America’s Path to End Slavery

“When critics attack the nation’s founders as irredeemably racist, they ignore the Constitution’s anti-slavery time bomb. While disparaging that document’s accommodations to slavery, detractors also forget the hammer-blow against the evil institution delivered just weeks before the fateful gathering in Philadelphia to establish a new government. Rather than treating slavery as an essential, enduring element of the Republic they designed, the leaders of the founding generation shared Lincoln’s hope, expressed 71 years later, that ‘the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction.’ During the eight years of Revolutionary struggle (1775-83), all thirteen colonies made a significant start along that path by legally and separately banning the transatlantic slave trade. Following the American victory and the resulting treaty with Britain, three states (South Carolina, North Carolina and Georgia) resumed the importation of captives from Africa. At the Constitutional convention, most delegates denounced ‘the infernal traffic’ (George Mason of Virginia) as ‘a nefarious institution’ and ‘the curse of heaven’ (Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania), but South Carolina threatened to exclude itself from the new nation unless the other states agreed not to interfere with the commerce in slaves for a set period of time. The resulting compromise (Article I, Section 9, Clause 1) declares that the despised commerce ‘should not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the year one thousand eight hundred and eight’–twenty years after ratification. James Madison initially deemed this concession to be ‘dishonorable’ but later, in Federalist 42, hailed it as ‘great point gained in favor of humanity, that a period of twenty years may terminate forever with these states the unnatural traffic’ that was ‘the barbarism of modern policy.’ To their everlasting credit, the founders’ time bomb went off, right on schedule, ending America’s involvement in the international slave trade on the earliest day Constitutionally permitted: January 1, 1808. President Thomas Jefferson signed the bill proudly, having argued for it in his annual message to Congress at the end of 1806. Of course, it’s easy to sneer at Jefferson’s hypocrisy–owning slaves even while he repeatedly denounced the very institution that sustained his private wealth–but his role in the public sphere left no doubt that he sought the ‘ultimate extinction’ of human bondage, as President Lincoln put it. It’s true that the enlightened achievements of the organizers of the new government didn’t eliminate the manifold horrors of enslavement that afflicted millions for more than two generations after the United States began. But the statesmen of our founding still deserve our gratitude for launching the Republic in a direction that eventually delivered Lincoln’s ‘new birth of freedom,’ and justified America’s status as ‘the last, best hope of earth.’”

Michael Medved, “How the nation’s Founders,” USA Today, May 15, 2021