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How The Founding Fathers Fought For An End To Slavery


Denise and Frederic W. Henderson




Alexander Hamilton and John Jay


    Others of the original founders of the nation, like Washington, Hamilton and Jay all worked and organized to rid the newly formed nation of the evil institution. In 1786, just prior to the constitutional convention in 1787, Hamilton and others signed a petition to the New York state legislature urging an end to the slave trade, which he identified as ``a commerce so repugnant to humanity, and so inconsistent with the liberality and justice which should distinguish a free and enlightened people.'' This petition was widely circulated in the press and otherwise. Hamilton, along with John Jay, its first President, was instrumental in organizing the ``New York Society for Promoting the Manumission of Slaves and Protecting Such of Them as Have been or may be liberated.'' Hamilton served as its second President, succeeding John Jay. He held this position, throughout the whole of his term as secretary of the treasury, and up until his death in 1804.

    He also, along with Washington, and Gen. Nathaniel Greene, considered the active, and ongoing effort to organize black regiments into the Continental Army, as a key step in bringing about emancipation. Hamilton wrote the following, in support of a project of Gen. Washington, Col. John Laurens, and Gen. Nathaneal Greene for recruiting South Carolina blacks to serve in the Continental Army, in a letter in March of 1779, to John Jay, then President of Congress. (Washington, Greene and Col. David Humphreys had already successfully done the same with several regiments of blacks from northern states).

I foresee that this project will have to combat much opposition from the prejudice and selfinterest. The contempt we have been taught to entertain for the blacks, makes us fancy many things that are founded neither in reason nor experience; and an unwillingness to part with property of so valuable a kind, furnish a thousand arguments to show the impracticibility, or pernicious tendency, of a scheme which requires such sacrifices. But it should be considered, that if we do not make use of them in this way, the enemy probably will; and that the best way to counteract the temptations they will hold out, will be to offer them ourselves. An essential part of the plan is to give them their freedom with their swords. This will secure their fidelity, animate their courage, and, I believe, will have a good influence upon those who remain, by opening a door to their emancipation. This circumstance, I confess, has no small weight in inducing me to wish the success of the project; for the dictates of humanity, and true policy, equally interest me in favor of this unfortunate class of men....

    Other of the founders uttered similar, if not stronger, sentiments. John Jay wrote in 1780:

An excellent law might be made out of the Pennsylvania one for the gradual abolition of slavery. Till America comes into this measure, her prayers to Heaven for liberty will be impious. This is a strong expression, but it is just. Were I in your Legislature, I would prepare a bill for the purpose with great care; and I would never cease moving it till it became a law, or I ceased to be a member. I believe God governs the world; and I believe it to be a maxim in his as in our court, that those who ask for equity ought to do it.

    Jay would write again in 1785, on the eve of the effort to create the Constitional form of government ultimately adopted:

It is much to be wished that slavery may be abolished. The honor of the States, as well as justice and humanity, in my opinion, loudly call upon them to emancipate these unhappy people. To contend for our own liberty, and to deny that blessing to others, involves an inconsistency not to be excused.

    A year later, Jay would draft a memorial to the New York Legislature on the abolition of slavery, signed by Jay, Alexander Hamilton, Robert Livingstone, among others, addressing the issue of slavery, which opened with the following declaration:

Your memorialists, being deeply affected by the situation of those who, although free by the laws of God, are held in slavery by the laws of this State, view with pain and regret the additional miseries which these people experience from the practice of exporting them, like cattle, to the West Indies and the Southern States.

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