The institution of slavery has been the rule more than the exception throughout human history. Thanks to the repudiation of slavery by Western civilization, a moral sea change began to slowly sweep the world that would eventually topple this institution. The Founding Fathers lived at the cusp of this transition. George Washington owned slaves but grew to detest the practice of slavery. He wished for “a plan adopted for the abolition of it.” He freed all his slaves at the end of his life.
Thomas Jefferson owned slaves but included a harsh condemnation of slavery in his first draft of the Declaration of Independence. It was removed at the insistence of certain southern slave-holding delegates. To insist on the abolition of slavery would have meant the abolition of the United States and the unrestrained spread of slavery in the west.
Rather than throw away this giant step toward universal freedom, the anti-slavery founders compromised with pro-slavery founders that secured the continuation of slavery while planting seeds for its eventual destruction. They discontinued the slave trade, banned slavery in new territories, and placed slave owners in the uncomfortable position of supporting the notion that “all men are created equal.” Indeed, the movement to abolish slavery which first began in the United States led the way in bringing about the end of legalized slavery.
To think the Founders hypocritical because they both owned slaves and fought for freedom is a mistake. Giant shifts in cultural morals do not happen overnight. They start as an idea limited in scope, and then once accepted, broaden out to include more people groups or more contexts.
For example, in 1776, the right to vote was not extended to all white men, but only to land-owners. Thus many whites and blacks were denied the right to vote at first. In 1792, New Hampshire became the first state to eliminate the voting requirement of land ownership, thus allowing most white men to vote. In 1828, Maryland became the first state to eliminate religious restrictions on voting rights. In 1870, black men were permitted to vote (but some states imposed racist regulations to make voting difficult or impossible for them). Fifty years later, in 1920, women won the right to vote. Voting rights were hardly a white vs black issue, but rather a right that spread to more and more people groups over time. Even as late as 1960, residents of Washington D.C. were not allowed to vote for President!
In our day, environmentalists who believe that global warming is “an existential threat” to human life on this planet still drive cars, use electricity, and enjoy air conditioning. Like slave-owners in the 1770’s who would not have survived without slaves, environmentalists today can’t imagine living and being effective without the necessary conveniences of life powered by fossil fuels. Are they hypocrites? John Kerry flies in private jets, and vacations in gigantic carbon-burning yachts. Al Gore, author of “An Inconvenient Truth,” lives in a 10,000 square foot home. A new analysis by the National Center for Public Policy Research found that Gore’s Tennessee home “guzzles more electricity in one year than the average American family uses in 21 years.” If the Founders were hypocrites, then so are the environmentalists of our day.
Martin Luther King Jr. did not claim that the American ideal of “all men are created equal” was hypocritical or a lie but rather that it was not been fully extended to all Americans. He wanted this great idea, thrust on the world stage by the courageous members of the Founding generation, to be equally applied to blacks as it was to whites. For Martin Luther King, Jr., the concept of equality wasn’t evil, it was incomplete.
History is not simply oppressor vs oppressed as Marxist historians would like you to believe; it is much more complex, colorful, and captivating than that.