Slavery: The Original Sin of the Founding Fathers

This reassessment of the history of American slavery is aimed at explaining how it evolved and misconceptions about it. In order to make its jarring issues accessible, I will refer to available sources in the text rather than add footnotes to volumes in scholarly library. My primary source is Peter Kolchin’s American Slavery: 1619-1877, first published in 1993 and updated in 2003, a highly regarded overview of historians’ debate about the evolution of slavery practices in the colonies and later the states.

Many Americans know little about their own history before the 20th century, let alone the world, so it might be surprising to realize that slavery existed in most societies prior to the 19th century. The ancient Greeks and Romans, on whose achievements much of Western civilization was founded, saw nothing wrong with enslaving others (most of the victims were captured in war).

The Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century influenced the Founding Fathers to believe that slavery was an evil institution that would soon fade away for moral and economic reasons. Yet some owned slaves, and it is important to understand how they reconciled this with their ideals and how different the “peculiar institution” was at the time of the American Revolution compared with what it became over the course of seven decades leading to Civil War.

Before the Revolution

The first African slaves to arrive in the American colonies were 19 taken from a captured Spanish ship by Dutch traders in 1619 and sold in Jamestown, Virginia. Also early on were indentured servants; many Europeans would pay for their transportation to the colonies, room and board, and job training, with the servants working four to seven years (more than half of American immigrants in the 17th and 18th centuries fit this category). Some criminals were released to serve out their sentences in the colonies as indentured servants.

In 1640, a Virginia court punished an escaped African indentured servant by making him a slave (two whites with him had only another year tacked on to their contract). Massachusetts, which would become the first colony to outlaw slavery, was the first to legalize it under certain conditions, in 1641: only if the individual was captured in war, he or she sold himself into slavery, or was sentenced by a court.

By 1680, blacks comprised 4.6% of the population of the British colonies, and laws dealing with them and slavery were still evolving. Many were not only free, but also landowners, and relations between the races were good.

Another twist involved the new colony of Georgia slavery. James Oglethorpe, a member of Parliament and social reformer, saw the problem in England of releasing debtors from prison who had no means to make a living. So in 1732 he sailed with fellow Brits to found Georgia, where they started planting the first cotton. But in 1749, because they couldn’t attract enough indentured servants to work the fields, slavery was legalized. Slaves in Georgia and South Carolina accounted for 17% of the total colonial population. They tended to be loosely managed, starting on a task in the morning and ending when it was completed.

In 1750, tobacco was the primary commercial crop in Virginia and Maryland. The two colonies had 61% of the American slaves, most in small groups. In the Chesapeake area, more than half the owners had five or less and worked in the fields with them. In the backcountry of Virginia, most farmers owned no slaves. In 1774, Thomas Jefferson had 45 on his Monticello plantation, with 142 spread over six other properties.

Many did valued tasks. The enslaved in George Washington’s Home House included carpenters, spinners, smiths, seamstresses, those working in stables, and domestic servants. In South Carolina and Georgia, both of which had fewer whites, masters were even more dependent on slaves who were highly skilled.

The groups were small, thus had few overseers. Physical punishment, even brutality, was common, but it wasn’t simply a matter of racism. This was a time of widespread corporal punishment against the white underclass in the colonies and Britain.

As the 18th century progressed, extreme violence was used less often against whites, and American society began to disapprove of cruelty to slaves. This came about in part because of “natural human rights,” plus the Great Awakening, religious revivals beginning in the 1740s that saw slaves as having souls that needed care. Also, many masters grew up with slaves and had affection for them. This can be discerned in diaries, but the writers were neither honest with themselves about their punishments nor aware of how slaves felt about them.

A paternalistic attitude was encouraged by church and political leaders, and the welfare of slaves, especially their health, had an obvious pragmatic aspect (consequently, slaves under rich owners often had more food and better medical care than poor whites).

Colonies Become States

By 1770, the percentage of blacks in the Northern states was 4.4% vs. the South’s 39.7%. Despite almost universal racism and discrimination against African Americans in the North, its limited agricultural economy made it harder to see an economic justification for slaves of any race.

Rhode Island made it illegal to import slaves in 1774,and other states followed (though some later reversed this). Four years later, Little Rhody was also the first to offer freedom to any who fought for the Revolution and provided compensation to their owners. General Washington extended the offer to all slaves, and by the Battle of Yorktown (Virginia) in 1781 one officer estimated that a quarter of American soldiers were black, both bondsmen and free.

Meanwhile, the British announced they would free any slaves who fought for them. At the end of the war, in 1783, the redcoats evacuated thousands. Between those who escaped and who died fighting on both sides or from disease, 5% of all Southern blacks were no longer slaves by the end of the war. The hardest hit was South Carolina, which lost 25,000;from 1770 to 1790, the percentage of blacks there fell from 60.5% to 43.8%.

After the war, those who remained slaves by and large had more autonomy. Tobacco and rice prices had fallen, so demand for slaves was slack. Work regimens were relaxed, slaves were allowed to visit relatives on other plantations, and fewer severe punishments were administered. Some owners freed their enslaved for personal reasons, known as private manumissions. Others encouraged their slaves to become more active in churches.

Kolchin wrote:

Patriots commonly denounced the “slavery” they suffered at the hands of the British. …Clearly they did not believe that they were slaves in the same sense that their own chattels were—the irony of fighting a war for liberty at the same time that they held one-third of their own population was not lost upon them. …

A few Americans became abolitionists. …Others took their own action to end their own association with what they regarded as an immoral institution. …Even among the great majority of slave owners who never freed their slaves, however, there was widespread unease about an institution that seemed backward and unenlightened. Many agreed with Thomas Jefferson that slavery was wrong, both for moral and practical reasons, and would, if properly curtailed, suffer a natural and peaceful death.

One reason they thought the practice would fade was because Adam Smith had declared, in his classic The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, that slavery violated central principles of capitalism by preventing the free buying and selling of labor and removing the incentive of workers to become more productive. As capitalism increased, the argument went, this retrograde practice would be abandoned.

Jefferson was one of the most outspoken of the Founders against slavery. He had written in the Declaration of Independence in 1775, “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.” He had written sharp criticism of slavery in the first draft, but the Continental Congress took it out during the revision process.

Like other Founders, Jefferson had inherited slaves and felt conflicted about having them. In an economy with little cash, Jefferson, Washington were among those burdened with debt and felt it necessary to use their slaves as collateral for loans. By and large, the Founders were not known for brutal treatment of their slaves, although some, notably Jefferson, did father children with them.

Jefferson does deserve credit for having tried to pass laws significantly restricting slavery four times, succeeding twice. In 1783 he proposed a new constitution for Virginia, which included “a bold abolitionist clause: the new General Assembly would not have the power ‘to permit the introduction of any more slaves to reside in this state or the continuation of slavery beyond this generation,’” wrote John Boles in Jefferson: Architect of American Liberty. “However, he was disappointed in his attempts at constitution making: In the end the state did not call a special convention. …Even had it met, Jefferson’s proposal to end slavery would have gone nowhere.”

As a member of the Continental Congress, he authored a bill in 1784 that would have made slavery illegal in all Western territories. Jefferson’s proposal failed by one vote. He didn’t give up. In 1784, before going to France to help negotiate commercial treaties, he wrote a bill that was revised and implemented in 1787 as the Northwest Ordinance, outlawing slavery in what would become Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota. Finally, as president in 1808, he pushed through a national ban on importing new slaves.


By 1787 the Articles of Confederation, which had been adopted six years earlier to govern the states, had failed to solve critical problems. One of the foremost was the war debt, owed to American and European individuals and governments. It was unpaid because the central government had little power to raise money beyond asking states for help and imposing tariffs on imports. A default on the debt would ruin the new nation’s credit.

James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and other leaders convinced George Washington to come out of retirement to preside over what was ostensibly a convention to reform the Articles. The delegates soon decided that the only way forward was to scrap them in favor of a new Constitution, but the debates were fierce. One thorny issue was how much power to give the federal government over the states, which were seriously jealous of their rights.

Another was the demand by large states for representation in the new Congress according to their population. In the Confederation, each state had only one vote. The small states refused to change the formula because the large ones would obviously dictate policy, they argued. Eventually, the delegates agreed to have a House of Representatives based on proportionate population and a Senate with two votes for each state to provide a balance of legislative power.

Then they confronted the problem of how to count slaves in the formula for population. The anti-slavery faction pointed out that since slaves had no right to vote, they should not be counted. The small states in the North were especially alarmed by the political leverage that black numbers would give the slave states.

Allen Guelzo, in his Teaching Co. audiovisual course America’s Founding Fathers, said:

The convention did not spend much time on the subject of slavery for the first two months. Of the 55 delegates, just under half of them were slave owners, and 19 of them relied heavily on their slaves to provide their livelihood and leisure.

The Articles of Confederation were originally supposed to levy assessments on states based on wealth, but in 1783, the difficulties in making this sort of determination moved the Congress to switch the basis to population, counting slaves as only three-fifths of a person. This had nothing to do with representation, because the Confederation had fixed representation in Congress.

The Committee on Detail hoped the three-fifths formula could be made to work again, but they had not counted on Rufus King.

King, representing New York, came from a slave-owning family, yet he led the fight against this formula. Supporting him were Gouverneur Morris, also from New York, and Luther Martin, a Marylander who owned six slaves. Martin warned that the formula would encourage slave owners to import more, giving more political power to their states. He was joined by George Mason of Virginia, one of the largest slave owners among the delegates, who declared it was time to prevent an increase in the number of slaves: “This infernal traffic originated in the avarice of British merchants and the British government.”

The South Carolina delegates refused to budge. Madison concluded, “Great as the evil is, a dismemberment of the union would be worse.”The convention voted in favor of the three-fifths formula. The Founders avoided mentioning slavery explicitly in the Constitution, referring euphemistically to “other persons” and “persons held in service or labor.”

Guelzo added:

In years to come, people would debate whether the convention had managed to encourage or discourage slavery. …The optimists in the historical profession understand slavery in the new republic as a contradiction of the fundamentals of American independence, which the convention set about undermining—but slowly and subtly. No effort was made to convert slavery into a nationally legalized institution, holding off what could have been a fatal slide toward enshrining a race barrier. The national government was given power to regulate slave imports and abolish the Atlantic slave trade. Even the concession of a provision authorizing the rendition of fugitive slaves across state boundaries was so vaguely worded that no one knew quite how to enforce it.

Progressive historians are more pessimistic. …They conclude that the Founders’ failure to demolish slavery in 1787 suggests that the Constitution actually entrenched slavery more deeply.

Prelude to the Civil War

Reliable statistics on the number of free blacks in the 13 colonies prior to the Revolution are lacking. By 1782, Virginia reported 1,800 out of a total African American population of 221,000, or less than 1%.

By 1810, the total of free blacks in the original states, plus the new state of Ohio and the territories, including the District of Columbia, had risen to 186,446, or 13.5%, concentrated in the Upper South and the North; in the latter, three-quarters were free, while the Louisiana Territory, purchased in 1803, had many “free people of color” with mixed-race parentage. Most of these were due to slavery being outlawed by states or private manumissions, but after 1810 few slaves would be freed.

As some of the Founders predicted, slave owners rushed to import more from Africa before the expected federal ban was imposed in 1808. Blacks in the colonies in 1780, most enslaved, numbered566,000. The first census, in 1790, registered 694,000 slaves. By 1810, the number had reached 1.1 million. Despite loss from disease, blacks rose to 3.9 million by 1860.

The number of slaves per owner increased from the handful during the Revolution to much larger holdings by the Civil War: a quarter had nine or less; half had 10-49; another quarter had 50 or more, though only 2.4% had over 198.

A spark that bulged plantations and the number of slaves on each was Eli Whitney’s cotton gin patent in 1794. The laborious process of slaves having to separate the seeds by hand was automated so that one gin could clean 55 pounds a day. Only 3,000 bales had been produced in 1790. On the eve of the Civil War, this had risen to 4 million a year, three-quarters of them exported, mostly to Britain, with a value exceeding all other American exports combined. More cotton led to demand for more slaves.

Louisiana, which had enormous rice plantations, was added as a slave state in 1813. Other states joining the Union over the coming decades had ideal climates for cotton, and slaves were moved to meet demand for labor in Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Florida and Texas.

With their outsized political power that dominated Southern congressional delegations, the planter elite ensured that in the 72 years between the election of Washington and the election of Abraham Lincoln, slave owners held the presidency for 50 of those years.

With the increase in plantation size and demand for highly-profitable cotton, the price for slaves rose fast. More overseers took charge of slave gangs and were held accountable for productivity. A witness to a mid-19th century slave auction reported that three-quarters of males had scars from whipping.

The Fugitive Slave Act passed in 1850 required law enforcement and citizens of free states to return escaped slaves, incensing those who opposed slavery. Former slaves like Frederick Douglass, who had escaped in 1838, were popular circuit speakers. In 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel depicting the life of slaves, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, inflamed a wide audience far beyond the abolitionists.

In 1854, battles between pro- and anti-slavery settlers broke out in Kansas over whether to admit it as a free or slave state. Abolitionist John Brown and his supporters killed five slavery proponents in Pottawatomie, way to the territory’s east, in 1856 at the start of his violent crusade that would end three years later with the raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia, crushed by a force led by Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee.

The stage for the Civil War had been set.

By Scott S. Smith

Scott S. Smith has written hundreds of published articles on American and world history, focusing especially on leaders and innovators in all fields, including Cyrus the Great, Hannibal, Joan of Arc, Catherine the Great, Simone Bolivar, Frederick Douglass, President Ulysses S. Grant, Nikola Tesla, Helen Keller, George Washington Carver, Admiral Hyman Rickover, and Thomas Watson Jr. He is the author of Extraordinary People: Real Life Lessons on What It Takes to Achieve Success

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