Right now I’m reading Howard Zinn’s book A People’s History of the United States and it’s a wonderful book of the contributions and struggles that women, African Americans, Native Americans, workers’ groups and various other marginalized people have made to build up America. It’s a history that needs to be told, as these stories talk of the struggles of marginalized people to be included in America’s democratic experiment, and Zinn sees a struggle based on an oppressive economic system. One of the few things where I disagree with Zinn is in his take on the Founding Fathers and their relationship with slavery. Slavery was a subject that the Founding Fathers struggled with mightily, and their inability to resolve the issue was something that they themselves realized was one of their greatest failures.
Most of the Founding Fathers were for the abolition of slavery. John Adams was an outspoken foe of the institution. Alexander Hamilton founded the New York Manumission Society. Just before he died, Benjamin Franklin forwarded a petition from the Pennsylvania Abolition Society to Congress in 1790 to force the legislative body to stop the slave trade and work on a plan to abolish slavery. Thomas Paine wrote an influential essay in 1775 in the Pennsylvania Journal advocating abolition. George Washington grew to hate slavery and wrote that it was his fondest wish “to see some plan adopted, by which slavery in this country may be abolished by slow, sure, and imperceptible degrees.” As a young man, Thomas Jefferson was one of the strongest leaders in pushing for the abolition of slavery: he denounced the institution in his book Notes On The State of Virginia and formulated a plan of gradual abolition that featured an end to the slave trade, the prohibition of slavery, and the establishment of a date in which newly born children of slaves would be free. In the 1770s and 1780s, Jefferson pushed in the Virginia legislature and the federal government to face up to the issue of slavery; in 1784, Jefferson pushed for a bill to prohibit slavery in the western territories that failed to pass by a single vote.
Why did the Founding Fathers fail? From reading Joseph Ellis book Founding Brothers, the leaders of the new United States wanted a plan that would gradually free the slaves, compensate slaveowners, and separate the freed slaves from the white society. In other words, they wanted a way to free the slaves without bankrupting the slaveowners. Besides Jefferson’s plan in Notes On The State of Virginia, prominent Virginians Fernando Fairfax and St. George Tucker submitted plans on the freeing of slaves. Critics felt that these plans had a high cost for compensating the slaveowners and separating the freed slaves from white society that seemed to large for the fledging government to absorb. Thomas Jefferson stopped taking the lead after the mid 1780s in the fight for abolition, because he began to realize the debts that he incurred due to his aristocratic living. Much of the southern aristocracy was in debt, due to their reliance on land as their source of wealth. The issue of slavery floundered over economics. Joseph Ellis wrote in his book Founding Brothers:
“The Virginia gentry were psychologically incapable of sharing Hamilton’s affinity with men who made their living manipulating interest rates. Land, not fluid forms of capital, was their ultimate measure of wealth. Investment bankers and speculators, as they saw it, made no productive contribution to society. All they did was move paper around and adjust numbers. At the nub, the issue was not rich versus poor or the few versus the many, since the planter class of Virginia was just as much an elite minority as the wealthy merchants of New York or Boston. The issue was agrarian versus commercial sources of wealth.
Nor did it help that a significant percentage of Virginia’s landed class, Jefferson among them, were heavily in debt to British and Scottish creditors, who were compounding their interest rates faster than the profit margins in tobacco and wheat could match. One cannot help but suspect that the beleaguered aristocracy of Virginia saw in Hamilton and his beloved commercial elite of the northern cities the American replicas of British bankers who were bleeding them to death.”
I don’t agree with Zinn’s sometimes harsh assessment of the Founding Fathers, but I do agree with his assessment of the limits that the economic system placed on their democratic ideas. Zinn wrote:
“Banneker asked Jefferson ‘to wean yourselves from those narrow prejudices which you have imbibed.’
Jefferson tried his best, as an enlightened, thoughtful individual might. But the structure of American society, the power of the cotton, the slave trade, the politics of unity between northern and southern elites, and the long culture of race prejudice in the colonies, as well as his own weaknesses- that combination of practical need and idealogical fixation- kept Jefferson a slaveowner throughout his life.
The inferior position of blacks, the exclusion of Indians from the new society, the establishment of supremacy for the rich and powerful in the new nation- all this was already settled in the colonies by the time of the Revolution.”
Thus those progressive Virginians, whom the northern states once hoped would lead the South in abolition, were paralyzed into inaction. Some enlightened Virginians that were financially well off did free their own slaves, especially after the Virginia legislature passed a law permitting slave owners to free their own slaves at their own discretion. Robert Carter III, the richest man in Virginia, freed his 500 slaves and gave up his plantation. George Washington set up a will that made strict provisions to free his slaves after the death of his wife, and to sell off portions of his land to support his freed slaves. These were good individual acts, but this was a drop in the bucket for the 700,000 slaves that existed during the first decade of the United States.
I deeply admire the Founding Fathers for their courage in founding a new nation and their wisdom in creating the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. They tried to apply the ideas of the enlightenment to create the first steps in a democratic government. In spite of their great achievements, they were only human, and they made mistakes. One of their greatest mistakes was their inability to find a solution to the issue of slavery. Almost all of the Founding Fathers realized that their inability to find a political solution to slavery insured that at some point a violent civil war would be inevitable. Thomas Jefferson spoke for them all when he wrote in a correspondence to John Adams:
“The real question, as seen in the states afflicted with this unfortunate population, is Are our slaves to be presented with freedom and a dagger? For if Congress has a power to regulate the conditions of the inhabitants of states, within the states, it will be but another exercise of that power to declare that all shall be free. Are we then to …. wage another Peloponessian War to settle the ascendancy between them. That question remains to be seen: but not I hope by you or me. Surely they will parlay awhile, and give us time to get out of the way.”