The Founding Fathers of America were true radicals whose vision for a free nation and an emancipated world was generations ahead of their time.
At a critical juncture in world history, the revolutionaries sowed the seeds for America, a country that would become one of the greatest liberators mankind has ever known.
While monuments to the Founders’ genius have come under attack — the Jefferson Memorial is now being amended to acknowledge his possession of slaves, and there may be similar plans for the Washington Monument — it behooves us to examine the influential thinkers’ public statements about the abominable practice of slavery.
Thomas Jefferson, Drafter of The Declaration of Independence
King George III] 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 & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither … Determined to keep open a market where Men should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or restrain this execrable commerce.
The deleted passage from the Declaration of Independence, due to objection from slaveholding colonies.
George Washington, The First President of the United States
I can only say that there is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it—but there is only one proper and effectual mode by which it can be accomplished, & that is by Legislative authority: and this, as far as my suffrage will go, shall never be wanting.
Letter to Robert Morris, 1786.
James Madison, Drafter of the U.S. Constitution
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. What has been the source of those unjust laws complained of among ourselves? Has it not been the real or supposed interest of the major number?
An argument made against pure democracy made before the Constitutional committee in 1787. (Part of this quote is inscribed on Madison’s memorial in Montpelier).
John Jay, First Chief Justice of the Supreme Court
It is much to be wished that slavery may be abolished. The honour of the States, as well as justice and humanity, in my opinion, loudly call upon them to emancipate these unhappy people. To contend for our own liberty, and to deny that blessing to others, involves an inconsistency not to be excused.
Letter to R. Lushington, 1786.
John Adams, Second President of the United States
…[T]he terpitude the inhumanity the Cruelty and the Infamy of the African Commerce in Slaves have been so impressively represented to the public—by the Highest powers of Eloquence that nothing that I can say would increase the just Odium in which it is and ought to be held every measure of prudence therefore ought to be assumed for the eventual total extirpation of Slavery—from the U.S. … I have through my whole life held the practice of Slavery in such abhorrence—that I have never owned a Negro or any other Slave…
Letter to Robert J. Evans, 1819 (lightly edited for readability).
Patrick Henry, First Governor of Virginia and American Statesman
I believe a time will come when an opportunity will be offered to abolish this lamentable evil. Everything we do is to improve it, if it happens in our day; if not, let us transmit to our descendants, together with our slaves, a pity for their unhappy lot and an abhorrence of slavery.
Letter to Robert Pleasants, 1773.
George Mason, Drafter of Virginia Declaration of Rights
Mr. Chairman, this is a fatal section, which has created more dangers than any other. The first clause allows the importation of slaves for twenty years. Under the royal government, this evil was looked upon as a great oppression, and many attempts were made to prevent it; but the interest of the African merchants prevented its prohibition. No sooner did the revolution take place, than it was thought of. It was one of the great causes of our separation from Great Britain. Its exclusion has been a principal object of this state, and most of the states in the Union. The augmentation of slaves weakens the states; and such a trade is diabolical in itself, and disgraceful to mankind; yet, by this Constitution, it is continued for twenty years. As much as I value a union of all the states, I would not admit the Southern States into the Union unless they agree to the discontinuance of this disgraceful trade, because it would bring weakness, and not strength, to the Union.
Debate in Virginia Ratifying Convention, 1788. Mason famously refused to sign the U.S. Constitution, but he would become influential for its Bill of Rights.
Benjamin Franklin, American Philosopher, Diplomat, and Adviser on The Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution
Slavery is such an atrocious debasement of human nature, that its very extirpation, if not performed with solicitous care, may sometimes open a source of serious evils. The unhappy man, who has long been treated as a brute animal, too frequently sinks beneath the common standard of the human species…
Under such circumstances, freedom may often prove a misfortune to himself, and prejudicial to society. Attention to emancipated black people, it is therefore to be hoped, will become a branch of our national policy; but, as far as we contribute to promote this emancipation, so far that attention is evidently a serious duty incumbent on us, and which we mean to discharge to the best of our judgement and abilities.
Address to the public, 1789.
It is sad, but predictable, that modern scholars — many of whom have never come up with a truly radical and enlightened idea in their own age — pass judgment on those who laid the foundation for the free society that they currently enjoy.
Although the contradictory foibles of their humanity ought to rightly be laid bare, America’s Founders cannot legitimately be attacked for their enlightened views against slavery. The Founding Fathers were indeed fallible, but the nation they established paved the way for the emancipation of slaves and oppressed peoples around the world for hundreds of years to come.