January 8, 2020
By Timothy Sandefur
Recent months have seen a lot of discussion over the relationship between America’s founding and the awful institution of slavery. According to some writers, the Founding Fathers took a pro-slavery position and drafted the Constitution with the intention of protecting slavery on a permanent basis. Others take a more moderate view: The Founders may not have been pro-slavery, but they also didn’t oppose it, and they never intended, when they wrote the Declaration of Independence, that the phrase “all men are created equal” would include black Americans. Instead, it was abolitionists in the 19th century who began re-interpreting the Declaration as an anti-slavery document.
In the new online journal The Dispatch, I argue that this, too, is wrong. The Declaration of Independence meant just what it said—and that’s why slavery’s defenders in the years before the Civil War, were so eager to repudiate it outright or to twist or ignore its words. Excerpt:
The reality is that the authors of the Declaration and the Constitution were quite clear in their understanding that slavery was “a bad thing”—so much so that it would be tedious to quote examples to prove their virtual unanimity on that point. They also understood that it was irreconcilable with the Declaration’s self-evident truth of equality…. Of course, recognizing slavery’s evil was the easy part. Vastly more complex was the question of how to end it. Wealthy and powerful slaveholders were not simply going to surrender their human property—and delegates to the Constitutional Convention were quite aware that overt efforts to restrict it would drive Georgia, South Carolina, and possibly other states out of the union. Worse, many leaders, including Jefferson, feared that immediate emancipation would provoke a race war, and possibly war between the states. The whole problem was unprecedented: No society had ever abolished slavery before.
Timothy Sandefur is the Vice President for Litigation at the Goldwater Institute.