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How The Founding Fathers Fought For An End To Slavery


Denise and Frederic W. Henderson


This article first appeared in The American Almanac, March 15, 1993.



Cotton Mather

Benjamin Franklin

Alexander Hamilton and John Jay

Thomas Jefferson, George Mason, James Madison

Christopher Gadsden and Henry Laurens
David Rice


    Throughout this nation's history, there have been those, both historians and politicians, who have tried to convince themselves and others that the founders of this nation did not really believe the language they included in our Constitution and Declaration of Independence; did not really believe that the principles of republicanism upon which they created this nation were truly universal. This idea, born either of ignorance or a willful attempt to distort the truth, resulted in great tragedy for the nation: in the years prior to the Civil War, many, both North and South, believed this. Many in the years since, and to this day, do so, as well.

    We, however, like the great Americans Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, and Dr. Martin Luther King, know otherwise; We, like they, know that those who have adopted another view have chosen to propagate a lie; and that we, as Mr. Lincoln and Dr. King did so eloquently, must, rather than discard those principles, force this nation to live up to them.

    The institution of human slavery and its legacy, planted on these shores by those institutions and policy makers against whom our ancestors made a Revolution, have been the curse, the evil which undermined those principles, and very nearly destroyed this nation. It has also been an easily manipulable issue used to claim that those principles were a sham. However, our forefathers were not hypocrites, and those principles, though stained and soiled by compromise, still represent the most magnificent upon which any nation has ever attempted to erect a government. What follows is a sampling of the outlook of the best of those leaders who created America, who, from the very earliest point understood the evils of slavery, that its existence served the interests only of those who were the enemies of republicanism, and thus fought to destroy it.


Cotton Mather

   In 1689, Cotton Mather, the great scientist and one of the staunch defenders of American liberty, wrote ``An Essay to Excite and Assist the Good Work, the Instruction of Negro-Servants in Christianity.'' Although to a reader who takes Mather's essay literally, Mather may seem only to be appealing to New England slaveowners to Christianize their slaves, a close reading of the ``Essay'' will reveal that Mather was expressing his abhorrence of the slave trade and the owning of slaves, as well as attempting to appeal to slaveowners' humanity to recognize that by Christianizing their own slaves, they would find themselves living up to true Christian principles; and by doing so, the slaveowner might re-discover as a universal principle, the ``Lovely Laws of God,'' and thus come to an understanding that the master as well as the slave ought to strive to embody a higher principle on earth.

    Excerpts from Mather's ``Essay'' follow.

    What can be more imperative than those words of the Christian Law, Col. 4.1, ``Masters, give unto your servants, that which is just and equal, knowing that ye also have a master in Heaven.''? Of what servants is this Injunction to be understood? Verily, of slaves. For servants were generally such, at the time of writing the New Testament. Wherefore, masters, as it is ``just and equal,'' that your servants be not overwrought, and that while they work for you, you should feed them, and clothe them, and afford convenient rest unto them, and make their lives comfortable; so it is ``just and equal,'' that you should acquaint them, as far as you can, with the way to salvation by Jesus Christ. You deny your master in Heaven, if you do nothing to bring your servants unto the knowledge and service of the glorious master. One table of the Ten  Commandments has this for the sum of it: ``Thou shalt Love thy Neighbor as thyself.'' Man, thy Negro is thy neighbor. 'Twere an ignorance unworthy of a man to imagine otherwise. Yea, if thou dost grant, ``That God hath made of one blood, all nations of men,'' he is thy brother too. Now canst thou love thy Negro, and be willing to see him lie under the rage of sin, and the wrath of God? Canst thou love him, and yet refuse to do anything, that his miserable soul may be rescued from eternal miseries? Oh! Let thy love to that poor soul, appear in thy concern, to make it, if thou canst, as happy as thy own! We are commanded, [in] Galatians 6:10, ``As we have opportunity let us do good unto all men, especially unto them, who are of the household of faith.'' Certainly, we have ``opportunity'' to ``do good'' unto our servants, who are of our own household; certainly, we may do something to make them good, and bring them to be of the ``household of faith.'' In a word, all the Commandments in the Bible, which bespeak our charge to the souls of others ... do oblige us, to do what we can, for the souls of our Negroes. They are more nearly related ... to us, than many other are; we are more fully capable to do for them, than for many others....


    Are they worthy to be counted Christians, who are content tho' a part of their families remain heathen, who do not know God, nor call upon His Name? We read, I Tim. 5.8: ``If any provide not for his own, and especially those of his own house, he has denied the Faith, and is worse than an Infidel.'' And what is he, who does ``provide'' nothing for the Souls of those whom God has made ``his own;'' that their souls may be fed with the Bread of Life and clothed with the garments of Righteousness, and healed of the deadly wounds which their fall from God has brought upon them! What is he, who is willing that those of ``his own house'' remain strangers to the Faith, and wretched ``Infidels''? Householder, call thyself anything but a Christian? As for that worthy name.... Do not pretend unto it; thou art not worthy of it. If thou wilt name the name of Christ, in denominating thyself a Christian, then depart from this iniquity of leaving thy servants to continue the servants of iniquity.... For a man to profess a religion, and care not a straw, whether anybody besides himself be of it; certainly, that mean profession is not worth a straw; it can be no sincere profession.... Shall Christians fall short of Mahometans, or of Idolaters? The Pagan Japanese were too much in the right on it, when they conclude a certain worldly generation of Europeans, to be no Christians; because they declined the doing of anything for the propagation of Christianity. The Christians who have no concern upon their minds to have Christianity propagated, never can justify themselves. They say they are Christians, but they are not; What they are, we know not. All along the Pagans themselves, have made it the main stroke in the definition of a good man; he is ``one who does all the Good that he can.'' The greatest Good that we can do for any, is to bring them unto the fullest acquaintance with Christianity. Will Christianity allow him then to be, a ``good man,'' or, which is the same thing, a Christian, who refuses to do this Good, for the servants that are under his influence?... Now, Christianity is, the way of the Lord. Householder, there are servants pertaining to thy household. It is a mighty power which thou hast over them; A despotic power which gives thee numberless advantages, to call them, and lead them into the way of the Lord. Art thou regardless of bringing them into Christianity?... But what shall we say of it, when masters that would be thought Christians already shall even refuse to have the servants in their families duly Christianized? Pray, deal faithfully; don't mince the matter; say of it, as it is; It is a prodigy of wickedness; it is a prodigious inconsistency, with true Christianity!... Art thou a Christian? Then thou dost pray for thy servants, that they may become the servants of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the children of God, and not fall short of entering into Rest. What! Pray for this; and yet never do anything for it! It is impossible, or such praying, is but mocking of God! Art thou a Christian?... No; When such Christians appear before the Glorious Lord, it will be in vain for them to plead, that they called him Lord, and own'd Him for their Lord.... Suppose that language were heard from the mouth of a master concerning a servant: ``If I can have the labor of the slave, that's all I care for. Let this soul go and be damned for all time!'', would not every Christian say, this were language for the mouth of a devil.... Consider, sirs, whether deeds have not a language in them, as well as words; a plainer language than words....

    If you withhold knowledge from your black people, they will be destroyed. But their destruction must very much lie at your door; and you must answer for it.... You have yourselves renounced Christianity, if you do not receive that faithful saying of it, and most awful one: every one of us shall give account of himself to God. But then remember, that one article of your account will be this: You had poor Negroes under you, and you expected and exacted revenues of profit from them.... Vain dreamer; canst thou suppose that the Negroes are made for nothing but only to serve thy pleasures, or that they owe no homage to their Maker?...

    It has been cavilled, by some, that it is questionable whether the Negroes have rational souls, or no. But let that brutish insinuation be never whispered any more. Certainly, their discourse, will abundantly prove, that they have reason. Reason shows itself in the design which they daily act upon. The vast improvement that education has made upon some of them, argues that there is a reasonable soul in all of them.... They are men and not beasts that you have bought, and they must be used accordingly. 'Tis true; They are barbarous. But so were our own ancestors. The Britons were in many things as barbarous, but a little before our Savior's Nativity, as the Negroes are at this time if there be any credit in Caesars Commentaries. Christianity will be the best cure for this barbarity. Their complexion sometimes is made an argument, why nothing should be done for them. A gay sort of argument! As if the great God went by the complexion of Men, in His favors to them! As if none but whites might hope to be favored and accepted with God! Whereas it is well known, that the whites are the least part of Mankind. The biggest part of mankind, perhaps, are copper-colored; a sort of tawny.... The God who ``looks on the heart,'' is not moved by the color of the skin; is not more propitious to one color than another....

    Man, if ... a slave bought with thy money, were by thy means brought unto the things that accompany salvation, and thou shouldst from this time have no more service from him, your money were not thrown away. That man's money will purify not him, who had rather the souls in his family should perish, than that he should lose a little money....

    There must be time allowed for the work [of converting slaves to Christianity]. And why not the

Lord's Day: the precept of God concerning the Sabbath, is very positive: ``Remember the Sabbath Day, to keep it holy. Thou shalt not then do any work, thou nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy man-servant, nor thy maid-servant.'' By virtue of this precept, we do even demand the Lord's Day for the Negroes: that they may be permitted the freedom of the Lord's Day, and not be then unnecessarily diverted from attending on such means of instruction, as may be afforded unto them.

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