Recently there has been much discussion about the teaching of US history. In the past and perhaps slightly less so in the present, the full story of our history and of the founding fathers hasn’t been presented. The founders’ inspirational and impressive accomplishments have been highlighted. The fact that many of the founders were slave owners was downplayed or ignored. In addition, the truly horrific evils of slavery and the mistreatment of Blacks under Jim Crow laws received very limited coverage. Moreover, the genocide of Native Americans received little mention. This biased presentation of US history set the stage for white supremacy ideas to grow and thrive and for the continued shameful abuse of minorities.
Of late, criticism of many founders over their being slave owners has attracted widespread attention and created controversy. Some believe that pointing out this fact is unfair to the founders. Many who believe this way think the founders are being judged by standards of today instead of those of their time.
I believe that the founding fathers, particularly Jefferson with his words in the Declaration of Independence, inspired people the world over and across time. Despite the founders establishing a new country where some people had a voice in government, they were human beings with their own failings. These failings, including continuing the practice of slavery and the slave trade, don’t mean that their accomplishments didn’t occur. However, the results of their failings must also be recognized and corrected.
I dispute that the founders are being held to the standards of today instead of those of their time. I believe that this claim is an insult to the founders’ intelligence. For example, this claim implies the founders and their society didn’t know that slavery was wrong. I think that the support for slavery was due to political expediency of keeping the colonies/states together and to putting profit over human rights. Slavery allowed the economy to grow and for the country to thrive economically while condemning about 18% of the population and their offspring to a brutal form of slavery and the killing of the nation’s soul.
The compromises necessary for the Constitution to be approved show that many opposed slavery. In addition, the opposition of many well known individuals during the 18th century is on record. This site is the source for most of the following material.
One of the most ardent opponents of slavery was Abigail Adams, supported by her husband, the second US President, John Adams. For example, in a 1774 letter to John she wrote: “I wish most sincerely there was not a slave in this province. It always appeared a most iniquitous scheme to me — to fight ourselves for what we are daily robbing and plundering from those who have as good a right to freedom as we have.” She considered slavery a sin and an evil. Although her husband privately agreed, he was more cautious politically as he feared the results of complete abolition would lead to a division of the new country. Sam Adams was another Adams who was also a staunch opponent of slavery.
Others who were against slavery included Benjamin Franklin who became a public abolitionist in 1787 and President of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery. John Jay, the first Chief Justice, and Marquis de Lafayette were also committed opponents of the brutal US form of slavery.
John Laurens, a close friend of George Washington, Marquis de Lafayette and Alexander Hamilton, also was an ardent public advocate for ending slavery. In a letter to a friend in 1776 he wrote: “I think we Americans at least in the Southern Colonies, cannot contend with a good Grace, for Liberty, until we shall have enfranchised our Slaves. How can we whose Jealousy has been alarm’d more at the Name of Oppression sometimes than at the Reality, reconcile to our spirited Assertions of the Rights of Mankind, the galling abject Slavery of our negroes…If as some pretend, but I am persuaded more thro’ intrested, than from Conviction, the Culture of the Ground with us cannot be carried on without African Slaves, Let us fly it as a hateful Country, and say ubi Libertas ibi Patria [where Liberty is there is my Country].”
An outstanding article, “African Slavery in America”, was published in March, 1775 in the Pennsylvania Journal by a contributor signed Justice and Humanity. The article begins: “TO Americans: That some desperate wretches should be willing to steal and enslave men by violence and murder for gain, is rather lamentable than strange. But that many civilized, nay, Christianized people should approve, and be concerned in the savage practice, is surprising; and still persist, though it has been so often proved contrary to the light of nature, to every principle of justice and humanity, and even good policy…”
This whitewashing of US history has downplayed the genocide of Native Americans and the brutal US form of slavery. As a result, it has created a badly misinformed population. Many of our population don’t understand the terrible crimes against humanity the US has committed that are part and parcel of our history. Many also don’t realize how much we owe to those we have horrifically mistreated. If we don’t begin teaching our real history, the idea of white supremacy will continue to strengthen and that does not bode well for our future.