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How The Founding Fathers Fought For An End To Slavery


Denise and Frederic W. Henderson




The Virginians



    Thomas Jefferson (despite his own ambiguous position on the question), along with Franklin, and George Washington, consistently in his public writings, pointedly defined the views on slavery of the majority of those who fought to establish a nation grounded in true republicanism in North America.

    In 1774, Jefferson was selected to draft the instructions for the Virginia delegation to the first Continential Congress, and which were later printed under the title ``A Summary View of the Rights of British America.'' Interestingly, the ``Summary'' is very similar to the section addressing the issue of slavery that was in the initial draft of the Declaration of Independence written two years later.

"For the most trifling reasons, and sometimes for no conceivable reason at all, his Majesty has rejected laws of the most salutary tendency. The abolition of domestic slavery is the great object of desire in those Colonies, where it was, unhappily, introduced in their infant state. But, previous to the enfranchisement of the slaves we have, it is necessary to exclude all further importations from Africa. Yet our repeated attempts to effect this by prohibitions, and by imposing duties which might amount to a prohibition, have been hitherto defeated by his majesties negative; thus preferring the immediate advantages of a few British corsairs to the lasting interests of the American States, and to the rights of human nature, deeply wounded by this infamous practice."

    George Mason, also from Virginia, who would initially oppose the Constitution's adoption and refuse to sign the document at the end of the convention in Philadelphia in 1787, at least until an agreement to include the Bill of Rights was reached, also reflected this viewpoint. In fact, South Carolinians and Georgians who supported the maintenance of the institution of slavery viewed Virginia's opposition as a greater threat than opposition from ``northern states'' on this issue. In the following, taken from the debates at the Constitutional Convention in August of 1787, Mason delivered what was one of the strongest attacks on the institution, as reported here in the notes of James Madison.

"This infernal traffic originated in the avarice of British merchants. The British Government constantly checked the attempts of Virginia to put a stop to it. The present question concerns, not importing alone, but the whole Union. The evil of having slaves was experienced during the late war. Had slaves been treated as they might have been by the enemy, they would have proved dangerous instruments in their hands. But their folly dealt by the slaves as it did by the Tories."

    He mentioned the dangerous insurrrections of the slaves in Greece and Sicily, and the instructions given by Cromwell to the commissioners sent to Virginia,-- to arm the servants and slaves, in case other means of obtaining submission should fail. Maryland and Virginia, he said, had already prohibited the importation of slaves expressly. North Carolina had done the same in substance. All this would be in vain, if South Carolina and Georgia be at liberty to import. The Western people are already calling out for slaves for their new lands; and will fill that country with slaves, if they can be got through South Carolina and Georgia. Slavery discourages arts and manufactures. The poor despise labor when performed by slaves. They prevent the emigration of whites, who really enrich and strengthen a country. They produce the most pernicious effect on manners. Every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant. They bring the judgement of Heaven on a country. As nations cannot be rewarded or punished in the next world, they must be in this. By an inevitable chain of causes and effects, Providence punishes national sins by national calamities. He lamented that some of our Eastern brethren had, from lust of gain, embarked in this nefarious traffic. As to the States being in possession of the right to import, this was the case with many other rights, now to be properly given up. He held it essential, in every point of view, that the General Government should have the power to prevent the increase of slavery.


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Christopher Gadsden and Henry Laurens)







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