One of the emotional and most contested questions in the fight against slavery has been and still is: When the founding fathers adopted, announced, and promoted the Declaration of Independence, did they include black slaves in the profession: All men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with unalienable rights that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?
The slave holder, the advocate of slavery would argue “No.” The abolitionist, the Frederick Douglasses, the Martin Luther Kings, the W E B Duboises would argue, “Yes.” The advocates for black equality would not, could not end the fight, because they understood that unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, if denied to one race would be denied to all. A slaveholding nation, a nation mired in inequality, would be a damned nation, and it was their responsibility to convince through their words, their passions, and even their lives, that slavery and inequality had to be abolished in order to save mankind, to save the nation, to save the souls of American men and women.
If we were able to ask directly, the controversial question would first go to Thomas Jefferson, co-creator of the contested Declaration and the third president of the United States. One might argue that he didn’t believe in true equality because he was a slaveholder, but his written evidence is contrary to that position.
That he was a slaveholder during the Revolution is more a product of the times than a blight on his failure to act on his personal conviction. His failure to do what was right may be compared to our failure to reduce our carbon imprint. As he foresaw the negative impact of slavery, we foresee the damage to our planet. We must change our habits, our dependency on fossil fuels and plastics, but we don’t know how to live without our cars and our energy guzzling houses. We don’t often pause to ponder our offense to the planet because we need to get to work.
In humanitarian regards, we’ve heard that clothes purchased at H&M are cheap because the workers are underpaid and overworked, yet we need to dress stylishly for a minimal expenditure. Washington and Jefferson knew it was wrong to have slaves, yet slavery was systemic; they had inherited many of their slaves. Sadly, the forefathers not only lacked the fortitude to swim up river in raging currents, but even hesitated to get in the river. They believed in equality for all men, but knew it wasn’t time, and so they prepared the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and set them in the cornerstone of America’s independence, believing that one day, these documents would insure those rights.
Further evidence is found in Jefferson’s rough draft of the Declaration of Independence which rails against King George in that he “waged cruel war against human nature itself violating it’s most sacred right of life and liberty in the person." The persons, refers to slaves captured in Africa. Just four lines later he again references and emphasizes that these slaves are men by capitalizing MEN, “…where MEN should be bought and sold…”
The Southern delegation’s weight in the constitutional process crushed the inclusion of Jefferson’s original statements that defended the slave’s equality. The tragedies that followed did indeed allow for the perpetuation of slavery, but not because slaves were not men. They were denied a place of freedom in the constitution because of the evil designs of greedy men, who demanded that slaves be designated as only 3/5 of a person to clearly justify their designation as unequal in a simple mathematical equation. The slaves were men, albeit partial men.
Other arguments in those critical nascent days of our nation debated the question of slavery. James Madison makes note of some of the pathetic logic, “If slaves are to be imported, shall not the exports produced by their labor supply a revenue the better to enable the General Government to defend their masters” (Madison, Federalist Papers).
Madison recorded the other side of the coin too, the words of humanity spoken by Mr. Gouverneur Morris who responded to these classless arguments with a comparison to slave and non slaveholding states. In his travels, he had come to see the injustice of slavery as a crippling force, “Compare the regions of the Middle States, where rich and noble cultivation marks the prosperity and happiness of the people, with the misery and poverty which overspread the barren wastes of Virginia, Maryland, and the other States having slave." He had observed first hand the glaring differences between slave and non slave states and recognized the level of prosperity according to their slave position. The north prospered, the south dwindled. He astutely recognized the very thing the United States abhorred and fought against, aristocracy, and yet, it was perpetuated in slavery.
That the other founding fathers also lacked the fortitude to risk status and wealth, didn’t negate the fact that all men were created equal. As many men and women realized, this was an irrefutable law of nature. The founders’ thoughts were unfortunately and tragically focused elsewhere. Their thoughts and actions were deeply immersed in the creation of a nation, and like a slow moving caravan traveling through the desert, the cause of abolishing slavery, in the end, got as much attention as the yapping dogs chasing the last camel.