Monday is the Fourth of July—that most joyous, triumphant day in which Americans gather ’round the barbecue grill and celebrate the moment 240 years ago when our Founding Fathers—the most brilliant men of their generation—summoned all of their creative energies in the singular cause of perpetuating slavery for 89 more years.
OK, so that wasn’t the only thing the men in the Continental Congress accomplished in the summer of 1776. In ratifying the Declaration of Independence, the Congress established—against all historical precedent—that nations ought to be governed by laws, not men, and that the men writing and enforcing those laws ought to be representative of—and accountable to—the common, everyday folk. And, of course, this was all rooted in the radical idea that all men are created equal and are endowed with certain unalienable rights, etc, etc.
So they did that—renouncing the most ancient, repressive form of government on Earth while proposing an alternative that had scarcely ever been tried before, thereby laying the foundation for what would eventually become the most prosperous republic that has ever existed. In effect, this group of extraordinary men seized an extraordinary opportunity, realizing that, in the words of Thomas Paine, “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.”
Which begs the question: Why did this new world include chattel slavery?
It’s a contradiction that has grown more inexplicable with each passing July 4—namely, that these rabble-rousers could ground their entire revolutionary argument on the principle of universal equality while simultaneously preserving an institution that was a negation of that principle in every possible respect.
Many Americans today seem to think the founders were simply oblivious to it all—that they didn’t realize that owning human beings was a direct violation of the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness that this magic document promised to establish and uphold.
While there is a certain perverse appeal in assuming the men who created America were a bunch of idiots who couldn’t see what was staring them directly in the face, the truth is at once more nuanced, more tragic and more shameful.
In point of fact, the signers of the Declaration were entirely cognizant of the moral pretzel they were contorting themselves into, and the proof is the following paragraph from Thomas Jefferson’s original—and, he believed, superior—draft:
“[The king] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian king of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where men should be bought and sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce.”
As far as the morality of slavery is concerned, it doesn’t get any clearer than that. Here, as in so many other places, we find that Jefferson in 1776 understood instinctively that slavery was an evil economic engine that, in making people into property, robbed them of their dignity and betrayed their most basic rights as human beings. As a Virginia planter who eventually owned upwards of 200 slaves himself—four of whom were his biological children—Jefferson knew these self-evident truths more deeply than most, although he was hardly the only one.
That’s the nuance. The tragedy and the shame is that Jefferson’s full-throated condemnation of the slave trade never made it into the final draft of the Declaration, thereby taking emancipation off the table as a subject for debate anytime in the near-future.
And why was that, ladies and gentlemen? Why did the Continental Congress neglect to confront a massive, obvious problem at the very moment when it might have done everyone the most good?
In short: Because they could only solve one massive, obvious problem at a time.
The choice was mutually exclusive: Either they could declare independence or they could try to get rid of slavery. Given the intractable realities of the day, there was no plausible way to free their slaves under any circumstances; meanwhile, the challenge of separating from Great Britain—an objective that several colonies resisted until the very last moment—would only come about on the condition that slavery be totally ignored until some unspecified future date.
As any viewer of 1776 will know, the Declaration of Independence needed to be ratified without a single dissenting vote, and it was as clear as the bright, blue sky that the delegates from North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia would’ve never, ever voted “yes” if it meant giving up an institution that constituted their entire way of life. In 1776—as in 1861 and all the years in between—the continuance of slavery was, for the American South, utterly non-negotiable.
(We should also note—before we give him too much credit—that Jefferson went to his grave believing blacks were biologically inferior to whites, that a biracial society was impossible and that the only way to free the slaves was to ship them overseas and never deal with them again.)
And so—considering the world as it actually was, rather than as we wish it had been—we are left to ask: Did the Founding Fathers do the right thing in July of 1776?
While counterfactuals are inherently unknowable and somewhat useless, it’s worth noting that Great Britain abolished slavery in 1833—a full 32 years before we did. Is it possible that, by simply staying in the empire, the United States would have been cleansed of its original stain at least one generation ahead of schedule? Are we entirely sure that life for the average American—let alone the average black American—was improved by breaking off from the empire when (and as) we did? In retrospect, could the entire American Revolution have been one big terrible mistake?
In the end, we’re stuck with the history that actually happened and must deal with the facts that were known at the time. In that context, the best we can do is to reclaim the truth of America’s founding by observing how morally ambiguous it truly was. We cannot proclaim July 4 as a wholly virtuous moment without making racist spectacles of ourselves, but nor can we dismiss the whole episode as the source of all white supremacy in America, since the very words of Jefferson’s declaration would, in time, come to embody the strongest argument for the racial equality that we have been stumbling our way towards for the past century and a half.
That Jefferson’s generation couldn’t live up to its own standard is a singular tragedy; their calculated inaction on slavery is directly responsible for many millions of deaths and more misery than any of us could ever fully appreciate. That these same men can simultaneously be held up as national heroes and beacons of liberty is the sort of grand irony that perhaps only a place like the United States is at once sturdy and deluded enough to withstand.
As ever, America is a land of contradiction and hypocrisy, and if we don’t spent a good deal of July 4 reflecting on this, then we are not treating our country with the integrity it deserves.
Further, by acknowledging the impossibly compromised choice with which our founders were confronted, we are reminded that there is no such thing as an easy solution to a seismic problem. Every major political decision involves a trade-off of one sort or another, and if you enter a negotiation expecting to get everything you want, you just may wind up with nothing at all.
The Founding Fathers sought independence, and the price turned out to be the life of every black person born between 1700 and 1865. In that moment—not knowing how bad things would get—they believed it was worth it. Today—with all the benefit of hindsight—are we yet prepared to say they were right?