America is a great country and therefore needed a great history, the one that existed just wouldn’t do. Christopher Columbus didn’t discover America, it was quite inhabited when he landed. Not only had the Indians been there long enough to have been considered Native Americans. Africans had visited American shores multiple times as indicated by Christopher Columbus and others.
The biggest stain on the legacy of America is its original sin… slavery. Of the early Presidents of the United States, twelve owned slaves during their lifetime, eight while they served as President. Thomas Jefferson famously wrote that “all men were created equal” while having owned over 600 slaves over his lifetime and taking one for his long-term mistress at the age of 14. Even if you consider that a girl of that era might be considered a woman and not a child, someone you own cannot give consent. The potential penalty for saying no is too high; being sold away or even death. There is only one word to describe a master taking a slave for a sexual relationship which is rape.
Most of the revered “Founding Fathers” were slaveowners. John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Paine, and a few others were not. Fourteen of the twenty-one white men generally considered as the Founding Fathers owned slaves including; Ben Franklin, John Hancock, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, and George Washington. Henry said, “Give me liberty or give me death,” while he simultaneously deprived slaves of theirs. He couldn’t even justify his own position which he admitted in a letter to John Alsop of the Society of Friends (Quakers). He shrugged off his ownership of slaves as a matter of convenience.
“Would any one believe that I am master of slaves by my own purchase? I am drawn along by the general inconvenience of living without them. I will not — I cannot justify it, however culpable my conduct.”
Given the fact that almost all of our early leaders held slaves captive, also bought and sold them. The men who the country needed to build up as heroes, had their flaws minimized or erased. The whole institution of slavery and the way it was practiced in America was literally “whitewashed,” made to seem not as bad as it was. Along with diminishing the heinous nature of slavery, the myth of the good slave owner was created and deemed applicable to almost all who owned them. That myth was born of necessity as the truth would not do.
One of the criteria that made one a good slave owner was whether they freed their slaves after death. Jefferson freed only two, one of whom paid him $200. George Washington freed his slaves after death (the only President that did) although his death did not free Martha’s slaves. She freed hers within a year as each slave had a great incentive to see her dead which would result in their freedom. George was therefore considered a good master. He happened to have notoriously bad teeth. His dentures were not made of wood as most stories say but of human teeth taken from his slaves we’re to believe he loved so much. Surely an important man like himself had greater need of those teeth than his slaves?
Thomas Jefferson may have done more to promote cruel practices related to slavery than any other American. He negotiated and fought for inclusion in the Constitution that the import of slaves from Africa wouldn’t end for at least twenty years, (Article One: Section Nine). People have spun this as an attempt to begin the process of ending slavery. In truth, it was a protectionist measure to increase the value of domestic slaves in areas with an abundance like his native Virginia and Maryland to the detriment of states like South Carolina who imported the bulk of their slaves. Jefferson’s policies promoted the forced breeding of slaves with the systemic rape of females whose children were ultimately sold to stock Southern plantations. The actual end of slavery didn’t take place for fifty years after the act by President Jefferson ended the International Slave Trade. That act enriched him far more relatively than any current violations of the Emoluments Clause.
The best case for a good slaveowner among the founders would be John Jay. Jay’s father, Peter, was one of the largest slaveowners in New York. As early as 1777, John Jay proposed the abolition of slavery there. He helped establish the New York African Free School which he supported financially during his lifetime. When Governor of New York, he signed a bill that established that children of slaves would be born free in 1799. Yet he profited from the slaves he owned, and as well as he may or may not have treated them, they lacked freedom. His slaves could earn their freedom through good works and of course, providing a sufficient return on their investment. He might not have been the worst slaveowner, may have been one of the best. But does that make him good?
“I purchase slaves and manumit them at proper ages and when their faithful services have afforded a reasonable retribution.”
The truth is that the curve on which slave ownership is measured goes only from bad to worse. No slave, under the best of circumstances was exempt from the possibility of being sold away, separated from their families, at the whim of their master. They were subject to having their mates selected for them to breed the best slaves for sale or forced to submit to their master’s desires. They could legally be beaten, or killed, and had to live each day of their life carrying that weight. America typically only scratches the surface of the history of it becoming a great nation. It was slavery that made much of that possible yet slavery is a painful sore whose scab dare not be ripped off. There never was such a thing as a good slave owner, only some not as bad as the rest.
This post was previously published on Dialogue & Discourse and is republished here with permission from the author.
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