The Slave Debate Among America?s Founding Fathers

Jun 26, 2018History, Philosophy0 comments

How the Framers of this Nation viewed slavery

In the creation of a new nation there would be many items that would arise and passionate debates would then ensue. The founding fathers had a duty to every person living within the colonies to receive the rights of Independence and Constitutional liberties as set forth. However, they failed to uphold these ideals for all. Not all were viewed as heirs to such “unalienable rights” as many were classified as only a portion human, three-fifths to be precise and were not viewed as created equal though the mandate was put forth. There was not full agreement among the founding fathers that blacks should remain enslaved and be withheld from the same rights as a white man.

When we consider the slave narrative we typically look at it as a practice that was begun sometime around the sixteenth century and then continued until the Emancipation Proclamation after the Civil War. There is often a linear view taken in viewing the abolishment of slavery. Because many of the Founding Fathers owned slaves and did so until their deaths we look at them as not working to abolish such acts. Here, we will explore those that worked in favor of the abolition of slavery. As Abraham Lincoln so boldly proclaimed in a speech at Chicago, Illinois prior to the presidency, ?that the framers of the Constitution intended and expected the ultimate extinction of that institution [referring to slavery]?[1]“Slavery in Colonial British North America.” Teachinghistory.org. Accessed June 03, 2018. http://teachinghistory.org/history-content/ask-a-historian/25577. Also, the 1790 census data … Continue reading His view is what will be shown herein, that various framers and fighters for liberty were seeking for liberty and justice for all, not just white men.

The fight for abolition and freedom for all living within the United States has been a long and drawn out process. There have been many elements and events involved in the framing of this Nation. The Founding Fathers knew that amendments would be needed to the Constitution. They understand that this experiment was something new and that it would involve learning, patience, and even require making amendments. We have seen this to the benefit of all. Hopefully, such actions will continue as we continue to grow as a nation.

Key Individuals to Discuss

As we look at the founding of this nation there are several individuals that could easily be highlighted and discussed in the work to bring about liberty and freedom for all that dwell on this land. We are not without our share of mistakes and dark periods, but here we see those that played a key part to the progress of our black brothers and sisters. Yes, they did not directly obtain freedom from the beginning, but they began the process for various states and ultimately the influence needed in the latter half of the nineteenth century to procure such actions.

Throughout this paper we will look at the key influences of such men as Alexander Hamilton, John Laurens, John Jay, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington. What influence did these men have on changing the ideals around slavery and working to bring abolition? What effect did they have on future generations in regards to racial issues and the treatment of those of a different race? What were their views of abolition and what this nation should look like? What then ought we to learn from their efforts?

Commonly Held Ideologies

When the slave trade began in the Western Hemisphere the treatment of slaves varied. During the early seventeenth century there were no codes or rules regarding slaves. Some masters treated them as part of the family while others treated them like livestock. Those that had a favorable view of slaves even allowed them to work for their freedom like indentured servants. ?Enslavement could be a permanent or a temporary condition and a wide range of peoples could be subject to captivity, forced labor, or enslavement as they moved through the Atlantic World.? [2]Roberts, Justin. “Race and the Origins of Plantation Slavery.” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History. 30 May. 2018. … Continue reading?This view of enslaved individuals had nearly vanished by the early eighteenth century through a series of events.?

Slavery had become a racial issue with a series of codes. ?The form of racialized slavery in the Americas in which Africans were viewed as labor units and as chattel and used primarily on plantations to produce specialized crops for foreign markets was unique among systems of slavery.? [3]Roberts, Justin. “Race and the Origins of Plantation Slavery.” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History. 30 May. 2018. … Continue reading By the time of the Revolutionary Period this form of slavery was not just a Southern issue. Nearly one-third of individuals in lower New York were slave owners. (“Slavery and Freedom in New York?City.” Longreads. June 12, 2015. Accessed June 22, 2018. https://longreads.com/2015/04/30/slavery-and-freedom-new-york-city/.)?A majority of the Founding Fathers owned slaves. [4]Iaccarino, Anthony. “The Founding Fathers and Slavery.” Encyclop?dia Britannica. July 28, 2016. Accessed May 29, 2018. … Continue reading

Though there were many in the Northern states that were opposed to slavery there was a considerable amount of racial tension and bias. Many in the North adopted Jefferson’s ideals to separate blacks from whites. Religious tenants were held that blacks had a mark of Cain and were recipients of the curse of Ham. The Bible references slavery as justified and this then justified such in many minds of the colonists. Slaves were a large part of the economy at this time.

The Rights of Black Americans

At the time of the signing of the Declaration of Independence the colonies were made up of nearly 20% of the population as slaves. [5]“Slavery in Colonial British North America.” Teachinghistory.org. Accessed June 03, 2018. http://teachinghistory.org/history-content/ask-a-historian/25577. Also, the 1790 census data … Continue reading These individuals were deemed property and were therefore excluded from the proclamation ?We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness?[6]Declaration of Independence, paragraph 2?Though the Founding Fathers had a desire to be delivered from the bondage of their mother nation they were not willing to afford the same benefits to those of a differing descent. Hamilton stated that this was ??a commerce so repugnant to humanity and so inconsistent? with the ideals of freedom and justice ? which should distinguish a free and enlightened people.??[7]Randall, Willard Sterne. Alexander Hamilton: A Life. New York: Harper Perennial Political Classics, 2014. 292?A great contradiction was at play.

When Thomas Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence, his first draft included the statement to King George that,?

?He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it’s most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere…determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold…thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.??[8]Original draft of the Declaration of Independence. Accessed at https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/declara/ruffdrft.html

Here, the onus was placed upon the King for beginning the slave trade. The accountability was not fully taken for the colonists in perpetuating it.

Black Americans were seen as property. Some were freed, but others were held and treated similar to cattle. They were bought and sold in the market as any other livestock. Their living conditions were less than ideal. Their voice was not heard and they were not respected as other human beings. When involved in the war efforts they were seen as a cause for freedom, but yet were not to receive their own freedom.?

The Ideologies that were Debated

In the wake of the Enlightenment philosophers began to look at the rights of all humans in a different way. These ideals went against monarchical governments and also trickled down to those that were held as slaves, regardless of their race or color. As seen in the original penning of the Declaration of Independence above, Thomas Jefferson began to see blacks as deserving some sort of liberation from slavery. In addition, as will be shown hereafter, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and John Laurens, son of Henry Laurens were very much in favor of abolition. Many of the founders, especially Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin were influenced by the philosophy of John Locke. Locke had brought back Ancient Greek ideals that were termed Natural Rights, in that the basic law of nature is the preservation of mankind.[9]Powell, Jim. “John Locke: Natural Rights to Life, Liberty, and Property | Jim Powell.” FEE. August 01, 1996. Accessed June 12, 2018. … Continue reading

Alexander Hamilton grew up amongst slaves in the West Indies. While growing up in St. Croix during the 1760s, Hamilton was influenced by the Reverend Hugh Knox and his preaching.[10]see?Chernow, Ron. Alexander Hamilton. London: Head of Zeus, 2017. 34-38?This was during the time of the Great Awakening with views of free will. These ideals involved strong views against slavery. Amidst his close kinship with John Laurens, Alexander Hamilton held much in common with him. According to biographer, Willard Randall,

?Both had grown up surrounded by slaves. Working at first together on the problem of treatment of prisoners of war in captivity, they had gradually turned their minds to the condition of permanent captivity?slavery. For many Americans, the greatest moral dilemma of the Revolution was that whites were fighting for freedom from the British while holding blacks in slavery. Every state in the new nation tolerated slavery. In Europe, after studying the writings of the Enlightenment, Laurens had come to despise slavery.??[11]Randall, Willard Sterne. Alexander Hamilton: A Life. New York: Harper Perennial Political Classics, 2014. 162

Together, these two fought for gradual and ultimate abolition of slavery throughout the Colonies.

Though he is not routinely considered among the founding Fathers, John Laurens was an influential leader in the southern campaign during the Revolutionary War. He was also an impactful fighter for abolition. His views on slavery and blacks were apposed to many of his white counterparts. ?He believed that blacks shared a common nature with whites, which included a natural right to liberty.?[12]Gregory D. Massey, John Laurens and the American Revolution (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2000). 67?His father was an owner of several slaves. Through that genesis and his experiences in Carolina during the Revolutionary War he shared several ideals of the need for the abolishment of slavery. He expressed that,?

?I think we Americans at least in the Southern Colonies, cannot contend with a good Grace, for Liberty, until we shall have enfranchised our Slaves. How can we whose Jealousy has been alarm?d more at the Name of Oppression sometimes than at the Reality, reconcile to our spirited Assertions of the Rights of Mankind, the galling abject Slavery of our negroes. . . . If as some pretend, but I am persuaded more thro? interest, than from Conviction, the Culture of the Ground with us cannot be carried on without African Slaves, Let us fly it as a hateful Country, and say ubi Libertas ibi Patria [where Liberty is there is my Country].??[13]Gregory D. Massey, John Laurens and the American Revolution (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2000). 63

He fought for the freedom of slaves throughout the Southern States by working for a proclamation of freedom for those that would serve the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. ?Hamilton and Laurens worked out a plan to offer freedom to slaves in South Carolina who would risk their lives fighting the British and their Loyalist allies.?[14]Randall, Willard Sterne. Alexander Hamilton: A Life. New York: Harper Perennial Political Classics, 2014. 163?They were able to successfully establish black brigades from Rhode Island to fight through the Delaware River forts. Unfortunately, this was not a strong enough precedent for the delegates in South Carolina to allow Laurens to replicate such an action though he never stopped trying. Hamilton backed him up on this as expressed in letters to John Jay.[15]Randall, Willard Sterne. Alexander Hamilton: A Life. New York: Harper Perennial Political Classics, 2014. 165 Not listening to John Laurens and Alexander Hamilton, many plantation owners of the south lost their slaves to the British cause as Lord Dunmore issued the proclamation of freedom for slaves that would join the British troops.

Benjamin Franklin, who had owned slaves, had also changed his view of slavery later on in his life. He sought for the abolition of slavery in time. The biographer, Walter Isaacson relates that,

?He had also published, in 1729, one of the nations?s first antislavery pieces and had joined the Associates of Dr. Bray to establish schools for blacks in America. Deborah had enrolled her house servants in the Philadelphia school, and after visiting it Franklin had spoken of his ?higher opinions of the natural capacities of the black race.? In his 1751 ?Observations on the Increase of Mankind,? he attacked slavery strongly, but mainly from an economic perspective rather than a moral one.?[16]Isaacson, Walter. Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006. 464

He had also passively supported Jefferson?s view of including such in the Declaration of Independence. He had even taken a similar stance, in 1772, by stating that, ?One of Britain?s great sins against America was foisting slavery upon it.?[17]Isaacson, Walter. Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006. 464 However, South Carolina ?Had scuttled Jefferson?s antislavery clause in the Declaration of Independence by threatening to drop out of the Continental union unless it was deleted?.[18]Randall, Willard Sterne. Alexander Hamilton: A Life. New York: Harper Perennial Political Classics, 2014. 166?In search of a unity they withheld such verbiage from the document.?

Franklin?s anti-slavery sentiment brought him to lead out within the Pennsylvania Abolitionists Society. He had even drawn up ?a meticulously detailed charter and procedures ?for improving the condition of free blacks.??[19]Isaacson, Walter. Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006. 465 He even wrote several things later on that were indicative of denouncing slavery and working to bring an end to it throughout the colonies. Among these were a petition to Congress in 1790 stating that, ?Mankind are all formed by the same Almighty Being, alike objects of his care, and equally designed for the enjoyment of happiness.?[20]Isaacson, Walter. Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006. 465 Showing his belief that both white and black were created by the same Being, thus sharing in equality in liberty. Another piece showed up in the local newspaper anonymously published. It related a parody of Africans taking white slaves for the purport of religious conversion and the providing of a better life.[21]Isaacson, Walter. Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006. 466-467

Setting The Stage For the Future

Through the process of debating the rights African Americans there were conversations of abolition. These conversations never made it beyond the conversation though. Jefferson?s statement of slavery to King George was extracted from the Declaration of Independence. Under the ideas of colonial unity they strayed away from full inclusion. The Constitution did not give rights to blacks. It only gave them a three-fifths citizenship in the counting of population. They received no rights, even though the United States was formed on the premise of ?all men are created equal?. Through the Continental Congress they did put an end date to the international slave trade in 1808, but retained the rights to the slave market domestically.?

Key individuals, such as Benjamin Franklin and George Washington, willed their slaves to be set free upon their deaths. They worked to allow them their freedoms at some point. This was a start, but it would not be completed for nearly another 200 years after the initial signing of the Declaration of Independence when the Civil Rights act was passed and the Voting Rights were given to all individuals.

Hamilton, Jay, Mulligan, and Franklin were successful in their efforts locally to abolish slavery from New York and Pennsylvania. Other Northern States would follow along their example. This ultimately created a divide among the nation that lead to what we could consider as the Second Revolutionary War, or more commonly referred to as the Civil War.

Seeking unity among the colonies much of the debates had subsided and unity became the priority over equal freedom for all races. Did they choose the greater good? Was this the right move to establish a more perfect union? Should these Fathers have pressed more for the complete abolishment of slavery? What would have happened if they were able to put their foot down and do so?


As we consider the narrative of slavery throughout the American Colonies this is a tainted aspect of the American story. We have a responsibility to understand what is involved. Even though the founding fathers did not succeed in the complete abolition of slavery they began the much needed process to bringing this about. By ending the international slave trade in America, and working to abolish the practice throughout various Northern States, these individuals began the process of ending slavery through the forthcoming Constitutional Amendments and eventually the battle for Civil Rights. Finally, our National Constitution truly recognized that ALL men are created equal. Eventually, we realized that all deserve rights, black and white, male and female.

As a nation, we continue to harbor feelings of prejudice that need to be adjudicated within us. We must understand the effort to bring about our freedoms and then provide these same opportunities to all, regardless of their color, gender, or origin.?


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