“The Founding Fathers and Slavery”
William W. Freehling presents his view of the Founding Fathers and slavery in the article “The Founding Fathers and Slavery.” He contends that America s Founding Fathers were antislavery but gives viewpoints of other historians to the contrary. The first sentence of the article states, “Only a few years ago no man needed to defend the Founding Fathers on slavery.” This implies that there was a change in the interpretation of the Founding Fathers position on slavery and indeed there was. Freehling lists the men who hold this more recent opinion, he says, “Scholars such as Robert McColley, Staughton Lynd, William Cohen, and Winthrop Jordan have assaulted every aspect of the old interpretation.” The more recent opinion that the Founding Fathers were not antislavery is supported by the notion that the Declaration of Independence was a white man s document and was not intended for the freedom of slaves. The fact that Thomas Jefferson bought and sold slaves and “ordered lashes well laid on” also supports the newer viewpoint. The founding fathers are defended by Freehling however. He says, “The impact of the Founding Fathers on slavery must be seen in the long run not in terms of what changed in the late eighteenth century but in terms of how the Revolutionary experience changed the whole of American antebellum history. Any such view must place Thomas Jefferson and his contemporaries back into the creeping American antislavery process.”
The Founding Fathers ran into a dillema when it came to slavery. Their ideology of freedom and the right to own property conflicted with the freedom of the slaves. Freehling says, “On the one hand they were restrained by their overriding interest in creating the Union, by their concern for property rights, and by their visions of race war and miscegenation: on the other hand they embraced a revolutionary ideology that mde emancipation inescapable.” This dillema was solve by the Founding Fathers as described in the following passage, “Whenever dangers to Union, property, or racial order seemed to them acute, the Founding Fathers did little But whenever abolition dangers seemed to them manageable Jefferson and his contemporaries moved effectively, circumscribing and crippling the institution and thereby gutting its long-range capacity to endure.” This means that the Founding Fathers did not worry about small things that had little affect in the short-run, but when the opportunity arose for them to safely fight against slavery they did so trying not to end slavery right away but rather trying to diminish hopes of it surviving in the long term.
The first law attempting to control slavery was a congregational ordinance written by Thomas Jefferson in 1784. This law would have made slavery illegal in all Western territories after 1800. Unfortunately this law did not pass, but it was a start. Three years later the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 was passed which made slavery illegal in the upper Western territories. Freehling says, “The new law left bondage free to invade the Southwest. But without the Northwest Ordinance slavery might have crept into Illinois and Indiana as well.” Another important event which restricted slavery to the South was the abolition of the African slave trade. In 1808, a law was passed making it illegal to import slaves from Africa into America. This law did not completely end the importation of slaves because some were still imported illegally, but for the most part the number of slaves declined since this law was passed.
It is true that the Founding Fathers did not do anything to immediately abolish slavery in the United States but it is evident that their actions made it possible for slavery to be abolished later. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 and the abolition of the African slave trade were monumental. Both laws did little to abolish slavery immediately, but they both were key elements in making it possible to destroy slavery in the long run. These laws restricted slavery from spreading further into the north and midwest and they almost completely stopped the importation of slaves from Africa. They forced slavery into the Deep South. Freehling best sums up the Founding Fathers effect on the long term abolition of slavery in the following passage, “If the Founding Fathers had done none of this if slavery had continued in the North and expanded into the Northwest: if millions of Africans had been imported to strengthen slavery in the Deep South, to consolidate it in New York and Illinois, to spread it to Kansas, and to keep it in the border South; if no free black population had developed in Delaware and Maryland: if no apology for slavery had left Southerners on shaky moral grounds: if, in short, Jefferson and his contemporaries had lifted nary a finger everything would have been different.”