Today's students are often taught that our Founding Fathers were racists. Textbooks make comments like, "The sublime principles of the Declaration did not apply to them [blacks]. They were for whites only." The late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall said, "The prevailing opinion of the framers," was that blacks were "so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect . . . and that the Negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit." That is plain untrue; every leading Founder acknowledged that slavery is immoral. Thomas G. West, University of Dallas professor of politics and senior fellow at the California-based Claremont Institute provides evidence in his book Vindicating the Founders.
George Washington said, "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: "Every measure of prudence, therefore, ought to be assumed for the eventual total extirpation of slavery from the United States. . . . I have, through my whole life, held the practice of slavery in abhorrence." Benjamin Franklin: "Slavery is . . . an atrocious debasement of human nature." James Madison: "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." James Otis said, "The colonists are by the law of nature freeborn, as indeed all men are, white or black." Benjamin Franklin, after visiting a black school, said, "I have conceived a higher opinion of the natural capacities of the black race than I had ever before entertained." Hamilton's judgement was the same, "Their natural faculties are probably as good as ours."
The Founders are frequently criticized for the three-fifths compromise. At the Constitutional Convention, Southerners said slaves should, "stand on an equality with whites" in determining congressional representation and electoral college votes. Northerners argued it was wrong "to give such encouragement to the slave trade as would be given by allowing representation for their Negroes." Northerners conceded to three-fifths, thereby reducing the political power the South would have had if slaves were counted as whole persons. Free blacks (60,000 in 1790) were counted as whole persons and many voted.
The Treaty of Paris, ending war with Great Britain, made each of the 13 colonies a sovereign power. If the Framers had not made slavery concessions to the South, there would have been no union. The South would have walked away from the Convention, free to develop slavery without restraint. Patrick Henry expressed this reality saying, "As much as I deplore slavery, I see that prudence forbids its abolition." With union, Congress at least had the power to abolish slave trade in 1808. According to James Wilson, many believed the anti-slave-trade clause laid "the foundation for banishing slavery out of this country."
During the founding era, eight states abolished slavery either gradually or immediately, Vermont being the first to forbid slavery as a part of its constitution (1777). Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance (1787) forbidding slavery in the territory that would become Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin. Congress did permit slavery in the Southwest Territory (the future states of Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee and Alabama).
Here's my hypothesis about most who trash the Founders. These people are also against our rights to bear arms, private property rights and limited government. They have contempt for our constitutional guarantees of liberty and the slavery issue is merely a convenient moral posturing tool as they try to reduce respect for our Constitution.
Walter E. Williams
January 5, 1998