Madison University (where you can also find an impressive set of resources on slavery.) The White House Historical Association offers the text of Jennings' A Colored Man's Reminiscences as well as an extrensive commentary that contextualizes the work. It should be noted that while Jennings offered a positive characterization of his "master," but went on after winning his freedom to help plan a large-scale escape of slaves from Washington, D.C.

 

Thomas Paine

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.

 

Benjamin Franklin

Citizen Ben: Abolitionist, part of the PBS Benjamin Franklin web site.

A Conversation on Slavery, written by Franklin and published in
the Public Advertiser , 1770

The 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.
Abigail 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 website.

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 many others.

 

 
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The E Pluribus Unum Project is funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. It is co-directed by Dr. John McClymer, Professor of History, Assumption College; Dr Lucia Knoles, Professor of English, Assumption College; and Dr. Arnold Pulda, Director of Gifted and Talented student programs for the public schools in Worcester, MA. Visitors are encouraged to send inquiries or suggestions.