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 transcend 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.
Of Human Bondage
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. "If slavery be wrong," Pinckney erupted, "it is justified by the example of all the world." In most parts of the world, slavery was uncontroversial for the simple reason that the concept of freedom simply did not exist. Writes African-American scholar Orlando Patterson, "There was no word for 'freedom' in most non-Western languages before contact with Western peoples."
Prior to the development of a modern Western notion of freedom, most people lived in a world shaped by what historian David Brion Davis terms "the normal network of kinship ties of dependency, protection, obligation, and privilege," a system that included various forms of patronage and servitude.
Nathan Huggins writes that slavery evolved in a social system radically different from our own, one that "regarded servants and laborers as base people," that used "hunger and the lash as a goad to productivity," that maintained discipline by means of "maiming, dismemberment . . . torture, the rack, beheading, burning at the stake, impaling." Between white laborers and black slaves, Huggins writes, "the differences were more in degree than in kind."
Historian Oscar Handlin notes that in Europe, as in much of the world, the antithesis of the term "free" was not "slave" but "unfree," and the vast majority of people lived in servitude or partial freedom. Involuntary bondage was common. "A debtor could be sold" to pay off his debts, he writes, vagrants and vagabonds "might be bound over to the highest bidder, their labor sold for a term," and criminal offenses were routinely punished with sentences of forced public service, "sometimes for life."
Many whites became indentured servants in America; they bound themselves to a planter or company for four to seven years in return for free passage across the Atlantic and some starting-up provisions. Like English servants, bondsmen in America were frequently bought and sold, or used as gambling stakes. "Under such circumstances," writes Gordon Wood in The Radicalism of the American Revolution, "it was often difficult for the colonists to perceive the distinctive peculiarity of black slavery."
Until the 18th century, few Europeans had moral qualms about slavery, which contradicted no important social value for most people around the world. In the Arab world, which was the first to import large numbers of slaves from Africa, the slave traffic was truly cosmopolitan. Slaves of every hue and origin were sold in open bazaars. The Arabs played an important role as middlemen in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and contemporary research suggests that between the 7th and the 19th centuries they transported more than l4 million black slaves across the Sahara and the Red Sea—a larger number than were shipped to the Americas.
Native American Indians practiced slavery on each other, long before Europeans arrived to practice it on them. For several tribes in the American Northwest, slaves constituted between l0 and l5 percent of the population. The Cherokee employed "slave catchers" to retrieve wounded combatants from other tribes, although the Cherokee preferred to kill enemies rather than take them captive. In some Indian tribes, slaveowners routinely killed large numbers of slaves in potlatch ceremonies to prove how wealthy they were.
Among Africans, the three powerful kingdoms of Ghana, Songhay, and Mali all relied on slave labor. Nor were these slaves exclusively blacks: The emperor Mansa Musa, for example, purchased Turkish slaves for his court in Mali. White Europeans who were shipwrecked off the west coast of Africa were also enslaved. The Ashanti of West Africa customarily enslaved all foreigners. African slavery was both widespread and uncontroversial. Historian Paul Lovejoy argues that "in the American context, slavery was introduced from the outside and always relied on the importation of slaves," while "in Africa slavery evolved from indigenous institutions."
In a recent study, John Thornton shows that slavery was far more deeply embedded in Africa than in Europe because Europeans recognized land as the primary source of private wealth, whereas "slaves were the only form of private, revenue-producing property recognized in African law." Tribal chiefs in Africa, working through Arab middlemen, sold millions of blacks to Europeans and supplied the trans-Atlantic slave trade without any fundamental modification of the institutions and values of Africa. According to Basil Davidson in The African Slave Trade: "The notion that Europe altogether imposed the slave trade on Africa is without any foundation in history.... Those Africans who were involved in the trade were seldom the helpless victims of a commerce they did not understand: On the contrary, they responded to its challenge. They exploited its opportunities."
Contrary to the popular belief nourished by Alex Haley's novel Roots, Europeans did not typically invade African tribes to chase down and capture slaves. Many slaves purchased by Europeans were already slaves in Africa. Income from the slave trade made many African chiefs and tribes rich. The grim reality of the African slave trade between Africa and America was summed up by Zora Neale Hurston, the great black writer of the Harlem Renaissance in the early part of the 20th century: "The white people held my people in slavery here in America. They had bought us, it is true, and exploited us. But the inescapable fact that stuck in my craw was: My people had sold me.... My own people had exterminated whole nations and torn families apart for a profit before the strangers got their chance at a cut. It was a sobering thought. It impressed upon me the universal nature of greed."
Racism and Slavery
American slavery was prompted not by racism but by the pursuit of profit. There was work to be done building the New World, and slavery provided the unpaid labor to do the job. Scholars are fairly unanimous that African slaves were purchased and transported to America for reasons of convenience and economic gain. How, then, did American slavery assume a distinctively racial character?
Marxist scholars have a powerful answer. "Race relations did not determine the patterns of slavery in the new world," writes historian Eugene Genovese, "the patterns of slavery...determined race relations." The Marxist view is that racism developed and spread in America as an ideology to rationalize the enslavement and exploitation of blacks by a white master class. Fortified by racism from the beginning, American slavery itself fostered and institutionalized bigotry.
This view draws on the insight that C.R. Boxer popularized: "One race cannot systematically enslave members of another for centuries without acquiring a conscious or unconscious feeling of racial superiority." That is why, in many ancient cultures, it was customary to brand or tattoo slaves to confirm their social stigma. But in the United States no such measures were necessary. Africans were chosen for slavery in part because they were considered inferior as a race. They already wore a racial uniform, which itself became the mark of slavery, and even later a stigma of shame and inferiority.
The Marxist view contains a good deal of truth. Even though not all blacks in America were slaves, and not all slaves in America were black, over time these nuances became blurred, and in crucial respects racism and slavery became synonymous, in perception if not in operation. The consequence was a virtually inseparable association in the American mind between the degradation of slavery and the degradation of blackness. Yet the Marxist account does not explain what economically exploitative purpose racism serves by tormenting the free black population.
This question is illuminated by considering the differences between slavery in the United States and slavery in Latin America. Scholars who study Caribbean and South American slavery agree that the system was extremely harsh, in some respects harsher than in the United States. Reporting to absentee owners in Spain and Portugal, ruthless overseers wielded the lash over gigantic plantations of Africans, working them with little apparent concern for their health or longevity. The slave mortality rate was far higher in Latin America than in the United States.
Yet partly through the influence of the Catholic Church, Latin American slave laws were far more benign than those in the United States. Nowhere in the United States was marriage legal for slaves, whereas slaves in Latin America had a legal right to marry and receive the sacraments. Because of the church's emphasis on family unity, slave families in Latin America had specific rights, including legal protections against arbitrary dissolution.
By contrast, slaveowners in the United States had full discretion over whether to break up families and separately sell parents and children. Every American slave state except South Carolina had laws against miscegenation. In Latin America, because of the small number of white women who settled in the Spanish colonies, black concubinage was everywhere legal, public, even moderately respectable. In fact, according to Stanley Elkins, miscegenation was generally considered a good thing in Latin America because it had a whitening effect, whereas it was generally considered a bad thing in the United States because it had a darkening effect.
Manumissions were easier, both as a matter of law and practice, in Latin America. Some American states severely restricted the right of masters to free their slaves, fearing the presence of a resentful class of free blacks among the white population.
The consequence of the Latin American system was the gradual emergence of a free colored class, which was considered neither white nor black, but named for the specific proportion of white and black and Indian blood. It was common throughout Latin America for masters to free their offspring by slave women. In the United States, by contrast, the progeny of master and slave usually remained slaves. Thus the United States gradually embraced a doctrine unique in the history of slavery: All children with any recognizable black ancestry would be considered black. To be white meant, de jure if not de facto, to be a thoroughbred European, uncontaminated by a single drop of Negro blood. Even after slavery, the one-drop rule would ensure that blacks, as a group, would remain distinct and distant from whites who could think of themselves as a ruling class.
None of this means that no enduring hierarchy developed in Latin America. It did, but it was primarily a social and not a racial hierarchy. The colored class emerged as a buffer zone, an intermediary between pure whites and pure blacks; in many countries, the colored class became the national majority. Dark skin continued to carry some stigma, but it was entirely possible to erase this through wealth, political status, and intermarriage with others of lighter skin. Racial tensions persist today in Brazil, Cuba, and other Latin American countries, but the racial legacy of slavery there is unquestionably more benign than in the United States.
Scholars have struggled to explain why the slave systems in North America and South America evolved so differently. No doubt many factors are responsible, including religious and cultural differences. But an often-overlooked cause lies in the radically different systems of government. Spain and Portugal, which maintained South American colonies, were rigid monarchies. From the seat of government to the church, presided over by the Holy Inquisition, freedom defined as the rights of self-government and individual self-determination simply did not exist. Consequently, Spanish and Portuguese plantation owners did not have to explain to anyone, even to themselves, why they were enslaving large numbers of Africans, depriving them of liberty, and stealing the fruits of their labor. Slavery was a practice that seemed entirely reasonable for social and economic life, and one that did not contradict any of the institutions in their home countries. In short, South American slaveowners were under very little obligation to justify or rationalize slavery.
By contrast, the United States in the late 18th century became a free society with a liberal democratic creed. Inspired by the words of a Southern slaveholder, Thomas Jefferson, Americans fought a revolution in order to secure the proposition that all men are "created equal" and "endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights." Historian Duncan MacLeod writes that "the very term slavery was among the most frequent in the Revolutionary vocabulary. The war was seen as essentially a battle against political servitude." It is not easy for a society revolting in the name of liberty and equality to justify slavery. The British Tory Samuel Johnson summarized the dilemma: "How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?"
Many Americans found a way to resolve the contradiction. All men are created equal, blacks are being bought and sold in America, therefore blacks must not be men. After all, if blacks are men, and all men are created equal, then blacks are entitled to the same rights as whites, including the right not to be held in captivity. In order to sustain slavery, therefore, the premise of black humanity must be denied. This explains the contorted logic of the infamous Dred Scott decision of l857 in which the Supreme Court invoked black inferiority to exclude slaves from constitutional protection, and pronounced slave ownership as a fundamental property right.
The doctrine that slaves were legally equivalent to property generated both legal and human contradictions. In fact, slave laws implicitly recognized the humanity of slaves by holding them accountable for their actions. Nathan Huggins writes, "A pig in the corn was not a thief; a slave in the smokehouse was. A horse that trampled the life from a cruel master was no murderer; a slave who struck out against brutality was."
So the Marxist argument is essentially correct: The ideology of racial superiority, which originated to explain civilizational differences, became consolidated in America as a convenient rationalization for continuing oppression. What some Marxist scholars seem to miss is that racism in America was not an economic but a moral justification. Although they limited the franchise to propertied white males, the American Founders were not insincere in proclaiming their allegiance to principles of liberty and equality. Southerners who were in the forefront of the American Revolution, and no less committed than Northerners to the principles of the Declaration and the Constitution, found themselves in a particular quandary as they administered their forced-labor plantations. Racism in the American South served to rationalize and justify behavior that flatly contravened the nation's political ideals.
If Americans did not believe in equality, then racism would serve no ideological or material purpose. Racism, therefore, flourished in the gap between the principles of the constitution and its pragmatic concessions. Far from being proof of distinctive American evil, racism is a peculiar reflection of the moral conscience of America, and of the West. It reflects the oppressor's need to account for the betrayal of his highest ideals. Despite the ignominious pedigree of racism as a justification for exploitation, in all of human history only the white man has felt compelled to provide such a justification. Paradoxically, those who indulged in racism thereby revealed their humanity, even as they disregarded the humanity of others. The very existence of racism implies that, from the very outset, slavery existed uncomfortably and anomalously with Jeffersonian principles.
Who Killed Slavery?
Although slavery was a universal institution, not confined to the West, what is distinctively Western is the abolition of slavery. Many people have, of course, resisted being captured and sold as slaves, but no society, including all of Africa, has ever on its own account mounted principled opposition to human servitude. In all the literature condemning Western slavery, however, few scholars have asked why a practice sanctioned by virtually all people for thousands of years should be questioned, and eventually halted, by only one.
Paradoxically, it is in America and nowhere else in the world where the legacy of slavery is a contemporary issue, the American Constitution is condemned as a document that compromised with slavery, and the Framers are routinely denounced for being racist hypocrites. The irony is compounded by the recognition that the prevailing view of the Constitution as proslavery was precisely that of Justice Taney in the Dred Scott decision. By contrast, Abraham Lincoln strongly denied Taney's view, and his position came to be enthusiastically embraced by Frederick Douglass, the greatest black leader of the 19th century. It is to the debates over the legitimacy of slavery in the West that we must turn to decide whether Taney and many 20th-century scholars are right, or Lincoln is.
Throughout world history, slavery had few defenders for the simple reason that it had few critics. The institution was uncontroversial, and that which is established and taken for granted does not have to be justified. The American South was unique among slave societies in history in that it produced a comprehensive proslavery ideology. In part, this was because slavery was under assault to a degree unrivaled anywhere else in the world.
The simplest defense for slavery was economic necessity: Someone has to do the dirty work, and better them than us. This position was based on an implicit premise that whites in the South were in a position to compel blacks to perform menial but necessary tasks. It is force, rather than right, that kept the system of slavery in place.
Southerners were also familiar with a European tradition, going back to the Crusades, that held it was permissible to enslave pagans but not Christians. In response to this, the leading forces in the South formulated an identical justification: Africans were heathens, so slavery would serve as a kind of moral education to introduce them to Christianity. But once slaves embraced the Christian faith of their masters, other excuses became necessary in order to justify keeping them in servitude. Here many Southern divines intervened to offer a racist rationale. They promulgated a dubious interpretation of a story in the book of Genesis in which Noah curses the descendants of his son Ham, who impudently looked upon his father's nakedness. Thus, in this account, the children of Ham were condemned to blackness and future enslavement. For a long time there was little challenge to this absurd innovation in biblical exegesis.
It was only when the institution of slavery came under moral assault for betraying the Declaration of Independence and Christian charity that many Southern apologists such as John C. Calhoun, James Henry Hammond, Edmund Ruffin, George Frederick Holmes, and George Fitzhugh responded by formulating an audacious defense of slavery as a positive good. Hammond, among others, repudiated the Jeffersonian doctrine of equality as "ridiculously absurd."
Their case for slavery depended on a paternalistic worldview in which Negroes, like women and children, occupied positions in an organic society commensurate with supposed limited moral and intellectual abilities. Eugene Genovese writes in The Slaveholders' Dilemma, "Southerners from social theorists to divines to politicians to ordinary slaveholders and yeomen insisted fiercely that emancipation would cast blacks into a marketplace in which they could not compete and would condemn them to the fate of the Indians or worse." Although defenders of slavery were right about the harshness of Northern capitalism, their paternalistic vision foundered in that the community of interests that could generally be presumed between husband and wife, or between parents and children, could not be presumed between master and slave.
The Southern doctrine of Negro inferiority immediately extended to whites, even those who were destitute and ignorant, membership in an exclusive racial club and a social position above that of all blacks, both slave and free. Edmund Morgan argues in American Slavery, American Freedom that the racial defense of Southern slavery strengthened, among whites, the conviction that, despite conspicuous differences of wealth and position, they were equal just as the Declaration of Independence posited. Racism, in other words, became a source of white social status.
The dilemma over slavery ultimately came down to one of the oldest Western arguments, which we find in Plato's Republic: The wise should rule over the unwise. During the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Stephen Douglas defended the right of states to decide for themselves whether they wanted slavery in precisely these terms:
"The civilized world has always held that when any race of men have shown themselves to be so degraded by ignorance, superstition, cruelty, and barbarism, as to be utterly incapable of governing themselves, they must, in the nature of things, be governed by others, by such laws as are deemed to be applicable to their condition."
Wisdom and Consent
We may think Stephen Douglas's view to be crude and hateful, but Abraham Lincoln did not. He agreed with Douglas: It is absurd to construct a regime in which the wise do not rule; surely no one wants the mediocre or the foolish to rule. In fact this raises a problem with democracy that the American Founders and Lincoln recognized: How can the wise, who are by definition the few, be reliably identified and chosen to rule by the many? Representative government is based on the hope that the majority will exercise their power on behalf of right, that they will choose others who are wiser than themselves to govern. Yet modern democracy introduces a crucial qualification to the claim of the wise to rule: Such rule is only legitimate when it is vindicated by popular consent. The majority is not the best judge of what is wise, but most people do recognize their own interests. Hence representative democracy is a "mixed regime," which seeks to reconcile the claims of right and expediency.
This debate is the crucial backdrop to an examination of the antislavery movement of the 18th century, because it provided the context and the moral terms for the issue. The two principles that would form the basis for the first serious challenge to the institution of slavery and the doctrine of black inferiority are both encapsulated in the Declaration of Independence: the Christian belief that all persons bear the image of God and are equal in His eyes, and the distinctly modern European political conception that all human beings enjoy a natural right to freedom and self-government that can only be abridged by their consent.
In the second half of the 18th century, a small but militant group of religious and political activists began to apply the doctrine of equality more broadly and concretely in order to reform the injustices of this world, what David Brion Davis terms "a sacralization of social progress." Tocqueville wrote: "We have seen something absolutely without precedent in history -- servitude abolished, not by the desperate effort of the slave, but by the enlightened will of the master. . . . It is we who have given a definite and practical meaning to the Christian idea that all men are born equal, and applied it to the realities of this world."
The first group to mount an organized campaign against slavery was the Society of Friends, the Quakers, first in Europe in the second half of the 17th century, then in the United States. Ignoring passages in the Bible that had been invoked to justify slavery, leading Quakers such as George Fox in England and John Woolman and Anthony Benezet in the U.S. emphasized that spiritual freedom -- man's capacity to choose the good in his quest for moral perfectibility -- required freedom of choice in this life. Slavery, according to this view, represented the moral imprisonment of God's children and thus was wrong, even blasphemous. Drawing on the religious energies of the Great Awakening, the first of a serious of revival movements that would energize America between the mid-18th century and the end of the 19th, many evangelical Protestants began to embrace a similar interpretation. They applied Christ's injunction -- do unto others as we would have them do unto us -- directly to the relationship between slaveowners and slaves.
In l772, Lord Mansfield issued a landmark decision in Britain abolishing slavery on English soil. In l833, thanks to the abolition campaign of Granville Sharp, Thomas Clarkson, and especially William Wilberforce, slavery was outlawed throughout the British empire. Economic motives undoubtedly contributed, but scholars now generally agree that religious and political principles were indispensable in achieving the abolition of servitude. Antislavery victories soon spread to France, which forbade slavery in its territories in l848, and to other European nations as well. In a bizarre development, tribal leaders in Gambia, Congo, Dahomey, and other African nations that had prospered under the slave trade sent delegations to London and Paris to vigorously protest the abolition of slavery. "Africans felt that the rules of their traditional life had been called into question," Mohamed Mbodj writes, "by initiatives which destabilized the bases of their society."
Eventually the British example, backed by diplomatic and even military measures, eradicated slavery in all foreign areas of influence. In America, although there were many among them who shared prevailing prejudices against blacks, the abolitionist movement contained the first antiracists. Leading abolitionists agreed that blacks were civilizationally inferior and incapable of ruling themselves. But black inferiority, they said, is no justification for slavery; rather, it is the product of slavery itself. Some abolitionists endorsed the idea of helping blacks to resettle in Africa, but those who recognized the implausibility of such schemes attempted to show that blacks were capable of living as free people. In order to directly rebut the Southern argument that blacks were better off being ruled by their betters, abolitionists began a slow but relentless quest for intelligent blacks who would be standing refutations of theories of intrinsic inferiority.
Three prime exhibits for opponents of slavery to demonstrate the intellectual capacity of Negroes were Phillis Wheatley, the Negro poet; Benjamin Banneker, the black mathematician and scholar; and Frederick Douglass, the runaway slave and later statesman and orator. For many Americans, it was so unbelievable that a black person could produce a serious work of literature that 18 eminent whites (including John Hancock, who signed the Declaration of Independence, and Thomas Hutchinson, the governor of Massachusetts) offered an "attestation to the publick" that, upon examination, Wheatley's poems were verified to be her original work and that she was indeed a full-blooded black woman. Additionally, abolitionists stressed the physical and mental sufferings of slaves in order to recruit humanitarian sentiment on behalf of emancipation. No one was more successful in this than Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, published in l852. Perhaps the most influential political tract of the 19th century, Stowe's sentimental novel was credited by Lincoln for turning the North irrevocably against slavery, setting the stage for the confrontation that culminated in the Civil War.
Wolf by the Ears
The only distinction between freedom and slavery is this: In the former state, a man is governed by the laws to which he has given his consent; in the latter, he is governed by the will of another.
-- Alexander Hamilton
Justice Taney's argument in Dred Scott, shared by many contemporary scholars, that the American Founders were hypocrites who produced a proslavery regime, rests on the apparent contradiction between stated ideals and actual practice. It seems hard to explain how a slaveowner like Thomas Jefferson could declare that "all men are created equal." Nor is it obvious how 55 men in Philadelphia, some 30 of whom were slaveowners themselves, could proclaim antislavery principles while endorsing a document that would permit slavery to continue in the Southern states. This is the force behind Taney's insistence that these men could not have meant what they said. Taney's interpretation, that the Constitution secures no rights for blacks that whites must respect, leads directly to the contemporary suggestion that the Founders were motivated not by noble ideals but by crass self-interest.
That the American Founders were self-interested is impossible to deny. Thomas Jefferson owned some 200 slaves and did not free them. Yet the case of Jefferson is revealing. Far from rationalizing plantation life by adopting the usual Southern arguments about the happy slave, Jefferson the Virginian vehemently denounced slavery as flatly inconsistent with justice. Jefferson recognized that blacks were not slaves "by nature," only by convention. Although he agreed with the scientific view of his time, and suspected that blacks were inferior to whites in capacity, Jefferson expressed his wish that black accomplishment prove him wrong. (Jefferson's empirical observations about black inferiority were not shared by either Benjamin Franklin or Alexander Hamilton.) Moreover, Jefferson strongly denied that possible black intellectual or civilizational inferiority justified white enslavement: "Whatever be their talents, it is no measure of their rights." Consequently, the only rationale for Jefferson not freeing his slaves is expediency. "Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in another."
The dilemma of Jefferson and the American Founders may be summarized as follows: They fully recognized that a democratic society depends not just on wisdom, but also on consent. Consequently, there is no justification whatever for ruling another human being without his consent. Blacks are human beings, and in possession of natural rights. Slavery is therefore against natural right and should be prohibited. But how? Here Jefferson and the Founders faced two profound obstacles. The first was that virtually all of them recognized the degraded condition of blacks in America. Whatever the cause of this condition, the Framers recognized that it posed a formidable hurdle to granting to blacks the rights of citizenship. By contrast with monarchy and aristocracy, which only require subjects to obey, self-government requires citizens who have the moral and civilizational capacity to be rulers.
Jefferson also recognized the existence of intense and widespread white prejudices against blacks that seemed to prevent the two peoples from coexisting harmoniously on the same soil. While Jefferson agonized over the problem, Madison proposed a strange but bold scheme for solving the nation's multiracial dilemma of the time. The government, he suggested, might take the land it had acquired from the Indians, sell it to the new European immigrants, and use the money to send blacks back to Africa. The concept of relocating blacks in Africa was later endorsed in principle by Lincoln and retained its appeal among many whites and some blacks until the Civil War.
The deference of Jefferson and the American Founders to popular prejudices strikes many contemporary scholars as excessive. Some suggest that popular convictions simply represented a frustrating obstacle that the Founders should have dealt with resolutely and forcefully. In a democratic society, however, the absence of the people's agreement on a fundamental moral question of governance is no mere technicality. The case for democracy, no less than the case against slavery, rests on the legitimacy of the people's consent. To outlaw slavery without the consent of the majority of whites would be to destroy democracy, and thus to destroy the very basis for outlawing slavery.
The men gathered in Philadelphia faced a genuine dilemma. For them to sanction slavery would be to proclaim the illegitimacy of the American Revolution and the new form of government based on the people's consent; yet for them to outlaw slavery without securing the people's consent would have the same effect. In practical terms as well, the choice facing the men gathered in Philadelphia was not to permit or to prohibit slavery. Rather, the choice was either to establish a union in which slavery was tolerated, or not to have a union. Any suggestion that Southern states could be persuaded to join a union and give up slavery can be dismissed as implausible in the extreme.
Thus the accusation that the Founders compromised on the Declaration's principle "all men are created equal" for the purpose of expediency reflects a grave misunderstanding. The Founders were confronted with a competing principle, also present in the Declaration, that governments derive their legitimacy "from the consent of the governed." Both principles must be satisfied, and where they cannot, compromise is not merely permissible but morally required.
The American Founders found a middle ground not between principle and practice, but between antislavery and majority consent. Not only are these closely related principles, but in a philosophic sense, they are the same principle. How did the Framers seek to mediate between their rival claims? By producing a Constitution in which the concept of slavery is tolerated, in deference to consent, but nowhere given any moral approval, in recognition of the slave's natural rights. Indeed nowhere in the document is the term "slavery" used. Slaves are always described as "persons," implying their possession of natural rights. The Founders made concessions to slavery as a matter of fact but not as a matter of right. In addition, the Framers produced a Constitution that nowhere acknowledges the existence of racial distinctions, thus producing a document that transcended its time and provided a charter for a better future.
None of the supposed contradictions that contemporary scholars have located in the American Founders were unrecognized by them. Many of the Framers justified their toleration for slavery on prudential grounds: In the 1770s and 1780s, they had reason to believe that slavery was losing its commercial appeal. In this they were wrong. Eli Whitney's invention of the cotton gin in l793 (which the Founders could not possibly have anticipated) revived the demand for slavery in the South. Even so, the test of the Founders' project is the practical question: Did the American Founding strengthen or weaken the institution of slavery?
The intellectual and moral ferment that produced the American Revolution, Gordon Wood argues, should be judged by its consequences. Before l776, slavery was legal in every state in America. Yet by l804, every state north of Maryland had abolished slavery, either immediately or gradually; Southern and border states prohibited further slave importations from abroad; and Congress outlawed the slave trade as soon as it was allowed to, in l808. Slavery was no longer a national but a sectional institution, and one under moral and political siege. "Before the revolution, Americans like every other people took slavery for granted," Wood says. "But slavery came under indictment as a result of the same principles that produced the American Founding. In this sense, the prospect of the Civil War is implicitly contained in the Declaration of Independence."
Abraham Lincoln was one of the most astute students of the American Founding in his time or since. He not only perceived the Framers' dilemma, but knew that he inherited it. The principle of majority rule is based on Jefferson's doctrine that "all men are created equal," yet what Harry Jaffa terms the "crisis of the house divided" arises when the majority denies that "all men are created equal" -- that is, denies the basis of its own legitimacy. Lincoln was presented with two concrete options: working to overthrow democracy, or working to secure consent through persuasion.
Conscious that he, too, must defer, as the Founders did, to prevailing prejudices, Lincoln nevertheless sought to neutralize those prejudices so they did not become a barrier to securing black freedom. In a series of artfully conditional claims about blacks -- "If God gave him little, that little let him enjoy" -- Lincoln paid ritual obeisance to existing racism while drawing even racists into his coalition to end slavery. Lincoln made these rhetorical concessions because he knew that the possibility for securing antislavery consent had improved since the 1780s.
In one of the clearest commentaries on the Declaration, Lincoln observed: "They intended to include all men, but they did not intend to declare all men equal in all respects. They did not mean to say all were equal in color, size, intellect, moral developments, or social capacity. They defined with tolerable distinctness in what respects they did consider all men created equal—equal in certain inalienable rights. They did not mean to assert the obvious untruth, that all were then actually enjoying that equality, nor yet, that they were about to confer it immediately upon them. . . . They meant simply to declare the right, so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit."
By working through rather than around the democratic process, Lincoln justified the nation's faith in the untried experiment of representative self-government. In vindicating the slave's right to rule himself, Lincoln also vindicated the legitimacy of democratic self-rule. And Lincoln's position came to be shared by Frederick Douglass, who once denounced the Constitution but who eventually came to the conclusion that it contained antislavery principles: "Abolish slavery tomorrow, and not a sentence or syllable of the Constitution need be altered." Slavery, he concluded, was simply a "scaffolding to the magnificent structure, to be removed as soon as the building is completed."
It took a civil war to destroy slavery, and with it much of the infrastructure and economy of the South, between l860 and l865. More than a half million whites died in that war, "one life for every six slaves freed," C. Vann Woodward reminds us. Although the question of slavery in the United States was ultimately resolved by force, Lincoln and Douglass both believed the triumph of the union and the emancipation of the slaves represented not the victory of might over right, but the reverse: Justice had won over expediency and the principles of the American Founding had at long last prevailed.
The Price of Freedom
Whatever its functional relevance in a world utterly different from our own, slavery was a moral crime. People should not own other people. Unfortunately the practice of slavery persisted into the 20th century in many parts of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East: Saudi Arabia and Yemen outlawed it only in l962. According to the British Anti-Slavery International, which monitors the institution worldwide, it is still practiced covertly in Southeast Asia, Latin America, and the Arab world. In Mauritania alone, nearly l00,000 people are estimated to be enslaved.
The abolition of slavery in the West did not produce the abolition of racism. As George Fredrickson puts it, "The slaveholding mentality . . . remained the wellspring of white supremacist thought and action long after the institution that originally sustained it had been relegated to the dustbin of history." At the same time, abolition constitutes one of the greatest moral achievements of Western civilization. The reason for the acceptability of slavery prior to the 18th century is that the idea of freedom simply did not exist in an applied and comprehensive sense anywhere in the world.
It is understandable that American blacks, on discovering the circumstances in which their ancestors were brought to this country, would feel at best a qualified patriotism. But upon reflection this ambivalence may be unwarranted. Africans were not uniquely unfortunate to be taken as slaves; their descendants were uniquely fortunate to be born in the only civilization in the world to abolish slavery on its own initiative. For Zora Neale Hurston, the black feminist writer of the Harlem Renaissance, the legacy of slavery is one of opportunities for the future, not unceasing submersion in the past.
"From what I can learn, it was sad," she wrote. "Certainly. But my ancestors who lived and died in it are dead. The white men who profited by their labor and lives are dead also. I have no personal memory of those times, and no responsibility for them. Neither has the grandson of the man who held my folks. . . . I have no intention of wasting my time beating on old graves. . . . I do not belong to the sobbing school of Negroes who hold that nature somehow has given them a low-down dirty deal and whose feelings are all hurt about it. . . . Slavery is the price I paid for civilization, and that is worth all that I have paid through my ancestors for it."
A similar position was elaborated by Booker T. Washington, who was born a slave but went on to become the most powerful black statesman and educator in the United States: "Think about it: We went into slavery pagans; we came out Christians. We went into slavery pieces of property; we came out American citizens. We went into slavery with chains clanking about our wrists; we came out with the American ballot in our hands. . . . Notwithstanding the cruelty and moral wrong of slavery, we are in a stronger and more hopeful condition, materially, intellectually, morally, and religiously, than is true of an equal number of black people in any other portion of the globe."
Washington's argument is that slavery proved to be the transmission belt that nevertheless brought Africans into the orbit of modern civilization and Western freedom, so that future generations of black Americans would be far more free and prosperous than their former kinsmen in Africa. Washington's conclusion seems hard to deny: Slavery was an institution that was terrible to endure for slaves, but it left the descendants of slaves better off in America. For this, the American Founders are owed a measure of respect and gratitude.