Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Founders Against Slavery

The contemporary partisan politics controversy can be found here. Jeffrey Lord writes:

In 1785, James Madison (as noted by his biographer, Ralph Ketcham in James Madison) took to the floor of the Virginia Assembly, where he was a delegate, and spoke

"…favoring a bill Jefferson had proposed for the gradual abolition of slavery (it was rejected), and helped defeat a bill designed to outlaw the manumission of individual slaves. Of this effort a French observer wrote that Madison, "a young man (who)….astonishes…by his eloquence, his wisdom, and his genius, has had the humanity and courage (for such a proposition requires no small share of courage) to propose a general emancipation of the slaves."

In Alexander Hamilton: A Life, biographer Willard Sterne Randall notes that this Founding Father helped "to found…the Society for Promoting the Manumission of Slaves in New York." Randall on goes to say that:

"…never forgetting the slave markets of his St. Croix childhood, Hamilton became a prime mover in the early abolitionist group. He pressured the (New York) state legislature and helped to raise money to buy and free slaves. The society's founders…elected Hamilton chairman to draw up recommendations for "a line of conduct" for any "members who still possessed slaves." He also established a registry for manumitted slaves, listing their names and ages, "to detect attempts to deprive such manumitted persons of their liberty."


Mark D. said...

The list of Founders who were actively against slavery is shorter than the list who were either passive on the issue or supported the institution. Hamilton is one of the great proponents of abolition, as was Benjamin Franklin (who himself had at one point in his life owned slaves). John Jay, as I've posted about here on American Creation, was an abolitionist leader in New York State. Interestingly, it was usually the Federalists who were actively opposed to slavery, while the Jeffersonians were either passive opponents or supporters of the institution of chattel slavery. It was the second and third generation of Jeffersonians (John Taylor of Caroline, John C. Calhoun) who promoted the idea that slavery was actually a positive good. Not even as ardent a racist as Jefferson himself ever argued that.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Mark, I didn't know about Madison and Jefferson in 1785.

But I think the Three-Fifths Compromise indicates that there were a number of Founders on the "against" side, as well as Article I Section 9, which allows the slave trade to be banned albeit not for 20 years.

I hear a lot more blanket attacks on the Founding principles for not banning slavery than I do acknowledgments that there was quite a bit of opposition, even from men like Jefferson and Madison.

Think of this as an attempt at balance and proportion. I bet there's not one American in 100 who knows about Article 1 Section 9, but plenty who condemn the Founders for not doing what would have resulted in plunging the continent into civil war over slavery.


The slave trade provision was a significant factor in the debates over ratification, but its impact was complicated. Opponents of the Constitution, in both the North and the South, roundly condemned the clause. On the other hand, supporters of the Constitution–even those who were ambivalent or hostile to slavery–praised it.
Northern supporters of the Constitution were at a rhetorical disadvantage in this debate, but they nevertheless had to engage the issue. They developed two tactics. The first, best put forth by James Wilson of Pennsylvania, was intellectually dishonest but politically shrewd. He argued that the slave trade clause would in fact allow for the end of slavery itself. In speeches he made the subtle shift from the "trade" to slavery, and since most of his listeners were not as legally sophisticated as Wilson, he was able to fudge the issue. Thus, Wilson told the Pennsylvania ratifying convention that after "the lapse of a few years... Congress will have power to exterminate slavery from within our borders."

[So let's add the great underrated Founder James Wilson to the list as well...]

Jason Pappas said...

Jefferson wasn’t passive about slavery. He took steps to limit slavery before 1776 and was overruled by the Crown. He was also influential in advocating the ban of slavery in the Northwest Territory, if I remember correctly. George Mason also is counted as a critic of the institution. Given that Virginia was the largest slave state it is interesting to have Jefferson, Mason, Madison, and ultimately Washington willing to consider slavery’s demise.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Thx, Jason. I don't like Jefferson, frankly, and cannot admire him as a man: He was disloyal to his president George Washington as his Secretary of State and to his longtime friend John Adams as his political opponent.

But I am obliged to look at the historical record and give him his due when it's due, and it's due here. There was a beauty to his mind, even if his feet were more made of clay than of flesh and blood than are most men's:

Any man would have been fortunate to have John Adams as his friend; unfortunate to have Jefferson as one.

jimmiraybob said...

If Michelle Bachmann had somewhat nuanced her statement that SOME founding fathers had fought tirelessly against slavery and others did not she would have been OK. It’s not just a few individuals such as “key” founders that spoke out against, or at least in private correspondence denounced, slavery. Slavery was eliminated or put on the road to abolishment in the following colonies/states before, during or soon after the Revolution and Constitution (just a quick Google roundup – see here):

Vermont in 1771 (by Constitution)

“I. THAT all men are born equally free and independent, and have certain natural, inherent and unalienable rights, amongst which are the enjoying and defending life and liberty; acquiring, possessing and protecting property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety. Therefore, no male person, born in this country, or brought from over sea, ought to be holden by law, to serve any person, as a servant, slave or apprentice, after he arrives to the age of twenty-one Years, nor female, in like manner, after she arrives to the age of eighteen years, unless they are bound by their own consent, after they arrive to such age, or bound by law, for the payment of debts, damages, fines, costs, or the like.”

Philadelphia in 1780 (by legislation) - An ACT for the GRADUAL ABOLITION of SLAVERY

Vermont in 1788 (by legislation) - In February 1784 the Legislature passed a compromise measure for gradual emancipation.

New York in 1799 (by legislation)

New Jersey in 1804 (by legislation - "An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery")

And, as mentioned, there was the Northwest Ordinance of 1787

It therefore seems reasonable to state that some founding fathers, and certainly many of the founding generation, in addition to recognizing the inherent evil in the peculiar institution, actually did fight against slavery – at least politically and maybe even tirelessly – and win. It is also reasonable to state that some founding fathers and their political posterity fought fiercely for preserving and expanding the institution of slavery. But that might have muddied the waters a bit too much for what Bachmann was trying to get across.

Side note: John Quincy Adams still remains not a founding father but the son of a founding father. And, to the best of my recollection and Googling skills, did not actively pursue a course toward eliminating slavery until after he entered the US Congress (representing Massachusetts) in 1830 – following his presidency. Speaking of Maachusetts,

“The Massachusetts Legislature in 1777 tabled a proposal for gradual emancipation. The 1778 draft constitution legally recognized slavery and banned free blacks from voting. It was rejected at the polls, for other reasons. The more liberal state constitution approved two years later contained a bill of rights that declared ‘all men are born free and equal, and have ... the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberty.’

“This provided the basis for abolishing slavery in Massachusetts, but it clearly was not the intent of the Legislature to do so. Popular sentiment and the courts were pro-abolition, however. And it was a 1783 judicial decision, interpreting the wording of the 1780 constitution, that brought slavery to an end in Massachusetts.” - Damned activist courts :)

jimmiraybob said...

Speaking of Maachusetts,

Given the ways that I've heard people butcher the pronunciation I'm not going to feel too bad that my fingers missed a couple of ss...esses....s's.......the spelling.

jimmiraybob said...

Update RE: "John Quincy Adams still remains not a founding father but..."

Apparently someone is attempting to update the Wikipedia page for John Quincy Adams to make him a founding father by unilateral declaration (JQ was born July 11, 1767, was 9 years old when the DOI was signed, and was 20 when the US Constitution was adopted on September 17, 1787).

I guess the jury is is still deliberating :)

I'm still voting for Founding Kid.

Naum said...

Who do we delineate by "founding fathers" -- does that apply to mean extrapolation of the PA, VT (& others) state constitution authors to "founding father" status?

And Madison and Jefferson, while penning words and giving oratory on ills of slavery, such noble gesture was limited to talk only -- their livelihood was totally dependent on slave ownership and even if they wished their slaves to be free, did not act in such a way.

Nor Washington, who continually rebuffed abolitionist pleas and requests.

Because the Quakers and a very small stream of thought tipped that way, does not in any respect, denote "founders against slavery".

Also, a note that legislation proposed does not necessarily equate to a stance on an issue -- lots of measures are floated and proposed, and lawmakers can be quite cavalier when they're confident a given measure is bound for nowhere.

Jason Pappas said...

Thanks, jimmiraybob. There was considerable opposition to slavery by important Founding Fathers and in several states. If I remember correctly, it was mostly South Carolina that was the problem given the desire to have all 13 states on board for the Declaration and Revolution.

For the sake of argument, let me put forth the thesis that the Founding Fathers did eliminate slavery on the federal level. The Constitution created a union that was little more than a federation. The concerns of the federal level included foreign policy, trade among the states, and trade with foreign nations. Given the elimination of the trans-Atlantic slave trade (with a lag), slavery was eliminated from federal affairs.

Just as the 1st Amendment doesn’t disestablish state churches nor insure individual rights of free speech, so does the elimination of the African slave trade fail to stop the states from continuing the practice of slavery. In all cases the states were expected to evolve to a more enlightened policy.

Tom Van Dyke said...

For the sake of argument, let me put forth the thesis that the Founding Fathers did eliminate slavery on the federal level.

Not bad, Jason. In support, the Northwest Ordinance, passed by the Articles of Confederation government and immediately re-ratified by the new US Constitution government, forbade slavery in the new territories administered by the federal [central] government.

Ace point.

Jason Pappas said...

Thanks, Tom, for adding to the argument.

jimmiraybob said...

N - "Who do we delineate by "founding fathers" -- does that apply to mean extrapolation of the PA, VT (& others) state constitution authors to "founding father" status?"

For the record, I wasn't trying to be too expansive...

"It therefore seems reasonable to state that some founding fathers, and certainly many of the founding generation, ..."

"some founding fathers and their political posterity"

But to be fair, most people do have a very narrow idea of who the FFs were, often focusing on a dozen or fewer.

However, it certainly seems reasonable to include VT, PA, and RI* as I cite them above as the work of the founders, since the actions cited occurred during the revolutionary to Constitution span and all actions were rather intimately linked - one would have to look closer to see how many of the more readily recognizable FFs took part. And the NW Ordinance is the work of recognizable FFs.

*This "Vermont in 1788 (by legislation)," should have been Rhode Island in 1774.

Brian Tubbs said...

I like Thomas West's book "Vindicating the Founders."