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Frederick Douglass’s Attitude Toward Founding Fathers Who Owned Slaves

Ron is a student of African American history. His writing highlights the stories of people who overcame prejudice to achieve great things.

Frederick Douglass, ca. 1855

Frederick Douglass, ca. 1855

George Washington is renowned as “the Father of our Country.” Thomas Jefferson is held in high esteem for committing the nation to the principle, enunciated in the Declaration of Independence, that “All men are created equal.” Yet these men, traditionally acclaimed as American heroes, were, along with many others of the nation’s Founders, slave owners.

In this time of reckoning for those who have been willing participants in the national sins of racism and oppression in the name of white supremacy, does having held black people in bondage disqualify such icons of liberty from the places of honor they have until now occupied? Should their statues be torn down and consigned to the same historical ash heap as those of Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis?

Should the statues of Washington and Jefferson be torn down and consigned to the same historical ash heap as those of Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis?

There are many today who strongly argue exactly that. They believe that in order to open the way to a new future of true equality for people of color, we must make a clean sweep of public monuments to our nation’s racist past.

Others maintain, with equal fervor, that we cannot demand 100% purity in our heroes of the past, and to now defame the memories of our Washingtons, Jeffersons, and James Madisons because of their ties to slavery would be to deny, and indeed erase, the historical foundations upon which our national future must inevitably rest.

Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson. All except Adams owned or trafficked slaves.

Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson. All except Adams owned or trafficked slaves.

Frederick Douglass (c. 1817–1895), the great black Abolitionist who started life as a slave and ended it as one of the most revered Americans of the 19th century, never spoke directly to the issue of pulling down statues. But in one of his most famous and provocative orations, he offered a perspective that, I believe, sheds some much needed light on that debate.

Douglass Exposes the Hypocrisy of Celebrating American Independence While Millions Were Held in Slavery

On July 5, 1852, Douglass gave a speech in Rochester, New York at what was supposed to be a great Independence Day celebration. But what Douglass had to say was anything but celebratory. The speech was entitled “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”, and is remembered today as one of the most uncompromising denunciations of American hypocrisy on the issue of race ever made.

When Douglass gave his speech, millions of black Americans were being legally held as slaves in the South. Even those who managed to escape to the North could never rest easy in their new-found freedom, because the Fugitive Slave Act could at any moment reach out to snatch them back into bondage.

Enslaved people at work on a plantation, 1862/63

Enslaved people at work on a plantation, 1862/63

In light of those realities, Douglass asked two rhetorical questions in his oration that immediately established a perspective from which there could be no honest dissent:

What have I or those I represent to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us?

Douglass, the ex slave, knew through personal experience that the stirring rhetoric in the Declaration of Independence proclaiming a God-given, universal human right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” did not, in practice, apply to black Americans. As Chief Justice Roger Taney would publicly affirm as a matter of law in the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision a few years later, black people in this country had no rights that whites felt themselves bound to respect.

Douglass went on to say:

Whether we turn to the declarations of the past, or to the professions of the present, the conduct of the nation seems equally hideous and revolting. America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future. Standing with God and the crushed and bleeding slave on this occasion, I will, in the name of humanity… denounce, with all the emphasis I can command, everything that serves to perpetuate slavery — the great sin and shame of America! . . .

What to the American slave is your Fourth of July? I answer, a day that reveals to him more than all other days of the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity…

No easy display of patriotic sentimentalism here!

How Douglass Addressed the Legacy of Slaveholding Founders

Douglass’s critique of the country’s hypocrisy regarding the racism woven into the fabric of its institutions was clear-sighted, unsparing, and undeniably accurate.

That’s what makes his comments on the nation’s slaveholding Founding Fathers so unexpected and striking:

Fellow Citizens, I am not wanting in respect for the fathers of this republic. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave men. They were great men too — great enough to give fame to a great age. It does not often happen to a nation to raise, at one time, such a number of truly great men. The point from which I am compelled to view them is not, certainly, the most favorable; and yet I cannot contemplate their great deeds with less than admiration. They were statesmen, patriots and heroes, and for the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory.

(Emphasis added)

Douglass Focused on the Principles the Founders Stood For

Frederick Douglass was well aware of the irony of honoring as heroes Founding Fathers who were champions of liberty for whites while, in many cases, holding black people in hopeless, lifelong bondage. That’s why he could only view them from a perspective that was “not, certainly, the most favorable.” But even in light of their acknowledged guilt regarding slavery, he gave them their due “for the good they did, and the principles they contended for.”

What Frederick Douglass Might Say to Us Today

Douglass’s critique of the slave system in which some Founders directly participated, and which all helped to enshrine in the nation’s institutions, was savage. He used every rhetorical device at his command to impress upon his listeners the absolute evil embodied in American slavery, and agitated ceaselessly to eliminate every vestige of that evil from the land.

But at the same time, Douglass understood that to insist on indicting Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and others traditionally honored as American heroes as evil because the institution of slavery that they at least tolerated was evil, would alienate many of those he sought to persuade. And that would be counterproductive to the cause. He quite deliberately, therefore, refused to demand that Americans repudiate as hypocritical the Founders and the principles for which they stood. Instead, his plea was that the nation would fully embrace those principles and put them into practice.

I believe what Douglass would say to us today is that we should honor our flawed heroes for “the good they did, and the principles they contended for” by insisting, as forcefully and as tirelessly as we can, that our nation finally live up to those very principles.

That’s something that could never be said regarding the principles represented by Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, Andrew Jackson, and others of their ilk who sought to enforce white supremacy. And that’s why it’s right that their statues should come down from all places of honor, perhaps to be consigned to museums that can display them in proper historical context.

But as for Washington, Jefferson, and the other American Founders whose flaws are so clearly evident to us today, but who were committed to creating a nation that embodies the highest ideals of mankind – let their statues continue to stand as reminders of the principles of racial equity that we in our day are called upon to dedicate “our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor” to fulfill.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Ronald E Franklin