Equality of all citizens is a uniquely American concept.
Historian G.K. Chesterton said, “America is the only nation in the world that was founded on a creed.” That creed comes from the Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
This declaration came at a point when slavery was nearly universal. Native Americans made slaves of conquered tribes and of blacks. In Africa, blacks and Muslims sold slaves to other continents.
Yet, influential Americans some 250 years ago recognized that making slaves of their fellow human beings was immoral. They also knew that they were being ruled unjustly by England. The founders knew that their 13 free and independent states needed an alliance to ensure their survival.
The threat from England was immediate and existential – as demonstrated soon thereafter in the War of 1812. The problem of slavery would become existential in the next century.
Our founders could have ignored slavery for the sake of expediency. Instead, it was the most controversial issue when they debated the Constitution. James Madison insisted that neither “slave” nor “slavery” appear in the Constitution, and slavery opponents excluded any constitutional hint that people could be taken as property.
Today’s critics of the founders complain that blacks were only counted as three-fifths of a person under the Constitution. In fact, free blacks were fully counted. The Three-Fifths Compromise diminished the power of slave states, which wanted to fully count slaves for political representation but otherwise treat them as property.
Likewise, the decision to give all states equal representation in the U.S. Senate did not favor southern states. Five of the six least-populated states were located in the north.
When our constitution was drafted, no other country had abolished slavery. Those who wanted to end the “peculiar institution” couldn’t agree on precisely how to do it.
Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, later summarized the Founders’ quandary: “We had slavery among us, we could not get our constitution unless we permitted them to remain in slavery, we could not secure the good we did secure if we grasped for more.”
Today’s critics conveniently ignore that dreadful reality.
Our founders adopted a Constitution that provided no guarantee of slavery, allowed Congress to abolish the slave trade, and instituted provisions that were inconsistent with slavery (e.g., that no person may be deprived of liberty without due process of law).
Unlike today’s critics, Frederick Douglass, a former slave who became the foremost black abolitionist, called our Constitution “a glorious liberty document.” By giving Congress authority to abolish the slave trade, our Constitution became the first of its kind in the Atlantic world.
Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut and Rhode Island were among the first governments anywhere in the world to ban slavery. In 1787, Congress banned slavery in the Northwest Territories which became Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota.
When Thomas Jefferson became our third president in 1806, he called for a new law to ban the importation of slaves on the first day allowed under the constitution. It passed handily.
No, the founders didn’t abolish slavery, but the courageous measures they insisted upon to limit slavery certainly led to the decline of slave-state power and set the stage for complete abolition of slavery at the conclusion of the Civil War.
America isn’t perfect. No nation is perfect because no people are now nor ever will be perfect. We can be proud that America, more than any country on earth, has advanced freedom for people both at home and abroad.
On Independence Day, we should renew the Founders’ vision and stand for an America, “indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”