Slavery was a contentious issue in the early days of the Republic. First came the issue of the slave trade and the possible expansion of slavery into the territories. There was a paradox that the founders struggled with in attempting to reconcile liberty with slavery. Dr. Johnson struck a nerve when he needled America as being “slave drivers” while promoting at the same time about the importance of “liberty”. The contradiction and paradox was obvious.
Rhode Island as early as 1774, stated that all slaves brought into the colony would be free. Vermont when admitted to the union as a state in 1791 abolished slavery. Massachusetts’s Supreme Court decreed that their state Constitution which stated that all men free and equal, meant that all men are free and not slaves. Pennsylvania began a gradual emancipation process starting in 1780. Connecticut started gradual emancipation after 1784. But frankly, emancipation was not a central issue in most of the early states.
The South had a much more difficult situation because slaves represented a much larger percentage of the population. Virginia had 200,000 slaves at the time of the Declaration and South Carolina had 100,000 slaves out of a population of 124,000. Virginia had a population of 447,000 at the time of the Revolution. When you consider the economic value in today’s dollars the evil influence of money helped define the policy of a lot of Virginians and citizens of South Carolina at the time of the Revolution. Allegedly the monetary value of a top notch slave was equivalent to $14,000 to $23,000 dollars one can understand the power slavery had over South Carolina in particular. White men, planters owed their livelihood to their slaves as they raised indigo and rice in the tidewater area. Until 1910. when the black flight or migration took place blacks were always a majority of the population. If you had 100 slaves the economic value of your slaves was worth a fortune, and you lived off the sweat of someone else’s brow.
But there were dissenters among the founders of Virginia for example. Patrick Henry described slavery as follows:” Dear Sir: I take this opportunity to acknowledge the receipt of Anthony Benezet’s book against the slave trade…….It is not a little surprising that the professors of Christianity, whose chief excellence consists of softening the human heart and in cherishing and improving its finer feelings, should encourage a practice so totally repugnant to the first impressions of right and wrong. ……
I believe a time will come when an opportunity will be offered to abolish this lamentable evil.” Patrick Henry’s comments were made in a letter dated January 18, of 1773. His friend’s response to the letter was to say that “To vindicate slavery is to condemn the American cause wrote Robert Pleasants.
The letter is much more expansive, and if you wish to read it in it’s entirety you can find it in the Spirit of ’76, edited by Commager and Morris.
A South Carolina planter and political heavy weight in those days, Henry Laurens had this to say about the peculiar institution of slavery. In a letter to his son, he stated, ” You know, my dear son, I abhor slavery. I was born in a country where slavery had been established by British Kings and parliaments, as well as by the laws of that country ages before my existence. I found the Christian religion and slavery growing under the same authority and cultivation.”
My fellow Americans as we are about to celebrate another American birthday of our birth as a nation, let us not condemn our birth parents so harshly based upon today’s sense of morality. Try to be more understanding of the times in which they lived and the genius of their gift of a nation to future generations. They struggled with the issue of slavery as we struggle still with the idea and reality of having equal rights for all Americans; not just in theory but in reality. It is a continuing struggle in which we must maintain eternal vigilance if we are to keep our Republic and maintain our rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.