Did the Founders Believe Blacks Are “Created Equal”?
The first two of the three views just mentioned are the easiest to refute. The evidence against them is overwhelming.
All the Founders, even those who defended slavery, knew well that blacks are human beings. Hardly anyone claimed that slavery is right in principle. Each of the leading Founders acknowledged its wrongness.
Let us begin with the words of Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison, from his Oxford History of the American People, which has sold many thousands of copies since it was first published in 1965. He asked, “Did Jefferson think of blacks when he wrote, ‘all men are created equal’? His subsequent career indicates that he did not; that in his view blacks were not `men.'” Morison’s formulation is evasive. He does not actually say that Jefferson believed blacks were not men. Morison was a competent historian. He knew very well that at the very moment Jefferson was writing the Declaration, he was not only “thinking of blacks” but writing that blacks were men. This passage appeared in Jefferson’s first draft:
He [the king of Britain] has 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…. Determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought and sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce.
Morison’s procedure is typical of many critics of the founding. By intentionally omitting a crucial piece of evidence (Jefferson said that blacks were men), they cause the reader to imagine something that the historian hints at but never actually says (Jefferson believed blacks were not men).
Morison says that Jefferson’s “subsequent career indicates that he did not” believe slaves to be human beings. Let us see. In 1779, Jefferson proposed a law that would have provided for gradual emancipation inVirginia. In Congress in 1784 he proposed a law, which came within one vote of adoption, that would have banned slavery from the entire Western territory of the United States. In 1787 he published his widely read Notes on the State of Virginia, which contained in Query 18 the most eloquent denunciation of slavery written by anyone in the founding era. In 1807 President Jefferson publicly supported the abolition of the slave trade, urging Congress to “withdraw the citizens of the United States from all further participation in those violations of human rights which have been so long continued on the unoffending inhabitants of Africa.” Throughout his life, Jefferson expressed his opposition to slavery in numerous private letters. In light of this “subsequent career,” one can only wonder what depths of hostility (to Jefferson in particular or the Founders in general) would lead a capable historian like Samuel Eliot Morison to leave his readers with such a false impression about the author of the Declaration of Independence.
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: “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.”
Alexander Hamilton: “The laws of certain states . . . give an ownership in the service of Negroes as personal property. . . . But being men, by the laws of God and nature, they were capable of acquiring liberty—and when the captor in war . . . thought fit to give them liberty, the gift was not only valid, but irrevocable.”
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.”