Reflections on President’s Day, Part Two

By SSCCA Headmaster John Dykes

Following my last post, I want now to speak about the “elephant in the room” when we talk about the greatness of our Founding Fathers.  The issue that has gained much attention recently with regard to the founders was their concern for and their acceptance of human bondage.  When we teach history at SSCCA, we do not overlook the sins of our past.  This is why revising our U.S. history books (as has become common in government-run schools), or destroying historic monuments in order to fit a certain narrative, is a very bad idea.  At SSCCA we believe that we need to be truth seekers. We need to understand and acknowledge our mistakes, without an agenda.  By doing this, we can repent for, and learn from the sins of the past.

In the Old Testament, the Bible is clear that “man stealing” was punishable by death.  There is and was no excuse for the forcible kidnapping of human beings, for forced labor or for any other reason.   One major flaw of our Founding Fathers was that they were not able to dissolve the scourge of slavery when they enacted the Declaration and the Constitution, our founding documents.  That mistake was seen later by Abraham Lincoln as the sin that caused the bloodletting that was our Civil War.  Both North and South were to blame for this atrocity.

If we look back to June 11, 1776, we see a time in our nation’s history when Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman and Robert Livingston joined together to review the rough draft of the Declaration that Thomas Jefferson was writing to King George III.  Seventeen days later, the men presented their final draft to the Continental Congress. Edits and debates over content were pursued before the final approval was given on July 4.  Their grievances against King George originally contained a section that denounced slavery. It was written by Jefferson, who ironically was himself a slave owner.  The following is an excerpt from Jefferson’s initial writing:

“He (King George) 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 statement was edited out of the final document of the Declaration.   This was unfortunate, as this document set the tone for the future United States Constitution.

The representatives at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 were not able to accomplish the abolition of the slave trade or the emancipation of slaves.  This was primarily because the southern states opposed it due to economic interest, and the Founders valued the unity of states over solving this critical issue.  In hindsight, we can see things much more clearly over 200 years later. In scrutinizing other times and people, it is sometimes difficult to consider the circumstances that prevailed at the time.  Things seem straightforward on the surface and yet in reality, the complexities involved are difficult to comprehend.

Abraham Lincoln addressed this issue in his Peoria speech in 1854.  He said that “The Founders put slavery on the path to ultimate extinction.” Lincoln returned to politics in in 1854 because he opposed the expansion of slavery proposed in the Kansas Nebraska Act.  While running for president, Lincoln stated in that Peoria speech and in many other speeches that “The founding fathers opposed slavery. They adopted a Declaration of Independence that pronounced all men created equal. They enacted the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 banning slavery from the vast Northwest Territory. It is a sad fact, many of the founders owned slaves. But they asserted their hostility to slavery in principle while tolerating it temporarily (as they hoped) in practice. This is the reason why they did not mention the words “slave” or “slavery” in the Constitution, but referred only to “persons held to service.” “Thus, the thing is hid away, in the constitution,” said Lincoln, “just as an afflicted man hides away a wen or a cancer, which he dares not cut out at once, lest he bleed to death; with the promise, nevertheless, that the cutting may begin at the end of a given time.” The first step was to prevent the spread of this cancer, which the fathers took with the Northwest Ordinance, the prohibition of the African slave trade in 1807, and the Missouri Compromise restriction of 1820. The second was to begin a process of gradual emancipation, which the generation of the fathers had accomplished in the states north of Maryland.

Three of the first four founding presidents owned slaves.  John Adams was the only exception.   Washington emancipated his slaves upon his death.  He was the only southern signer of the constitution to do so. He also gave half of his wealth to his slave and Assistant Billy Lee.   Adams owned no slaves and advocated and supported emancipation, but wrongly concluded that the institution of slavery would dissolve quickly as it was becoming very unpopular among American citizens.  He said “my opinion against it has always been known,” noting that he “always employed freemen both as Domisticks and Labourers, and never in my Life did I own a Slave.”  Adams’ son, our 6th President John Quincy Adams, was our country’s strongest advocate against slavery, both as President and later in the House of Representatives.  

Thomas Jefferson supported legislation that banned the slave trade in Virginia, fought for and saw the slave trade nationally outlawed during his Presidency in 1807, and oversaw a law/ordinance banning slavery in the new territories of the Northwest.  He supported gradual emancipation but was not able to free most of his slaves at his death.  He freed only 5 of his 130 slaves when he died.  The others were sold to pay off his debt, as they were lawfully seen as property.  He educated his slaves and taught them the Bible even though it was at the time illegal to do so.  The living conditions of Jefferson’s slaves was better than most laboring whites in the North and yet, they were not freed.  James Madison owned slaves, opposed the slave trade, supported a gradual emancipation of slaves, and yet denied the possibility of an interracial society.   

In the light of this information, we can see that although the Founders were great men who stood on the shoulders of giants, these Founding Fathers of America (Adams included), were all flawed in various ways. They lived among a sinful people who needed to be awakened to the great offense that was before them.  This includes many southern pastors who openly supported the institution.

The Founders are not to be despised, but we should learn from their mistakes.  Former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass regarded our constitution as being fundamentally opposed to slavery.  When he toured with William Lloyd Garrison, Garrison would burn the Constitution, but Douglass saw that as an error, as he appreciated the Constitution as a “Glorious Liberty Document.” When Jim Crow later made its disgusting presence known in the South, Douglass, although troubled, did not give up the fight.  He said “There is no Negro problem…the problem is whether American people will have honesty enough, loyalty enough, honor enough, patriotism enough to live up to their own constitution!”

That was always the problem in America and it is still our challenge even now.

ROMANS 2:11 – 13…”For there is no respect of persons with God. For as many as have sinned without law shall also perish without law: and many as have sinned in the law shall be judged by the law; (for not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified.”

For continued reading:

Fredrick Douglass, Self Made Man by Timothy Sandefur