Two Interpretations of the Revolution and the founding of America
In August 1619, just 12 years after the English settled Jamestown, Va., one year before the Puritans landed at Plymouth Rock and some 157 years before the English colonists even decided they wanted to form their own country, the Jamestown colonists bought 20 to 30 enslaved Africans from English pirates. The pirates had stolen them from a Portuguese slave ship that had forcibly taken them from what is now the country of Angola. Those men and women who came ashore on that August day were the beginning of American slavery. They were among the 12.5 million Africans who would be kidnapped from their homes and brought in chains across the Atlantic Ocean in the largest forced migration in human history until the Second World War. Almost two million did not survive the grueling journey, known as the Middle Passage.
Before the abolishment of the international slave trade, 400,000 enslaved Africans would be sold into America. Those individuals and their descendants transformed the lands to which they’d been brought into some of the most successful colonies in the British Empire. Through back- breaking labor, they cleared the land across the Southeast. They taught the colonists to grow rice. They grew and picked the cotton that at the height of slavery was the nation’s most valuable commodity, account- ing for half of all American exports and 66 percent of the world’s supply. They built the plantations of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, sprawling proper- ties that today attract thousands of visitors from across the globe captivated by the history of the world’s greatest democracy. They laid the foundations of the White House and the Capitol, even placing with their unfree hands the Statue of Freedom atop the Capitol dome. They lugged the heavy wooden tracks of the rail- roads that crisscrossed the South and that helped take the cotton they picked to the Northern textile mills, fueling the Industrial Revolution. They built vast fortunes for white people North and South — at one time, the second-richest man in the nation was a Rhode Island ‘‘slave trader.’’ Profits from black people’s stolen labor helped the young nation pay off its war debts and financed some of our most prestigious universities. It was the relentless buying, selling, insuring and financing of their bodies and the products of their labor that made Wall Street a thriving banking, insurance and trading sector and New York City the financial capital of the world.
But it would be historically inaccurate to reduce the contributions of black people to the vast material wealth created by our bondage. Black Americans have also been, and continue to be, foundational to the idea of American freedom. More than any other group in this country’s history, we have served, generation after generation, in an overlooked but vital role: It is we who have been the perfecters of this democracy.
The United States is a nation founded on both an ideal and a lie. Our Declaration of Independence, signed on July 4, 1776, proclaims that ‘‘all men are created equal’’ and ‘‘endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.’’ But the white men who published those words did not believe them to be true for the hundreds of thousands of black people in their midst. ‘‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’’ did not apply to fully one-fifth of the country. Yet despite being violently denied the freedom and justice promised to all, black Americans believed fervently in the American creed. Through centuries of black resistance and protest, we have helped the country live up to its founding ideals. And not only for ourselves — black rights struggles paved the way for every other rights struggle, including women’s and gay rights, immigrant and disability rights.
The very first person to die for this country in the American Revolution was a black man who himself was not free. Crispus Attucks was a fugitive from slavery, yet he gave his life for a new nation in which his own people would not enjoy the liberties laid out in the Declaration for another century. In every war this nation has waged since that first one, black Americans have fought — today we are the most likely of all racial groups to serve in the United States military.
My father, one of those many black Americans who answered the call, knew what it would take me years to understand: that the year 1619 is as important to the American story as 1776. That black Americans, as much as those men cast in alabaster in the nation’s capital, are this nation’s true ‘‘founding fathers.’’ And that no people has a greater claim to that flag than us.
In June 1776, Thomas Jefferson sat at his portable writing desk in a rented room in Philadelphia and penned these words: ‘‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’’ For the last 243 years, this fierce assertion of the fundamental and natural rights of humankind to freedom and self-governance has defined our global reputation as a land of liberty. As Jefferson composed his inspiring words, however, a teenage boy who would enjoy none of those rights and liberties waited nearby to serve at his master’s beck and call. His name was Robert Hemings, and he was the half brother of Jefferson’s wife, born to Martha Jefferson’s father and a woman he owned. It was common for white enslavers to keep their half-black children in slavery. Jefferson had chosen Hemings, from among about 130 enslaved people that worked on the forced-labor camp he called Monticello, to accompany him to Philadelphia and ensure his every comfort as he published the text making the case for a new democratic republic based on the individual rights of men.
At the time, one-fifth of the population within the 13 colonies struggled under a brutal system of slavery unlike anything that had existed in the world before. Chattel slavery was not conditional but racial. It was heritable and permanent, not temporary, meaning generations of black people were born into it and passed their enslaved status onto their children. Enslaved people were not recognized as human beings but as property that could be mortgaged, traded, bought, sold, used as collateral, given as a gift and disposed of violently. Jefferson’s fellow white colonists knew that black people were human beings, but they created a network of laws and customs, astounding for both their precision and cruelty, that ensured that enslaved people would never be treated as such. As the abolitionist William Goodell wrote in 1853, ‘‘If any thing founded on falsehood might be called a science, we might add the system of American slavery to the list of the strict sciences.’’
In two decisive respects, the United States of America is unique. First, it has a definite birthday: July 4th, 1776. Second, it declares from the moment of its founding not merely the principles on which its new government will be based; it asserts those principles to be true and universal: “applicable to all men and all times,” as Lincoln said.
There was no United States of America before July 4th, 1776. There was not yet, formally speaking, an American people. There were, instead, living in the thirteen British colonies in North America some two-and-a-half million subjects of a distant king. Those subjects became a people by declaring themselves such and then by winning the independence they had asserted as their right. They made that assertion on the basis of principle, not blood or kinship or what we today might call “ethnicity.”
The American founders rejected that claim. As the eighteen charges leveled against King George in the Declaration of Independence make clear, our founders considered the British government of the time to be oppressive and unjust. They had no wish to replace the arbitrary government of one tyrant with that of another. More fundamentally, having cast off their political connection to England, our founders needed to state a new principle of political legitimacy for their new government. As the Declaration of Independence puts it, a “decent respect to the opinions of mankind” required them to explain themselves and justify their actions.
They did not merely wish to assert that they disliked British rule and so were replacing it with something they liked better. They wished to state a justification for their actions, and for the government to which it would give birth, that is both true and moral: moral because it is faithful to the truth about things. Such a justification could only be found in the precepts of nature—specifically human nature—accessible to the human mind but not subject to the human will. Those precepts—whether understood as created by God or simply as eternal—are a given that man did not bring into being and cannot change. Hence the Declaration speaks of both “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God”—it appeals to both reason and revelation—as the foundation of the underlying truth of the document’s claims, and for the legitimacy of this new nation. The core assertion of the Declaration, and the basis of the founders’ political thought, is that “all men are created equal.” From the principle of equality, the requirement for consent naturally follows: if all men are equal, then none may by right rule another without his consent. The assertion that “all men are created equal” must also be properly understood. It does not mean that all human beings are equal in wisdom, courage, or any of the other virtues and talents that God and nature distribute unevenly among the human race. It means rather that human beings are equal in the sense that they are not by nature divided into castes, with natural rulers and ruled.
The most common charge leveled against the founders, and hence against our country itself, is that they were hypocrites who didn’t believe in their stated principles, and therefore the country they built rests on a lie. This charge is untrue, and has done enormous damage, especially in recent years, with a devastating effect on our civic unity and social fabric.
Many Americans labor under the illusion that slavery was somehow a uniquely American evil. It is essential to insist at the outset that the institution be seen in a much broader perspective. It is very hard for people brought up in the comforts of modern America, in a time in which the idea that all human beings have inviolable rights and inherent dignity is almost taken for granted, to imagine the cruelties and enormities that were endemic in earlier times. But the unfortunate fact is that the institution of slavery has been more the rule than the exception throughout human history.
It was the Western world’s repudiation of slavery, only just beginning to build at the time of the American Revolution, which marked a dramatic sea change in moral sensibilities. The American founders were living on the cusp of this change, in a manner that straddled two worlds. George Washington owned slaves, but came to detest the practice, and wished for “a plan adopted for the abolition of it.” By the end of his life, he freed all the slaves in his family estate.
Thomas Jefferson also held slaves, and yet included in his original publish of the Declaration a strong condemnation of slavery, which was removed at the insistence of certain slaveholding delegates. Inscribed in marble at his memorial in Washington, D.C. is Jefferson’s foreboding reference to the injustice of slavery: “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that His justice cannot sleep forever.”
James Madison saw to it at the Constitutional Convention that, even when the Constitution compromised with slavery, it never used the word “slave” to do so. No mere semantics, he insisted that it was “wrong to admit in the Constitution the idea that there could be property in men.”
Indeed, the compromises at the Constitutional Convention were just that: compromises. The three-fifths compromise was proposed by an antislavery delegate to prevent the South from counting their slaves as whole persons for purposes of increasing their congressional representation. The so-called fugitive slave clause, perhaps the most hated protection of all, accommodated pro-slavery delegates but was written so that the Constitution did not sanction slavery in the states where it existed. There is also the provision in the Constitution that forbade any restriction of the slave trade for twenty years after ratification—at which time Congress immediately outlawed the slave trade.
The First Continental Congress agreed to discontinue the slave trade and boycott other nations that engaged in it, and the Second Continental Congress reaffirmed this policy. The Northwest Ordinance, a pre-Constitution law passed to govern the western territories (and passed again by the First Congress and signed into law by President Washington) explicitly bans slavery from those territories and from any states that might be organized there.
Above all, there is the clear language of the Declaration itself: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” The founders knew slavery was incompatible with that truth. It is important to remember that, as a question of practical politics, no durable union could have been formed without a compromise among the states on the issue of slavery. Is it reasonable to believe that slavery could have been abolished sooner had the slave states not been in a union with the free? Perhaps. But what is momentous is that a people that included slaveholders founded their nation on the proposition that “all men are created equal.”
So why did they say that without immediately abolishing slavery? To establish the principle of consent as the ground of all political legitimacy and to check against any possible future drift toward or return to despotism, for sure. But also, in Lincoln’s words, “to declare the right, so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit.” The foundation of our Republic planted the seeds of the death of slavery in America. The Declaration’s unqualified proclamation of human equality flatly contradicted the existence of human bondage and, along with the Constitution’s compromises understood in light of that proposition, set the stage for abolition. Indeed, the movement to abolish slavery that first began in the United States led the way in bringing about the end of legal slavery.
–The 1776 Report
Using the two sources provided above, in addition to the handout on the Race in Revolutionary America in Digital History (https://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/disp_textbook.cfm?smtID=11&psid=3795) and your readings and lecture notes, write your interpretation of the causes of the Revolution and the nature of the founding of the United States. 4-6 double-spaced pages, 12 font, standard margins. You will be graded on the strength of your argument, meaning, how well you argue, using specific examples from primary sources and the two interpretations, (including quotes from people at the time) to make your argument.
Two Interpretations of the Revolution and the founding of America