Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Did The Founding Fathers Believe Slavery Was Morally Wrong?

"The prevailing ideas entertained by [Thomas Jefferson] and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically." This was the assessment of the collective mind of America's Founding Fathers, as offered by the vice president of the Confederate States of America, Alexander H. Stephens, in March of 1861 in his famous (or, more properly, infamous) "Cornerstone" speech.

Stephens would go on to say that the Jefferson and the Founders had it all wrong. The races, said Stephens, were not equal, and the new Confederate constitution corrected the Founders of the United States on that point.

I find this critique of America's Founders to be very interesting, considering that modern-day critics are so frequently alleging that the Founders were racist, pro-slavery, and more. Here in Alexander H. Stephens we have an unequivocal white supremacist saying that the foundations of the United States were based on racial equality.

In case you think "racial equality" (in describing the views of Jefferson and the Founders) takes it too far, the fault lies with Stephens (not me). It was Stephens who said that Jefferon's ideals (which indict slavery) "rested upon the assumption of the equality of races" -- an assumption Stephens said was an "error."

For more on this disagreement between Alexander H. Stephens and Thomas Jefferson, I would like to invite you to check out my latest article over at my American Revolution & Founding Era blog...

"Alexander Stephens vs Thomas Jefferson"

As to what the Founders themselves thought of slavery, I would encourage you to check out Vindicating The Founders by Thomas G. West. A great book that addresses the Founders' views on race, gender, and much more.


Tom Van Dyke said...

During the Senate debate on the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, [John] Pettit argued in favor of expanding slavery to Kansas, and famously said that Jefferson's idea (in the United States Declaration of Independence) that "all men are created equal" was not a "self-evident truth" but instead "is nothing more to me than a self-evident lie."

The debate over Pettit's inflammatory words is credited with reviving Abraham Lincoln's interest in national politics.

King of Ireland said...

This seems to back up your post on this Tom.

craig said...

G. Morris's comments recorded in Madison's Debates on and before Aug 23 during the Constitutional Convention showed some interesting opinions. Morris said that Pennsylvanians would not stomach being equal to slaves and SC and GA wanted equality??!! Their motives were questionable since they were actually talking about representation. But this sort of talk by FFs makes it real shakey ground and I wonder what we can conclude with any confidence.

Tom Van Dyke said...

"all men are created equal" was not a "self-evident truth" but instead "is nothing more to me than a self-evident lie."

From what I've read, "self-evident lie" became a popular phrase beyond John Pettit.

That might be the difference between the Founding and later years. In the Founding, "all men are created equal" was a dream, an ambition, a concept. In fact, the North got more racist, not less.

But if "self-evident lie" did get Lincoln back into politics, we in the 21st century can surely see why. For if "self-evident lie" were permitted to stand, then America itself was and is a lie.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.