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Slavery in America - How Did the Founders and Early Christians Regard It? Print E-mail

Written by Kerby Anderson

Kerby Anderson presents a thoughtful review of the attitude towards slavery held by many of our founders and early Christian leaders. Although a tragic chapter in our history, he encourages us to understand that many opposed slavery from the beginning believing that all men are in fact created equal.

Introduction

Slavery has been found throughout the history of the world. Most of the major empires in the world enslaved millions. They made slaves not only of their citizens but of people in the countries they conquered.

Slavery is also a sad and tragic chapter in American history that we must confront honestly. Unfortunately, that is often not how it is done. History classes frequently teach that the founders and framers were evil men and hypocrites. Therefore, we no longer need to study them, nor do we need to study the principles they established in founding this country and framing the Constitution.

In fact, I have met many students in high school and college who have no interest in learning about the founders of this country and the framers of the Constitution merely because some were slaveholders. But I have also found that they do not know the whole story of the struggle over slavery in this country.

In reaction to this secular revisionist teaching in the public schools and universities, a Christian perspective has been offered that does not square with history. Some Christians, wanting to emphasize the biblical principles of the founding of this country, seem to have turned a blind eye to the evil of slavery. Slavery was wrong and represented an incomplete founding of liberty in this country.

In this article we will look at slavery in America and attempt to tell the story fairly and honestly. At the same time, we will bring forth facts and stories that have been lost from the current revisionist teaching on slavery.

First, let's put slavery in America in historical perspective. Historians estimate that approximately 11 million Africans were transported to the New World. Of these 4 million went to Brazil, 2.5 million to Spanish colonies, 2 million to the British West Indies, and 500,000 to the United States.

Although it is sometimes taught that the founders did not believe that blacks were human or deserved the same rights as whites, this is not true. Actually, the founders believed that blacks had the same inalienable rights as other persons in America. James Otis of Massachusetts said in 1764 that "The colonists are by the law of nature freeborn, as indeed all men are, white or black."{1}

Alexander Hamilton also talked about the equality of blacks with whites. He said, "their natural faculties are probably as good as ours. . . . The contempt we have been taught to entertain for the blacks, makes us fancy many things that are founded neither in reason nor experience."{2}

As we will see, many worked tirelessly for the abolition of slavery and wanted a society that truly practiced the belief that "all men are created equal."

The Founders' View of Slavery

Let's see what the founders and framers really thought about slavery and what they did to bring about its end. Here are a few of their comments.

Slavery was often condemned from the pulpits of America as revolutionary preachers frequently spoke out against it. One patriot preacher said, "The Deity hath bestowed upon them and us the same natural rights as men."{3}

Benjamin Franklin said that slavery "is an atrocious debasement of human nature."{4} He and Benjamin Rush went on to found the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery.

Benjamin Rush's desire to abolish slavery was based on biblical principles. He stated: "Domestic slavery is repugnant to the principles of Christianity." He went on to say, "It is rebellion again the authority of a common Father. It is a practical denial of the extent and efficacy of the death of a common Savior. It is an usurpation of the prerogative of the great Sovereign of the universe who has solemnly claimed an exclusive property in the souls of men."{5}

John Adams said, "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."{6}

James Madison in his speech before the Constitutional Convention said, "We have seen the mere distinction of colour made in the most enlightened period of time, a ground of the most oppressive dominion ever exercised by man over man."{7}

During the American Revolution, many slaves won their freedom. Alexander Hamilton served on George Washington's staff and supported the plan to enlist slaves in the army. He wrote to John Jay that "An essential part of the plan is to give them their freedom with their muskets . . . for the dictates of humanity and true policy equally interest me in favor of this unfortunate class of men."{8} Blacks from every part of the country (except South Carolina and Georgia) won their freedom through military service.{9}

After the Revolution, many Americans who were enjoying new freedom from England were struck by the contradiction that many blacks were still enslaved. John Jay said "That men should pray and fight for their own freedom and yet keep others in slavery is certainly acting a very inconsistent as well as unjust and perhaps impious part."{10}

In Federalist #54, James Madison stated that Southern laws (not nature) have "degraded [the slaves] from the human rank" depriving them of "rights" including the right to vote, that they would otherwise possess equally with other human beings. Madison argued that it was a "barbarous policy" to view blacks "in the unnatural light of property" rather than persons entitled to the same rights as other men.

Slavery and the Founders

When America was founded, there were about half a million slaves. Approximately one third of the founders had slaves (George Washington and Thomas Jefferson being the most notable). Most of the slaves lived in the five southern colonies.

Benjamin Rush and Benjamin Franklin (both signers of the Declaration of Independence) founded the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery in 1774. Rush went on to head a national abolition movement.

John Jay was the president of a similar society in New York. He said: "To contend for our own liberty, and to deny that blessing to others, involves an inconsistency not to be excused." John Adams opposed slavery because it was a "foul contagion in the human character" and "an evil of colossal magnitude." His son, John Quincy Adams, so crusaded against slavery that he was known as "the hell-hound of abolition."

It's important to note that when these anti-slavery societies were founded, they were clearly an act of civil disobedience. In 1774, for example, Pennsylvania passed a law to end slavery. But King George vetoed that law and other laws passed by the colonies. The King was pro-slavery, and Great Britain (at that time) practiced slavery. As long as the colonies were part of the British Empire, they would also be required to permit slavery.

When Thomas Jefferson finished his first draft of the Declaration of Independence, it included a paragraph condemning the King for introducing slavery into the colonies and continuing the slave trade. It said: "He [King George] 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 or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither." Unfortunately, this paragraph was dropped from the final draft because it was offensive to the delegates from Georgia and South Carolina.

After America separated from Great Britain, several states passed laws abolishing slavery. For example, Vermont's 1777 constitution abolished slavery outright. Pennsylvania passed a law in 1779 for gradual emancipation. Slavery was abolished in Massachusetts and New Hampshire through a series of court decisions in the 1780s that ruled that "all men are born free and equal." Other states passed gradual abolition laws during this period as well. By the time of the U.S. Constitution, every state (except Georgia) had at least prohibited slavery or suspended the importation of slaves.

Most of the founders (including many who at the time owned slaves) wanted to abolish the slave trade, but could not do so at the founding of this country. So, what about the compromises concerning slavery in the Constitution? We will look at that topic next.

Slavery and the Framers

We have noted that some of the founders were slaveholders. Yet even so, many of them wanted to abolish slavery. One example was George Washington.

In 1786, Washington wrote to Robert Morris that "there is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of [slavery]."{11} Later in his life he freed several of his household slaves and decreed in his will that his slaves would become free upon the death of his wife. Washington's estate even paid for their care until 1833.

What about the compromises in the U.S. Constitution? When the delegates came to Philadelphia, there were strong regional differences between northern and southern states concerning slavery.{12}

The first compromise concerned enumeration. Apportionment of representatives would be determined by the number of free persons and three-fifths of all other persons. Many see this as saying that blacks were not considered whole persons. Actually, it was just the opposite. The anti-slavery delegates wanted to count slaves as less in order to penalize slaveholders and reduce their influence in Congress. Free blacks were considered free persons and counted accordingly.

The second compromise dealt with the slave trade. Congress was prohibited until 1808 from blocking the migration and importation of slaves. It did not prevent states from restricting or outlawing the slave trade. As I pointed out previously, many had already done so. It did establish a temporary exemption to the federal government until President Jefferson signed a national prohibition into law effective January 1, 1808.

A final compromise involved fugitive slaves that guaranteed return of slaves held to service or labor "under the laws thereof." The wording did not imply that the Constitution recognized slavery as legitimate but only acknowledged that states had laws governing slavery.

It is notable that the words "slave" and "slavery" cannot be found in the U.S. Constitution. James Madison recorded in his notes on the constitutional convention that the delegates "thought it wrong to admit in the Constitution the idea that there could be property in men."

Slavery was wrong, and it is incorrect to say that the U.S. Constitution supported it. Frederick Douglas believed that our form of government "was never, in its essence, anything but an anti-slavery government." He argued, "Abolish slavery tomorrow, and not a sentence or a syllable of the Constitution need be altered."

Nevertheless, the seeds of a future conflict were sown in these compromises. The nation was founded on the ideal that "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights." John Quincy Adams later admitted that: "The inconsistency of the institution of slavery with the principles of the Declaration of Independence was seen and lamented." The conflict eventually broke out into a great civil war.

The Bible and Slavery

How does the Bible relate to slavery in America? While it is true that so many of the leaders in the abolition movement were Christians, there were others who attempted to use their particular interpretation of the Bible to justify slavery. That should not be surprising since today we see people trying to manipulate the Bible to justify their beliefs about issues like abortion and homosexuality.

The Bible teaches that slavery, as well as other forms of domination of one person over another, is wrong. For example, Joseph was sold into slavery (Genesis 37), and the Egyptians oppressed the Israelites (Exodus 1). Neither these nor other descriptions of slavery in the Bible are presented in a favorable light.

The Old Testament law code made it a capital crime to kidnap a person and sell him into slavery (Ex. 21:16). It also commanded Israel to welcome a slave who escaped from his master and not be returned (Deut. 23:15-16).

Nevertheless, some pointed to other passages in the Old Testament to try to justify slavery. For example, those who needed financial assistance or needed protection could become indentured servants (Ex. 21:2-6; Deut. 15:12-18). But this was a voluntary act very different from the way slavery was practiced in America. Also, a thief that could not or would not make restitution could be sold as a slave (Ex. 22:1-3), but the servitude would cease when restitution had been made.

In the New Testament, we see that Paul wrote how slaves (and masters) were to act toward one another (Eph. 6:5-9; Col. 3:22-25, 4:1; 1 Tim. 6:1-2). Since nearly half of the population of Rome were slaves, it is understandable that he would address their attitudes and actions. Paul was hardly endorsing the Roman system of slavery.

Paul's letter to Philemon encouraged him to welcome back his slave Onesimus (who had now become a Christian). Christian tradition says that the slave owner did welcome him back as a Christian brother and gave him his freedom. Onesimus later became the bishop of Berea.

It is also true that many of the leaders of the abolition movement were Christians who worked to abolish slavery from America. Lyman Beecher, Harriet Beecher Stowe, William Lloyd Garrison, and Charles Finney are just a few of the 19th century leaders of the abolition movement. Finney, for example, not only preached salvation but called for the elimination of slavery. He said, "I had made up my mind on the question of slavery, and was exceedingly anxious to arouse public attention to the subject. In my prayers and preaching, I so often alluded to slavery, and denounced it."{13}

Slavery is a sad and tragic chapter in American history, and we must confront it honestly. But the way the subject of slavery is taught in America's classrooms today often leaves out many important facts. I encourage you to study more about this nation's history. Our founders have much to teach us about history, government, and morality.

Notes

 

  1. Rights of the Colonies in Bernard Bailyn, ed. Pamphlets of the American Revolution (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1965), 439.
  2. Alexander Hamilton writing to John Jay, March 14, 1779 in Philip B. Kurland and Ralph Lerner, eds. The Founders' Constitution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), I:527.
  3. Samuel Stillman, The Duty of Magistrates (1779) in Frank Moore, ed., Patriot Preachers of the American Revolution (New York: Charles T. Evans, 1892), 285.
  4. "An Address to the Public from the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition Slavery" in J.A. Leo Lemay, ed., Benjamin Franklin, Writings (New York: Library of America, 1987), 1154.
  5. Benjamin Rush, Minutes of the Proceedings of a Convention of Delegates from the Abolition Societies Established in Different Parts of the United States Assembled at Philadelphia (Philadelphia: Zachariah Poulson, 1794), 24.
  6. John Adams to Robert J. Evans, June 8, 1819, in Adrienne Koch and William Peden, eds., Selected Writings of John and John Quincy Adams (New York: Knopf, 1946), 209.
  7. Speech at Constitutional Convention, June 6, 1787 in Max Farrand, ed., Records of the Federal Convention of 1787 (New Haven: Yale University, 1937), 1:135.
  8. Hamilton, in Kurland and Lerner, eds., The Founders' Constitution, I:527.
  9. Benjamin Quarles, The Negro and the American Revolution (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1961).
  10. John Jay writing to Richard Price, September 27, 1785 in The Founders' Constitution, 538.
  11. Letter of April 12, 1786, in W. B. Allen, ed., George Washington: A Collection (Indianapolis: Library Classics, 1989), 319.
  12. Matthew Spalding, The Founders' Almanac (Washington, DC: Heritage, 2002), 285-6.
  13. Charles G. Finney, Memoirs (New York: A.S. Barnes, 1876), 324.

 

© 2003 Probe Ministries


About the Author

Kerby AndersonKerby Anderson is president of Probe Ministries International. He holds masters degrees from Yale University (science) and from Georgetown University (government). He is the author of several books, including Christian Ethics in Plain Language, Genetic Engineering, Origin Science, Signs of Warning, Signs of Hope and Making the Most of Your Money in Tough Times. His new series with Harvest House Publishers includes: A Biblical Point of View on Islam, A Biblical Point of View on Homosexuality, A Biblical Point of View on Intelligent Design and A Biblical Point of View on Spiritual Warfare. He is the host of "Point of View" (USA Radio Network) heard on 360 radio outlets nationwide as well as on the Internet (www.pointofview.net) and shortwave. He is also a regular guest on "Prime Time America" (Moody Broadcasting Network) and "Fire Away" (American Family Radio). He produces a daily syndicated radio commentary and writes editorials that have appeared in papers such as the Dallas Morning News, the Miami Herald, the San Jose Mercury, and the Houston Post.

 

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