Five Things to Know About Our Founders, and Ending the Awfulness of Slavery

Here’s a challenge for you: find a puzzle, dump out all the pieces on the table, and remove the ones you think look ugly. Once those pieces are removed, try and complete the puzzle.

Ridiculous, obviously.

You need all the pieces to complete the puzzle—and once completed, those pieces you would have otherwise thrown away (after being viewed out of context) suddenly make sense.

It’s all about context—which is what affects our perspective. Think of this in the context of today’s debate over our nation’s historical monuments.

In addition to monuments  like Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee, there are also calls to erase homages paid to anyone in our past who owned slaves, including Founding Fathers like George Washington  and Thomas Jefferson.

Just like we need all the puzzle pieces to complete the aforementioned puzzle—we need the entire context to understand this difficult part of our history.

Yes, slavery was an awful thing, no question—and yes, understanding that is part of the puzzle.

But what gets precious little attention is the fact that slavery’s end didn’t start with Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War—that was the final culmination of a decades-long debate. The very Founders who today stand besmirched are the ones who began questioning slavery as an institution in the first place.

Thanks to the foundation they laid, that ancient institution was eradicated from this new nation in just 89 years.

So here’s what you need to know:

Thomas Jefferson actually wanted to address the concept of slavery in the Declaration of Independence.

This clause sparked a huge debate, and in order to get the buy-in of colonies where the slave trade was the strongest, they struck it from the document. But—Jefferson and other Founders OWNED slaves, so what gives? See #2:

Not only was slavery an established part of society (and something that many of these men inherited from their fathers before them) some laws made it difficult to simply free slaves.

This is where things get sticky. “Actions speak louder than words,” someone wrote in response to an article I posted containing the anti-slavery stances of several of our Founders. Well, yes—but here’s the deal: the Founders had just help defeat a massive government, and had taken immense care to prevent another all-powerful centralized government from emerging. There was a very real concern that the whole thing could fail if they weren’t careful with the power of the federal government. The argument wasn’t simply anti-slavery and pro-slavery; it was also about the role of the federal government in telling states what they could and couldn’t do. Questioning the institution of slavery would have been such new a concept that it wouldn’t have necessarily been clear whether or not it was in the federal government’s purview.

Every state had different laws affecting how and when slaves could be freed (laws of manumission”).

As one of many examples, “according to Virginia law [where Jefferson and Washington lived], slaves freed after May 1806 were required to leave the state within one year or face reenslavement”—which gave the freed slaves little recourse. Of the slaves Jefferson did free in his lifetime and at his death, he had to petition the Virginia government for special permission to do it. Similarly, “by law, neither George nor Martha [Custis] Washington could free the Custis dower slaves.” Instead, they were required to pass them on to their family.

They also wanted to change the laws as part of the permanent process. As Washington said with the same breath as he decried slavery, “I can only say that there is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it—but there is only one proper and effectual mode by which it can be accomplished, & that is by Legislative authority: and this, as far as my suffrage will go, shall never be wanting.”

Yeah yeah, but actions DO speak louder than words. Cheap talk, that’s all. Why didn’t he just DO it instead of TALK about it?

We also have to understand that—while a hugely significant factor—it wasn’t JUST about the laws. It’s unsavory (especially when viewed through today’s eyes), but slavery was so very much a part of the economic fabric of society and the functioning of daily life. The fact that many of our Founders were even entertaining the idea of trying to end it is a testament to their true realization that their new nation was contradicting itself with its practices; practices that flew squarely in the face of those hallowed words: “all men are created equal.”

It was a start. A good one.

The controversial “three-fifths” clause of the Constitution actually helped to END slavery.

In 1787 when Congress ratified the Constitution, they did so with a clause that categorized slaves as just three-fifths of a person. As apparently dehumanizing as that seems to us today, that’s not what it was intended to do.“Rather,” as Erik Jenson writes, “it addresses whether and how slaves should be counted for the purpose of determining the number of representatives in Congress.”

Had pro-slavery states been allowed to count each slave as one whole person, their majority in Congress would have been permanent—thus permanently ending the debate. These states didn’t love the idea of reducing their representation in Congress, but they got at tax liability break out of it so they went along.

To recap, the three-fifths clause did two things: helped to prevent a permanent pro-slavery majority in Congress, and recognized slaves as humans. That was huge.

Slavery was banned in new territories beyond the original colonies—thus preventing its expansion.

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 (why would he do that if he wanted to preserve slavery?)—but the Northwest Ordinance that ultimately result was again, a start.

We can’t look at yesterday exclusively through today’s eyes.

Today we recognize slavery as the abhorrence that it is. But from nearly the first day man set foot on the planet, enslaving other humans in one form or another was status quo. It didn’t make it right, but there it was, having burrowed deep into the cultural and economic underpinnings of virtually all societies. Indeed, we can’t ignore the massive impact slavery had on the economy—and the huge shift it would take to end it and restructure how society had been doing things for millennia. In that context, given how entrenched it was in society and how normalized it was at that time, think about how remarkable it was for our Founders to have realized slavery’s inherent evil at all.

***********************

Our Founders broke with well-established global tradition by laying the foundation to eradicate slavery; by having the intellectually honest conversation in the first place. And yet ironically, today they’re treated as though they are uniquely responsible for that institution.

If they could be intellectually honest with themselves and society then, can’t we do the same now? I’m not asking that we forget the awfulness of slavery or that our Founders owned slaves; I’m simply asking that we study and understand it.

All of it. 

Mary Ramirez is a full-time writer, creator of www.afuturefree.com (a political commentary blog), and contributor to The Chris Salcedo Show (TheBlaze Radio Network, M-F, 3-5. ET). She can be reached at: afuturefree@aol.com; or on Twitter: @AFutureFree

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