The Founders’ Fight . . . to End Slavery?

As I sit contemplating our nation’s great history as the 235th birthday of the United States is celebrated this month, I consider what it took to achieve and maintain. What great sacrifices have transpired, from those colonists who signed with their sacred honor the Declaration of Independence, to the doomed men walking their last steps in the Death March of Bataan, to the nineteen-year old kid who gave his life in a desolate valley in Afghanistan.

I will always contend that this nation has risen to such heights because of the genius of the principles in our founding documents.  In some circles, however, there has long been a sentiment that these documents (especially the Constitution) are tainted with the stain of slavery, rendering them unsound. How could the Founders honestly speak of “inalienable rights” of mankind? After all, according to this group, the Founders could not have truly meant rights for “all” since they supposedly didn’t make a move to end slavery. Congresswoman and presidential candidate Michele Bachmann was recently mocked when she stated that the Founders intended to end slavery. Taking this position is seen as uneducated and backwards. After all, some of the Founders did own slaves, and that doesn’t bode well for their character. The story does not end there, however, and it is far from the whole picture.

Before anything else can be discussed, context must be understood. Today, we see slavery as the abomination that it is. In the early days of our nation, it was just another way of life. As wrong as it was, it was an integral part of the workings of society. It had been around for centuries; for millennia, really, in all corners of the world.  The fact that the Founders and those who followed were able to eradicate it from this nation in just 89 years (from the Declaration in 1776 to the 13th Amendment in 1865) is quite remarkable.  Consider this chain of events:

  • Just 11 years after the Declaration, Congress ratified the Constitution in 1787 which contained the oft-misunderstood three-fifths compromise. Critics immediately point to this in making the case that the Constitution was flawed from the start. They contend that counting slaves as “three-fifths” of a person rendered them somehow less than human and furthered the institution of slavery. What many find surprising is that counting slaves in this manner actually helped, not hindered, the push to end slavery. Few realize that if the Constitution had counted each slave (for census purposes) as one rather than three-fifths, the states with large slave populations would have held a perpetual majority in Congress, and would have never cast a vote against the institution of slavery.  Consider as well that in order to maintain the fragile Union, the Founders had to tread carefully around this issue for the time being.  Remember, under the Articles of Confederation and later the Constitution, jurisdiction of the states was left mainly to the states, not the federal government.  The Founders sought to avoid ballooning into an all-powerful central government like England once was to the colonies.
  • That same year, slavery north of the Ohio River was prohibited with the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. Thomas Jefferson had actually wanted ALL expansion west of the Appalachian Mountains to be free of slavery with an ordinance he proposed in 1784, just 8 short years after he wrote of the “inalienable rights” of all mankind. Though Jefferson’s original idea wasn’t passed, the Northwest Ordinance that resulted was still a major step.
  • A little over twenty years after the Constitution was ratified, Article I Section 9 was revisited in 1808 (as was prescribed at the time of its writing), and the importation of slaves to the United States was prohibited. This further curtailed the practice of slavery overall by cutting off the influx of new slaves.
  • In 1820, forty-four years after the Declaration, the United States addressed the statehood petitions of both Maine and Missouri. A compromise resulted in which Maine was ushered in as a free state and Missouri as a slave state, with the stipulation that slavery would be prohibited above the 36° 30’ line. Though it was later replaced by the Kansas-Nebraska compromise of 1854, and eventually struck down by the Supreme Court, (which held that the federal government could not regulate the territories in this way) this compromise still reveals the continuing desire of our Founders and those that followed them to curtail and eventually eliminate slavery.
  • In 1865, just 89 years after the Declaration of Independence, slavery was outlawed entirely with the 13th Amendment.

Call me uneducated and backward for clinging to the words of our Founders, but the pages of history paint an entirely different picture of our nation’s first leaders.  Naturally this doesn’t erase all blame from those who did hold slaves as property, and this certainly is not intended to place all of the Founders in the same light. Not all wanted to end slavery, yet what so often goes unrecognized is that so many of them did. The fierce debate and intense rivalry between those on both sides of the fence throughout those years is proof positive of this fact. The Founders weren’t perfect.  In fact, some of them still struggled with their own possession of slaves. Keep in mind, however, the “laws of manumission,” that is, each state’s protocol as to how slaves could be released. Depending on the state, it meant financial support of the slave, significant legal petition on the part of the slave owner on behalf of the slave, etc.  In other words, it often was no easy task a person could just carry out from one day to the next.

Regardless, the fact that their recognition of the inalienable rights of man led them to even start thinking about how slavery truly contradicted what they proclaimed in the Revolution, is to be applauded. Michele Bachmann was right. Slavery’s end did not begin with the 13th Amendment; it began with our Founders.


5 thoughts on “The Founders’ Fight . . . to End Slavery?

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