Founding Fathers' Anti-slavery Addresses and Legislation
THOMAS JEFFERSON ON SLAVERYThe Abolition of Slavery, the Great Object of Desire in these Colonies
In regard to the issue of slavery at the time of the founding of this nation, the question arises: If the founding fathers were against slavery as a great moral evil, why didn’t they free the slaves?
Prior to the revolution, some of the colonial legislatures had attempted to prevent further importation through duties and prohibitions, but interference by the British government prevented them from doing so. Jefferson’s sentiments and those of other colonists on the slavery issue are noted in his famous 1774 A Summary of the Rights of British America (set forth in some Resolutions intended for the inspection of the present Delegates of the people of Virginia, now in Convention). It outlines the grievances of the colonies against England, as excerpted below:
Initiation of Congressional Bill Against Slavery
After the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson was free to initiate a bill in Congress, which he did in 1779, proposing an initial attempt to deal with the slavery issue. In his autobiography, he wrote the following account of it:
Jefferson could foresee the tremendous evil that would befall this country if the young nation did not eradicate this “infamous practice,” which had deeply wounded human beings. He said that “commerce between master and slave is despotism,” and gave this warning:
Unfortunately, Jefferson’s admonitions as to what would befall this nation if the slavery issue was not fully resolved, became the reality of a tragic civil was within a century. Abraham Lincoln was God’s instrument, raised up to totally eradicate this great moral evil from American soil. This he did with his Emancipation Proclamation, an immortal document, setting the slaves free on a permanent basis in 1863.
GEORGE MASON ON SLAVERY
“Every Master of Slaves is Born a Petty Tyrant”
George Mason took an active part in the Constitutional Convention of 1787, which met in Philadelphia. Among other issues, he spoke strongly regarding slavery, believing that Congress should be given the control of slavery.4 James Madison wrote the following report concerning Mason’s speech on slavery.
This infernal traffic originated in the avarice of British merchants. The British government constantly checked the attempts of Virginia to put a stop to it. The present question concerns not the importing States alone, bur the whole Union…Slavery discourages arts and manufactures. The poor despise labor when performed by slaves. They prevent the emigration of whites, who really enrich and strengthen a country. They produce the most pernicious effect on manners. Every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant. They bring the judgment of Heaven on a country. As nations cannot be rewarded or punished in the next world, they must be in this. By an inevitable chain of causes and effects, Providence punishes national sins by national calamities. He (George Mason) lamented that some of our eastern brethren had, from a lust of gain, embarked in this nefarious traffic….He held it essential in every point of view, that the General Government should have power to prevent the increase of slavery.5
Shortly before his death, he told Thomas Jefferson that,
“Under the coalition, the great principles of the Constitution were changed in the last days of the Convention,” wrote George Mason. This founding father rejected the Constitution, refusing to put his signature to the document chiefly due to its exclusion of his views on slavery.7
* slowly but surely