Tia is an English teacher with a Master's Degree in Education. She enjoys studying and interpreting African American history.
How Did The Founding Fathers Feel About Slavery?
One thing that many people don’t realize is that our forefathers were actually quite different from one another. Even if you think of a bunch of our everyday politicians (or, hell, even Congress overall) everyone is vastly different from one another, with some having very radical ways, some that are very progressive, and some that are very conservative. Our forefathers weren’t much different and it’s surprising how conflicting (and complex) their views were on slavery were.
First, consider the mind frames of people from the North vs. the South
Typically, those from the North didn’t support slavery while those from the South did.
The South still relied heavily on agriculture, and tasks such as the field hand, picking/harvesting tobacco, sugar cane, cotton, or coffee were primarily slave duties. As a result of that dependence on labor associated with maintaining the plantations, many whites that owned large portions of land found a way to justify slavery.
However, many people in the North were not in support of slavery. The North was more industrialized so slavery just didn’t benefit Northerners like it did the South.
Some Founding Fathers Were Abolitionists
Speaking of Northeners, both John and Sam Adams highly disliked slavery. While they were not abolitionists, they supported abolitionist sentiments and never owned slaves. Hmmm, I knew there was something I liked about a nice Sam Adams beer.
The interesting fact is that Benjamin Franklin (the one who was an actual abolitionist) first owned slaves. It’s likely that what he witnessed as a slave owner made him later hate the institution of slavery and influenced his activism in anti-slavery efforts. He became president of the Pennsylvania Abolitionist Society and petitioned Congress to ban slavery.
There Were A Few That Were Downright Hypocritical
One of the more hypocritical Founding Fathers (when it came to slavery sentiments) was Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was known for being very vocal about how all people should have the right to be educated, free, and heard, but I don’t think he believed these sentiments applied to black people. Jefferson not only owned slaves, but he produced many children with them. He was also rumored to have had a long-term intimate relationship with a female slave named Sally Hemmings.
It is also rumored that in the instances where he had slaves that ran away, he did not pursue them because they were his children.
Thomas Jefferson admitted (in so many words) that slavery was wrong, but he was one of the Founding Fathers that supported a gradual abolition of slavery. There were some Founding Fathers that supported the gradual abolition of slavery because they were afraid that a sudden end of slavery would lead to a war and damage the new nation.
Some Kept Slaves Because of Tradition
Similar to Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and James Madison both owned slaves. Washington and Madison both grew up owning slaves - Washington owned his first slave at the age of 11. Washington’s number of slaves increased when he married Martha Washington. Although he was not known to be either the nicest or the meanest slave owner, he put in his will that all of his slaves shall be freed upon the death of his wife, Martha. He was the only Founding Father to do this.
James Madison was similar to Benjamin Franklin in the fact that the longer he witnessed slavery, the more he started to dislike the practice. Although he never made any huge attempts to free slaves or to act as an abolitionist, he became more vocal over the years about the need to end slavery.
Not all Founding Fathers agreed with slavery or supported it. But yes, some did and used it to their benefit when they could. This is still the exact same thing we see in politics today. Some people are radically supportive or unsupportive of things they feel are unjust (like abolitionists were) and some people will allow certain things to happen if they benefit from it (or it doesn't affect them.) But it's important that we do remember these parts of history and embrace true, factual history as it really was.
Which Founding Father Do You Think Was Best?
Singley, Richard. The Pursuit of Happiness: Slavery, the Founding Fathers and America. Prometheus, 2021.
McDaniel, Spencer. “The Founding Fathers' Views on Slavery.” Tales of Times Forgotten, 4 July 2020, talesoftimesforgotten.com/2017/04/04/the-founding-fathers-views-on-slavery/.
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.
© 2021 Tia Butts