Day 2 of White History Month: The Founders of the United States
The “Founding Fathers” of the United States are often touted to be the most respectable individuals in the history of the United States. They are said to represent liberty, justice, and freedom. In reality, their purported respect for liberty and freedom did not extend to Black or Native American people, nor to women. The enslavement of Black people was justified by the founders through the use of natural law - this same justification was used to justify the subjugation of Native Americans and women.
Most of the founders were slaveholders and supported slavery and slaveholding as an institution. At the constitutional convention in 1787, at least 40% of the men there were slaveholders. George Washington, for example, lent money to French slaveholders to quash rebellions in Haiti. He earned much of his wealth through the enslavement of Black Americans and theft of land owned by Native Americans.
Thomas Jefferson enslaved hundreds of Black Americans during his lifetime, including his own son, Eston Hemmings (who was not freed until his death). He harshly punished fugitive slaves. When he said “all men were created equal” he was only referring to white men.. In his book, Notes on the State of Virginia, he argued that Black people were naturally inferior. Jefferson was largely responsible for the draft of the Declaration of Independence where he accused the British King of violating the life and liberty of colonists and even of slavery. Even though he occasionally made statements on the harshness of slavery, he supported sending Black people to Africa were they to ever be emancipated.
Benjamin Franklin argued that mixed race Americans were both inferior and degrading to a “lovely” whiteness. Franklin was a slaveholder who later became an abolitionist, yet not for moral reasons. Franklin later opposed it because of the negative affect on the whiteness of the population (despite the fact that most mixed race children were fathered by white men).
Historians may present slavery as a nonissue early in the founding of the United States, but as far back as the 1787 Constitutional Convention, the issue was important. Northern states were moving away from an economy benefiting from slavery and thus some of them began to hold abolitionist sentiments. However, the influence of Southern slaveholders would continue to influence discussions on commerce and taxation, among other things. George Mason, himself a slaveholder, noted the wretchedness of slaveowners saying that “every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant”. He did not, however, note the suffering and extreme oppression suffered by the enslaved Black Americans. Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts was one of three men who refused to sign the constitution in part because of its allowance of slavery - but only because he felt reliance on slavery made the nation vulnerable.
The founding fathers were only looking out for the best interests of white men.