Yesterday, Mike Kelsey on the Heritage Foundation’s blog asked, “Were the Founding Fathers Committed to Ending Slavery?”
“It is commonplace to dismiss the Founders as racists who may have attacked slavery from time to time in writing but never in action. Critics of the Founders often claim that, since the Constitution did not abolish slavery, the Founders were unconcerned with actively fighting the institution in their lifetime—even if they may have wanted slavery to disappear at some vague point in the future. This argument is both misguided and naïve.”
He counters this claim by arguing that the founders expressed their desire to end slavery through the Northwest Ordinance:
“The final article of the ordinance declares unwaveringly that ‘there shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory.’ By a firm majority, Congress had officially repudiated slavery.”
Kelsey’s core contention is that the founders made politically necessary sacrifices in the creation of the Constitution, despite their desire to see slavery eradicated, in order to make a unified nation.
But this is confusing. If the founders desired to see slavery ended, who were they compromising with in the Constitutional Convention? Well, other founders of course.
Some did want to see slavery ended. One could lump the founders into three rough groups; the ardent abolitionists, the wanna-be abolitionists, and the anti-abolitionists.
The ardent abolitionists include delegates to the Constitutional Convention such as William Patterson, Gouverneur Morris and Rufus King as well as other early leaders such as John Adams. These men felt that slavery was a “foul contagion in the human character” and “an evil of colossal magnitude.” (McCullough, David. John Adams. 133). These men wanted to see slavery ended, but accepted that they had to make compromises with pro-slavery founders in order to maintain national unity.
The “Wanna-Be Abolitionists” are those founders who expressed disgust and moral disapproval of the institution of slavery in general while owning slaves themselves. Two notable examples in this mold include two of our early Presidents; George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson wrote that slavery was “the most unremitting despotism on the one part and the most degrading submissions on the other,” (McCullough, 331). Yet, Jefferson owned hundreds of slaves, not even freeing them upon his death (as did George Washington).
The pro-slavery faction among the founders was largely Southern and included men such as John Rutledge and Charles Pinckney, who argued forcefully and successfully for the inclusion of the Fugitive Slave Clause in the Constitution. This clause requires that escaped slaves who flee to free states be returned to their owners:
So, how are we to look at the founders with regard to their views on slavery? We must see them as individuals with conflicting views on some different topics. A majority of the founders probably felt that slavery was a moral evil, but this was not a unanimous or dominant view. Had it been, then the founders would have been able to ban slavery outright in the Constitution. Sectional differences made the achievement of both abolition and national unity impossible, so the pro-abolition founders wisely chose to compromise in order to place the nation on secure ground, while still working to limit slavery’s power where they could; ending the slave trade and in the 3/5 Compromise for example. Kelsey and I share broad overall admiration and respect for the founders, but a one-dimensional portrayal of the founders is a disservice to their legacy and their posterity.
Pundits and historians should avoid describing the views of America’s Founding Father’s as if they spoke with one authoritative voice. There are some topics on which the founders achieved broad consensus while others were bitterly disputed. Invoking the founders draws upon deep wells of cultural memory and national pride. We have a responsibility to convey their views and philosophies accurately and in context, rather than twisting them into talking points for our respective, contemporary political motives.