How American Slavery Became a Thing
America Was Not Conceived in Racism | Opinion
America was not conceived in racism. America’s Founders thought slavery was a violation of divine and natural law that needed to be placed on the road to extinction. The compromises in the U.S. Constitution with slavery were put there to ensure the creation of a new system of government powerful enough to eradicate slavery when circumstances permitted. The argument that slavery was good for slaves and good for masters only came in the decades after the ratification of the Constitution — and it is an argument that shares more in common with today’s critics of the Founding than it does with its champions.
The 1776 Declaration of Independence marked America’s true political, moral, and philosophical Founding. The British subjects residing in the many colonies united as “one people” in opposition to the despotic claims to rule offered by a distant king and Parliament in Great Britain. There were roughly 600,000 black slaves in the brand-new 13 United States, but as soon as the ink was dry on the Declaration’s parchment, the principles contained in that document made the existence of the American slave population an obvious and undeniable injustice. The Declaration’s drafters and signers knew that they had created a new nation with its foundation in anti-slavery principles.
It is seldom taught anymore that Thomas Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration contained a paragraph condemning slavery as unnatural, immoral and “execrable commerce.” By enabling the slave trade in the colonies, Jefferson wrote, the British monarch had “waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither.” In what lawyers would call “an admission against interest,” Jefferson wanted to put it in the record that nobody could rightfully hold humans as property. The anti-slavery paragraph did not make it to the final draft of the Declaration because South Carolina and Georgia objected to such a powerful rebuke to a substantial part of their economies.
Unlike the deleted explicit complaint about slavery, the Declaration’s much more famous second paragraph survived. All the Founders (even the delegates from South Carolina and Georgia) knew that the Declaration’s most famous phrase, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among them are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness,” included blacks as part of “all men.”
The leaders of the American Founding were unequivocal about the injustice and immorality of slavery, both in public and private. George Washington: “There is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it.” John Adams “held the practice of slavery in…abhorrence,” and wanted everyone to work as hard as possible “for the eventual total extirpation of slavery from the United States.” Benjamin Franklin called the practice “an atrocious debasement of human nature.” Alexander Hamilton wrote that because slaves were obviously men, “by the laws of God and nature, they were capable of acquiring liberty.” James Madison lamented the irony of the progress of the late 18th century existing alongside slavery and the slave trade: “We have seen the mere distinction of color made in the most enlightened period of time, a ground of the most oppressive dominion ever exercised by man over man.”
A union of all the states under one constitution and government with slavery, however, was deemed more important than no union at all. The Founders made concessions to the slave interests in the Constitution to secure a more powerful federal government that would be equal to the task of dealing with slavery when circumstances allowed it to do so. They thought that the most good that could be done was the limitation of slavery and the establishment of the political and constitutional conditions to eradicate it.
The Founders were meticulous in the wording of the constitutional clauses that dealt with slavery. Most notably, the words “slave” and “slavery” never appeared in the original constitutional text. The compromises with slavery included the three-fifths clause (“three-fifths” of non-free “Persons” would be counted for taxation and representation); a prohibition of the abolition of the slave trade until 1808; and the fugitive slave clause (anyone “held to service or labor in one State, under the laws thereof” could not be freed by another State and had to be returned when a claim was made).
Some of the language is circuitous and euphemistic. This was on purpose. Contemporary Americans of all stripes, from scholars to journalists, K-12 teachers to politicians, routinely and often willfully misinterpret this constitutional language. The most common trope is that the Constitution regarded slaves as “three-fifths of a person.” The three-fifths clause had nothing to do with humanity, however — it was about political power. Southerners wanted slaves to count as “whole” persons so the South would have more representation in the House of Representatives. The three-fifths compromise reduced the power of slave states in Congress.
Congress also abolished the slave trade at the first opportunity, in 1808 (importation of slaves had been outlawed since 1798 in every state except South Carolina). And the Constitution’s drafters modified the final language of the fugitive slave clause so that it did not imply that slavery was in any way good. The original draft read in part, “no person legally held to service or labor in one State, under the laws thereof.” The 1787 Constitutional Convention struck the word “legally” from the text, according to James Madison, because the Founders did not want to endorse “the idea that slavery was legal in a moral view.”
There is a powerfully attractive and simple moral view that any compromise with evil is evil and must be rejected. The Founders instead had the more realistic view that politics always strives for justice, but cannot ever achieve perfect justice. The essence of statesmanship is doing the most good under given circumstances and avoiding as much harm as possible. With ratification of the Constitution, the Founders thought they were putting slavery on the road to extinction.
The Founders, however, overestimated the prospects for the gradual abolition of slavery. As so often happens in human things, powerful interests and wealth started to pervert principles. Despite the principles of the Declaration, the first Congress’s prohibition of slavery in the territories, and the abolition of the slave trade, the practice of and profit from slavery increased dramatically in the South after the ratification of the Constitution.
An ideology of anti-black racism at odds with American principles took hold of a good portion of America, as slavery matured in the early 1800s. The old anti-slavery principles of the Revolution that animated the Constitution were displaced in the South by a new set of principles, allegedly rooted in the latest evolutionary science. All men were not created equal, argued prominent men like John C. Calhoun. Instead, it was claimed, different races made their way to power over the course of human evolutionary history. The fact of whites enslaving blacks, under this understanding of morality and history, became a principle after long practice.
The rise of this pernicious ideology in America brought the Republican Party into existence in opposition to it, brought Abraham Lincoln out of political retirement in 1854, and led to the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln’s project, most eloquently demonstrated by the late scholar Harry V. Jaffa, was the political, philosophical, and moral restoration of the Founders’ plan for a government dedicated to the equal protection of the equal rights of all, regardless of skin color.
The great irony of our current political moment in 2020 America is that the identity politics Left wants to return us to an understanding of rights and citizenship based on the opposite of the principles of the Declaration of Independence and America’s Founding. The equal protection of the laws under a color-blind constitution is now called “white supremacy” by groups like Black Lives Matter, currently in the driver’s seat of the modern liberal coalition. The modern forces on the Left want to place skin color and other “intersectional” identities at the core of American justice and citizenship. After our long, tragic and bloody struggle to fulfill the promise of equal rights for all, there is an increasingly powerful, strident, and dangerous faction in this country that wants to throw us back into the racialized and tribal politics of some of the darkest times in U.S. history.
All American patriots should reject the project of today’s identity politics revolutionaries and call for a return to, rather than a rejection of, America’s Founding principles.