The ongoing debate between historians who study The Revolutionary era is a political one. Participants typically fall into two camps, Jeffersonian sympathizers and Hamiltonian sympathizers, and the debate invariably covers the topic of slavery, a moral blight upon the Revolutionary generation that would continue as a matter of debate for every generation that succeeded it. Hamiltonian sympathizers claim The Federalists were opposed to slavery whereas The Anti-Federalists - and by extension, The Democrat-Republicans - were avidly pro-slavery, which is a convenient half-truth. It’s unlikely that slavery would have dominated the colonial landscape if it were not for British economic policy, which was predicated upon the success of a wealthy upperclass working in concert with government through a system of exploitation that lowers wages, increases profits and raises armies. Slavery was foisted upon the colonial South to increase supply for Britain’s manufacturing base. Most planters (plantation owners) were members of the British aristocracy, wealthy land speculators who lived abroad and sought low-wage labor to defray the costs for their overseas operations. Colonists eager to compete with their neighbors, absentee landlords who had amassed large tracts of land, found themselves indebted to The Royal African Company, a state-sanctioned monopoly owned by The Royal House of Stuart that encouraged the growth of America’s peculiar institution by trading chattel property (slaves) for credit.
Contrary to popular opinion, slavery was hotly contested in The South, and although abolitionist sentiment was sparked in the North with the advent of The Revolution, John Jay of New York lamented that “the great majority or rather the great body of our people had been so long accustomed to the practice and convenience of having slaves, that very few among them even doubted the propriety and rectitude of it.” Industrialized agriculture relied on slave-power and reduced competition, stoking the ire of local, non-slave owning farmers, who constituted 66 percent of the population in the colonial South. 15 years after Virginia legalized the trade and possession of chattel property, a small army of freemen and freed slaves waged a class war under the leadership of Nathaniel Bacon, which resulted in the burning of Jamestown, and although 12 colonies later legalized slavery, Georgia abolished it. The colony of Georgia’s charter was issued to The Georgia Trustees, which was organized by John Oglethorpe, and they executed his plan, which envisioned a society of self-employed non-slave owning citizen-farmers. The plan’s inception embraced the finer points of Englightenment philosophy. Georgia was intended to be a refuge for poor tradesmen eager to escape Britain’s debtors’ prisons and at the heart of Oglethorpe’s plan was an architecture heralded as the quintessential model for an egalitarian, agrarian society called The Savannah, a city planning design that’s celebrated as a model for democracy and community-building today. The only moral blemish of the plan was its advocacy for discrimination against Roman Catholics and Jews, although even this was a relatively tolerant position for an era when places like Virginia and Maryland had declared state religions. At a time when culture, ethnicity and politics went hand-in-hand with religion, praying to the wrong God in a society with a state-sanctioned religion invariably reduced minorities to second-class citizenship and outright persecution.
Yet not even the yeoman society of Georgia could escape the encroachment of industrialized agriculture. When the colony’s founder, John Oglethorpe, was promoted to deputy governor of the British slave-trading monopoly, The Royal African Company, he experienced a sudden change of heart and shift in priorities that lead him to abandon his principles and impose slavery upon the men and women who were working to realize the society he helped to create. By 1750, Georgia, the last colony that had resisted adoption of the peculiar institution, legalized slavery.
At the time of the drafting of The Constitution, slavery had already evolved into a well-established American institution. Both James Madison and Thomas Jefferson inherited slave-holding plantations, and although they acknowledged that slavery was incompatible with the philosophical underpinnings of The Declaration and negotiated to contain the practice of slavery, they were susceptible to racist notions that proliferated in the slave-holding South and frequently capitulated with planter society, yet commentators who reduce Madison’s and Jefferson’s compromise to venality and meanness deceive both themselves and the public. The inequity of slavery was of utmost concern to the founders of this country, yet their principal interest was to sustain a lasting peace. Jefferson put it succinctly in a letter written to John Holmes on the 22nd of April, 1820: “We have the wolf by the ears, and we can neither hold him nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, self-preservation in the other.” Although Thomas Jefferson favored emancipation, he was acutely aware of the economic blight emancipation would wreak upon Southern states and the insurrection that would follow. The economic importance of slave labor to The South is obvious and illustrated adequately by the contentious debate over the apportionment of taxes amongst the states during The Second Continental Congress.
Jefferson noted the debates in his memoirs. Samuel Chase of Maryland proposed that taxes be apportioned according to the number of free men, but not slaves, else “the method proposed would . . . tax the southern states according to their numbers and their wealth conjunctly, while the northern would be taxed on numbers only.” John Adams insisted that tax be apportioned according to the total population of each state, according to - in the words of Elisha Payne of New Hampshire - “the number of souls.” In an attempt to strike a compromise, John Witherspoon of New Jersey suggested “that the value of lands and houses was the best measurement of the wealth of a nation,” yet this was dismissed outright. The argument quickly devolved over a period of days into a discussion over cattle. “There is no more reason . . . for taxing the Southern states on the farmer's head, and on his slave's head, than the Northern ones on their farmers' heads and the heads of their cattle,” Samuel Chase argued.
In a bid for compromise, Northern and Southern states decided taxes will be apportioned according to three-fifths of a slave’s value. The three-fifths figure would be invoked again, 12 years later, during The Constitutional Convention, when Northern and Southern states debated the contentious subject of representation, but the roles of largely slave-holding and largely non-slave holding states would be reversed. Instead of comparing their slaves to cattle, Southern delegates discussed the slave’s humanity while Northern delegates emphasized the slave’s status. The South wanted “the number of souls” to count towards vote tallies despite the disenfranchisement of captive men and women, whereas The North didn’t want slaves to count towards any vote tally.
At stake was the definition of wealth, economic stability, modes of production and political power. Unlike today, a day when the vast majority of people recognize slavery for the abomination that it is, in the 18th century it was considered a necessary evil. Without zero wage labor, planters would have been unable to meet the demand for tobacco and cotton in The United States’ manufacturing base to The North. The economic fallout of emancipation would have reduced The South to a country of tenant farmers with little economic and political leverage, which is exactly what happened during Reconstruction. This is not, nor was it ever reason to support the practice of slavery, but it’s an important distinction, one that elicits a crucial insight into the macroeconomic power structure of colonial America. Unlike the majority of the founders, who - during The Second Continental Congress - tarried over fears of civil war, which they discussed at length, and who worked earnestly in the spirit of compromise to unite in mutual defense, Hamilton felt no such qualms.
“Wherever indeed a right of property is infringed for the general good, if the nature of the case admits compensation, it ought to be made; but if compensation be impracticable, that impracticability ought not to be an obstacle to a clearly essential reform.”
Compensating families that comprised the bulwark of The South’s economic and political power for the loss of their entire estate, compensating The South for the loss of their entire economy would be impracticable, yet as Hamilton states - in no uncertain terms - “impracticability ought not to be an obstacle to a clearly essential reform.” Even Lincoln, who would inherit the traditions of Hamilton and The Federalists from The Whigs and abolitionists, disagreed with this philosophy. The Sixteenth President would instead endeavor to contain slavery in the manner of Jefferson, who, after having failed to acquire a majority of votes for a 1784 ordinance that would have made slavery illegal in all Western territories after 1800, negotiated the Northwest Ordinance, which increased the number and size of non-slave holding states. Jefferson also supported the abolition of the slave trade, which dated from the writing of The Declaration of Independence to his signature at the bottom of The Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves of 1807. By limiting the geographic extent of slave-holding territories and ending the slave trade, Jefferson accomplished what The Whigs and Free-Soil Democrats would attempt in a later era.
Jefferson’s anti-slavery credentials are not inviolable. He held racist notions, capitulated to planter society and allowed slavery to disperse westward, south of The Northwestern Territory. Conversely, Hamilton was a member of The New York Manumission Society, which encouraged the voluntary emancipation of slaves by individual slave-owners, and would never “hazard” a “supposition” of the inferiority of blacks. Yet just as Jefferson’s anti-slavery credentials are not inviolable, neither is Hamilton’s beneficence. The well-connected politician and financier used the Manumission Society to advance his economic agenda and engender support for Federalist policy. In addition to setting the stage for the first political party in The United States, Hamilton created the first political astroturf group in American history. To be fair, both abolitionism and mercantilism, the “free-market” precursor, were part and parcel of Hamilton’s absolutist liberal philosophy.
"All men have one common original: they participate in one common nature, and consequently have one common right. No reason can be assigned why one man should exercise any power, or pre-eminence over his follow creatures more than another; unless they have voluntarily vested him with it."
“Unless they have voluntarily vested him with it,” he writes. Hamilton was an equal-opportunity exploiter. He would have gladly bankrupted The South and purchased the planter’s land to enfeeble his political opposition, and he would have done so while increasing prices on consumers, the national debt and the profits of a small group of wealthy investors. It’s no coincidence that The Federalist brand was smothered by the opposition. For a people who had fully embraced the ideals of freedom, an agrarian society and independence, wage labor would have been considered a slap in the face. The average colonist, a self-employed and self-sufficient tradesman or farmer, would have viewed wage labor with as much antipathy as slavery. Coupled with Hamilton’s liberal interpretation of The Necessary and Proper clause, which - some (including The Anti-Federalists and Democrat-Republicans) have argued - permits the federal government powers not delegated to it by the states, Hamilton’s economic position ensured The Federalist’s eventual demise. By 1820, Jefferson’s Democrat-Republicans composed over 80 percent of Congress.
Despite Hamilton’s social liberalism, his philanthropy and Jefferson’s attempts to negotiate with members of Congress to enact legislative reforms that would contain the practice of slavery, The Constitution’s three-fifths compromise, its provisions protecting the slave trade for a period of 20 years constitutes a grievous moral failing on the part of America’s founders. It would have been a simple matter for the delegates of either The Second Continental Congress or The Constitutional Convention to arrive at an equitable compromise that would have dissolved America’s peculiar institution while protecting the interests of the manufacturing industry in the North and the agricultural base to The South, but any such compromise would have required mutual sacrifice rather than mutual benefit. Like men gathered for a game of poker, America’s founders held their cards close to their chests, and as a consequence of their rapaciousness, slavery would persist in no small part due to the political leverage granted to slave-holding states, whose subjugated class would be counted for representation despite their disenfranchisement. The slave-holding South’s political gains would persist until the election of Abraham Lincoln, and as the South’s economic power escalated, the abominable practice would expand and beget a moral decay in the hearts of America’s sons and daughters. In a letter to Edward Coles, Jefferson lingered over the moral tax slavery would extoll upon his countrymen. “I had always hoped that the younger generation receiving their early impressions after the flame of liberty had been kindled in every breast, would have sympathized with oppression wherever found, and proved their love of liberty beyond their own share of it,” he wrote, and his fears would later be confirmed.
What was once considered a necessary evil would later be styled a “positive good” by slavery’s foremost proponent, John C. Calhoun, who married the history of slavery to the precedent of states’ rights. “States’ rights” were introduced into the American lexicon by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, who authored The Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, documents written in protest of excessive executive power. The legitimacy of these documents rests with their terms of redress, which were extrapolated using the most stilted of language by James Madison in The Report of 1800. In the report, Madison reaffirms the underlying principles that guided him when he decided to write The Virginia Resolutions: “The authority of constitutions over governments, and of the sovereignty of the people over constitutions, are truths which are at all times necessary to be kept in mind; and at no time, perhaps, more necessary than at present.”
Madison’s invocation of the present refers to The Alien and Sedition Acts. The Alien and Sedition Acts made it illegal to criticize government officials and openly threatened friendly aliens with deportation, banishment and imprisonment. The reaction they provoked in some corners of The Republic may appear dramatic today, yet The Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions were embraced by the plurality of American citizens at the beginning of the 19th century, who would elect Thomas Jefferson as President and condemn The Federalists to obscurity. With the exception of Jefferson’s inflammatory proposition that the states reserve the right to nullify Federal law (a legal theory that was roundly refuted by James Madison), they offer us an important lesson: democracy is not a project that has reached its terminus; it’s an ideal towards which we always aspire and its perfection requires our vigilance.
Madison goes on to describe the criteria for redress in his report “by expressly referring to cases of a deliberate, palpable, and dangerous nature.” He makes neither legal claims for secession nor nullification in The Virginia Resolutions. He instead “[appeals] to the like dispositions of the other states, in confidence that they will concur with [The Commonwealth of Virginia] in declaring . . . that the acts aforesaid, are unconstitutional; and that the necessary and proper measures will be taken by [each state], for co-operating with [The Commonwealth of Virginia], in maintaining the Authorities, Rights, and Liberties, referred to the States respectively, or to the people.” Article Five of The Constitution provides the legal framework for “the necessary and proper measures” Madison described; namely, ratification of an amendment to The Constitution by three-fourths of state legislatures.
Only Jefferson’s draft of The Kentucky Resolutions suggested the radical notion of nullification, a legal theory that posits the de facto right of states to forego the enforcement of laws deemed unconstitutional by state legislatures. Jefferson’s position neglects to acknowledge the powers already afforded to the states, whose residents are given suffrage and whose representatives are allowed the opportunity to vote on behalf of their constituents in deliberative assembly, to propose, approve or disapprove of bills brought before Congress. Madison and lawmakers at the turn of the century (circa 1800) also correctly pointed out that The Constitution delegates the authority to decide the constitutionality of law to the judiciary. Southern representatives who later quoted these resolutions to defend slavery had willfully removed them from their historical context. They had co-opted The Resolutions for their own ends, to suit their wants, and by doing so, they tarnished the principles underlying those resolutions, principles that demanded a strict interpretation of The Constitution, a document to which the aggrieved have appealed throughout our nation’s history, our social contract. No man of any moral vigor could argue that the abolition of slavery poses a “deliberate, palpable, and dangerous” threat to The Constitution. On the contrary, slavery, a leftover and tool of colonial mercantilism, is and always has been a “deliberate, palpable and dangerous” institution that forced self-employed non-slave holding farmers to compete with land speculators who reaped the profits of the earth on the backs of the enslaved.
The embrace and perpetuation of slavery in The South alienated Democrats in The Midwest and The North, who viewed slavery with greater aversion than wage-labor, which posed less of a threat to their prosperity. These non-slave holding farmers split from The Democrats to form The Free Soil Party while avid pro-slavery Democrats split in the opposite direction and acquired the moniker “Fire-Eaters.” Fire-eaters capitalized upon racist sentiment, which was endemic in The South, to push for secession. The Free Soil Party would later form a coalition with Federalists who had re-branded themselves as Whigs in the 1830's and marketed Hamilton’s economic model as “The American System.” The resulting coalition would provide the foundations for today’s Republican Party. With the exception of a group of social radicals within their ranks, the majority of Whigs and Free-Soilers opposed slavery on economic grounds. Abraham Lincoln, touted as The Father of The Republican Party, said so himself.
“I think I am a Whig, but others say there are no Whigs, and that I am an abolitionist, even though I do no more than oppose the extension of slavery.”
In response to an editorial written by Horace Greeley in The New York Tribune, which suggested that The Emancipation Proclamation was the product of abolitionist ideation and would dash all hopes for reunification, Abraham Lincoln wrote the following in a letter.
“If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.”
Frederick Douglas said it best in a speech delivered at the Unveiling of The Freedmen’s Monument in Memory of Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1876
“To protect, defend, and perpetuate slavery in the states where it existed, Abraham Lincoln was not less ready than any other President to draw the sword of the nation. He was ready to execute all the supposed guarantees of the United States Constitution in favor of the slave system anywhere inside the slave states. He was willing to pursue, recapture, and send back the fugitive slave to his master, and to suppress a slave rising for liberty, though his guilty master were already in arms against the Government. The race to which we belong were not the special objects of his consideration. Knowing this, I concede to you, my white fellow-citizens, a pre-eminence in this worship at once full and supreme. First, midst, and last, you and yours were the objects of his deepest affection and his most earnest solicitude.”
With the exception of abolitionists residing in The Northeast, Republican supporters were not The Romantic idealists some may believe them to be. The typical Republican was a shrewd and often self-employed businessman. Heartfelt feelings of fraternity didn’t possess him to oppose slavery. A penchant for fairness did. Yet as Jefferson anticipated, emancipation would come at an unfair price, and the South would be condemned to a country of tenant farmers and sharecroppers living in the midst of bitter destitution for generations to follow.
The most striking condemnation of The North in the fallout of civil war was voiced by Frederick Douglass in a speech on workers’ rights in 1883. “Experience demonstrates that there may be a slavery of wages,” he said, “Only a little less galling and crushing in its effects than chattel slavery, and that this slavery of wages must go down with the other.” The Civil War was a dispute between two clashing worldviews: involuntary servitude and voluntary servitude. Independence never entered the conversation and as the freed slaves would soon discover, freedom also meant the freedom to starve.