The Founders were Christians: Did they Support Slavery?

1 09 2006

Filed under: Founding Fathers, Original Intent, Slavery

I’d like to take a look into the question some have raised on this blog and elsewhere of how could the Founding Fathers support slavery if they were Christians.

Founding Fathers

Even though the issue of slavery is often raised as a discrediting charge against the Founding Fathers, the historical fact is that slavery was not the product of, nor was it an evil introduced by, the Founding Fathers; slavery had been introduced to America nearly two centuries before the Founders. As President of Congress Henry Laurens explained:

I abhor slavery. I was born in a country where slavery had been established by British Kings and Parliaments as well as by the laws of the country ages before my existence . . . In former days there was no combating the prejudices of men supported by interest; the day, I hope, is approaching when, from principles of gratitude as well as justice, every man will strive to be foremost in showing his readiness to comply with the Golden Rule [“do unto others as you would have them do unto you” Matthew 7:12].

Benjamin Franklin, in a 1773 letter to Dean Woodward, confirmed that whenever the Americans had attempted to end slavery, the British government had indeed thwarted those attempts. Franklin explained:

. . . a disposition to abolish slavery prevails in North America, that many of Pennsylvanians have set their slaves at liberty, and that even the Virginia Assembly have petitioned the King for permission to make a law for preventing the importation of more into that colony. This request, however, will probably not be granted as their former laws of that kind have always been repealed.

Many of the Founding Fathers who had owned slaves as British citizens released them in the years following America’s separation from Great Britain (e.g., George Washington, John Dickinson, Caesar Rodney, William Livingston, George Wythe, John Randolph of Roanoke, and others). Furthermore, many of the Founders had never owned any slaves. For example, John Adams proclaimed, “My opinion against slavery has always been known . . . Never in my life did I own a slave.”

While Jefferson had introduced a bill designed to end slavery, not all of the southern Founders were opposed to slavery. According to the testimony of Virginians James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and John Rutledge, it was the Founders from North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia who most strongly favored slavery.

For many of the Founders, their feelings against slavery went beyond words. For example, in 1774, Benjamin Franklin and Benjamin Rush founded America’s first anti-slavery society; John Jay was president of a similar society in New York.

That men should pray and fight for their own freedom and yet keep others in slavery is certainly acting a very inconsistent, as well as unjust and perhaps impious, part. JOHN JAY, PRESIDENT OF CONTINENTAL CONGRESS, ORIGINAL CHIEF JUSTICE U. S. SUPREME COURT

Domestic slavery is repugnant to the principles of Christianity . . . It is rebellion against the authority of a common Father. It is a practical denial of the extent and efficacy of the death of a common Savior. It is an usurpation of the prerogative of the great Sovereign of the universe who has solemnly claimed an exclusive property in the souls of men. BENJAMIN RUSH, SIGNER OF THE DECLARATION

It is certainly unlawful to make inroads upon others . . . and take away their liberty by no better means than superior power. JOHN WITHERSPOON, SIGNER OF THE DECLARATION

While much progress was made by the Founders to end the institution of slavery, unfortunately what they began was not fully achieved until generations later.

Yet, despite the strenuous effort of many Founders to recognize in practice that “all men are created equal,” charges persist to the opposite. In fact, revisionists even claim that the Constitution demonstrates that the Founders considered one who was black to be only three-fifths of a person. This charge is yet another falsehood. The three-fifths clause was not a measurement of human worth; rather, it was an anti-slavery provision to limit the political power of slavery’s proponents. By including only three-fifths of the total number of slaves in the congressional calculations, Southern States were actually being denied additional pro-slavery representatives in Congress.

Why do revisionists so often abuse and misportray the three-fifths clause? Professor Walter Williams (himself an African-American) suggested: “Politicians, news media, college professors and leftists of other stripes are selling us lies and propaganda. To lay the groundwork for their increasingly successful attack on our Constitution, they must demean and criticize its authors. As Senator Joe Biden demonstrated during the Clarence Thomas hearings, the framers’ ideas about natural law must be trivialized or they must be seen as racists.”

The Founders were not always on the same page when it came to creating a new government. Imagine, with all of our diversity today, how difficult this would be if we had to start over, as many countries have done in the last 200 years (France, Spain, etc). Yet we are still governed by the same document the Founders created over 200 years ago.

The abolishment of slavery is an example of how we’ve taken what they gave us and improved on it because it was their intention and goal to remove slavery. Side note: an example of how we’ve degraded the Constitution are allowing issues such as abortion and no prayer in schools.

The three-fifths clause is a great example of a step the Founders took to bring the southern states along side with the rest of the country. As long as they continued to be a part of the union and allow slavery, they would suffer in Congress as a result.

The large majority of the Founders were opposed to slavery and demonstrated so in their speeches and writings. While this only touches the tip of the iceberg on the slavery issue, it exposes the flaws in the absurd arguement that the Founders were a bunch of racists.

Linked with: Blue Star Chronicles, Woman Honor Thyself, Basil’s Blog, Rightwing Nation, Third World County, TMH’s Bacon Bits, Stuck on Stupid

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