Academic journal article Policy Review

We the Slaveowners: In Jefferson's America, Were Some Men Not Created Equal?

Academic journal article Policy Review

We the Slaveowners: In Jefferson's America, Were Some Men Not Created Equal?

Article excerpt

Although slavery ended in the United States more than a century ago, its legacy continues to be disputed among scholars and to underlie contemporary debates about public policy. The reason for this is that slavery is considered the classic expression of American racism, and its effects are still viewed as central to the problems faced by blacks in the United States. Slavery seems to be the wound that never healed--the moral core of the oppression story so fundamental to black identity today. No wonder that bitterness generated by recollections of slavery has turned a generation of black scholars and activists against the nation's Founding--against identification with America itself.

"Jefferson didn't mean it when he wrote that all men are created equal," writes historian john Hope Franklin. "We've never meant it. The truth is that we're a bigoted people and always have been. We think every other country is trying to copy us now, and if they are, God help the world." He argues that, by betraying the ideals of freedom, "the Founding Fathers set the stage for every succeeding generation of Americans to apologize, compromise, and temporize on those principles."

In Black Odyssey, Nathan Huggins condemns the American Framers for establishing, not freedom, but "a model totalitarian society." Huggins condemns the Framers for refusing to mention the words "slave" or "slavery" in the Constitution in an effort to "sanitize their new creation" and avoid "the deforming mirror of truth." The Founding, he concludes, was simply "a bad way to start."

Speaking on the 200th anniversary of the Constitution, former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall refused to "find the wisdom, foresight, and sense of justice exhibited by the Framers particularly profound. The government they devised was defective from the start." Marshall urged that instead of jingoistic celebration, Americans should seek an "understanding of the Constitution's defects," its immoral project to "trade moral principles for self-interest."

Is it true that the American Founding was corrupted by a base and unwarranted compromise with slavery, and that the Framers of the Constitution, many of whom were slaveowners, revealed themselves as racist hypocrites? Must we agree with the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who charged that the American Founding was a "covenant with death," an "agreement with hell," and a "refuge of lies," an appraisal endorsed by the great black leader Frederick Douglass? If these charges are true, then America is indeed ill-founded, blacks are right to think of themselves as alienated "Africans in America," and the hope for racial amity constructed upon the liberal democratic vision of the Founding becomes a chimera.

On the other hand, if the Framers are exonerated of the charges of racist hypocrisy, then their blueprint for America might provide a viable foundation for helping blacks and whites to tr-anscend the pathology of race. Indeed, it is the vision of Thomas Jefferson and the Framers that provides the only secure basis for a multiracial society, in which citizens are united not by blood or lineage, but by virtue of their equality.


Notwithstanding the vilification of American history by many commentators, the institution of slavery was neither peculiarly American nor peculiarly white. Not only was slavery extensively practiced in the ancient world--Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, India, and elsewhere--but in the modern era Africans and American Indians practiced slavery, Arabs actively promoted the slave trade, and thousands of blacks in America were slaveowners.

The practice of whites owning slaves developed in the United States in line with universal practices, including prevailing Western institutions that held millions of whites in various degrees of unfreedom. In this context, it is not hard to understand Charles Pinckney's amazement, during the debates over the American Founding, over questions about the morality of slavery. …

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