The American Revolution and African Americans
by Bruce Bowers on April 11, 2011 at 7:53 PM
In response to an article, ‘Natural Law and The Constitution’, a reader commented saying, “Slavery was also considered natural law do you advocate that too?” How this reader gleaned this from the article is baffling but it deserves an explanation. Not everyone will understand, believe or see things the way others do.
We will explore some of the modern myths that have driven our nation, our beloved Republic to the brink of extinction from the world’s stage. It seems that we only hear of bad things in regards to the Founding Fathers of our wonderful Republic from the liberals and intelligentsia of our nation. True, there may have been a few that were slave owners and atheists, but the majority, were non-slave owning abolitionists from well before the war with England.
Between 70 and 75% of the signers of the Constitution and Declaration were against slavery. We never hear that, do we?
Although prominent in history, most Americans haven’t heard of Crispus Attucks. He is believed to have been the first person killed at the Boston Massacre. Historians disagree on whether Crispus Attucks was a free man or an escaped slave but he was an American hero and patriot in the war of independence from England. Most Americans know even less about the thousands of African Americans who fought during the Revolution, or that they participated in every major battle of the War.
But the truth that is really missing from American history now is that the Founding Fathers, most anyway, were looking for freedom for all Americans, including those of African decent. Slavery is often used as a discrediting charge against the Founding Fathers. But the historical fact is that slavery was not the product of the Founding Fathers. It was an evil introduced to America nearly two centuries before the Founders.
Slavery in British North America started around 1619, when a Dutch ship brought 20 enslaved Africans to the Virginia colony at Jamestown. Strangely enough, the second slave ship came into a different port and the colonists there were anti-slavery and set the Africans free and arrested the ship captain and crew.
When reading the works of our Founding Fathers, it is quite evident that many, before picking up the torch of freedom had either been involved in owning slaves or the slave trade somehow. Others were at least indifferent to the evil that was American slavery because of its permeation in the British culture of North America at the time. Many, although not involved had stood on the sidelines, not being directly involved in its abolition.
Although unimaginable to our modern sense of right and justice, because of the times they lived in, their attitudes had to be changed by some internal God given enlightenment. As this change entered their psyche, it became a rebellion against the norm.
In his early life, Benjamin Franklin held many of the same views of race as his fellow neighbors until 1751. That year he wrote an essay, ‘Observations on the Increase of Mankind’, which argued against slavery on economic grounds, but was demeaning of Africans as a race. Franklin's attitudes on race began to change when he joined the Associates of Dr. Bray to establish schools for blacks in America.
Franklin's wife Deborah had enrolled her servants in the Philadelphia school and expressed her "high opinions of the natural capacities of the black race." Benjamin Franklin himself observed how these African American children were just as smart and learned just as quickly as their white counterparts, and this led to a change in his opinions. From that time on, Franklin began a slow process of supporting abolitionist sympathies against the slavery in America.
The American Revolution was the turning point in the national attitude toward slavery and it was the Founding Fathers who contributed to that change. Many of the Founders vigorously complained against the fact that Great Britain had forcefully imposed upon the Colonies the evil of slavery. John Jay identified the point at which the change in attitude toward slavery began: “Prior to the great Revolution, the great majority . . . of our people had been so long accustomed to the practice and convenience of having slaves that very few among them even doubted the propriety and rectitude of it.”
Many of the Founding Fathers who had owned slaves as British citizens released them in the years following the Revolution against Great Britain. Namely, George Washington, John Dickinson, Caesar Rodney, William Livingston, George Wythe, John Randolph of Roanoke, and others released their slaves. Furthermore, many of the Founders had never owned any slaves.
John Adams proclaimed, "my opinion against it... (Slavery) has always been known . . . never in my life did I own a slave."
John Quincy Adams explained:
“The inconsistency of the institution of domestic slavery with the principles of the Declaration of Independence was seen and lamented by all the southern patriots of the Revolution; by no one with deeper and more unalterable conviction than by the author of the Declaration himself (Jefferson). No charge of insincerity or hypocrisy can be fairly laid to their charge. Never from their lips was heard one syllable of attempt to justify the institution of slavery. They universally considered it as a reproach fastened upon them by the unnatural step-mother country (Great Britain) and they saw that before the principles of the Declaration of Independence, slavery, in common with every other mode of oppression, was destined sooner or later to be banished from the earth. Such was the undoubting conviction of Jefferson to his dying day. In the Memoir of His Life, written at the age of seventy-seven, he gave to his countrymen the solemn and emphatic warning that the day was not distant when they must hear and adopt the general emancipation of their slaves.”
While Jefferson himself had introduced a bill designed to end slavery, not all of the southern Founders were opposed to slavery. Founders from North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia strongly favored slavery. Despite the support for slavery in those States, the clear majority of the Founders opposed this terrible evil.
For instance, when southern pro-slavery advocates invoked the Bible to support their views on slavery, Elias Boudinot, President of the Continental Congress responded with this:
“...even the sacred Scriptures had been quoted to justify this iniquitous traffic. It is true that the Egyptians held the Israelites in bondage for four hundred years, . . . but . . . gentlemen cannot forget the consequences that followed: they were delivered by a strong hand and stretched-out arm and it ought to be remembered that the Almighty Power that accomplished their deliverance is the same yesterday, today, and for ever.”
And unfortunately, our American forefathers would go through a similar crucible before finally giving up their want of the evil of slavery. The American civil war would cost our Republic dearly in fortune and blood. Please read David Barton’s work, “The Founding Fathers and Slavery.”
Photo Credit: AP/ Pashai Oway, 6, of Arlington, Va., holds an American flag while attending the the "Restoring Honor" rally, organized by Glenn Beck, in Washington, on Saturday, Aug. 28, 2010. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)