Failures and Reparations: Slavery and the American Revolution
Yes, the Founding Fathers caved on slavery. The concession to certain southern colonies on the issue of slavery was made primarily to keep those colonies from jumping ship on declaring war against England. Because those southern leaders depended on slavery to keep their economies going, they wanted it preserved.
Thomas Jefferson’s original Declaration of Independence included a paragraph condemning slavery as a “cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people…captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither…”
That paragraph was excised under pressure from southern delegates to the Continental Congress, as Jefferson himself described when he laid the blame firmly on “South Carolina & Georgia, who had never attempted to restrain the importation of slaves, and who on the contrary still wished to continue it.”
Jefferson also blamed those New Englanders who did not argue forcefully enough against the Southern colonies: “Our Northern brethren also I believe felt a little tender under those censures; for tho’ their people have very few slaves themselves yet they had been pretty considerable carriers of them to others.”
Jefferson made sure that his original language condemning slavery would be preserved in the records of the debates over the Declaration of Independence: “As the sentiments of men are known not only by what they receive, but what they reject also, I will state the form of the declaration as originally reported,” he wrote in his notes on the proceedings.
Who can know why Thomas Jefferson continued to keep his own slaves, degrading and abusing them, after so fully acknowledging the evils of slavery when writing his original Declaration Independence. What we do know is that the men of the Continental Congress could have taken the issue of slavery head on and abolished the institution as part of the fight for independence. Jefferson gave them the language but none of them had the will to see it done.
As a result, the number of slaves in bondage in the American colonies increased exponentially between the American Revolution and the Civil War. Human beings suffered in bondage and died as a result of the abuses of slavery. Those abuses are still felt today; those deaths are mourned. If the men of the Continental Congress had taken a stand against slavery, can we imagine how much less the misery, the deaths, and the horrific legacy of slavery would have been?
Josiah Quincy Junior, forgotten hero of the American Revolution, understood early on the evils of slavery and the curse it would place on America. In the spring of 1773, Quincy traveled to the southern colonies from his home in Massachusetts with the express purpose of uniting northern and southern interests in the fight against British oppressions. As he wrote in a letter to a friend:
“Let us forgive each other’s follies and unite while we may. . . . To think justly is not sufficient, but we must think alike, before we shall form a union; that truly formed, we are invincible.”
While traveling through the colonies of South and North Carolina, Quincy became increasingly horrified by the prevalence of slavery in the south. He was particularly disgusted by how so many community and political leaders accepted the institution. For Josiah, to preach Christian love and still practice slavery was the epitome of hypocrisy:
“There is much among this people of what the world would call hospitality and politeness, [but] it may be questioned what proportion there is of true humanity, Christian charity, and love.”
Josiah feared that the eradication of slavery would be difficult, with great opposition from the south. He predicted “resentment, wrath, and rage” but wrote that it must be done, for “Slavery may truly be said to the peculiar curse of this land.”
He was right, of course. Slavery was a curse. From two to five million enslaved blacks died in bondage, and millions of others suffered miseries in body and soul that can never be erased from history or denied. The repercussions of the failure of the men of the Continental Congress to abolish slavery still oppress and degrade our nation.
But while failing to eradicate slavery, the men who fought for independence and then set up a new nation succeeded at least in providing the necessary language and tools for fighting slavery in the decades that followed. The Bill of Rights and the Constitution empowered the fight against slavery then, and give us the power now to repair the damages wrought by its institution over way too many decades.
Martin Luther King understood the tools provided by the revolutionaries and he relied upon them, as he explained in his Mountaintop speech on April 3, 1968, given the day before he was assassinated. In that speech, King cited the Constitution and its guarantees of Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Assembly. He applauded the rights of Americans “to protest for right” (so horribly under attack now). He then proclaimed that the young men and women sitting at the lunch counters were “standing up for the best in the American dream and taking the whole nation back to those great wells of democracy, which were dug deep by the founding fathers in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.”
It is time to go back to those great wells of democracy. The work to end the legacies of slavery is not yet done and while the tools are under siege, they have not rusted nor have they yet been worn away. As Josiah Quincy Jr. counseled in 1772: “One and All ought to arise, and overturn, overturn, and continue to overturn till they leave not a wreck of their bondage behind.” Then, and now, the advice holds true.
Sources for quotations can be found in American Rebels: How the Hancock, Adams, and Quincy Families Fanned the Flames of Revolution, with the exception of the quote from Martin Luther King, which can be found here.