Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

The Slaves Who Freed Our Founders

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

The Slaves Who Freed Our Founders

Article excerpt

Observing the passage of another Independence Day, Frederick Douglass famously asked a patriotic crowd in Rochester, N.Y., a century and a half ago, to consider "what, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?" His intent was to get prideful white citizens to ponder the limits of their country's freedom from another's point of view.

In the view of slaves, the abolitionist said, "Your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass-fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy - a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages."

Douglass cherished the aims of our revolution, but his focus was on its shortfalls. He insisted on reminding white Americans of the cost of their freedom, and the currencies our Founding Fathers used to purchase it. Take Thomas Jefferson, whom we credit with penning the glorious words of the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal...." He had the luxury of time free from physical toil to contemplate our nation's future because enslaved Africans were working his fields.

Or consider James Madison, whom we call "father of our Constitution." An enslaved man named Moses ran an ironworks on Madison's Virginia plantation, turning out everything from nails to farm implements that were sold to neighboring planters to accumulate cash that helped pay Madison's tuition to the College of New Jersey (now known as Princeton), where he studied the strengths and weaknesses of ancient republics - lessons he would weave together to form our democracy.

When Madison rode north to Philadelphia in the spring of 1780 to attend the Continental Congress, an enslaved man known as Billey accompanied him. Serving as Madison's manservant in what was then the nation's capital, Billey soaked up the talk of freedom and natural rights. He would have heard lively and eloquent endorsements of equality everywhere - in the rooming houses where Madison and his colleagues bunked, and among the large community of Philadelphia's free blacks.

By the time Madison was ready to turn south again toward his family's Montpelier plantation, he found that Billey was "too thoroughly tainted to be a fit companion for fellow slaves in Virginia." Nearly four years of breathing the air of freedom had spoiled Billey for bondage. Fearing he would contaminate other slaves with his spirited memories, Madison decided to sell Billey. …

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