Slavery and the Founders: Race and Liberty in the Age of Jefferson

by William Loren Katz on March 1, 2001

Author: Professor Paul Finkelman
Publisher: M.E. Sharpe Inc., 2001

In the 1830s William Lloyd Garrison, a fiery anti-slavery polemicist, infuriated citizens of Boston by publicly threatening to burn a copy of the US Constitution which he excoriated as a “covenant with death” and “an agreement with Hell.” People were shocked and even among his band of Black and white followers his rhertorical flourishes and claims were deemed divisive. But now Garrison has gained scholarly support for his flamboyant displays. In his fully-researched and measured Slavery and the Founders: Race and Liberty in the Age of Jefferson, Professor Paul Finkelman, an authority on early US history, argues persuasively that the Founding Fathers of the Constitution were fatally flawed on issues of race and slavery, that they surrendered to slaveholders, and the best among them didn’t even put up a fight. The scholar’s meticulous study has assembled enough evidence to rescue Garrison from snarling foes and skeptical allies.

Professor Paul Finkelman’s study has also stoked the flames now consuming the reputation of Thomas Jefferson, a fire that has grown more intense since DNA evidence determined that the philosopher, American icon and slaveholder, conducted a long sexual relationship with Sally Hemings, a slave barely in her teen years. The Hemings relationship continues to add its own kindling to the debate about a man considered a national, secular philosopher and saint. For example, on Sunday morning May 5, 2002 two racial groups claiming Jefferson as a parent met and prayed together at his tree-shaded Montecello, Virginia graveside. But by afternoon the two groups were at loggerheads over the claim of the African American branch to kinship with Jefferson based on their being descendants of Sally Hemings.

It had been a strange weekend. After an impassioned debate the night before, the 800 member white Montecello Association voted down the Hemings group claim for recognition 74-6. The vote defied the ruling by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which manages the Montecello site, that 1998 DNA evidence proved Jefferson was the likely the father of one, and perhaps all of Sally Hemings’ children. Jefferson freed some of the Hemings family but not all, not even in his will.

African-American Jeffersonians decidedly rejected any suggestion that they form a separate society and vowed to continue their campaign for recognition as Jefferson’s kinfolk based on their Hemings blood line. Michele Cooley-Quill, a leader among these descendants, was optimistic since she detected an “openness” in the Montecello Association which she attributed to “the spirit of Thomas Jefferson.”

But how open was the political theorist and slaveholder? Professor Finkelman’s evidence strongly suggests that Jefferson, despite a reputation for wisdom and democratic liberality, was a bigoted, hypocritical, dishonest politician who tried to convince others, including his best friends that he flew with the angels and fought on the side of liberty, equality and justice, when he was committed to human bondage and the advantages it brought him personally.

But let’s start with the Constitution, for it is not really the parchment we have come to revere, and it is where much of our history begins. White privilege and slavery is enshrined in a dozen sections and its “more perfect union” denied citizenship rights to people of color, slave or free. Professor Finkelman quickly proves that this is not the document we learned about during school years, and builds a strongly-documented, dispassionate case that leads to the conclusion that since so much flows from the document, historical revisions are in order.

Professor Finkelman unveils how the Founding Fathers twisted legal arguments, stretched morality, and then shaped a cover-up to hide the fact that their hallowed document capitulated to slaveholders over and over again. In a pathetic attempt to disguise their surrender, delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787, did not mention the distasteful word “slave” and but employed such pallid euphemisms as “other persons” and “such persons.”

This crucial part of our history is unknown to most Americans. Local Boards of Education insist that future citizens be marched through a glorious version of their country’s Constitution, and be drilled in tales of the Founding Fathers’ devotion to liberty and justice. The truth is still largely absent from college courses so US citizens have lived with a big lie that forms a steel undergirding for dozens of others.

Finkelman’s compelling case for a new interpretation of how the Founding Fathers crafted the Constitution relies on the words, actions, and paper trail of the 57 men in white whigs who made history at Philadelphia. He repeatedly demonstrates that the enslavement of African men, women and children was central to the document that created the country. Five clauses of the Constitution refer to human bondage directly, and seven others provided the master class all it needed to conduct its business in human misery, and further gave it every assurance it could count on the federal government to enforce their rules and even suppress slave rebellions in the land of the free. Slavery remained basic to the prosperity, law and political thinking of the United States until the Civil War.

The Constitution can be said to have provided an early example of double-speak and the first US example of “affirmative action”&$151;special rewards, privileges and advantages granted slaveholders in the areas of economics, law enforcement and politics.

At the Constitutional Convention, the issue of slavery emerged early and often as a major concern “a complicating factor in almost every de-bate.” Finkelman forever lays to rest the claim of platoons of past and current historians that slavery was an insignificant factor in the debates. At each juncture northern and southern delegates tilted the sacred document in favor of those who owned men, women and children in such key issues as representation in Congress, taxing powers, foreign affairs, the presidency, elections, interstate relations, federal-state conflicts, branches of government, and the electoral college system.

Even when some delegates objected to the slave trade, they did not have the suffering of its victims on their minds. Delegate George Mason, a Virginia slaveholder who wrote the Bill of Rights, denounced bondage as “evil,” claimed “every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant,” and warned it would create “national calamities.” However, his rhetoric made no mention of people of color, and actually was directed at eliminating the African slave trade as an overseas source so his Virginia could replace it as the leading slave trading center.

Not only was the document that emerged in 1787 a major victory for slaveholders, but they did not have to make major concessions. Northern delegates, Finkelman shows, willingly supported slaveholder demands. The 57 men left Philadelphia assured slavery would be a permanent part of the new union, knowing slaveholders held the whip hand over a new federal government, and persuaded their new nation had committed itself to protect and nurture human bondage.

The Constitution officially sanctified plans to keep people of color in chains—or if free, in a citizenship-limbo. From 1787 forward the document made sure that what was done about race benefited of white people, and the most elementary needs of people of color were not a part of the discussion. The first US immigration law in 1790 denied citizenship to any immigrant of color, and after than the justice system in the new republic demonstrated no respect for people of color legally or morally. For example a white who committed a crime against a black man, woman or child in the north or south rarely faced arrest, and certainly not trial nor punishment. It is hardly any wonder that this political bargain required a Civil War and three Constitutional amendments to undo, that our land remains strewn with its battle remnants and our people are still engaged in archaic struggles based on race.

Even in the Northwest Territories, north of the Ohio river, where slavery was banned, few whites raised objections to masters who brought in enslaved people under sham forms of “indenture.” Though decreed free by the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, the five states in the area denied Black pioneers the right to vote, hold office, serve on a jury, testify in court, or exercise any other rights of citizens. Some even enacted legal barriers designed to keep African Americans from entering these free lands. Though Finkelman details this process he fails to include the many inventive forms of resistance mounted by enslaved and free people, along with their white allies, a striking example of Black contributions to democratic currents. He does recount, however, the ways Jeffersonians surrendered the new land to pro-slavery forces, and how it was a majority of white settlers who managed to halt the drive for full recognition of slavery in the region.

In was another irony of history that Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans fastened the slave system on the country, and battled hardest to keep free people of color from lifting the weight of oppression. And this left it to elitist, anti-democratic, conservative Federalists such as Alexander Hamilton, John Adams and John Jay, to found premier white anti-slavery societies in Philadelphia and New York and to mount early campaigns to end slavery in the North, educate and extend rights to free people of color. As aristocrats and owners of slaves, they sought an unhurried gradual emancipation through the legislative process. When Haiti erupted in a massive, and successful slave rebellion, Jeffersonians reacted with horror and sanctions, and Federalists voiced some appreciation of the rebel cause and began trade relations with them. No wonder that those free people of color who could vote cast ballots for Federalist candidates.

The complicity of northerners in advancing the slaveholders’ agenda had begun in colonial New England with traders, merchants, and shipbuilders who financed and literally carried the Atlantic slave trade. New England supplied the chains and whips for southern plantations. Until the election of Lincoln no President of the United States challenged the slavocracy’s power. In the 1830s New Yorker Martin Van Buren became the first “doughface” President, a northerner who carried forward planter policies. Van Buren followed Jackson and ordered the US Army to carry out the infamous Trail of Tears that forcefully deported Native American nations from eastern homes [including thousands of African Americans married into or owned by Indians] to a barren Oklahoma.

Slavery and the Founders: Race and Liberty in the Age of Jefferson reaches brilliantly perceptive heights debunking major myths that elevated Jefferson to sainthood. He owned 175 slaves when he wrote the Declaration of Independence, sold 85 slaves in a ten year period, and eventually freed only six people. This was at a time when other white Virginians, including George Washington, freed many more individuals, and challenged human bondage with greater daring. Jefferson, however, a “compulsively acquisitive” figure who chose to live high on the hog in Montecello, was unwilling to free anyone if the loss might jeopardize his shopping sprees, taste for expensive wines, furniture and paintings. Even at death he left nearly 200 men, women and children in chains, including some blood relatives through Sally Hemings.

Jefferson’s record is worse than previously known. Crass and unfeeling toward those built his home, plantation and made him rich, he was vigorous in pursuing slaves who fled to freedom, and failed to offer others a chance for liberty. Though he advocated reform of criminal and penal codes for whites, he favored barbaric punishments for slaves and free people of color. He termed “corrupt” children of color born to white women and urged their deportation. At slave auctions he had no trouble separating mothers and fathers from each other and from their children. He once freed an enslaved father but sold his wife and eight children to different owners. At a time when every major American and European reformer openly denounced slavery and expected Thomas Jefferson to lead the campaign, he refused to stand among them. Though he privately wrote critically of the system, he continued to undermine the anti-slavery efforts of others.

When corresponding with slaveholders Jefferson sounded like one of them, and he consistently acted like one of them, urging bondage as the proper condition for Africans, slowing the cause of freedom and refusing to aid free people of color. He did not free his slaves when he traveled with them to free areas such as Pennsylvania, Massachusetts or Paris.

Jefferson’s lasting contribution to racial matters was a host of sorry platitudes comforting to generations of racist thinkers. He characterized black people as “dull, tasteless,” inferior in mind and body, emotional, lacking a capacity for citizenship, undeserving of emancipation and bearing an offensive odor. When confronted with clear examples of Black intellectual achievement, he was unpersuaded.

Whatever criticisms Jefferson did lodge against the evil was not a response to its harsh and wretched conditions, but to the hazards rebellious bondsmen posed to white society. When he purchased the Louisiana Territory he did not propose banning slavery there, though this would have halted the westward march of slavery and toward civil war.

Jefferson’s racial bitterness influenced his foreign policies. He did not allow his slaves to enlist in the Revolution and thereby gain liberty through military service. Finkelman holds that Jefferson’s slaves and others would have done better if the British had been victorious. When Black rebels led by Toussaint L’Ouverture were on the verge of military victory over Haiti’s slaveholders, rather than face a Black Republic, Jefferson offered to help the French army recapture the island.

In Finkelman’s eyes Jefferson compares poorly to fellow slaveholders. Not only did he lack a humanitarian impulse, but he showed a hypocritical streak, particularly when addressing anti-slavery advocates. Governors and judges in Virginia, particularly his great mentor at William and Mary College, took public stands against slavery and some single-handedly sought to abolish it. After he retired from political office with enormous prestige, Jefferson never publicly urged emancipation.

When the Missouri Territory was opened to slavery after a bitter political battle, Jefferson saw “a fire-bell in the night,” and thought that God’s “justice cannot sleep forever,” but it was his actions and inactions as President that had charted the dangerous course. Though he ordered a war against Barbary pirates who enslaved white people, he would not raise a hand for black people. Yet he privately said slavery represented “a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous pas-sions, the most unremitting despotism… and degrading submission.” But then again he called free Black men and women “pests in society.”

In his final chapter Finkelman discusses Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings who was fourteen when he took her as his sexual partner. During this long affair Jefferson publicly claimed that Black men preferred white women and that Africans were close to apes. Finkelman then exposes leading US historians who have ignored the evidence to portray Jefferson as a virtually flawless statesman who gallantly represented his country best interests and fondest hopes.

Jefferson, venerated as the greatest Founding Father, and the equal of Abraham Lincoln as an American icon, has been placed on a pedestal the better to distort our history. If we are ever to solve our racial problems, our young people will have to honestly confront the flawed statue, and grasp how generations of scholars carefully hid a slaveholder hostile to the African Americans who built his wealth and shared his bed. No figure during slavery’s long reign had a better opportunity to mount a strong challenge to human bondage as Thomas Jefferson. But the philosopher of the American Revolution, sad to say, chose to bed down next to intense suffering each night and to sleep soundly night after night for decades.

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