The Founders and Slavery
paul-finkelman at UTULSA.EDU
Mon Apr 17 17:49:32 PDT 2000
Since I raised the question, I suppose I should answer it. Jefferson spent
most of his career protecting slavery and doing nothing to either stop its
spread or phase it out. As chair of the committee to revise the laws of Va.
he sat on a gradual emancipation statute and did not let it even come to the
floor; as President he used everything in his power to undermine the
government in Haiti, to "destroy the black republic" as his son-in-law, who
was a Congressman, put it in the House of Representatives. When Edward Coles
asked Jefferson to endorse his own plan to free his slaves and to endorse
gradual emancipation (and this was after Jefferson was out of hte
presidency), Jefferson urged Coles to keep his slaves and refused to take a
stand against slavery. I have written a great deal about this in my book,
_Slavery and the Founders: Race and Liberty in the Age of Jefferson_ (M.E.
Sharpe, 1996) and I do not want to bore the list-serve with more details.
Madison is more complex. Unlike Jefferson, Madison refused to sell slaves to
pay for his high life style, but he also never freed any of his slaves either
(TJ freed three in his lifetime and five in his will, while the other 200
were sold off; he also sold over 80 in the 1780s and 90s to pay his debts).
Madison also refused to take a public stand against slavery, to support
gradual emancipation, in contract to people like St. George Tucker, who
published a proposal and then added it to his American edition of
Blackstone. Between 1782 and 1810 the free black population in Va. rose from
2,000 to about 30,000 -- almost all of this growth was from voluntary
manumissions of slaves by people who took the words of the Declaration of
Independence and the words of the Sermon on the Mount seriously. Among these
were George Washington and George Wythe. Jefferson and Madison, being
deists, probably were not concerned with the Sermon; being republicans, they
claimed they were concerned with the D. of I. Again, I discuss most of this
in greater detail in _Slavery and the Founders_
On attempting to persuade the Va. legislature toabolish slavery, they never
attempted it at all. And, as I noted above, Jefferson used his power to
prevent others from even proposing it.
Leslie Goldstein wrote:
> It has for a long time been my impression, confirmed ina variety of
> sources, that both Jefferson and Madison sincerely , and once nearly
> successfully, endeavored to persuade their state legislature to abolish
> slavery. Yet Finkelman says they "favored and supported" it. Do i have
> my facts wrong?
> Leslie Goldstein
> Paul Finkelman wrote:
> > Indeed, to use West's terms, I would ask him what exactly does he think
> > such founders as Madison, Jefferson, Mason, Henry, the Pinckneys,
> > Pierce Butler, James Iredell, and even John Marshall, thought about
> > "protecting freedom" and "the basic freedom of employers to hire the
> > people they want" when in fact all of them favored and supported and
> > participated in a system that denied freedom to most of their workers.
Chapman Distinguished Professor of Law
University of Tulsa College of Law
3120 East Fourth Place
Tulsa, OK 74104-2499
paul-finkelman at utulsa.edu
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