The other side of liberty
July 6, 2003 7:26 AM   Subscribe

The other side of liberty "At the very moment they were in Philadelphia declaring that all men are created equal, many of America's Founding Fathers were slave owners. Activists are now demanding a fuller accounting at democracy's birthplace."
posted by Postroad (13 comments total)
Yes, but this is and was a very complex issue.

You have to remember that before being abolished at the end of the civil war by the 13th amendment (This, by the way, was not the first 13th amendment - the first one introduced by Lincoln guaranteed slavery forever), slavery had been an institution in place for over 200 years.

Think about that.. civil rights have only been around for less than 50 years and the the US civil war came to closure less than 150 years ago.

Also, the Framers were trying to unify. That is why there were provisions in the Constitution naming slaves as 3/5ths of a person without naming the word 'slavery'. How else would they have gotten a convention that included a large contingent of Southern states to ratify?

In addition, a very good argument could be made that slavery would have died out if the invention of the cotton gin had not come into being in the late 1700's.

Regardless, it is an evil that is very much a part of US history, as well as an evil that eventually took the deaths of over 600,000 men to directly address, and rectify.
posted by jazzkat11 at 7:52 AM on July 6, 2003

Avenging the Ancestors Coalition seems like another name for Give Us Money Because of our Skin Color.
posted by the fire you left me at 8:13 AM on July 6, 2003

Actually, Jefferson and Madison were both abolitionists, and one of the original drafts of the Declaration of Independence cited one of the grievances of the colonists as being dependent upon the slave trade in order to generate the manpower necessary to be economically viable. It was removed to get the representatives from Georgia and South Carolina to sign the DoI. Jefferson's explanation for how he could maintain slaves _and_ support the abolition of slavery was surprisingly nuanced. He felt that slavery as an institution was wrong, but because his slaves were uneducated and their quality of life would almost certainly drop as freemen due to discrimination and the vagaries of wage-labour, it would be better for all involved if he kept them on as paid servants whom he nominally "owned".

Anyhow, the basic problem was they could either unite the states _or_ get rid of slavery, and, reasonably, though shittily, enough, they chose to save their own asses before anyone else's, and united the states.
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 8:14 AM on July 6, 2003

Here's another nugget from the vault of History I bet you guys haven't heard about or discussed endlessly before:

Christopher Columbus didn't "discover" America--there were already people living here!

Interesting, eh?
posted by dhoyt at 8:17 AM on July 6, 2003

Does anyone here know of a civilization or country that was not founded on violence and the exploitation of others? I ask this not as a defense of some American's past actions, but with genuine interest in the existence of such a place.
posted by jsonic at 8:35 AM on July 6, 2003

(This, by the way, was not the first 13th amendment - the first one introduced by Lincoln guaranteed slavery forever)

Are you referring to the Crittenden Compromise of late 1860, which would have extended the Missouri Compromise line to the Pacific and made slavery legal forever below it? Although Lincoln was only President-elect at the time, he was consulted, and rejected it. Lincoln was an abolitionist, but in line with your point, he was a white man of his time, not a cardboard hero, and would have used the N word routinely, and probably would have supported segregation of institutions like schools.

Mess with Abe this close to the 4th of July, and you got a fight on your hands from his Kyoto posse.
posted by planetkyoto at 8:37 AM on July 6, 2003

Give Us Money Because of our Skin Color.

Oh I know exactly what you're talking about.
posted by sudama at 6:47 PM on July 6, 2003

dhoyt is being unnecessarily dismissive, but I feel a little the same - I thought this thread would be a discussion of the article, not simply of the shopworn irony in Postroad's FPP.

I went to the National Constitution Center today. The attempt to grapple with slavery was very evident in different displays, and the main lecture-multimedia-presentation featured it prominently. Then again, I wonder how much of it they would have done had there not been months of discussion about this before it opened.

In all, I give the NCC a thumbs-up: A bit too tech-happy ("everything's more interesting on a television screen!") for my taste, but an earnest, multivaried attempt to bring home to Americans what this document is really about.
posted by soyjoy at 8:47 PM on July 6, 2003

In Memoriam: What to the Slave Is 4th of July, a speech given by Frederick Douglass on July 4, 1841.
posted by homunculus at 8:59 PM on July 6, 2003

Liberty for some Americans came at the price of enslavement for other Americans," he says. "The 1790s was a very critical period, because it was the first decade of the new republic, and at end of it, the country had pretty much decided that it was not going to deal with slavery."

OK. My immediate question is: How would the non-formation of America stopped the enslavement of black Americans? It seems likely to me that we would have simply had two American confederate states -- a Union and Confederacy by the dawn of the 1800s rather than midway through. The founders had a choice between a unified America with provision for slavery in the states that had slavery, and a divided America with provision for slavery. I'm not sure what they could have done to eradicate slavery then.
posted by weston at 9:23 PM on July 6, 2003

To follow up on what Pseudoephedrine said, one of the strange ironies of the Founding Fathers and slavery is that the idealistic Jefferson's estate was in such poor financial state (debt, etc.—some would say mismanaged) that the human assets had to remain so... but the pragmatic & flush George Washington was easily able to free slaves in his will.
posted by Zurishaddai at 11:05 PM on July 6, 2003

I think it's very important to discuss slavery and the Founding Fathers. While we're at it, why aren't people up in arms about the fact that WOMEN couldn't vote, either?

Yes, they were full of contradictions. They were slave owners, whether or not they really believed in the institution. It's very important to discuss this just to show that they were human, it was a complex time, and slavery is a complex issue-not just a power or economics issue-not just (forgive the expression) a black-and-white issue. I think discussing this gives the Founding Fathers and our nation's history more depth and makes it even more interesting.
Why didn't they explictly say that freedom and liberty were only for the white man? Why didn't they expressly guarantee slavery the right to exist? Why is Jefferson considered an abolitionist yet he owned slaves and had a well-known slave mistress? What's wrong with disucssing these people as complex men living in a complex time? What is the harm. Are poeple scared of their history? In 100 years, will we be having this same discussion about the silly Congress and it's homophobic leaders and apply 2100 morals to 2000 issues? Probably, but they should still be discussed.
posted by aacheson at 9:47 AM on July 7, 2003

I believe a time will come when the oppo. will be offered to abolish this lamentable Evil. Every thing we can do is to improve it, if it happens in our day, if not, let us transmit to our descendants together with our Slaves, a pity for their unhappy Lot, & an abhorrence for Slavery.
Patrick Henry, 1773
posted by darukaru at 10:51 AM on July 7, 2003

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