Slavery’s half truths made whole
By Thomas Nash
There are many things which we learn about regarding slavery which are true: It was legal to own a slave in some of the States. Many of our Founders owned slaves. Many slaves were treated poorly to say the least. Slavery was and is in direct conflict with everything that United States of America represents. There is much however that we do not learn which seems odd when you consider the vastly different picture which is painted upon learning these “new” facts.
To be clear, the sale and enslavement of Africans did not start with the United States, nor were we close to be being the leading perpetuator. Slavery was practiced in Africa by Africans and by Muslims. When Africans were purchased by Europeans, they were generally already slaves and being sold as the property of their African or Muslim slave owner. These were typically not free people being ripped from their families and homes as we were taught in middle school. These African slaves were switching one master for another. And as we’ll learn, it was not always a black master for a white master. Blacks in the colonies and later the United State owned slaves as well.
For the duration of the infamous triangle trade of slavery, the mainland colonies/US received roughly four per cent of African slaves. The majority of Africans were sold into slavery in Brazil and the Caribbean. While four per cent is four per cent too much, it is curious that America seems to bear the brunt of the world’s ridicule regarding the slave trade and Brazil is barely ever mentioned.
Once these four per cent arrived on the shores of the colonies and ultimately states, they were auctioned off to the highest bidder. As previously mentioned, those who purchased slaves were both black and white. In fact the first legal slave owner was a man named Anthony Johnson. In 1655, the courts ruled that his “colored” indentured servant was actually a slave and thus the property of Johnson forever. Anthony Johnson was black.
While it was a minority of blacks that owned slaves, so too was it a minority of whites. Contrary to popular belief slavery was not widely supported in the early days of the US. Many of our Founders felt that slavery was immoral. Thomas Jefferson, a slave owner himself, went so far as to include in the original draft of the Declaration of Independence:
“He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of INFIDEL powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought and sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce. And that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people for whom he also obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed against the LIBERTIES of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the LIVES of another.”
Due to the necessity of compromising for the greater good of forming a solid union, that language was struck. Founders such as Washington and John and Abigail Adams believed that slavery was immoral. In reviewing George Washington’s Last Will and Testament, one would find that he set terms for freeing his slaves. He also sets aside provisions such as clothing, money and education for them. Earlier in his life he is documented as saying, “I can only say that there is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it [slavery].” While he continued to own slaves until his death, Washington signed into law a bill that banned slavery in several new states. A handful of states already had laws on the books which outlawed slavery. John Adams himself is not known to have owned slaves and was not known to support it. In a letter to her husband, Abigail Adams writes, “I wish most sincerely there was not a slave in the 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.”
Somehow this information rarely makes into our textbooks. When it does, it is glossed over in order to hammer into our minds that America was an evil perpetrator of slavery and there is no room for anything that may hint at a slightly different narrative. Dividing the people and creating animosity it would seem is much more effective for our Progressive leaders who have been creating the textbooks and curricula for the last couple of generations.
The United States Constitution as it relates to slavery and civil rights has also been suffocated in a mountain of half-truths and misinformation. We generally accept that it is a slave document. We accept that because we are told and we do not bother to read it. Progressives will cite the clause that qualifies slaves as 3/5ths of a person as proof of its evils. While it sounds harsh, many Founders would have preferred to qualify them as not a person at all but as property. The reasoning behind this is that counting slaves as 3/5 or any fraction or whole of a person would have given the southern slave states more representation in congress and thus more influence in legislation. This would only advance slavery and the slave trade further. Wisely, the founders sought for 0 so that the south’s influence would be muted. 3/5ths was the compromise.
In addition to trying to decrease slave-state influence, the founders included in the Constitution the language of Article 1, section 9 which reads,
“The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person.”
Regarding this clause, the father of the Constitution James Madison, in Federalist Paper No. 42 wrote,
“It were doubtless to be wished, that the power of prohibiting the importation of slaves had not been postponed until the year 1808, or rather that it had been suffered to have immediate operation. But it is not difficult to account, either for this restriction on the general government, or for the manner in which the whole clause is expressed. It ought to be considered as a great point gained in favor of humanity that a period of twenty years may terminate forever within these States, a traffic which has so long and so loudly upbraided the barbarism of modern policy…”
He felt, as did most other members of the Constitutional Convention, that the language contained in Article 1, section 9 would be the catalyst for the termination of slavery as a practice in the United States. It allowed for a tax that would discourage it immediately and allowed for the complete abolition of it after the year 1808.
As we know however, slavery continued. According to the census of 1830, some 25-33% of whites owned slaves and we know that 3,775 free blacks also owned slaves. The total number of slaves owned by blacks numbered between 12,500-20,000. Many owned slaves for the same reason that some of Founders owned them. It was common belief that a slave was better off under their care and guidance then exposed to the intolerance and violence that often followed free blacks. Not all slave owners, black or white, were cruel and not all cruel slave owners were white. All however abridged a fundamental American value-freedom; a Constitutional value that was meant to apply to all.
Those who would say that the Constitution allowed for slavery would be up against its very words and the opinion of a famous former slave and abolitionist, Frederick Douglass. Douglass was asked by the American Anti-Slavery Society to speak about the pro-slavery language of the Constitution. After reading it, Douglass had this to say in response to them, “Take the Constitution according to its plain reading…I defy the presentation of a single pro-slavery clause in it.” He told a crowd that came to hear his Independence Day speech, “Interpreted as it ought to be interpreted, the Constitution is a glorious liberty document.”
Douglass and an “overwhelmingly white group” of abolitionist would go on to fight for the emancipation of slavery which would ultimately be achieved only after a bloody Civil War. Even the commanding general of the Confederacy, Robert E. Lee, believed “So far from engaging in a war to perpetuate slavery, I am rejoiced that Slavery is abolished. I believe it will be greatly for the interest of the South. So fully am I satisfied of this that I would have cheerfully lost all that I have lost by the war, and have suffered all that I have suffered to have this object attained.” This and all of the preceding facts have found their way into history’s “Spam folder”. They are filtered out because it doesn’t perpetuate an image of America that is hateful, bigoted or racist. They have no place in a United States lead by Progressives who thrive on division and class/race warfare. It is up to us to preserve and spread our history so that we can restore the principles of our founding and once again unite Americans behind the idea of “American exceptionalism.”