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Founding Fathers' Anti-slavery Addresses and Legislation 
(Excerpted from, The Christian Heritage of our Nation History Curriculum
- U.S. Presidents and Their Churches,
copyright 1999 by Catherine Millard.)


The 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:

The abolition of domestic slavery is the great object of desire in those colonies, where it was unhappily introduced in their infant state. But previous to the enfranchisement of the slaves we have, it is necessary to exclude all further importations from Africa; yet our repeated attempts to effect this by prohibitions, and by imposing duties which might amount to a prohibition, have been hitherto defeated by his majesty’s negative: Thus preferring the immediate advantages of a few African corfairs (slaves) to the lasting interests of the American states, and to the rights of human nature deeply wounded by this infamous practice…1

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:

     The bill in the subject of slaves was a mere digest of the existing laws respecting them, without any intimation of the plan for a future and general emancipation. It was thought better that this should be kept back, and attempted only by way of amendment, however the bill should be brought on. The principles of the amendment however were agreed on, that is to say, the freedom of all born after a certain day, and deportation at a proper age. But it was found that the public mind would not yet bear the proposition, nor will it bear it even at this day. Yet the day is not distant when it must bear and adopt it, or worse will follow…2

     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:

     It is still in our power to direct the process of emancipation and deportation peaceably and in such slow degree as that the evil will wear off insensibly and their place be pari passu* filled with free white laborers. If on the contrary it is left to force itself on, human nature must shudder at the prospect held up…Commerce between master and slave is despotism.3

     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.



“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,

     the Constitution as agreed to for a fortnight before the convention rose was such a one as he would have set his hand and heart to…With respect to the importation of slaves, it was left to Congress. This disturbed the two southernmost states, who knew that Congress would immediately suppress the importation of slaves…6

     “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



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