The United States was founded based on the principle that “all men were created equal.” However, the reality has always been somewhat less inspiring.
Twenty-one individuals are numbered amongst the founding fathers of the United States. Amongst them, at least 14 owned slaves at some point. The most well-known slave owners were Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.
There is a wide variety of attitudes and policies amongst the founding fathers towards slavery.
The Contradictions of Thomas Jefferson
The words of Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence set a high standard for the country’s ideals. He also persistently argued that slavery was evil and should be abolished.
As President, Jefferson outlawed American participation in the international slave trade. As he explained, he aimed to “withdraw the citizens of the United States from all further participation in those violations of human rights … which the morality, the reputation, and the best interests of our country have long been eager to proscribe.”
However, it should be noted that Jefferson’s opposition to slavery was not grounded primarily on humanitarian concerns. Indeed, the third President often wrote of his erroneous belief that black people are genetically inferior.
Despite his supposed beliefs, Jefferson owned the largest number of slaves amongst the founding fathers. He talked about the importance of treating slaves humanely. However, Jefferson was not above flogging his slaves for trying to escape to freedom.
Owning 600 human beings was a large number by any standard. Jefferson also famously fathered six children with his slave Sally Hemmings.
Jefferson also failed to free his many slaves upon his death, as George Washington did.
John Adams and Slavery
The second President of the United States, John Adams, was a vocal opponent of slavery and practiced what he preached.
His wife Abigail would not accept services from her fathers’ slaves and employed paid freemen to do her chores instead. She also spent her free time teaching a young African American to read.
John held similar positions but was not willing to go to extreme lengths to promote them. As a lawmaker, he avoided voting for abolition because he believed it was too divisive to pursue. As President, he was even less likely to take a stand on the issue.
In retirement, Adams was far more strident in his view. He wrote that slavery was “an evil of colossal magnitude.” However, like the other supposedly abolitionist founding fathers, he placed other interests above the humanity of the slaves.
The Strange Case of Alexander Hamilton
Like many of the founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton was an abolitionist in principle. But his actions are a bit more complicated than that.
Hamilton was born on the island of St. Croix, where the majority of the population was enslaved. There is no doubt that his impressions of the institution of slavery from this time in his life were overwhelmingly negative.
However, as a teenager, he worked for the Beekman & Cruger company, which engaged in the slave trade. Indeed, there are records that Hamilton oversaw shipments of hundreds of slaves in inhumane conditions.
Nonetheless, out of the founding fathers, he had one of the most tolerant approaches to racial affairs. While many of the founding fathers insisted that African-Americans were inferior, Hamilton defended their capabilities and insisted that they be given responsibilities during the Revolutionary War and beyond.
However, opposition to slavery was not Hamilton’s foremost concern in life. He married into an influential slaveholding family. Hamilton also was instrumental in passing the “three-fifths” clause, which counted African Americans as less than an entire human being for demographic purposes.
There is also a good chance that Hamilton owned slaves of his own. He made a payment of $250 to his father-in-law, “2 Negro servants purchased by him for me.” However, these slaves may have been purchased for someone else. Either way, this hardly speaks to deep personal opposition to slavery.
A Consequential Geographical Divide
As we can see, the founding fathers had a variety of attitudes and policies towards slavery. One of the main determinants of the differences was geography.
The founding fathers from southern states tended to own slaves and were more likely to support the horrid institution politically. This is part of the story of Washington and Jefferson’s slave ownership, as both came from the southern state of Virginia.
Meanwhile, most of the founding fathers who did not own slaves were northern. John Adams is the primary example alongside others from Connecticut and Massachusetts. As we know, these geographic divides would have immense consequences a few decades later.