The Founders and Slavery

Authored By: Mike Sonneveldt

The Founders and Slavery

Founding Fathers and Slavery

One thing stops people in their tracks when discussing the founders. Some of our founders owned slaves. However, some of our founders never did. Some stood for slavery. Many did not. Even though the topic is extremely nuanced, the 1619 project and similar “historical” theories believe slavery stood as the sole driver for Independence. 

After all, how could men who talk of “liberty” and “freedom” possibly believe that holding other people in slavery would be acceptable? 

Many people want to believe in the founders and what they stood for, but the specter of slavery stands in their way. We want to give you a resource to begin to unravel this major issue and give you peace of mind that our founders were men—just like us. They were imperfect and barely saw eye-to-eye on anything.  

But what the 1619 project and progressive revisionists do not want to admit is that many of our founders believed in some form of abolition of slavery and the slave trade. 


Did Other Countries Have Slaves? 

Perhaps a country that never allowed slavery existed. No one denies that could be the case. However, across the world and throughout the centuries, slavery was the rule...not the exception. 

Some of the cultures who had slaves include:

  • Egyptians 
  • Babylonians 
  • Chinese 
  • Greeks 
  • Romans 
  • Africans 
  • Aztecs 
  • and more 

Not only did civilizations such as these hold slaves, but the Islamic slave raids across the Mediterranean coast of Europe got so bad that the church initiated the first Crusade. You read that right. The first crusade was a response to Islamic slave raiding throughout the European and North African Mediterranean coast. 

Mind you, the Islamic slave trade was so destructive that it turned the Mediterranean into a war zone and split not just Roman civilization but Christianity in general. 

From 1453 to 1700, customs statistics suggest around 2.5 million slaves from the Black Sea were imported to Istanbul. Along with this, it is estimated that more white Christian slaves were taken to Barbary than black slaves to the Americas between 1500 to 1650. 


Was America Founded on Slavery? 

Colonists established America’s first colony in 1607. While these colonies did occur in America, they were still owned and controlled by Britain and its corporations. 

Even though some of those colonies passed anti-slavery laws before the American Revolution, Great Britain vetoed those laws. One of Thomas Jefferson’s complaints in the original draft of the Declaration of Independence stated: 

He [the king of Britain] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & 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 & 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, & murdering the people upon 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.”  

In other words, Thomas Jefferson himself pointed the finger at the king, who defended the slave trade and suppressed “...every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce.”  

Unfortunately, that grievance did not remain in the final draft of the Declaration of Independence. Georgia and South Carolina protested its inclusion and refused to approve the Declaration of Independence if it remained. By removing it, the Continental Congress was able to secure a unanimous vote for independence. They feared that if the colonies did not stick together, that Britain would pick them off and make quick work of them. 

In 1777, (a year after independence and America officially became a nation) Vermont drafted their constitution. This document included the abolition of slavery! The official language said, 

no male person, born in this country, or brought from over sea, ought to be holden by law, to serve any person, as a servant, slave or apprentice, after he arrives to the age of twenty-one Years, nor female, in like manner, after she arrives to the age of eighteen years, unless they are bound by their own consent, after they arrive to such age, or bound by law, for the payment of debts, damages, fines, costs, or the like” 

Similarly, the Northwest Ordinance was written only 10 years later with the abolition of slavery. The Northwest Ordinance gave the United States of America a process to admit new states from the territory, created a government over the territory, and provided a bill of rights for that area. 

By abolishing slavery in the document, the founders ensured that the slave trade would have a short shelf life as America grew. Article 6 of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 said, 

There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory, otherwise than in the punishment of crimes whereof the party shall have been duly convicted: Provided, always, That any person escaping into the same, from whom labor or service is lawfully claimed in any one of the original States, such fugitive may be lawfully reclaimed and conveyed to the person claiming his or her labor or service as aforesaid." 

Not only did Article 6 of the Northwest Ordinance set the tone for the new territory, but the language was used as the 13th Amendment, which was ratified in the same year the Civil War ended. 

And just in case you need more evidence, look at the following timeline:

  • 1794: The out-going slave trade was banned 
  • 1798: The inbound slave trade from Africa to the Mississippi territory was banned. In 10 years, they would have the authority to ban trade from Africa to the original 13 states. 
  • 1800: American citizens were banned from trading slaves between foreign countries. 
  • 1803: A law permitting state laws helped restrain the internal slave trade. 
  • 1807: The government passed a law to take effect on the first day of 1808 to prohibit the slave trade from Africa. This finalized the Constitutional allowance to end the Atlantic slave trade in 1808. 
  • 1820: The slave trade was labeled piracy and the punishment of death added to the consequences for participating. 

While these changes were taking place, even some of the original slave states adopted gradual emancipation. 

Let’s be clear. America had slavery. It stained the founding of our nation. It brought controversy into our land and created a racial divide that has never fully recovered. We as Christians must lament the wickedness of our forefathers who supported and protected such an atrocity. 

However, plenty of our founders' words and actions confuse us as to their heart on the matter. While they spoke with condemnation about the practice, some still held slaves. Others freed their slaves or changed positions later in life. Some supported the practice. And some even spoke with disdain over slavery yet retained their slaves. 

No one is perfect, and we must understand that.  

The question is: 


What Did the Founders Say About Slavery? 

Some men, such as John Adams, did not own slaves and felt rather strongly about the institution. 

John Adams said, "Every measure of prudence, therefore, ought to be assumed for the eventual total extirpation of slavery from the United States…. I have, through my whole life, held the practice of slavery in abhorrence." 

Alexander Hamilton did not own slaves and said, "The laws of certain states … give ownership in the service of negroes as personal property…. But being men, by the laws of God and nature, they were capable of acquiring liberty— and when the captor in war …thought fit to give them liberty, the gift was not only valid but irrevocable." 

While some men did not own slaves, others are reported to have owned slaves while passionately defending abolition.  

William Livingston succeeded in banning the Atlantic slave trade in New Jersey in 1786. Mind you, this was 22 years before the national ban took effect. He said, “I hope we shall at last, and if it so please God I hope it may be during my lifetime, see this cursed thing [slavery] taken out. . . . For my part, whether in a public station or a private capacity, I shall always be prompt to contribute my assistance towards effecting so desirable an event.” 

However, accusations through a political plaque placed on the Livingston campus in 2021 state that William Livingston owned two slaves at one point in his life. A woman named Belle and her son Lambert.  

James Madison owned slaves, yet believed in abolishing the slave trade, providing a colony in Africa for freed slaves, and believed that racial relations may not be reconcilable due to slavery. 

He said, "We have seen the mere distinction of colour made in the most enlightened period, a ground of the most oppressive dominion ever exercised by man over man." 

George Mason gave a bitter condemnation of the practice and a tad bit of prophecy by stating, “Every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant. They bring the judgment of Heaven on a country. As nations cannot be rewarded or punished in the next world, they must be in this. By an inevitable chain of causes and effects, Providence punishes national sins by national calamities.” 

Of course, some of the biggest names of our founding also owned slaves, and many wonder whether they were hypocrites or somehow retained their honor. 


Did George Washington Own Slaves? 

Yes. No dancing around the fact that Washington owned slaves. However, the truth of the matter remains larger than just a “Yes” or “No”. 

Unfortunately, until 1782, Virginia law did not allow residents to free their slaves. In 1782, a law was passed which allowed owners of slaves to free them through a will. When Washington died, he released all 123 of his slaves. 

Not only did he free his slaves, but he also provided for many of them by leaving money, property, and jobs.  

While Washington may have freed his slaves, Virginia law stipulated that slaves gained through marriage or “dowry” could not be released by his hand. Those slaves were kept by Martha Washington until her death when they were divided among her grandchildren. 


Did Benjamin Franklin Own Slaves? 

Early on, Benjamin Franklin viewed blacks as having limited mental capacity and being inferior. However, after being invited to involve himself with a school for black children, Franklin quickly changed his heart and mind about the institution of slavery.  

At one point, Benjamin Franklin even said, “Slavery is such an atrocious debasement of human nature, that its very extirpation, if not performed with solicitous care, may sometimes open a source of serious evils.” 

He realized the difference between the capabilities of black children compared to white children was not the result of inferior nature but due to negative environment and harsh conditions.  

He became the president of the anti-slavery society and sought not just abolishing slavery but education and help for black children.  

Most evidence suggests Franklin ordered that his slaves should be freed, with some evidence suggesting he freed them in his will upon his death. With one slave named Bob, Franklin tied his daughter and son-in-law’s inheritance to freeing Bob in his will. 


Thomas Jefferson 

Jefferson stands as one of the most controversial figures in the slavery debate. He stood publicly as extremely vocal against the slave trade and even drafted a Virginia law that prohibited the importation of enslaved Africans.  

He held firm that emancipation would have to be part of the democratic process. However, he felt that maintaining slavery was like “holding a wolf by the ear.” He had witnessed the Haitian revolution and an aborted rebellion in 1800. He felt that whites and blacks were two separate nations, and quickly emancipating black slaves could spell disaster. 

Jefferson even went as far as supporting the effort to recolonize Africa. Such ideas and drive became the inspiration behind the founding of the nation of Liberia in Africa.  

While Jefferson did free seven of his slaves at his death, 260 or so remained enslaved and were given to his children in his will. Some believe Jefferson’s financial issues and major debt resulted in his handing down slaves to help relieve the pressure of debt on his children. 


The Truth About Slavery in America 

Just like anything in history, the truth about American slavery is nuanced. Those who do not know may believe that everyone at the founding of America owned slaves, every founder tried to defend the institution, and abolition only came after the Civil War.  

The truth is that plenty of our founders abhorred slavery, states pressed for legislation to outlaw the slave trade, and the nation itself outlawed the trans-Atlantic slave trade by 1808. While this did not solve the problem of the slave trade within the nation, states continued to restrict or compress the slave owner’s ability to keep their slaves. By 1861 (the start of the Civil War), an obvious backlash against slavery had swelled into the possibility of violence. 

Our founders saw the writing on the wall. The stain of slavery would lead to poor race relations and such a wicked act could bring about God’s judgment on the nation they fought so hard to found. 


Self-Evident Ministries