How The Founding Fathers Fought For An End To Slavery

by Denise and Frederic W. Henderson

Printed in The American Almanac, March 15, 1993.


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Contents

Throughout this nation's history, there have been those, both historians and politicians, who have tried to convince themselves and others that the founders of this nation did not really believe the language they included in our Constitution and Declaration of Independence; did not really believe that the principles of republicanism upon which they created this nation were truly universal. This idea, born either of ignorance or a willful attempt to distort the truth, resulted in great tragedy for the nation: in the years prior to the Civil War, many, both North and South, believed this. Many in the years since, and to this day, do so, as well.

We, however, like the great Americans Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, and Dr. Martin Luther King, know otherwise; We, like they, know that those who have adopted another view have chosen to propagate a lie; and that we, as Mr. Lincoln and Dr. King did so eloquently, must, rather than discard those principles, force this nation to live up to them.

The institution of human slavery and its legacy, planted on these shores by those institutions and policy makers against whom our ancestors made a Revolution, have been the curse, the evil which undermined those principles, and very nearly destroyed this nation. It has also been an easily manipulable issue used to claim that those principles were a sham. However, our forefathers were not hypocrites, and those principles, though stained and soiled by compromise, still represent the most magnificent upon which any nation has ever attempted to erect a government. What follows is a sampling of the outlook of the best of those leaders who created America, who, from the very earliest point understood the evils of slavery, that its existence served the interests only of those who were the enemies of republicanism, and thus fought to destroy it.


Cotton Mather

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In 1689, Cotton Mather, the great scientist and one of the staunch defenders of American liberty, wrote ``An Essay to Excite and Assist the Good Work, the Instruction of Negro-Servants in Christianity.'' Although to a reader who takes Mather's essay literally, Mather may seem only to be appealing to New England slaveowners to Christianize their slaves, a close reading of the ``Essay'' will reveal that Mather was expressing his abhorrence of the slave trade and the owning of slaves, as well as attempting to appeal to slaveowners' humanity to recognize that by Christianizing their own slaves, they would find themselves living up to true Christian principles; and by doing so, the slaveowner might re-discover as a universal principle, the ``Lovely Laws of God,'' and thus come to an understanding that the master as well as the slave ought to strive to embody a higher principle on earth.

Excerpts from Mather's ``Essay'' follow.

What can be more imperative than those words of the Christian Law, Col. 4.1, ``Masters, give unto your servants, that which is just and equal, knowing that ye also have a master in Heaven.''? Of what servants is this Injunction to be understood? Verily, of slaves. For servants were generally such, at the time of writing the New Testament. Wherefore, masters, as it is ``just and equal,'' that your servants be not overwrought, and that while they work for you, you should feed them, and clothe them, and afford convenient rest unto them, and make their lives comfortable; so it is ``just and equal,'' that you should acquaint them, as far as you can, with the way to salvation by Jesus Christ. You deny your master in Heaven, if you do nothing to bring your servants unto the knowledge and service of the glorious master. One table of the Ten Commandments has this for the sum of it: ``Thou shalt Love thy Neighbor as thyself.'' Man, thy Negro is thy neighbor. 'Twere an ignorance unworthy of a man to imagine otherwise. Yea, if thou dost grant, ``That God hath made of one blood, all nations of men,'' he is thy brother too. Now canst thou love thy Negro, and be willing to see him lie under the rage of sin, and the wrath of God? Canst thou love him, and yet refuse to do anything, that his miserable soul may be rescued from eternal miseries? Oh! Let thy love to that poor soul, appear in thy concern, to make it, if thou canst, as happy as thy own! We are commanded, [in] Galatians 6:10, ``As we have opportunity let us do good unto all men, especially unto them, who are of the household of faith.'' Certainly, we have ``opportunity'' to ``do good'' unto our servants, who are of our own household; certainly, we may do something to make them good, and bring them to be of the ``household of faith.'' In a word, all the Commandments in the Bible, which bespeak our charge to the souls of others ... do oblige us, to do what we can, for the souls of our Negroes. They are more nearly related ... to us, than many other are; we are more fully capable to do for them, than for many others....

Are they worthy to be counted Christians, who are content tho' a part of their families remain heathen, who do not know God, nor call upon His Name? We read, I Tim. 5.8: ``If any provide not for his own, and especially those of his own house, he has denied the Faith, and is worse than an Infidel.'' And what is he, who does ``provide'' nothing for the Souls of those whom God has made ``his own;'' that their souls may be fed with the Bread of Life and clothed with the garments of Righteousness, and healed of the deadly wounds which their fall from God has brought upon them! What is he, who is willing that those of ``his own house'' remain strangers to the Faith, and wretched ``Infidels''? Householder, call thyself anything but a Christian? As for that worthy name.... Do not pretend unto it; thou art not worthy of it. If thou wilt name the name of Christ, in denominating thyself a Christian, then depart from this iniquity of leaving thy servants to continue the servants of iniquity.... For a man to profess a religion, and care not a straw, whether anybody besides himself be of it; certainly, that mean profession is not worth a straw; it can be no sincere profession.... Shall Christians fall short of Mahometans, or of Idolaters? The Pagan Japanese were too much in the right on it, when they conclude a certain worldly generation of Europeans, to be no Christians; because they declined the doing of anything for the propagation of Christianity. The Christians who have no concern upon their minds to have Christianity propagated, never can justify themselves. They say they are Christians, but they are not; What they are, we know not. All along the Pagans themselves, have made it the main stroke in the definition of a good man; he is ``one who does all the Good that he can.'' The greatest Good that we can do for any, is to bring them unto the fullest acquaintance with Christianity. Will Christianity allow him then to be, a ``good man,'' or, which is the same thing, a Christian, who refuses to do this Good, for the servants that are under his influence?... Now, Christianity is, the way of the Lord. Householder, there are servants pertaining to thy household. It is a mighty power which thou hast over them; A despotic power which gives thee numberless advantages, to call them, and lead them into the way of the Lord. Art thou regardless of bringing them into Christianity?... But what shall we say of it, when masters that would be thought Christians already shall even refuse to have the servants in their families duly Christianized? Pray, deal faithfully; don't mince the matter; say of it, as it is; It is a prodigy of wickedness; it is a prodigious inconsistency, with true Christianity!... Art thou a Christian? Then thou dost pray for thy servants, that they may become the servants of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the children of God, and not fall short of entering into Rest. What! Pray for this; and yet never do anything for it! It is impossible, or such praying, is but mocking of God! Art thou a Christian?... No; When such Christians appear before the Glorious Lord, it will be in vain for them to plead, that they called him Lord, and own'd Him for their Lord.... Suppose that language were heard from the mouth of a master concerning a servant: ``If I can have the labor of the slave, that's all I care for. Let this soul go and be damned for all time!'', would not every Christian say, this were language for the mouth of a devil.... Consider, sirs, whether deeds have not a language in them, as well as words; a plainer language than words....

If you withhold knowledge from your black people, they will be destroyed. But their destruction must very much lie at your door; and you must answer for it.... You have yourselves renounced Christianity, if you do not receive that faithful saying of it, and most awful one: every one of us shall give account of himself to God. But then remember, that one article of your account will be this: You had poor Negroes under you, and you expected and exacted revenues of profit from them.... Vain dreamer; canst thou suppose that the Negroes are made for nothing but only to serve thy pleasures, or that they owe no homage to their Maker?...

It has been cavilled, by some, that it is questionable whether the Negroes have rational souls, or no. But let that brutish insinuation be never whispered any more. Certainly, their discourse, will abundantly prove, that they have reason. Reason shows itself in the design which they daily act upon. The vast improvement that education has made upon some of them, argues that there is a reasonable soul in all of them.... They are men and not beasts that you have bought, and they must be used accordingly. 'Tis true; They are barbarous. But so were our own ancestors. The Britons were in many things as barbarous, but a little before our Savior's Nativity, as the Negroes are at this time if there be any credit in Caesars Commentaries. Christianity will be the best cure for this barbarity. Their complexion sometimes is made an argument, why nothing should be done for them. A gay sort of argument! As if the great God went by the complexion of Men, in His favors to them! As if none but whites might hope to be favored and accepted with God! Whereas it is well known, that the whites are the least part of Mankind. The biggest part of mankind, perhaps, are copper-colored; a sort of tawny.... The God who ``looks on the heart,'' is not moved by the color of the skin; is not more propitious to one color than another....

Man, if ... a slave bought with thy money, were by thy means brought unto the things that accompany salvation, and thou shouldst from this time have no more service from him, your money were not thrown away. That man's money will purify not him, who had rather the souls in his family should perish, than that he should lose a little money....

There must be time allowed for the work [of converting slaves to Christianity]. And why not the Lord's Day: the precept of God concerning the Sabbath, is very positive: ``Remember the Sabbath Day, to keep it holy. Thou shalt not then do any work, thou nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy man-servant, nor thy maid-servant.'' By virtue of this precept, we do even demand the Lord's Day for the Negroes: that they may be permitted the freedom of the Lord's Day, and not be then unnecessarily diverted from attending on such means of instruction, as may be afforded unto them.


Benjamin Franklin

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At the time of the founding of the American nation, a preponderant number of the leading figures in the revolutionary struggle against Britain, opposed black chattel slavery. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, James Wilson, and Thomas Jefferson, to name the most prominent, all organized to end a practice and policy they knew to be inconsistent with, and in fact, subversive of the principles upon which that Revolution had been based. Among this group, Benjamin Franklin was the most outspoken and active in his opposition to the practice of African slavery. In addition to countless public and private expressions of his opposition to human slavery, Benjamin Franklin founded the Pennsylvania Abolition Society in 1789. The following parody written by Franklin against those who argued in opposition to the Pennsylvania Abolition Society's memorial to the First Congress, to end slavery in America was published in the March 25, 1790 edition of the Federal Gazette.

To the Editor of the `Federal Gazette.'

MARCH 23, 1790.

SIR,-- Reading last night in your excellent paper the speech of Mr. Jackson in Congress against their meddling with the affair of slavery, or attempting to mend the condition of slaves, it put me in mind of a similar one, made about one hundred years since, by Sidi Mehemet Ibrahim, a member of the Divan of Algiers, which may be seen in Martin's Account of his Consulship, anno 1687. It was against granting the petition of the sect called Erika, or Purists, who prayed for the abolition of piracy and slavery as being unjust. Mr. Jackson does not quote it: perhaps he has not seen it. If, therefore, some of its reasonings are to be found in his eloquent speech, it may only show that men's interests and intellects operate, and are operated on, with surprising similarity in all countries and climates, whenever they are under similar circumstances. The African's speech, as translated, is as follows:--

``Allah Bismillah, &c. God is great, and Mahomet is his Prophet.

``Have these Erika considered the consequences of granting their petition? If we cease our cruises against the Christians, how shall we be furnished with the commodities their countries produce, and which are so necessary for us? If we forbear to make slaves of their people, who, in this hot climate, are to cultivate our lands? Who are to perform the common labors of our city, and in our families? Must we not then be our own slaves? And is there not more compassion and more favor due to us as Mussulmen than to these Christian dogs? We have now above fifty thousand slaves in and near Algiers. This number, if not kept up by fresh supplies, will soon diminish, and be gradually annihilated. If we, then, cease taking and plundering the infidel ships, making slaves of the seamen and passengers, our lands will become of no value for want of cultivation; the rents of houses in the city will sink one-half; and the revenue of government, arising from its share of prizes, be totally destroyed. And for what? To gratify the whims of a whimsical sect, who would have us not only forbear making more slaves, but even manumit those we have.

``But who is to indemnify their masters for the loss? Will the State do it? Is our treasury sufficient? Will the Erika do it? Can they do it? Or would they, to do what they think justice to the slaves, do a greater injustice to the owners? And, if we set our slaves free, what is to be done with them? Few of them will return to their countries; they know too well the greater hardships they must there be subject to; they will not embrace our holy religion; they will not adopt our manners; our people will not pollute themselves by intermarrying with them. Must we maintain them as beggars in our streets, or suffer our properties to be the prey of their pillage? For men accustomed to slavery will not work for a livelihood when not compelled. And what is there so pitiable in their present condition? Were they not slaves in their own countries?

``Are not Spain, Portugal, France, and the Italian States, governed by despots, who hold all their subjects in slavery, without exception? Even England treats its sailors as slaves: for they are, whenever the government pleases, seized, and confined in ships of war; condemned not only to work, but to fight, for small wages, or a mere subsistence, not better than our slaves are allowed by us. Is their condition, then, made worse by their falling into our hands? No: they have only exchanged one slavery for another, and I may say, a better; for here they are brought into a land where the sun of Islam gives forth its light, and shines in full splendor; and they have an opportunity of making themselves acquainted with the true doctrine, and thereby saving their immortal souls. Those who remain at home have not that happiness. Sending the slaves home, then, would be sending them out of light into darkness.

``I repeat the question, What is to be done with them? I have heard it suggested that they may be planted in the wilderness, where there is plenty of land for them to subsist on, and where they may flourish as a free State; but they are, I doubt, too little disposed to labor without compulsion, as well as too ignorant to establish a good government, and the wild Arabs would soon molest and destroy or again enslave them. While serving us, we take care to provide them with every thing, and they are treated with humanity. The laborers in their own country are, as I am well informed, worse fed, lodged, and clothed.

``The condition of most of them is, therefore, already mended, and requires no further improvement. Here their lives are in safety. They are not liable to be impressed for soldiers, and forced to cut one another's Christian throats, as in the wars of their own countries. If some of the religious mad bigots, who now tease us with their silly petitions, have, in a fit of blind zeal, freed their slaves, it was not generosity, it was not humanity, that moved them to the action: it was from the conscious burden of a load of sins, and a hope, from the supposed merits of so good a work, to be excused from damnation.

``How grossly are they mistaken to suppose slavery to be disallowed by the Alcoran! Are not the two precepts, to quote no more, `Masters, treat your slaves with kindness; slaves, serve your masters with cheerfulness and fidelity,' clear proofs to the contrary? Nor can the plundering of infidels be in that sacred book forbidden, since it is well known from it that God has given the world, and all that it contains, to his faithful Mussulmen, who are to enjoy it of right as fast as they conquer it. Let us, then, hear no more of this detestable proposition,--the manumission of Christian slaves; the adoption of which would, by depreciating our lands and houses, and thereby depriving so many good citizens of their properties, create universal discontent, and provoke insurrections, to the endangering of government, and producing general confusion. I have, therefore, no doubt but this wise council will prefer the comfort and happiness of a whole nation of true believers to the whim of a few Erika, and dismiss their petition.'

``The result was, as Martin tells us, that the Divan came to this resolution: `The doctrine that plundering and enslaving Christians is unjust, is, at best, problematical; but that it is the interest of this State to continue the practice, is clear; therefore let the petition be rejected.'

``And it was rejected accordingly.''

``And since like motives are apt to produce in the minds of men like opinions and resolutions, that the petitions to the Parliament of England for abolishing the slave-trade, to say nothing of other Legislatures, and the debates upon them, will have a similar conclusion? I am, sir, your constant reader and humble servant,

HISTORICUS''


Alexander Hamilton and John Jay

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Others of the original founders of the nation, like Washington, Hamilton and Jay all worked and organized to rid the newly formed nation of the evil institution. In 1786, just prior to the constitutional convention in 1787, Hamilton and others signed a petition to the New York state legislature urging an end to the slave trade, which he identified as ``a commerce so repugnant to humanity, and so inconsistent with the liberality and justice which should distinguish a free and enlightened people.'' This petition was widely circulated in the press and otherwise. Hamilton, along with John Jay, its first President, was instrumental in organizing the ``New York Society for Promoting the Manumission of Slaves and Protecting Such of Them as Have been or may be liberated.'' Hamilton served as its second President, succeeding John Jay. He held this position, throughout the whole of his term as secretary of the treasury, and up until his death in 1804.

He also, along with Washington, and Gen. Nathaniel Greene, considered the active, and ongoing effort to organize black regiments into the Continental Army, as a key step in bringing about emancipation. Hamilton wrote the following, in support of a project of Gen. Washington, Col. John Laurens, and Gen. Nathaneal Greene for recruiting South Carolina blacks to serve in the Continental Army, in a letter in March of 1779, to John Jay, then President of Congress. (Washington, Greene and Col. David Humphreys had already successfully done the same with several regiments of blacks from northern states).

I foresee that this project will have to combat much opposition from the prejudice and self-interest. The contempt we have been taught to entertain for the blacks, makes us fancy many things that are founded neither in reason nor experience; and an unwillingness to part with property of so valuable a kind, furnish a thousand arguments to show the impracticibility, or pernicious tendency, of a scheme which requires such sacrifices. But it should be considered, that if we do not make use of them in this way, the enemy probably will; and that the best way to counteract the temptations they will hold out, will be to offer them ourselves. An essential part of the plan is to give them their freedom with their swords. This will secure their fidelity, animate their courage, and, I believe, will have a good influence upon those who remain, by opening a door to their emancipation. This circumstance, I confess, has no small weight in inducing me to wish the success of the project; for the dictates of humanity, and true policy, equally interest me in favor of this unfortunate class of men....

Other of the founders uttered similar, if not stronger, sentiments. John Jay wrote in 1780:

An excellent law might be made out of the Pennsylvania one for the gradual abolition of slavery. Till America comes into this measure, her prayers to Heaven for liberty will be impious. This is a strong expression, but it is just. Were I in your Legislature, I would prepare a bill for the purpose with great care; and I would never cease moving it till it became a law, or I ceased to be a member. I believe God governs the world; and I believe it to be a maxim in his as in our court, that those who ask for equity ought to do it.

Jay would write again in 1785, on the eve of the effort to create the Constitional form of government ultimately adopted:

It is much to be wished that slavery may be abolished. The honor of the States, as well as justice and humanity, in my opinion, loudly call upon them to emancipate these unhappy people. To contend for our own liberty, and to deny that blessing to others, involves an inconsistency not to be excused.

A year later, Jay would draft a memorial to the New York Legislature on the abolition of slavery, signed by Jay, Alexander Hamilton, Robert Livingstone, among others, addressing the issue of slavery, which opened with the following declaration:

Your memorialists, being deeply affected by the situation of those who, although free by the laws of God, are held in slavery by the laws of this State, view with pain and regret the additional miseries which these people experience from the practice of exporting them, like cattle, to the West Indies and the Southern States.


The Virginians

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Thomas Jefferson (despite his own ambigious position on the question), along with Franklin, and George Washington, consistently in his public writings, pointedly defined the views on slavery of the majority of those who fought to establish a nation grounded in true republicanism in North America.

In 1774, Jefferson was selected to draft the instructions for the Virginia delegation to the first Continential Congress, and which were later printed under the title ``A Summary View of the Rights of British America.'' Interestingly, the ``Summary'' is very similar to the section addressing the issue of slavery that was in the initial draft of the Declaration of Independence written two years later.

For the most trifling reasons, and sometimes for no conceivable reason at all, his Majesty has rejected laws of the most salutary tendency. The abolition of domestic slavery is the great object of desire in those Colonies, where it was, unhappily, introduced in their infant state. But, previous to the enfranchisement of the slaves we have, it is necessary to exclude all further importations from Africa. Yet our repeated attempts to effect this by prohibitions, and by imposing duties which might amount to a prohibition, have been hitherto defeated by his majesties negative; thus preferring the immediate advantages of a few British corsairs to the lasting interests of the American States, and to the rights of human nature, deeply wounded by this infamous practice.

George Mason, also from Virginia, who would initially oppose the Constitution's adoption and refuse to sign the document at the end of the convention in Philadelphia in 1787, at least until an agreement to include the Bill of Rights was reached, also reflected this viewpoint. In fact, South Carolinians and Georgians who supported the maintenance of the institution of slavery viewed Virginia's opposition as a greater threat than opposition from ``northern states'' on this issue. In the following, taken from the debates at the Constitutional Convention in August of 1787, Mason delivered what was one of the strongest attacks on the institution, as reported here in the notes of James Madison.

This infernal traffic originated in the avarice of British merchants. The British Government constantly checked the attempts of Virginia to put a stop to it. The present question concerns, not importing alone, but the whole Union. The evil of having slaves was experienced during the late war. Had slaves been treated as they might have been by the enemy, they would have proved dangerous instruments in their hands. But their folly dealt by the slaves as it did by the Tories.

He mentioned the dangerous insurrrections of the slaves in Greece and Sicily, and the instructions given by Cromwell to the commissioners sent to Virginia,-- to arm the servants and slaves, in case other means of obtaining submission should fail. Maryland and Virginia, he said, had already prohibited the importation of slaves expressly. North Carolina had done the same in substance. All this would be in vain, if South Carolina and Georgia be at liberty to import. The Western people are already calling out for slaves for their new lands; and will fill that country with slaves, if they can be got through South Carolina and Georgia. Slavery discourages arts and manufactures. The poor despise labor when performed by slaves. They prevent the emigration of whites, who really enrich and strengthen a country. They produce the most pernicious effect on manners. Every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant. They bring the judgement of Heaven on a country. As nations cannot be rewarded or punished in the next world, they must be in this. By an inevitable chain of causes and effects, Providence punishes national sins by national calamities. He lamented that some of our Eastern brethren had, from lust of gain, embarked in this nefarious traffic. As to the States being in possession of the right to import, this was the case with many other rights, now to be properly given up. He held it essential, in every point of view, that the General Government should have the power to prevent the increase of slavery.


Christopher Gadsden and Henry Laurens

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The arguments of two natives of South Carolina, Christopher Gadsden and Henry Laurens (who was extremely close to George Washington), against slavery at the time of the fight to create the American nation, demonstrate that even in the states of South Carolina and Georgia, with whose delegates to the Constitutional Convention the Founding Fathers had to compromise on the issue of the abolition of slavery, significant opposition to the institution existed.

In 1766, Gadsden, then a member of the colonial legislature, and later a member of the Continental Congress, wrote:

We are a very weak province, a rich growing one, and of as much importance to Great Britain as any upon the continent; and great part of our weakness (though at the same time 'tis part of our riches) consists in having such a number of slaves amongst us; and we find in our case, according to the general perceptible workings of Providence, where the crime most commonly though slowly, yet surely, draws a similar and suitable punishment, that slavery begets slavery. Jamaica and our West-India Islands demonstrate this observation, which I hope will not be our case now, whatever might have been the consequences had the fatal attempts been delayed a few years longer, when we drank deeper of the Circean draught, and the measure of our inequites were filled up.

In 1776, Henry Laurens, who would be President of the Continental Congress, wrote:

You know, my dear son, I abhor slavery. I was born in a country where slavery had been established by British kings and parliaments, as well as by the laws of that country, ages before my existence. I found the Christian religion and slavery growing under the same authority and cultivation. I nevertheless disliked it. In former days, there was no combating the prejudices of men supported by interest; the day, I hope is approaching, when, from principles of gratitude as well as justice, every man will strive to be foremost in showing his readiness to comply with the golden rule. Not less than twenty thousand pounds sterling would all my negroes produce, if sold at public auction tomorrow. I am not the man who enslaved them; they are indebted to Englishmen for that favor: nevertheless, I am devising means for manumitting many of them, and for cutting off the entail of slavery. Great powers oppose me,--the laws and customs of my country, my own and the avarice of my countrymen. What will my children say if I deprive them of so much estate? These are difficulties, but not insuperable. I will do as much as I can in my time, and leave the rest to a better hand.

I am not one of those who arrogate the particular care of Providence in each fortunate event; nor one of those who dare trust in Providence for defence and security of their own liberty, while they enslave, and wish to continue in slavery, thousands who are as well entitled to freedom as themselves. I perceive the work before me is great. I shall appear to many as a promoter, not only of strange, but of dangerous doctrines: it will therefore be necessary to proceed with caution. You are apparently deeply interested in this affair; but, as I have no doubts concerning your concurrence and approbation, I most sincerely wish for your advice and assistance, and hope to receive both in good time.


David Rice

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The following speech, given in 1792 by David Rice during Kentucky's constitutional convention, was in support of a clause for the abolition of slavery, in that then newly created state. Kentucky's admission to the Union occurred only three years after the adoption of the Federal Constitution, and, contrary to the view of most historians that there was no widespread support for ending slavery in America, was fairly indicative of the general antislavery sentiment which prevailed at the time. While the clause was not adopted, and Kentucky became one of the so-called slave-states of the old south (however, not leaving the Union with the rest of the Confederate states in 1861), Rice's sentiments clearly presage the roots of Kentucky's two most famous native sons, Henry Clay and Abraham Lincoln.

Sir, I have lived free, and in many respects happy for nearly sixty years; but my happiness has been greatly diminished ... by hearing a great part of the human species groaning under the galling yoke of bondage.... When I consider their deplorable state, and who are the cause of their misery, the load of misery that lies on them, and the load of guilt on us for imposing it on them; it fills my soul with anguish. I view their distresses, I read the anger of Heaven, I believe that if I should not exert myself, when, and as far, as in my power, in order to relieve them, I should be partaker of the guilt.

Sir, the question is, Whether slavery is consistent with justice and good policy? But before this is answered it may be necessary to enquire, what a slave is.

A slave is a human creature made by law the property of another human creature, and reduced by mere power to absolute unconditional subjection to his will.

This definition will be allowed to be just, with only this one exception, that the law does not leave the life and the limbs of the slave entirely in the master's power: and from it may be inferred several melancholy truths, which will include a sufficient answer to the main question.

As creatures of God we are, with respect to liberty, all equal. If one has a right to live among his fellow creatures, and enjoy his freedom, so has another; if one has a right to enjoy the property he acquires by an honest industry, so has another. If I by force take that from another, which he has a just right to according to the law of nature (which is divine law) which he has never forfeited, and to which he has never relinquished his claim, I am certainly guilty of injustice and robbery; and when the thing taken is a man's liberty, when it is himself, it is the greatest injustice....

A slave claims his freedom, he pleads that he is a man, that he was by nature free, that he had not forfeited his freedom, nor relinquished it. Now unless his master can prove that he is not a man, that he was not born free, or that he has forfeited or relinquished his freedom, he must be judged free; the justice of his claim must be acknowledged. His being long deprived of this right, by force or fraud, does not annihilate it, it remains; it is still his right. When I rob a man of his property, I leave him his liberty, and a capacity of acquiring and possessing more property; but when I deprive him of his liberty, I also deprive him of this capacity; therefore I do him greater injury, when I deprive him of his liberty, than when I rob him of his property. It is in vain for me to plead that I have the sanction of law; for this makes the injury the greater, it arms the community against him, and makes his case desperate.

If my definition of a slave is true, he is a rational creature reduced by the power of legislation to the state of a brute, and thereby deprived of every privilege of humanity, except as above, that he may minister to the ease, luxury, lust, pride, or avarice of another, no better than himself.

We only want a law enacted that no owner of a brute, nor any other person, should kill or dismember it, and then in law the case of a slave and a brute is in most respects parallel; and where they differ, the state of the brute is to be preferred. The brute may steal or rob, to supply his hunger; the law does not condemn him to die for his offence, it only permits his death; but the slave, though in the most starving condition, dare not do either, on penalty of death or some severe punishment.

Is there any need of arguments to prove, that it is in a high degree unjust and cruel, to reduce one human creature to such an abject wretched state as this, that he may minister to the ease, luxury, lust, pride, or avarice of another? Has not that other the same right to have him reduced to this state, that he may minister to his interest or pleasure? On what is this right founded? Whence was it derived? Does it come from heaven, from earth, or from hell? Has the great King of heaven, the absolute sovereign disposer of all men, given this extraordinary right to white men over black men? Where is the charter? In whose hands is it lodged? Let it be produced and read, that we may know our privilege.

Thus reducing men is an indignity, a degradation to our own nature. Had we not lost a true sense of its worth and dignity, we should blush to see it converted into brutes. We should blush to see our houses filled, or surrounded with cattle in our own shapes. We should look upon it to be a fouler, blacker stain, than that with which the vertical suns have tinged the blood of Africa. When we plead for slavery, we plead for the disgrace and ruin of our own nature. If we are capable of it we may ever after claim kindred with the brutes, and renounce our own superior dignity.

From our definition it will appear, that a slave is a creature made after the image of God, and accountable to him for the maintenance of innocence and purity; but by law reduced to a liableness to be debauched by men, without any prospect or hope of redress.

That a slave is made after the image of God no Christian will deny; that a slave is absolutely subjected to be debauched by men, is so apparent from the nature of slavery, that it need no proof....

If slavery is not consistent with justice, it must be inconsistent with good policy. For who would venture to assert, that it would be good policy for us to erect a public monument of our injustice, and that injustice is necessary for our prosperity, and happiness?....

The prosperity of a country depends upon the industry of its inhabitants; idleness will produce poverty: and when slavery becomes common, industry sinks into disgrace. To labor, is to slave, to work, is to work like a Negro; and this is viewed as disgraceful; it levels us with the meanest of the species; it sits hard upon the mind; it cannot be patiently borne. Youth are hereby tempted into idleness, and drawn into other vices; they see no other way to keep their credit, and acquire some little importance. This renders them like those they ape, nuisances of society....

Slavery naturally tends to destroy all sense of justice and equity. It puffs up the mind with pride: teaches youth a habit of looking down upon their fellow creatures with contempt, esteeming them as dogs or devils, and imagining themselves beings of superior dignity and importance, to whom all are indebted. This banishes the idea, and unqualifies the mind for the practice of common justice. If I have, all my days, been accustomed to live at the expense of a black man, without making him any compensation, or considering myself at all in his debt, I cannot think it any great crime to live at the expense of a white man.... If I have no sense of obligation to do justice to a black man, I can think little to do justice to a white man.... If I am in principle a friend to slavery, I cannot, to be consistent, think it any crime to rob my country of its property and freedom, whenever my interest calls, and I find it in my power....

Put all the above considerations together, and it evidently appears, that slavery is neither consistent with justice or good policy. These are considerations, one might think, sufficient to silence every objection; but I foresee, notwithstanding, that a number will be made....

The question is that concerning the liberty of man....

To call our fellow-men, who have not forfeited, nor voluntarily resigned their liberty, our property, is a gross absurdity, a contradiction to common sense, and an indignity to human nature....

Human legislatures should remember, that they act in subordination to the great Ruler of the universe, have no right to take the government out of his hand nor to enact laws contrary to his; that if they should presume to attempt it, they cannot make that right, which he has made wrong; they cannot dissolve the allegiance of his subjects, and transfer it to themselves, and thereby free the people from their obligations to obey the laws of nature. The people should know, that legislatures have not this power....

If there is not in government some fixed principle superior to all law, and above the power of legislators, there can be no stability, or consistency in it; it will be continually fluctuating with the opinions, humours, passions, prejudices, or interests, of different legislative bodies. Liberty is an inherent right of man, of every man; the existence of which ought not to depend upon the mutability of legislation....

The slavery of the negroes began in iniquity; a curse has attended it, and a curse will follow it. National vices will be punished with national calamities. Let us avoid these vices, that we may avoid the punishment which they deserve; and endeavour to so act, as to secure the approbation and smiles of Heaven....


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The preceding article is a rough version of the article that appeared in The American Almanac. It is made available here with the permission of The New Federalist Newspaper. Any use of, or quotations from, this article must attribute them to The New Federalist, and The American Almanac.


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