DHD: Responding to ‘America founded on slavery’
We just celebrated Independence Day. Americans everywhere took time to enjoy the freedoms we have in our country, spent with family, friends, food, fun and fireworks.
There were parades, observances of military appreciation, patriotic musical performances and reflections of our nation’s history.
I enjoyed July 4 along with my fellow patriots.
Earlier this week, I heard a comment mentioning that America was founded on slavery. It bothered me. I thought it was not accurate and could lead to a misrepresentation of the founding of our country.
I decided to use this week’s Doyle’s Half Dozen to offer an historical analysis as well as how best to respond when the topic of America and the practice of slavery is discussed.
1. Many of the Founders opposed slavery
I found an editorial by John Gutekunst titled “The Founders thought slavery would die on its own” as a good source.
Gutekunst pointed out that many of the Founders were against slavery. He quoted John Adams who said slavery was “a foul contagion in the human character.” Benjamin Franklin said, “Slavery is… an atrocious debasement of human nature.”
George Washington once was a slave owner, but he offered them freedom. He also observed other actions to promote and offer freedom to slaves, and he said, “There is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it (slavery).” Later in life, Washington said his biggest regret was that he and the other founders did not abolish slavery once and for all.
And there are others who outright opposed or at least admitted slavery was an inhumane practice.
2. Slavery was progressively diminished
To reiterate, I am directly responding to the popular belief that America was founded on slavery. Consider the fact that slavery existed prior to the founding of the United States, especially in Europe. England, France, Spain and Portugal practiced slavery, as well as other countries.
I bring this up not to excuse early Americans but to clarify the place slavery has in world history. I would speculate that the unfortunate popularity of slavery across the globe caused insensitivity to even some who opposed slavery, which hindered immediate action to abolish slavery entirely.
“Perhaps the best way to describe the Founders is they accepted slavery as a matter of convenience,” Gutekunst wrote. “They were trying to forge a coalition to fight the British, and then they were trying to turn these former colonies into something resembling a nation. They had to make negotiated compromises. They accepted slavery because that’s what was needed to achieve a greater end.”
It is unfortunate that the founders did not take a more aggressive approach, but their actions do not outright support America being founded on slavery, rather a tolerance in order to become a nation.
However, legislation did pass to discourage slavery. Eight of the original 13 colonies outlawed slavery by 1776. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 made it illegal for slavery to be expanded in new territories. Congress actually hindered slave states from having full representation in the federal government.
As Gutekunst wrote, the Founders appeared to believe slavery would die out on its own. Even though this approach did not bring immediate success, it hardly supports the view of America being founded on slavery.
3. Cotton industry hindered abolishment
Slavery began to increase after the cotton gin was invented in 1793, 17 years after the U.S. was founded. This is where abolishment took a wrong turn.
Those who hype up America being founded on slavery would have its strongest argument at this point of history. For 87 years, slavery did flourish in our country, and this is definitely a black mark on American history.
4. Civil rights leaders support founding documents
“Though arguments could be made that the Founders made too many compromises, their overall project was to set anti-slavery principles in place so that they could be enforced at some point in the future,” wrote Michael Sabo of The Heritage Foundation.
One of the bigger support aspects of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution being anti-slavery is how historic civil rights leaders Frederick Douglas and Martin Luther King, Jr. praised the writing of both documents.
Douglas called the Constitution “a glorious liberty document.” King said both the Declaration and the Constitution had “magnificent words,” and in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, he quoted the Constitution saying everybody would have unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
5. Be factual and sensitive
As mentioned, it is shameful when reflecting on how slavery was practiced in America.
But from the evidence I presented, instead of thinking that America was founded on slavery, consider how the founders promoted freedom and not slavery, which eventually came to an end.
To those who hold strong feelings about the practice of slavery being a part of American history and believe slavery is a founding element of this country, I share your view that freedom is for all people. But founding documents have also been used to gain freedom for all, proving the Founders were instrumental in the end of slavery.
6. The greater message
As a Christian, I know how great the Gospel message of Jesus Christ is. The Gospel is reflected throughout the Bible. Many Bible characters demonstrate what Jesus did once and for all, providing the ultimate freedom from sin and death.
And the Gospel can be presented even when discussing the Founders of America. I believe God intervened through the Founders—many were professing Christians and many were not. The Founders fell short, even though intentions to end slavery were good.
Just like God provided freedom to the Israelites from their slavery in Egypt, He provided freedom to slaves in America.
And just like He can provide freedom from the physical practice of slavery, God can provide freedom from sin to anyone who will believe in Jesus Christ.
“But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed, and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness” (Rom. 6:17-18).