Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Anti-Slavery Awakening at Our Founding

A few days ago we were discussing the Founder Fathers’ attitude towards slavery in the comments section and it’s clear that there’s much that needs to be remembered. Today, in the Wall Street Journal, Thomas Fleming reminds us that the leaders among our Founders took significant steps to challenge that institution.

Fleming tells us that “George Washington ignored protests from some Southerners and accepted both free and enslaved blacks in his army. In the final years of the war, one in every seven soldiers in his ranks was black.” Jefferson attacked the institution in an early draft of the Declaration. John Adams, in the Massachusetts constitution of 1779, inserted the plank “All men are born free and equal” which enabled judicial challenges to slavery in that state. Hamilton and Jay advocated manumission.

As Fleming reminds us, the “survival” of the new nation was the first priority of the Founding generation. To this end, the Founders compromised during the Constitutional Convention by allowing the slave trade to continue until 1808 and limited the voting power of the southern states by inserting the 3/5 clause. Fleming notes:
“In an emotional speech, 81-year-old Benjamin Franklin persuaded all but three of the delegates to ‘doubt a little of their infallibility’ and accept these and other compromises that made the Constitution a reality. That same year, Franklin accepted the presidency of the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery.”

Over all, Fleming gives a good review of the key points. I’d include the Northwest Ordinance’s elimination of slavery in federal territories recently relinquished by individual states including the largest slave owning state, Virginia. Indeed, statesmen from Virginia (Jefferson, Madison, Mason, Henry, etc.) made significant attempts to limit slavery in contradiction to their narrow interests.

I’d also remind the reader that the Constitution left many matters to the states in what was still viewed as primarily a federation. It prohibited the federal government from trampling the liberties of the people but as a federal structure it did not impose those prohibitions on state governance. We've particularly discuss this fact with regard to religion and established churches. Given the federal government's emphasis on matters of foreign relations (defense, trade, etc.), could one not say that, with the slated-elimination of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, that the federal government largely succeeded in the elimination of slavery in federal matters?

Overall, the efforts by leading statesmen to address the slavery issue is far greater than one might expect. Most often matters of principle are not high on the agenda without the powerful role of an aggrieved group whose narrow interest motivates the issue. For example, disestablishment of churches and respect for religious conscience may demand appeals to principle but those aggrieved (Baptists, etc.) needed to put pressure on those in power. In 1776 (or 1789) there was yet a Frederick Douglas to represent oppressed slaves. Opposition to slavery depended on the conscience of our lead statesmen. The world was just beginning to feel the pangs of discomfort over the institution of slavery. The awakening began here among our Founding Fathers.


Tom Van Dyke said...

There are folks of a certain mindset who use slavery as a cudgel against the Founders and their ideals.

I don't like those people.

What Jason [and Fleming] write here counters one of the biggest miseducations of my youth, and one I see every day on the internet, people of a certain political persuasion spitting on the Founders as if they didn't care about slavery.

Article 1 Section 9 of the Constitution itself allows for the banning of the slave trade in 10 years. Not one person in 100 knows that, or about the Northwest Ordinance. All they know is Jefferson banged one of his slaves. [Only possibly true.]

I liked this from Fleming;

In response, John Rutledge of South Carolina, while admitting that slavery might offend "religion and humanity," declared that the Carolinas and Georgia could not survive without it. The issue, he said with cold precision, was "whether the Southern states shall or shall not be parties to the Union.".

That's the conundrum in a nutshell, and even Rutledge knows that slavery is wrong.

All men have feet of clay, it's true. But even the good men simply couldn't set their slaves free even if they wanted to---illiterate, unskilled, with only the clothes on their backs. They were responsible for them, and had not the wealth to manumit them humanely.

[The irony being that's just what happened after the Civil War anyway.]

The Founders knew that the only way to end slavery was to rope the South and its slaveholders in, and establish the Union. Mr. Lincoln knew that, too, that only the preservation of the Union could end slavery.

And even most of the slaveholders of the Founding era knew that slavery was wrong and must end. Someday. Just not today.

Michael Heath said...

Jason Pappas, "Overall, the efforts by leading statesmen to address the slavery issue is far greater than one might expect."

I suggest speaking only for yourself. I had a fine grip on the founders' collective and significant contributions and failures regarding slavery by the time I graduated from high school simply by relying on my public school history classes 34+ years ago. My studies since then only build upon that base rather than supplanting it.

Chattering about this topic recently increased tremendously solely because Rep. Michele Bachmann claimed the founders [collectively] worked, "tirelessly" to end slavery. That of course is absurd and deserves pointed and contemptuous criticism, especially given her station and her apparent motivation. That asserted motivation is to refer to slavery and the founders to push the idea her type of bigotry and repeated promotion of discrimination towards today's hated others isn't really bigotry nor in violation of the principles inherent to the DofI and the 9th and 14th Amendment (among other clauses). In fact her bigotry and antipathy to those founding principles is perfectly consistent, just more benign and less popular. I'd argue past victories for equal liberty rights has yielded a greater appreciation by all of us for those ideals as more of us enjoy their exercise and protection - with the exception of the people that identify and support Rep. Bachmann and her approach to objective truth and politics who really want to falsely claim it's their ideology which freed the slaves while they simultaneously seek to both ostracize and compromise the exercise of equal rights by gays, Muslims, and secularists - including even Christians who are secularists.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Congressman Bachmann, President Obama, whathaveyou, just not the purpose of this blog, Mr. Heath. Thx for the contribution. I've seen your work over at Mr. Brayton's blog. Yr comments here fit there better, in fact they're Main Street for over there. This ain't that kind of party.

Should you have a substantive historical objection to Mr. Pappas' post, or any of the comments, by all means bring the history. Otherwise, you know...

Best regards.

Mark in Spokane said...

The vast consensus of the Founding generation was to place slavery on the road to eventual extinction. While some of the Founders were opposed to efforts to limit the spread slavery in the territories (Jefferson, for example fits this mould), virtually all of them regarded slavery as an evil.

Jason Pappas said...

I think that’s right, Tom & Mark. Slavery was indeed abhorrent to the Founders.

People forget how hard it is to change a culture. The Founding Fathers weren’t an oligarchy that had full power to dictate to the population at-large all terms and laws deemed appropriate. Between fighting for independence, avoiding anarchy and inter-state squabbles, experimenting with different state constitutions, and paying for the war, they had a lot on their plate. Given all these worries and dangers, their success even impressed many skeptical Europeans. They pushed as far as they could and then some. Compared it to most other revolutions.

jimmiraybob said...

"The vast consensus of the Founding generation was to place slavery on the road to eventual extinction."

"I think that’s right, Tom & Mark. Slavery was indeed abhorrent to the Founders."

While I'm aware that some founders' sympathies were to abolish slavery, and I've said that here before, there's no call to claim that the founders found it abhorrent or that the founders worked to abolish the institution.

It was an institution in the colonies and the early states (some far more than others) precisely because some founders found it to be profitable and some founders found it Biblically justified and necessary to semi-moralize a barbarous and heathen sub-human.

Obviously, some founders and their prodigy worked tirelessly to preserve and expand slavery right up to the culmination of the US Civil War. (Sometimes known by those that fought to preserve and expand the peculiar institution, or their posterity today, as the War of Northern Aggression....or the Godless Lincoln's Tyranny.)

jimmiraybob said...

Prodigy should read progeny....waiting on the morning coffee.

jimmiraybob said...

...not the purpose of this blog, Mr. Heath.

But MH brings up two germane points; 1) to whom did/should "All men are created equal" apply, and 2) how is the most fundamental history of the nation used and abused for partisan purposes. Both of these points apply to the time of the founding as well as the present and all points between.

jimmiraybob said...

...some founders...necessary to semi-moralize a barbarous and heathen sub-human.

I should emphasize that I was speaking not for me but of a mindset of the times.

Jason Pappas said...

Well, jrb, first we have to define “founders” don’t we? In the above I’ve been using the term to denote the leadership. Here we see effort to limit and/or oppose the expansion of slavery. We even see expressions of abhorrence by Rutledge, a representative of the most intransigent slave state.

On the other hand, if we do a “people’s history” we’d find support for slavery among the rank-and-file in places like South Carolina that made the elimination of slavery impossible. If by founders you mean the rank-and-file then you are certainly right that too many found the institution acceptable.

It’s interesting the Thomas Fleming chose South Carolina’s Rutledge to show that even a southerner could find slavery evil because (as we know) it was Calhoun, as a senator from South Carolina, that would defend slavery as a “positive good” forty years later. After decades of foot-dragging, evasions, procrastination, and lame excuses, the southern leadership became vocal in defense of slavery! This was considered a disappointing change of affairs.

How about my point on federalism?

During the founding period neither slavery abolition nor freedom of religion was established by the constitution. It was left to the states. Virginia took the lead in religious freedom by disestablishing its church while Massachusetts ultimately followed ... 40 years later! Massachusetts took the lead in the elimination of slavery while Virginia ... well it was hoped that Virginia would follow. It was widely believed that slavery was slated for the dustbin of history.

The federal constitution is often credited with establishing religious freedom (which it did not) because of federal gov't prohibitions--the states eventually followed the federal example by choice. Federal law abolished the international slave trade (with a lag). I suggest that had the states followed suit and eliminated slavery as they did established churches that we’d (erroneously) give the constitution credit and cheer the founding fathers unequivocally. What do you think?

Phil Johnson said...

This is an interesting point of issue in our American history to have put on the table. Thanks.
And, don't forget that it was the ideas, actions, and events surrounding the issue that helped fuel subsequent philosophers to discuss and innovate new ideas regarding how society works and how it should work. I could point to the Frankfurt School and to Hegel and Marx before that, in the development of such ideas and innovations--and communication theory itself.

Tom Van Dyke said...

The vast consensus of the Founding generation was to place slavery on the road to eventual extinction.

I think if you take out "vast" for hyperbolic safety, the Northwest Ordinance proves the consensus of the Founders was for slavery's eventual extinction.

Article 1 Section 9 of the Constitution as well.

jimmiraybob said...


I am speaking of the representative national leadership of the rank and file - The term “founding fathers’ can be defined narrowly as “the key” founding fathers, a small list that always elicits debate as to its inclusion/exclusion (e.g., Washington, Adams (John), Madison, Jefferson, etc. – heh, what about Sam Adams and what about Patrick Henry?), or more broadly as the leadership in the Continental Congresses, revolutionary war leaders of the Continental forces, national government leaders under the Articles of Confederation, the Sons of Liberty and various organizations, representatives and delegates during the constitutional convention and subsequent ratification conventions, and the first few national administrations and legislatures charged with trying to figure out what the new federal/national government was all about.

And given that “founding fathers” usually refers to leadership at the national level and since this leadership was representative of interests tied to the “the people” (from the highest to the lowest stations) and the economic interests of their states and were put in place via state governments or were directly elected by “the people” and since it was this leadership which was as mixed in their opinions of slavery as the “rank and file” then the founding fathers that I refer to were the leaders within the national framework who also were tied to their state’s interests. And some of them clearly were for and some against slavery (some for and against slavery period, some for and against importation, some for and some against expansion).

TVD - "I think if you take out "vast" [consensus of the Founding generation] for hyperbolic safety..."

And I think that this is fair. A little while back I'd mentioned that Bachmann would have been on safer ground using "some" FFs rather than inferring a uniform consensus using "the" FFs.

Which brings up the question of whether the proportion in leadership and/or rank and file support/opposition to slavery changed from the founding to the civil war.

Tom Van Dyke said...

JRB I think JasonP stipulates with

because (as we know) it was Calhoun, as a senator from South Carolina, that would defend slavery as a “positive good” forty years later.

that something went more sour and nefarious in the 19th century. This is where you see them start cranking out Biblical defenses of slavery as well.

Now, as historians and not moralists in 21st century armchairs, we see that some of the defenses are not unreasonable. [I must do an obligatory tap-dance here anyway, to say that such positions are still morally indefensible in the 21st century.] To wit, that Africans were better off in America than in Africa, that it would be morally irresponsible simply to set slaves free with only the clothes on their backs, and of course forced abolition would bring war and calamity upon the nation. As previously noted, the Civil War ended up doing exactly all that.

Was Calhoun just an evil and exploitative bastard, or was he arguing from some rationalization he could live with?

The question and issue gets more complicated than if we just put it in terms of heroes and villains. That good people do wrong--and can talk themselves into anything---is the far more frightening reality.

"It was a higher than the mere naked question of master and slave. It involved a great political institution, essential to the peace and existence of one-half of this Union. A mysterious Providence had brought together two races, from different portions of the globe, and placed them together in nearly equal numbers in the Southern portion of this Union. They were there inseparably united, beyond the possibility of separation. Experience had shown that the existing relation between them secured the peace and happiness of both. Each had improved; the inferior greatly; so much so, that it had attained a degree of civilization never before attained by the black race in any age or country. Under no other relation could they coexist together. To destroy it was to involve a whole region in laughter, carnage, and desolation; and, come what will, we must defend and preserve it.

This agitation has produced one happy effect at least; it has compelled us to the South to look into the nature and character of this great institution, and to correct many false impressions that even e had entertained in relation to it, Many in the South once believed that it was a moral and political evil; that folly and delusion are gone; we see it now in its true light, and regard it as the most safe and stable basis for free institutions in the world.


"...the Southern section regards the relation as one which can not be destroyed without subjecting the two races to the greatest calamity, and the section to poverty, desolation, and wretchedness; and accordingly they feel bound by every consideration of interest and safety to defend it."

Yes, something certainly did change, or at least is strikes me that this 1838 Calhoun speech would have been out of place in the Founding era, although it reads like a handbook for the Confederacy. And as a political analyst, everything Calhoun predicted came true. That he was such a smart man adds to the tragedy of the whole thing.

Tom Van Dyke said...

BTW, JRB: The Northwest Ordinance is key because it was passed by the Articles of Confederation government that included the revolutionary generation, and re-passed by the Constitution government which was sort of the Founding 2.0, although there's overlap. "Consensus of the Founders" fits the NW Ordinance better than any other doc, in my view.

Jason Pappas said...

It’s interesting to compare Calhoun’s analysis of the situation with de Tocqueville’s in Chapter 10 starting with the sentence “Position That the Black Race Occupies ...” He sees the problem as unsolvable without great pain. However, he is closer to the Founders in his description of the harm dependency causes both sides of a morally corrupt relationship.

Liberty foster the virtues of industry and self-reliance (independence is the term used in the 18th century) like as I described in the Franklin article. Slavery and/or dependence corrodes the virtues of both lord and servile underling. De Tocqueville talks about this as he describes a trip down the Ohio river. It starts with the sentences: “So as things advanced you began to see that slavery, so cruel to the slave, was deadly to the master. But this truth was conclusively proved on the banks of the Ohio.”

Jefferson would have appreciated De Tocqueville’s analysis. I’ve seen modern historians complain that the corrupting effect of slavery on the master is not a significant criticism of the institution. They expect a condemnation based only on injustice to the slave. They often leave out this aspect of the criticism perhaps because it doesn't resonate with modern ethics.

The analysis at the time of the founding has it harming both. This is true too with respect to political freedom. The luxury of the court was morally corrupting and harmful to those in power as well as harmful to those ruled. It’s quite a different mindset. I think De Tocqueville still shows this classical Whig type of analysis.

I also believe his pessimism was born out in the events that followed. There was no elegant solution that could have undone the harm of this long-standing institution. It was a tragedy.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Indeed, the plight of the freed black man for 100 years after shows just how deep and desperate the problem was.

Calhoun's "solution" was that the problem couldn't be cured atall, and therefore shouldn't.

BTW, Jefferson made a similar point about slaveholding:

With the morals of the people, their industry also is destroyed. For in a warm climate, no man will labour for himself who can make another labour for him. This is so true, that of the proprietors of slaves a very small proportion indeed are ever seen to labour.