Friday, July 28, 2006

Should We Revere "Racists"?

A caller to a C-SPAN special on George Washington that aired a couple of years ago, castigated the show’s on-air guests for remembering the nation’s first President as everything except what he "primarily was" - a “slave owner.”

An on-line poll, conducted within the last few years by The History Channel, asked respondents which American patriot they thought was worthy of their highest admiration. This survey question drew many posts dripping with contempt for George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and the rest of America's early statesmen. The primary line of attack: These men were slave owners, and Americans today should be ashamed to pay them any respect or honor.

These are but two examples of what has become a chorus of contempt and condemnation sung by scholars, students, politicians, judges, talk show hosts, authors, and everyday Americans concerning the sins of our nation's past. This refrain is based on the premise that the Founders were (at best) flawed and ignorant or (at worst) racist and sexist. Consequently, now that our nation has stamped out the vile institution of slavery and ended formal racial segregation, many believe it is time to turn our backs to the past and march forward into the future, free from any romantic notions of nostalgia.

What should our view be of the Founding Fathers? After all, were they not a group of white male colonial leaders who collectively tolerated slavery and, in some cases, actually practiced it? Isn't America better off to leave them in the dustbin of history and continue its progression toward a society that respects men and women as equals regardless of race, color, or ethnic origin? Answering these questions requires us to consider deeper, more fundamental questions regarding our Founders and our nation's origins.

What did the Founders mean when they declared "all men are created equal"?
The fact that slavery was an entrenched institution during the founding era is beyond debate. Yet it was against this backdrop that Thomas Jefferson penned the now famous words in our Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights…"

What about men and women of African descent? Were they "created equal" with whites? Were they "endowed" with "unalienable rights"?

Conor Cruise O'Brien, a renowned biographer of Thomas Jefferson, writes:

It is accepted that the words 'all men are created equal' do not, in their literal meaning, apply to women, and were not intended by the Founding Fathers (collectively) to apply to slaves.


The late civil rights activist Ralph Abernathy agreed: "The only logical conclusion that modern blacks can draw from [the Founding and slavery] is that their forefathers were not regarded as 'men' by the white founders of this country."

Ironically, these conclusions, accepted today by a growing majority of Americans, are almost identical to the position taken by Stephen Douglas, the "Little Giant" of Illinois and lifelong rival of Abraham Lincoln. When Lincoln asserted that the word of the Declaration of Independence applied to people of African descent as well as whites, Douglas responded that “the signers of the Declaration of Independence never dreamed of the Negro when they were writing that document."

Abraham Lincoln defied his opponent to find "one single affirmation from one single man" during the founding era that stated "the Negro was not included in the Declaration of Independence." Douglas could not.

Lincoln's position was that the existence of slavery during the founding era was not an indicator of the Founders' support for it. According to Lincoln, the Founders never saw slavery as consistent with the principles they enshrined in our heritage.

Rather, the Founding Fathers overwhelmingly deplored slavery and considered black Americans to be included in the Declaration's creed. Said Lincoln: "The fathers of this government expected and intended the institution of slavery to come to an end. They expected and intended that it would be in the course of ultimate extinction."

His view is ignored or rejected in today's classrooms and in the media, but it was this very viewpoint that sustained his ultimately successful campaign to rid the nation of the evil institution he so ardently despised. But while Lincoln's argument was compelling, was it accurate?

Consider that in Jefferson's original draft of the Declaration of Independence, the Virginian added the following as one of the many deplorable examples of the conduct of King George III:

He 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 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.


This portion of Jefferson's draft was removed from the final document in order to appease delegates from the Deep South. Nevertheless, it clearly refers to the victims of the African slave trade as "men," thus indicating that Jefferson included both blacks and whites in his earlier reference to "all men."

James Madison, another leading Virginian at the time of the nation's founding and widely considered the "Father of the Constitution" is even clearer on this matter. In one of his many condemnations of slavery, Madison declared: "We have seen the mere distinction of color made in the most enlightened period of time, a ground of the most oppressive dominion of man over man." Note that last part again: man over man.

Why then did slavery exist if the Founders hated it so much? The sad truth is that slavery was an accepted institution in most of the world prior to the American Revolution. By the time Britain had colonized North America, slavery had become an integral part of the nation's heavily agricultural economy and culture. Many generations of white colonists grew up with slavery as much a part of their society as farming or horseback riding. Many simply didn't take the time to assess it for the evil that it was. This all, however, began to change with the Declaration of Independence.

With the Declaration, the United States became the first nation officially dedicated to the revolutionary ideal that all human beings are created equal. And it was this precept that led to what many historians consider "the Opening of the American Mind." John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, described the changing views of Americans toward slavery and race relations in a 1788 letter to the president of the Society for the Manumission of Slaves. Jay wrote that prior to the Revolutionary War, most Americans were "accustomed to the practice and convenience of having slaves, that very few among them doubted the propriety and rectitude of it." However, as the Revolution unfolded with colonists clamoring for equal rights and justice, Jay observed that the denunciations by some of the institution of slavery began to prevail "by almost insensible degrees." It soon became quite apparent that slavery was entirely inconsistent with the ideals and principles of the United States.

None of the prominent Founders defended the institution of slavery on moral grounds. And most began to speak out against it, at the conclusion of the American Revolution, including many who actually held slaves. And they didn't just talk.

In 1787, the pre-Constitution Congress forbade slavery in the Northwest Territory. The First Congress (under the new Constitution) later affirmed this ban.

By 1798, every state had outlawed the importation of slaves within its borders. When South Carolina later reopened the slave trade in 1803, Congress intervened and outlawed it nationally in 1808.

By 1804, seven of the original thirteen states had abolished slavery itself.

Unfortunately, while the Founders collectively spoke against and took action against slavery, many of them don't escape the judgment of history so easily. Some Founders, such as Abraham Baldwin and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, were supporters of the institution, though they were in the minority.

Furthermore, the Founders were collectively too optimistic about slavery's natural demise. They truly believed that, once the slave trade was banned (hence, the fierce debate over this portion of the Constitution in convention) and the economy became more industrial, the institution would die off. They saw it surviving for only a few more decades.

In part, their hopes were correct. Slavery did wane following the American Revolution and the livelihood of African Americans was modestly enhanced. These positive developments, though, were quickly reversed in the Deep South once the cotton gin became more popular and the founding generation passed from the scene. On this score, these men of usually remarkable foresight were found lacking and deserve their due criticism. Thomas G. West, author of Vindicating the Founders, writes: "The Founders' hopeful sentiments [concerning the demise of slavery] proved to be a delusion."

Exactly how harsh our criticism of the Founders should be is the focal point of today's debate. Historians like Paul Finkelman, who blast the Constitution as a "covenant with death," believe the judgment of history should be rather severe. Others, such as Professor West, take a more forgiving view of the Founders, especially in light of their tremendous sacrifice and devotion to the overall cause of freedom -- a cause that ultimately led to the very historical milestones that critics of the Founders typically praise.

In the end, the truth of the biblical lesson of "sewing and reaping" is undeniable. The Founders of America will, in our history books, forever reap the consequences of slavery by being branded in our national psyche. One can only hope, however, that this view of the Founders will not obscure the legacies of those men who did take the right stand during the difficult and formative years of our nation. What’s more, let us hope the dim view of our past, on the part of many critics, will not lead to the demise of the very founding principles upon which so much progress against racism and injustice has been made.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

excellent explanation of the question, detailed and precise :)