As Flag Day and July 4 approach, it is wise to consider the Founding Fathers and their accomplishments and failures. One of the things that these men have been criticized for in recent years, and one that many in the Left make about them, is that many of the Founding Fathers were slaveholders and that they did not eradicate slavery. Though I agree that the existence of slavery is one of the great stains in this nation’s history, I think it is wrong to stereotyp the Founding Fathers as being uncaring towards slaves. I wrote a previous blog about the Founding Fathers grappling with the issue of slavery and thought I’d write a followup. Though I am to the left of the political spectrum, the criticisms of many of the Left towards the Founding Fathers has bothered me. The early leaders did try to abolish slavery, but their fears of Southern secession eventually doomed those efforts.
From the 1770s to 1780s, several people developed plans as possible ways of abolishing slavery. Thomas Jefferson developed 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. Prominent Virginians Fernando Fairfax and St. George Tucker submitted plans on the freeing of slaves: Tucker presented “A Dissertation on Slavery: With a Proposal for the Gradual Abolition of It, in the State of Virginia” to the Virginia Legislature in 1796 and Fairfax developed his “Plan for Liberating the Negroes within the United States” in 1790. All of these plans were similar in that they wanted the abolition of slaves to be gradual, they wanted the government to compensate the slave owners for the lost property, and they wanted to colonize the freed slaves in a seperate place from the white society.
One of the great criticisms of the gradual abolition plans that Southern critics pointed out is that the federal government didn’t have enough money to compensate the slaveowners and transport the freed slaves to other lands. Ellis notes in his book Founding Brothers though that a gradual abolition plan would spread the cost of freeing the slaves over several decades as only a percentage of slaves would be freed over one time. St. George Tucker’s plan would spread the cost of freeing the slaves over a century, making a gradual abolition plan more financially feasibly.
The great problem of any abolition plan would be the threat of Southern secession. John Adams felt that any abolition plan would have to be led by enlightened Virginians like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington who were against slavery and might be able to press their fellow Southerners to adopt an abolition plan. Joseph Ellis wrote in his book American Sphinx that in the mid 1780s and before, Jefferson was a strong advocate for the abolition of slavery. In 1769 Jefferson proposed unsuccessfully that the Virginia House of Burgess emancipate the slaves of Virginia. In 1778 he successfully passed a bill through the Virginia legislature for the banning of future slave importation to Virginia. Jefferson authored on April 1784 a proposal to the Continental Congress that would’ve abolished slavery in the Northwestern Territory of the U.S. that failed to pass by a single vote. When Jefferson’s 1784 proposal failed to pass by one vote, he wrote, “the fate of millions unborn hanging on the tongue of one man, heaven was silent in that awful moment!”
If any politician had enough prestige to possibly get the South to go along with a gradual abolition plan, it might’ve been George Washington. Washington had stated that he wanted “to see some plan adopted, by which slavery in this country may be abolished by slow, sure, and imperceptible degrees.” Henry Wiencek, in his book, “Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America”, notes that Washington was contemplating the freeing of his slaves during his Presidency as an example for the nation, but backed away from those plans. Washington’s wife and relatives did not share his distaste for slavery and were fiercely against any abolition plan. Wiencek felt this was a great missed opportunity for Washington and the nation.
Washington did eventually free his slaves in his will. George Washington wrote his will in secret in July 1799, to conceal his emancipation plans from the disapproval of his family. Henry Wiecker notes in his book that Washington owned only 123 of the 316 slaves in Mount Vernon. The rest were Martha’s slaves. He put in his will that the slaves that he owned would be freed upon the death of Martha Washington, as a way to appeal to Martha to follow his lead and emancipate her own slaves. The old and the infirm freed slaves would be taken care of until death by their heirs. The freed children would be bound by the Court until they reached 25 years of age, and they would be taught to read and write and be brought up to some useful occupation. To ensure that the executors of the will would not try to find some way to evade his wishes to free the slaves, Washington wrote:
“…and I do hereby expressly forbid the Sale, or transportation out of the said Commonwealth, of any Slave I may die possessed of, under any pretence whatsoever. And I do moreover most pointedly, and most solenmly enjoin it upon my Executors hereafter named, or the Survivors of them, to see that this clause respecting Slaves, and every part thereof be religiously fulfilled at the Epoch at which it is directed to take place; without evasion, neglect or delay…”
On February 3, 1790, Benjamin Franklin and the Pennsylvania Abolition Society had a petition in the House of Representatives to abolish slavery and stop the slave trade. The petition challenged the idea that the Constitution prohibited legislation against the slave trade until 1808 by suggesting that the “general welfare clause” (Article 1, Section 8 ) allowed the Congress to eliminate the slave trade and abolish slavery. It is written in the petition, “Your Memorialists, particularly engaged in attending to the Distresses arising from Slavery, believe it their indispensable Duty to present this Subject to your notice. They have observed with great Satisfaction that many important & salutary Powers are vested in you for ‘promoting the Welfare & Securing the blessings of liberty to the “People of the United States.'”
Many of the other Founding Fathers were against slavery. John Adams was an outspoken foe of the institution. Alexander Hamilton founded the New York Manumission Society, which was instrumental in abolishing slavery in that state. 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 452 slaves and gave up his plantation. The book The First Emancipator: The Forgotten Story of Robert Carter, the Founding Father Who Freed His Slaves by Andrew Levy chronicles the influences of the radical Baptists in his views on race, where he worshipped side by side as equals with his slaves, in Carter’s enlightened views on race. In 1791, Carter filed a Deed of Gift in his home town of Williamsburg, Virginia, that led to a gradual manumitting of his 452 slaves. He did this inspite of his opposition of his sons and neighbors, which eventually led Carter to move to Baltimore to move away from their disapproval. In 1803 the year before his death, Carter wrote his daughter Harriot L. Maund, “My plans and advice have never been pleasing to the world”
The inability of the Founding Fathers to find a solution to the problem of slavery is one of their greatest failures. In spite of that, however, it is wrong for the Left and for many others to stereotype them as just being rich white men who were just interested in empire and business. Many of the Founding Fathers did care about abolishing slavery to square with the principals of liberty that was at the heart of the republican ideas of the Declaration of Independence. In this instance, radicals like Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison were need to provide the grassroots agitation to prod the nation to change. At heart, most of the Founding Fathers were liberal reformers who wanted to work within the system they created, and abolition needed radicals to provide the push from outside the system. Among the Founding Fathers, only Thomas Paine and perhaps a young Jefferson had that radical mindset. Abolition required a radical change in the South’s economic system away from the plantation system and the Founding Fathers were not willing to take that radical step.