For my History class, I had to write an eight to twelve page paper tracing the hisotry of slavery in America, covering several specific events. The following, posted in a series over several days (no one wants to read a 12 page research paper in one sitting), is my response. For the record I scored a perfect 200 out of 200.
The United States of America was founded on such principles as, enumerated in the Thomas Jefferson authored Declaration of Independence, the equality of all men and their natural right to pursue that which makes them free and happy. But were the words “all men are created equal” intended to convey what they seem to say at face value? Did in fact the Framers mean all men, regardless of color? Or was it white men of means and property? And is “all men” to be understood in a generic sense; that is, to include all women as well? That question is for a different paper. The issue at hand here is slavery. How and why could a nation built on a principle, a revolutionary one, of the basic equality of all men, have maintained for nearly a century an institution as unquestionably antagonistic to that very principle and debased as slavery? Why did the men who courageously and eloquently defied the King of England in the name of liberty not see fit to liberate those who toiled in their fields? Indeed, many of the Founders were slaveholders themselves, including three of the first four Presidents. While they often spoke and wrote about the evils of slavery, in a letter to Robert Morris, George Washington wrote, “there is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of [slavery]” (as cited in Ellis, 2004, p. 163)., political expediency and fear of the dissolution of a still-fragile Union prevented the fledging government from addressing the issue head on. As a result, the bondage of blacks persisted. The purpose of this paper is trace the history of slavery in America focusing on ten key events and government rulings: the Declaration of Independence, the American Revolution, the Constitution, the Compromise of 1820, the Nullification Crisis, the Compromise of 1850, the Dred Scott decision, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the 13th Amendment.
The Declaration of Independence
What exactly did Thomas Jefferson mean when he wrote that “all men are created equal”? Though himself a slaveholder, Jefferson excoriated King George III in the original draft of the Declaration of Independence for having “waged cruel war on 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” (as cited in “Declarations of Independence, 1770-1783,” n.d.). The Constitutional Foundation noted that “some scholars believe that Jefferson agreed with the Scottish philosopher, Francis Hutcheson, that all men are born morally equal to one another and that ‘Nature makes none masters, none slaves’” (“The Declaration of Independence and Natural Rights,” 2001). If all men are naturally equals, what prevented the seemingly morally necessary immediate emancipation of slaves? Though Spalding (2002) reported that Jefferson “proposed legislation to emancipate slaves in Virginia” while serving in the House of Burgesses, a measure that was defeated, Middlekauf (1982) explained that later Jefferson believed that “slavery had so poisoned affections of both blacks and whites as to make their living together—as equals—impossible” (p. 338). Jefferson, as well as other slaveholding, yet liberty loving Founders, acknowledged the wrongs of slavery and it’s debasing of human beings, both slave and master, but did not believe that outright emancipation was a plausible solution at the time of the Declaration. In their estimation the struggling would-be nation was just not ready to handle the new challenges that it would bring. Others simply refused to agree to relinquish their vast free work force purely on economic grounds.
Slavery was in fact a key catalyst in the events that lead the colonies to declare their intentions to leave the auspices of the British crown. Even after Lexington and Concord and Bunker Hill, the Continental Congress was reluctant to make this declaration. Many more conservative leaders still yearned for some sort of compromise and reconciliation with the Crown. As Middlekauf (1982) stated, the Congress “hesitated to act while a remnant of its membership retained hope that negotiations that might heal terrible wounds…were possible” (p. 322). A series of events in the late months of 1775 and early in 1776 changed all that. One of these grievous acts was Lord Dunmore’s, the royal governor of Virginia, Proclamation, given in November 1775. Middlekauf (1982) noted that, “early in [November] he called upon the slaves of Virginia to rebel and promised them their freedom if they joined forces and fought their masters” (p. 322). This announcement, which played on underlying planter fears, coupled with the shelling of Norfolk, and the pamphlet Common Sense, written by Thomas Paine, would push the Congress, and the people, ever closer to claim their independence. It is ironic that a call for those who were oppressed to rise up against their oppressors, helped to inspire many of those same oppressors to rise up against their government, all in the name of freedom.