America's Founding Fathers are seen by some people today as unjust and hypocrites,
for while they talked of liberty and equality, they at the same time were enslaving
hundreds of thousands of Africans. Some allege that the Founders bear most of
the blame for the evils of slavery. Consequently, many today have little respect
for the Founders and turn their ear from listening to anything they may have
to say. And, in their view, to speak of America as founded as a Christian nation
is unthinkable (for how could a Christian nation tolerate slavery?).
It is certainly true that during most of America's history most blacks have
not had the same opportunities and protections as whites. From the time of colonization
until the Civil War most Africans in America (especially those living in the
South) were enslaved, and the 100 years following emancipation were marked with
segregation and racism. Only in the last 30 years has there been closer to equal
opportunities, though we still need continued advancement in equality among
the races and race relations. But is the charge against the Founders justified?
Are they to bear most of the blame for the evils of slavery? Can we speak of
America as founded as a Christian nation, while at it's founding it allowed
Understanding the answer to these questions is important for the future of
liberty in America and advancement of racial equality. The secular view of history
taught in government schools today does not provide an adequate answer. We must
view these important concerns from a Biblical and providential perspective.
America's Founders were predominantly Christians and had a Biblical worldview.
If that was so, some say, how could they allow slavery, for isn't slavery sin?
As the Bible reveals to man what is sin, we need to examine what it has to say
The Bible and Slavery
The Bible teaches that slavery, in one form or another (including spiritual,
mental, and physical), is always the fruit of disobedience to God and His law/word.
(This is not to say that the enslavement of any one person, or group of people,
is due to their sin, for many have been enslaved unjustly, like Joseph and numerous
Christians throughout history.) Personal and civil liberty is the result of
applying the truth of the Scriptures. As a person or nation more fully applies
the principles of Christianity, there will be increasing freedom in every realm
of life. Sanctification for a person, or nation, is a gradual process. The fruit
of changed thinking and action, which comes from rooting sin out of our lives,
may take time to see. This certainly applies historically in removing slavery
from the Christian world.
Slavery is a product of the fall of man and has existed in the world since
that time. Slavery was not a part of God's original created order, and as God's
created order has gradually been re-established since the time of Christ, slavery
has gradually been eliminated. Christian nations (those based upon Biblical
principles) have led the way in the abolition of slavery. America was at the
forefront of this fight. After independence, great steps were taken down the
path of ending slavery - probably more than had been done by any other nation
up until that time in history (though certainly more could have been done).
Many who had settled in America had already been moving toward these ends. Unfortunately,
the generations following the Founders did not continue to move forward in a
united fashion. A great conflict was the outcome of this failure.
When God gave the law to Moses, slavery was a part of the world, and so the
law of God recognized slavery. But this does not mean that slavery was God's
original intention. The law of Moses was given to fallen man. Some of the ordinances
deal with things not intended for the original creation order, such as slavery
and divorce. These will be eliminated completely only when sin is eliminated
from the earth. God's laws concerning slavery provided parameters for treatment
of slaves, which were for the benefit of all involved. God desires all men and
nations to be liberated. This begins internally and will be manifested externally
to the extent internal change occurs. The Biblical slave laws reflect God's
redemptive desire, for men and nations.
Types of Slavery Permitted by the Bible
The Mosaic law permitted some types of slavery. These include:
- Voluntary servitude by the sons of Israel (indentured servants)
Those who needed assistance, could not pay their debts, or needed protection
from another were allowed under Biblical law to become indentured servants
(see Ex. 21:2-6; Deut. 15:12-18). They were dependent on their master instead
of the state. This was a way to aid the poor and give them an opportunity
to get back on their feet. It was not to be a permanent subsidy. Many early
settlers to America came as indentured servants. These servants were well
treated and when released, given generous pay.
- Voluntary permanent slaves
If indentured servants so chose, they could remain a slave (Ex. 21:2-6; Deut..
15:16-17). Their ear was pierced to indicate this permanent subjection. The
law recognized that some people want the security of enslavement. Today, there
are some people who would rather be dependent upon government to provide their
needs (and with that provision accepting their commands) than do what is necessary
to live free from its provision and direction. Some even act in a manner that
puts them in jail, desiring the care and provision they get more than personal
- Thief or criminal making restitution
A thief who could not, or did not, make restitution was sold as a slave: “If
a man steals . . . he shall surely make restitution; if he owns nothing, then
he shall be sold for his theft” (Ex. 22:1,3). The servitude ceased when
enough work was done to pay for the amount due in restitution.
- Pagans could be permanent slaves
Leviticus 25:44-46 states: As for your male and female slaves whom you may
have - you may acquire male and female slaves from the pagan nations that
are around you. Then, too, it is out of the sons of the sojourners who live
as aliens among you that you may gain acquisition, and out of their families
who are with you, whom they will have produced in your land; they also may
become your possession. You may even bequeath them to your sons after you,
to receive as a possession; you can use them as permanent slaves. But in respect
to your countrymen [brother], the sons of Israel, you shall not rule with
severity over one another.
In the Sabbath year all Hebrew debtors/slaves were released from their debts..
This was not so for foreigners (Deut. 15:3). Theologian R.J. Rushdoony writes,
“since unbelievers are by nature slaves, they could be held as life-long
slaves” 1 without piercing
the ear to indicate their voluntary servitude (Lev. 25:44-46). This passage
in Leviticus says that pagans could be permanent slaves and could be bequeathed
to the children of the Hebrews. However, there are Biblical laws concerning
slaves that are given for their protection and eventual redemption. Slaves could
become part of the covenant and part of the family, even receiving an inheritance.
Under the new covenant, a way was made to set slaves free internally, which
should then be following by external preparation enabling those who were slaves
to live at liberty, being self-governed under God.
Involuntary Servitude is Not Biblical
Exodus 21:16 says: “He who kidnaps a man, whether he sells him or he is found
in his possession, shall surely be put to death.” Deuteronomy 24:7 states:
“If a man is caught kidnapping any of his countrymen of the sons of Israel,
and he deals with him violently, or sells him, then that thief shall die; so
you shall purge the evil from among you.”
Kidnapping and enforced slavery are forbidden and punishable by death. This
was true for any man (Ex. 21:16), as well as for the Israelites (Deut. 24:7).
This was stealing a man's freedom. While aspects of slavery are Biblical (for
punishment and restitution for theft, or for those who prefer the security of
becoming a permanent bondservant), the Bible strictly forbids involuntary servitude.
Any slave that ran away from his master (thus expressing his desire for freedom)
was to be welcomed by the Israelites, not mistreated, and not returned. Deuteronomy
You shall not hand over to his master a slave who has escaped from his master
to you. He shall live with you in your midst, in the place which he shall
choose in one of your towns where it pleases him; you shall not mistreat him.
This implied slaves must be treated justly, plus they had a degree of liberty.
Other slave laws confirm this. In addition, such action was a fulfillment of
the law of love in both the Old and New Testaments. The law of God declares:
“. . . you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:17-18).
Leviticus 19:33-34 clearly reveals that this applies to strangers and aliens
as well: “The stranger, . . . you shall not do him wrong.. . . . you shall
love him as yourself.”
It was forbidden to take the life or liberty of any other man. Rushdoony writes:
Thus, the only kind of slavery permitted is voluntary slavery, as Deuteronomy
23:15,16 makes very clear. Biblical law permits voluntary slavery because
it recognizes that some people are not able to maintain a position of independence.
To attach themselves voluntarily to a capable man and to serve him, protected
by law, is thus a legitimate way of life, although a lesser one. The master
then assumes the role of the benefactor, the bestower of welfare, rather that
the state, and the slave is protected by the law of the state. A runaway slave
thus cannot be restored to his master: he is free to go. The exception is
the thief or criminal who is working out his restitution. The Code of Hammurabi
decreed death for men who harbored a runaway slave; the Biblical law provided
for the freedom of the slave. 2
Rushdoony also says that the selling of slaves was forbidden. Since Israelites
were voluntary slaves, and since not even a foreign slave could be compelled
to return to his master (Deut. 23:15, 16), slavery was on a different basis
under the law than in non-Biblical cultures. The slave was a member of the household,
with rights therein. A slave-market could not exist in Israel. The slave who
was working out a restitution for theft had no incentive to escape, for to do
so would make him an incorrigible criminal and liable to death. 3
When slaves (indentured servants) were acquired under the law, it was their
labor that was purchased, not their person, and the price took into account
the year of freedom (Lev. 25:44-55; Ex. 21:2; Deut. 15:12-13).
Laws related to slaves
There are a number of laws in the Bible related to slavery. They include:
- Hebrew slaves (indentured servants) were freed after 6 years.
If you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve for six years; but on the seventh
he shall go out as a free man without payment (Ex. 21:2).
If your kinsman, a Hebrew man or woman, is sold to you, then he shall serve
you six years, but in the seventh year you shall set him free. And when you
set him free, you shall not send him away empty-handed (Deut. 15:12-13). Hebrew
slaves were to be set free after six years. If the man was married when he
came, his wife was to go with him (Ex. 21:3).
This law did not apply to non-Hebrew slaves (see point 4 under “Types
of slavery permitted by the Bible” above), though, as mentioned, any
slave showing a desire for freedom was to be safely harbored if they ran away.
In violation of this law, many Christian slaves in America were not given
the option of freedom after six years (and many escaped slaves were forcefully
returned). To comply with the spirit and law of the Old and New Testament,
non-Christian slaves should have been introduced by their master to Christianity,
equipped to live in liberty, and then given the opportunity to choose to live
free. Christianity would have prepared them to live in freedom.
- Freed slaves were released with liberal pay.
When these slaves were set free they were not to be sent away empty handed.
They were to be furnished liberally from the flocks, threshing floor, and
wine vat (Deut. 15:12-15).
- Slaves were to be responsible.
We have mentioned that some people prefer the security of enslavement to the
uncertainty of living free. People who live free have certain responsibilities
they must maintain. They cannot have the fruit of freedom without the responsibilities
of freedom. It is within this context that the following law can be understood:
“If he [a Hebrew slave] comes alone, he shall go out alone; if he is
the husband of a wife, then his wife shall go out with him. If his master
gives him a wife, and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children
shall belong to her master, and he shall go out alone.” (Ex. 21:3-4)
“The bondservant, however, could not have the best of both worlds, the
world of freedom and the world of servitude. A wife meant responsibility:
to marry, a man had to have a dowry as evidence of his ability to head a household.
A man could not gain the benefit of freedom, a wife, and at the same time
gain the benefit of security under a master.” 4
Marrying as a slave required no responsibility of provision or need of a dowry.
He gained the benefits of marriage without the responsibilities associated
with it. Rushdoony continues:
“If he married while a bondservant, or a slave, he knew that in so doing
he was abandoning either freedom or his family. He either remained permanently
a slave with his family and had his ear pierced as a sign of subordination
(like a woman), or he left his family. If he walked out and left his family,
he could, if he earned enough, redeem his family from bondage. The law here
is humane and also unsentimental. It recognizes that some people are by nature
slaves and will always be so. It both requires that they be dealt with in
a godly manner and also that the slave recognize his position and accept it
with grace. Socialism, on the contrary, tries to give the slave all the advantages
of his security together with the benefits of freedom, and, in the process,
destroys both the free and the enslaved.” 5
- Runaway slaves were to go free.
As mentioned earlier, Deuteronomy 23:15-16 says that a runaway slave was to
go free. He was to be welcomed to live in any of the towns of Israel he chose.
The Israelites were not to mistreat him. Rushdoony says that, “Since
the slave was, except where debt and theft were concerned, a slave by nature
and by choice, a fugitive slave went free, and the return of such fugitives
was forbidden (Deut. 23:15,16).” This aspect of Biblical law was violated
by American slavery and the United States Constitution (see Art. IV, Sec.
2, Par. 3). “Christians cannot become slaves voluntarily; they are not
to become the slaves of men (1 Cor. 7:23), nor 'entangled again with the yoke
of bondage' (Gal. 5:1).” 6
Those who became Christians while slaves were to become free if they could
(1 Cor. 7:21). If they could not, they were to exemplify the character of
Christ (Eph. 6:5-9; Col. 4:1; 1 Tim. 6:1-2). Eventually, Christianity would
overthrow slavery, not so much by denouncing it, but by promoting the equality
of man under God, and teaching the principles of liberty and the brotherhood
of mankind under Christ. It would be the responsibility of Christians, especially
those who found themselves in a place of owning slaves (for example, many
Christian Americans in the past inherited slaves) to teach such ideas, and
then act accordingly. Many Christians in early America did just this. Phyllis
Wheatley was introduced to Christianity by her masters, educated, and given
her freedom. Many American Christians, in both North and South, at the time
of the Civil War did much to educate slaves Biblically. Stonewall Jackson,
who never owned slaves himself and was against slavery, conducted many classes
in his church to educate slaves.
- Excessive punishment of slaves was forbidden.
A slave could be punished by striking with a rod (Ex. 21:20-21), but if the
punishment was excessive, the slave was to be given his freedom (Ex. 21:26-27;
Lev. 24:17). This included knocking out the tooth or damaging the eye. This
applied to indentured servants as well as other slaves. Since the owner would
lose his investment in such a situation, there was a financial incentive for
Just treatment of slaves was required of the masters. Paul writes: “Masters,
grant to your slaves justice and fairness, knowing that you too have a Master
in heaven.” (Col. 4:1)
- Slaves could be brought into the covenant.
Slaves could be circumcised (brought into the covenant) and then eat of the
Passover meal (Ex. 12:43-44; Gen. 17:12-13). Slaves could also eat of holy
things (Lev. 22:10-11).
- Slaves had some rights and position in the home and could share in the
(See Gen. 24:2 and Prov. 17:2.)
- Slaves were to rest on the Sabbath like everyone else.
The Fourth Commandment applied to all (Ex. 20:8-11).
- Female slave laws were for their protection.
Exodus 21:4-11 gives some laws about female slaves, which served for their
protection. These Hebrew female slaves were without family to assist them
in their need or to help to provide security for them. These slaves laws were
a way to protect them from abuse not faced by males and to keep them from
being turned out into the street, where much harm could come to them.
Examination of the Biblical view of slavery enables us to more effectively
address the assertion that slavery was America's original sin. In light of the
Scriptures we cannot say that slavery, in a broad and general sense, is sin.
But this brief look at the Biblical slave laws does reveal how fallen man's
example of slavery has violated God's laws, and America's form of slavery in
particular violated various aspects of the law, as well as the general spirit
of liberty instituted by Christ.
The Christian foundation and environment of America caused most people to seek
to view life from a Biblical perspective. Concerning slavery, they would ask
“Is it Biblical?” While most of the Founders saw it was God's desire
to eliminate the institution, others attempted to justify it. At the time of
the Civil War some people justified Southern slavery by appealing to the Bible.
However, through this brief review of the Old Testament slave laws we have seen
that American slavery violated some of these laws, not to mention the spirit
of liberty instituted by the coming of Christ.
Slavery and the New Testament
When Paul wrote how slaves and masters were to act (Eph. 6:5-9; Col. 4:1; 1
Tim. 6:1-2; Col. 3:22-25; Titus 2:9-10), he was not endorsing involuntary slavery
or the Roman slave system. He was addressing the attitudes, actions, and matters
of the heart of those Christians who found themselves in slavery or as slave
owners. This encompassed many people, for half the population of Rome and a
large proportion of the Roman Empire were slaves. Many people were converted
to Christianity while slaves or slave owners, and many Christians were enslaved.
It is in this context that we can better understand the example of Paul, Onesimus,
and Philemon. Onesimus, a slave of Philemon who apparently stole some money
from his master and ran away, encountered Paul in Rome and became a Christian.
Paul sent him back to his master carrying the letter to Philemon. Author of
the famous Bible Handbook, Henry Halley writes:
The Bible gives no hint as to how the master received his returning slave.
But there is a tradition that says his master did receive him, and took Paul's
veiled hint and gave the slave his liberty. That is the way the Gospel works.
Christ in the heart of the slave made the slave recognize the social usages
of his day, and go back to his master determined to be a good slave and live
out his natural life as a slave. Christ in the heart of the master made the
master recognize the slave as a Christian brother and give him his liberty.
There is a tradition that Onesimus afterward became a bishop of Berea. 7
The Mosaic slave laws and the writings of Paul benefited and protected the
slaves as best as possible in their situation. God's desire for any who are
enslaved is freedom (Luke 4:18; Gal. 5:1). Those who are set free in Christ
then need to be prepared to walk in liberty. Pagan nations had a much different
outlook toward slaves, believing slaves had no rights or privileges. Because
of the restrictions and humane aspect of the Mosaic laws on slavery, it never
existed on a large scale in Israel, and did not exhibit the cruelties seen in
Egypt, Greece, Rome, Assyria and other nations.
Sinful man will always live in some form of bondage and slavery, as a slave
to the state, to a lord or noble, or to other men. As a step in man's freedom,
God's laws of slavery provided the best situation for those who find themselves
in bondage. God's ultimate desire is that all walk in the liberty of the gospel
both internally and externally.
As the gospel principles of liberty have spread throughout history in all the
nations, man has put aside the institution of overt slavery. However, since
sinful man tends to live in bondage, different forms of slavery have replaced
the more obvious system of past centuries. The state has assumed the role of
master for many, providing aid and assistance, and with it more and more control,
to those unable to provide for themselves. The only solution to slavery is the
liberty of the gospel.
Brief History of Slavery
Slavery has existed throughout the world since after the fall of man. Egypt
and other ancient empires enslaved multitudes. Greece and Rome had many slaves,
taken from nations they conquered. Slavery was a part of almost every culture.
While some Christian nations had taken steps to end slavery, it was still an
established part of most of the world when America began to be settled.
Many of the early settlers came to America as indentured servants, indebted
to others for a brief period of time to pay for their passage. England at this
time recognized the forced labor of the apprentice, the hired servant, convicts,
and indentured servants. Some of these laborers were subject to whippings and
other forms of punishment. These forms of servitude were limited in duration
and “transmitted no claim to the servant's children.” 8
According to Hugh Thomas in The Slave Trade, about 11,328,000 Africans
were transported to the new world between 1440 and 1870. Of these about 4 million
went to Brazil, 2.5 million to Spanish colonies, 2 million to the British West
Indies, 1.6 million to the French West Indies, and 500,000 went to what became
the United States of America. 9
A Dutch ship, seeking to unload its human cargo, brought the first slaves to
Virginia in 1619. Over the next century a small number of slaves were brought
to America. In 1700 there were not more than 20 to 30 thousand black slaves
in all the colonies. There were some people who spoke against slavery (e.g.
the Quakers and Mennonites) 10 and some political efforts to check slavery (as
in laws of Massachusetts and Rhode Island), but these had little large scale
effect. The colonies' laws recognized and protected slave property. Efforts
were made to restrict the slave trade in several colonies, but the British government
overruled such efforts and the trade went on down to the Revolution.
When independence was declared from England, the legal status of slavery was
firmly established in the colonies, though there were plenty of voices speaking
out against it, and with independence those voices would increase.
America's Founders and Slavery
Some people suggest today that all early Americans must have been despicable
to allow such an evil as slavery. They say early America should be judged as
evil and sinful, and anything they have to say should be discounted. But if
we were to judge modern America by this same standard, it would be far more
wicked - we are not merely enslaving people, but we are murdering tens of millions
of innocent unborn children through abortion. These people claim that they would
not have allowed slavery if they were alive then. They would speak out and take
any measures necessary. But where is their outcry and action to end slavery
in the Sudan today? (And slavery there is much worse than that in early America.)
Some say we should not listen to the Founders of America because they owned
slaves, or at least allowed slavery to exist in the society. However, if we
were to cut ourselves off from the history of nations that had slavery in the
past we would have to have nothing to do with any people because almost every
society has had slavery, including African Americans, for many African societies
sold slaves to the Europeans; and up to ten percent of blacks in America owned
The Founders Believed Slavery Was Fundamentally Wrong.
The overwhelming majority of early Americans and most of America's leaders did
not own slaves. Some did own slaves, which were often inherited (like George
Washington at age eleven), but many of these people set them free after independence.
Most Founders believed that slavery was wrong and that it should be abolished.
William Livingston, signer of the Constitution and Governor of New Jersey, wrote
to an anti-slavery society in New York (John Jay, the first Chief Justice of
the U.S. Supreme Court and President of the Continental Congress, was President
of this society):
I would most ardently wish to become a member of it [the anti-slavery society]
and . . . I can safely promise them that neither my tongue, nor my pen, nor
purse shall be wanting to promote the abolition of what to me appears so inconsistent
with humanity and Christianity. . . . May the great and the equal Father of
the human race, who has expressly declared His abhorrence of oppression, and
that He is no respecter of persons, succeed a design so laudably calculated
to undo the heavy burdens, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every
John Quincy Adams, who worked tirelessly for years to end slavery, spoke of
the anti-slavery views of the southern Founders, including Jefferson who owned
The inconsistency of the institution of domestic slavery with the principles
of the Declaration of Independence was seen and lamented by all the southern
patriots of the Revolution; by no one with deeper and more unalterable conviction
than by the author of the Declaration himself. No charge of insincerity or
hypocrisy can be fairly laid to their charge. Never from their lips was heard
one syllable of attempt to justify the institution of slavery. They universally
considered it as a reproach fastened upon them by the unnatural step-mother
country and they saw that before the principles of the Declaration of Independence,
slavery, in common with every other mode of oppression, was destined sooner
or later to be banished from the earth. Such was the undoubting conviction
of Jefferson to his dying day. In the Memoir of His Life, written at the age
of seventy-seven, he gave to his countrymen the solemn and emphatic warning
that the day was not distant when they must hear and adopt the general emancipation
of their slaves. “Nothing is more certainly written,” said he, “in
the book of fate, than that these people are to be free.” 12
The Founding Fathers believed that blacks had the same God-given inalienable
rights as any other peoples. James Otis of Massachusetts said in 1764 that “The
colonists are by the law of nature freeborn, as indeed all men are, white or
There had always been free blacks in America who owned property, voted, and
had the same rights as other citizens. 14 Most of the men who gave us the Declaration
and the Constitution wanted to see slavery abolished. For example, George Washington
wrote in a letter to Robert Morris:
I can only say that there is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than
I do to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it [slavery]. 15
Charles Carroll, Signer of Declaration from Maryland, wrote:
Why keep alive the question of slavery? It is admitted by all to be a great
Benjamin Rush, Signer from Pennsylvania, stated:
Domestic slavery is repugnant to the principles of Christianity. . . . It
is rebellion against the authority of a common Father. It is a practical denial
of the extent and efficacy of the death of a common Savior. It is an usurpation
of the prerogative of the great Sovereign of the universe who has solemnly
claimed an exclusive property in the souls of men. 17
Father of American education, and contributor to the ideas in the Constitution,
Noah Webster wrote:
Justice and humanity require it [the end of slavery] - Christianity commands
it. Let every benevolent . . . pray for the glorious period when the last
slave who fights for freedom shall be restored to the possession of that inestimable
Quotes from John Adams reveal his strong anti-slavery views:
Every measure of prudence, therefore, ought to be assumed for the eventual
total extirpation of slavery from the United States. . . . I have, through
my whole life, held the practice of slavery in . . . abhorrence. 19
My opinion against it [slavery] has always been known. . . . [N]ever in my
life did I own a slave. 20
When Benjamin Franklin served as President of the Pennsylvania Society of Promoting
the Abolition of Slavery he declared: “Slavery is . . . an atrocious debasement
of human nature.” 21
Thomas Jefferson's original draft of the Declaration included a strong denunciation
of slavery, declaring the king's perpetuation of the slave trade and his vetoing
of colonial anti-slavery measures as one reason the colonists were declaring
He [King George III] 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. . . . 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 restrain this execrable commerce. 22
Prior to independence, anti-slavery measures by the colonists were thwarted
by the British government. Franklin wrote in 1773:
A disposition to abolish slavery prevails in North America, that many of
Pennsylvanians have set their slaves at liberty, and that even the Virginia
Assembly have petitioned the King for permission to make a law for preventing
the importation of more into that colony. This request, however, will probably
not be granted as their former laws of that kind have always been repealed.. 23
The Founders took action against slavery.
The founders did not just believe slavery was an evil that needed to be abolished,
and they did not just speak against it, but they acted on their beliefs. During
the Revolutionary War black slaves who fought won their freedom in every state
except South Carolina and Georgia. 24
Many of the founders started and served in anti-slavery societies. Franklin
and Rush founded the first such society in America in 1774. John Jay was president
of a similar society in New York. Other Founding Fathers serving in anti-slavery
societies included: William Livingston (Constitution signer), James Madison,
Richard Bassett, James Monroe, Bushrod Washington, Charles Carroll, William
Few, John Marshall, Richard Stockton, Zephaniah Swift, and many more. 25
As the Founders worked to free themselves from enslavement to Britain, based
upon laws of God and nature, they also spoke against slavery and took steps
to stop it. Abolition grew as principled resistance to the tyranny of England
grew, since both were based upon the same ideas. This worked itself out on a
personal as well as policy level, as seen in the following incident in the life
of William Whipple, signer of the Declaration of Independence from New Hampshire.
When General Whipple set out to join the army, he took with him for his waiting
servant, a colored man named Prince, one whom he had imported from Africa
many years before. He was a slave whom his master highly valued. As he advanced
on his journey, he said to Prince, “If we should be called into an engagement
with the enemy, I expect you will behave like a man of courage, and fight
like a brave soldier for your country.” Prince feelingly replied, “Sir,
I have no inducement to fight, I have no country while I am a slave. If I
had my freedom, I would endeavor to defend it to the last drop of my blood.”
This reply of Prince produced the effect on his master's heart which Prince
desired. The general declared him free on the spot. 26
The Founders opposed slavery based upon the principle of the equality of all
men. Throughout history many slaves have revolted but it was believed (even
by those enslaved) that some people had the right to enslave others. The American
slave protests were the first in history based on principles of God-endowed
liberty for all. It was not the secularists who spoke out against slavery but
the ministers and Christian statesmen.
Before independence, some states had tried to restrict slavery in different
ways (e.g. Virginia had voted to end the slave trade in 1773), but the English
government had not allowed it. Following independence and victory in the war,
the rule of the mother country was removed, leaving freedom for each state to
deal with the slavery problem. Within about 20 years of the 1783 Treaty of Peace
with Britain, the northern states abolished slavery: Pennsylvania and Massachusetts
in 1780; Connecticut and Rhode Island in 1784; New Hampshire in 1792; Vermont
in 1793; New York in 1799; and New Jersey in 1804.
The Northwest Ordinance (1787, 1789), which governed the admission of new states
into the union from the then northwest territories, forbid slavery. Thus, Ohio,
Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Iowa all prohibited slavery. This
first federal act dealing with slavery was authored by Rufus King (signer of
the Constitution) and signed into law by President George Washington.
Although no Southern state abolished slavery, there was much anti-slavery sentiment.
Many anti-slavery societies were started, especially in the upper South. Many
Southern states considered proposals abolishing slavery, for example, the Virginia
legislature in 1778 and 1796. When none passed, many, like Washington, set their
slaves free, making provision for their well being. Following independence,
“Virginia changed her laws to make it easier for individuals to emancipate
slaves,” 27 though
over time the laws became more restrictive in Virginia.
While most states were moving toward freedom for slaves, the deep South (Georgia,
South Carolina, North Carolina) was largely pro-slavery. Yet, even so, the Southern
courts before around 1840 generally took the position that slavery violated
the natural rights of blacks. For example, the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled
Slavery is condemned by reason and the laws of nature. It exists and can
only exist, through municipal regulations, and in matters of doubt,...courts
must lean in favorem vitae et libertatis [in favor of life and liberty]. 28
The same court ruled in 1820 that the slave “is still a human being, and
possesses all those rights, of which he is not deprived by the positive provisions
of the law.” 29
Free blacks were citizens and voted in most Northern states and Virginia, North
Carolina, and South Carolina. In Baltimore prior to 1800, more blacks voted
than whites; but in 1801 and 1809, Maryland began to restrict black voting and
in 1835 North Carolina prohibited it. Other states made similar restrictions,
but a number of Northern states allowed blacks to vote and hold office. In Massachusetts
this right was given nearly a decade before the American Revolution and was
never taken away, either before or after the Civil War.
Slavery and the Constitution
The issue of slavery was considered at the Constitutional Convention. Though
most delegates were opposed to slavery, they compromised on the issue when the
representatives from Georgia and South Carolina threatened to walk out. The
delegates realized slavery would continue in these states with or without the
union. They saw a strong union of all the colonies was the best means of securing
their liberty (which was by no means guaranteed to survive). They did not agree
to abolish slavery as some wanted to do, but they did take the forward step
of giving the Congress the power to end the slave trade after 20 years. 30 No
nation in Europe or elsewhere had agreed to such political action.
Even so, many warned of the dangers of allowing this evil to continue. George
Mason of Virginia told the delegates:
Every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant. They bring the judgement of
heaven upon a country. As nations cannot be rewarded or punished in the next
world, they must be in this. By an inevitable chain of causes and effects,
Providence punishes national sins by national calamities. 31
Jefferson had written some time before this:
The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the
most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part,
and degrading submissions on the other. . . . And with what execration should
the statesman be loaded, who permitting one half the citizens thus to trample
on the rights of the other. . . . And can the liberties of a nation be thought
secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds
of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not
to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I
reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep forever. 32
Constitutional Convention Delegate, Luther Martin, stated:
[I]t ought to be considered that national crimes can only be and frequently
are punished in this world by national punishments; and that the continuance
of the slave-trade, and thus giving it a national sanction and encouragement,
ought to be considered as justly exposing us to the displeasure and vengeance
of Him who is equally Lord of all and who views with equal eye the poor African
slave and his American master. 33
Some today misinterpret the Constitutional provision of counting the slaves
as three-fifths for purposes of representation as pro-slavery or black dehumanization.
But it was a political compromise between the north and the south.. The three-fifths
provision applied only to slaves and not free blacks, who voted and had the
same rights as whites (and in some southern states this meant being able to
own slaves). While the Southern states wanted to count the slaves in their population
to determine the number of congressmen from their states, slavery opponents
pushed to keep the Southern states from having more representatives, and hence
more power in congress.
The Constitution did provide that runaway slaves would be
returned to their owners (We saw previously that returning runaway slaves is
contrary to Biblical slave laws, unless these slaves were making restitution
for a crime.) but the words slave and slavery were carefully avoided. “Many
of the framers did not want to blemish the Constitution with that shameful term.”
The initial language of this clause was “legally held to service or labor,”
but this was deleted when it was objected that legally seemed to favor
“the idea that slavery was legal in a moral view.” 34
While the Constitution did provide some protection for slavery, this document
is not pro-slavery. It embraced the situation of all 13 states at that time,
the Founders leaving most of the power to deal with this social evil in the
hands of each state. Most saw that the principles of liberty contained in the
Declaration could not support slavery and would eventually overthrow it.. As
delegate to the Constitutional Convention, Luther Martin put it:
Slavery is inconsistent with the genius of republicanism, and has a tendency
to destroy those principles on which it is supported, as it lessens the sense
of the equal rights of mankind, and habituates us to tyranny and oppression. 35
We have seen that after independence the American Founders actually took steps
to end slavery. Some could have done more, but as a whole they probably did
more than any group of national leaders up until that time in history to deal
with the evil of slavery. They took steps toward liberty for the enslaved and
believed that the gradual march of liberty would continue, ultimately resulting
in the complete death of slavery. The ideas they infused in the foundational
civil documents upon which America was founded - such as Creator endowed rights
and the equality of all men before the law - eventually prevailed and slavery
was abolished. But not without great difficulty because the generations that
followed failed to carry out the gradual abolition of slavery in America.
The View of Slavery Changes
Most of America's Founders thought slavery would gradually be abolished. Roger
Sherman said that “the abolition of slavery seemed to be going on in the
U.S. and that the good sense of the several states would probably by degrees
complete it.” 36 But
it was not. Why?
- Succeeding generations did not have the character and worldview necessary
to complete the task started by the Founders. Eternal vigilance is the price
of liberty. Each generation must take up the cause of liberty, which is the
cause of God, and fight the battle. While the majority view of the Founders
was that American slavery was a social evil that needed to be abolished, many
in later generations attempted to justify slavery, often appealing to the
Scriptures (though, I believe, in error at many points, as mentioned earlier).
- American slavery was not in alignment with Biblical slave laws and God's
desire for liberty for all mankind. This inconsistency produced an institution
that proved too difficult to gradually and peacefully abolish. Some Founders
(like Henry and Jefferson) could not see how a peaceful resolution was possible
and gave the “necessary evil” argument. Henry said: “As much
as I deplore slavery, I see that prudence forbids its abolition.” 37
Jefferson was opposed to slavery yet he thought that once the slaves gained
freedom, a peaceful coexistence of whites and blacks would be very difficult
to maintain. Jefferson predicted that if the slaves were freed and lived in
America, “Deep-rooted prejudices entertained by the whites' ten thousand
recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained; new provocations;
the real distinctions which nature has made and many other circumstances,
will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions which will probably never
end but in the extermination of the one or the other race.” 38
This is why many worked (especially many from Virginia, like James Monroe
and James Madison) to set up a country in Africa (Liberia) where the freed
slaves could live. Some at this time did not see integration as possible,
and apart from the power of God, history has shown it is not possible, as
there have been and are many ethnic wars. The church must lead the way in
race relations, showing all believers are brothers in Christ, and all men
have a common Creator.
- The invention of the cotton gin, which revived the economic benefit of
slavery, also contributed to a shift in the thinking of many Americans. At
the time of independence and the constitutional period most people viewed
slavery as an evil that should and would be abolished. But by the 1830s, many
people, including some Southern ministers, began to justify it. Some, like
Calhoun, even said it was a positive thing. Others justified it by promoting
the inequality of the races. Stephen Douglas argued that the Declaration only
applied to whites, but Lincoln rejected that argument and sought to bring
the nation back to the principles of the Declaration. In the end these principles
The Civil War
It is not the intent of this article to examine the War between the States. 39
The causes behind the war were many. Certainly slavery was a part of the cause
(and for a small number of wealthy and influential Southern slave owners, it
was probably primary), but slavery was not the central issue for all people
in the South. Most Southerners did not own slaves and most of those who did
had only a small number. 40
States rights and perceived unconstitutional taxes were also motivations for
secession. There were many abolitionists in the North, both Christian and non-Christian,
who pushed for the war, seeing it as a means to end slavery. Though slavery
was not initially the reason Lincoln sent troops into the South, he did come
to believe that God wanted him to emancipate the slaves.
In all the complexities and tragedy of the war, God was at work fulfilling
His providential purposes. Due to the sin of man, to his inability to deal with
slavery in a Christian manner, and to other factors, a war erupted. Both good
and bad in the root causes, produced good and bad fruit in the outcome of the
Though America's Founders failed to accomplish all of their desires and wishes
in dealing with the issue of slavery, the principles of equality and God-given
rights they established in the American constitutional republic set into motion
events leading to the end of slavery in the United States and throughout the
world. That America was founded upon such Biblical principles is what made her
a Christian nation, not that there was no sin in the Founders. It is because
of the Christian foundations that America has become the most free, just, and
prosperous nation in history. The Godly principles infused in her laws, institutions,
and families have had immense impact in overthrowing tyranny, oppression, and
slavery throughout the world.
(Stephen McDowell is president of the Providence
Foundation, a Christian educational organization whose mission is to spread
liberty, justice, and prosperity among the nations by instructing individuals
in a Biblical worldview.)
For more information on this issue see The
Founding Fathers and Slavery, George
Washington, Thomas Jefferson & Slavery in Virginia, Black
History Issue 2003, Confronting
Civil War Revisionism, and Setting the Record Straight (Book,
1. R.J. Rushdoony, Institutes
of Biblical Law, vol.1, p. 137.(Return)
2. Rushdoony, p. 286.(Return)
3. Rushdoony, pp. 485-486.(Return)
4. Rushdoony, p. 251.(Return)
5. Rushdoony, p. 251. (Return)
6. Rushdoony, p. 137.(Return)
7. Henry H. Halley, Halley's Bible Handbook (Grand
Rapids: Zondervan, 1965), p. 645.(Return)
8. Albert Bushnell Hart, The American Nation: A History
(New York: Harper & Brothers, 1906), vol. 16, Slavery and Abolition, 1831-1841,
9. "History of slavery is wide-ranging saga", book review
by Gregory Kane of The Slave Trade by Hugh Thomas (Simon and Schuster),
in The Daily Progress, Charlottesville, Va., December 7, 1997.(Return)
10. The earliest known official protest against slavery in
America was the Resolutions of Germantown, Pennsylvania Mennonites, February
18, 1688. See Documents of American History, Henry Steele Commager, editor
(New York: F.S. Crofts & Co., 1944), 37-38.(Return)
11. William Livingston, The Papers of William Livingston,
Carl E. Prince, editor (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1988), Vol.
V, p. 255, to the New York Manumission Society on June 26, 1786. In "The Founding
Fathers and Slavery" by David Barton, unpublished paper, p. 5. (Return)
12. John Quincy Adams, An Oration Delivered Before the
Inhabitants of the Town of Newburyport, at Their Request, on the Sixty-First
Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, July 4th, 1837 (Newburyport:
Charles Whipple, 1837), p. 50.(Return)
13. Rights of the Colonies, in Bernard Bailyn, ed.,
Pamphlets of the American Revolution (Cambridge: Harvard University Press,
1965), p. 439. In "Was the American Founding Unjust? The Case of Slavery," by
Thomas G. West, Principles, a quarterly review of The Claremont Institute,
Spring/Summer 1992, p. 1.(Return)
14. Hart, p. 53.(Return)
15. Letter to Robert Morris, April 12, 1786, in George
Washington: A Collection, ed. W.B. Allen (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1988),
16. Kate Mason Rowland, Life and Correspondence of Charles
Carroll of Carrollton (New York & London: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1898), Vol.
II, p. 321, to Robert Goodloe Harper, April 23, 1820. In Barton, p. 3.(Return)
17. Benjamin Rush, Minutes of the Proceedings of a Convention
of Delegates from the Abolition Societies Established in Different Parts of
the United States Assembled at Philadelphia (Philadelphia: Zachariah Poulson,
1794), p. 24.. In Barton, p. 4.(Return)
18. Noah Webster, Effect of Slavery on Morals and Industry
(Hartford: Hudson and Goodwin, 1793), p. 48. In Barton, p. 4.(Return)
19. Adams to Robert J. Evans, June 8, 1819, in Adrienne Koch
and William Peden, eds., Selected Writings of John and John Quincy Adams
(New York: Knopf, 1946), p. 209. In West, p. 2.(Return)
20. John Adams, The Works of John Adams, Second President
of the United States, Charles Francis Adams, ed. (Boston: Little, Brown,
and Co., 1854), Vol. IX, pp. 92-93, to George Churchman and Jacob Lindley on
January 24, 1801. In Barton, p. 3.(Return)
21. "An Address to the Public from the Pennsylvania Society
for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery" (1789), in Franklin, Writings (New
York: Library of America, 1987), p. 1154. In West, p. 2.(Return)
22. The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson,
Adrienne Koch and William Peden, eds. (New York: Random House, 1944), p. 25.(Return)
23. Benjamin Franklin, The Works of Benjamin Franklin,
Jared Sparks, ed. (Boston: Tappan, Whittemore, and Mason, 1839), Vol. VIII,
p. 42, to the Rev. Dean Woodward on April 10, 1773.(Return)
24. Benjamin Quarles, The Negro and the American Revolution
(Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1961), chaps. 4-6. In West,
25. Barton, p. 5.(Return)
26. N. Dwight, The Lives of the Signers of the Declaration
of Independence (New York: A.S. Barnes & Burr, 1860), p. 11.(Return)
27. West, p. 4. (Return)
28. Harry v. Decker & Hopkins (1818), in West, p. 4.(Return)
29. Mississippi v. Jones (1820), in West, p. 4.(Return)
30. Congress banned the exportation of slaves from any state
in 1794, and in 1808 banned the importation of slaves. The individual states
had passed similar legislation prior to 1808 as well. However, several Southern
states continued to actively import and export slaves after their state ban
went into effect.(Return)
31. Mark Beliles and Stephen McDowell, America's Providential
History (Charlottesville, Va.: Providence Foundation, 1991), p. 227.(Return)
32. Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia
(Trenton: Wilson & Blackwell, 1803), Query XVIII, pp. 221-222. (Return)
33. Luther Martin, The Genuine Information Delivered to
the Legislature of the State of Maryland Relative to the Proceedings of the
General Convention Lately Held at Philadelphia (Philadelphia: Eleazor Oswald,
1788), p. 57. In Barton, p. 4.(Return)
34. West, p. 5. See Max Farrand, ed. The Records of the
Federal Convention of 1787 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1937), vol.
2, p. 417 (remarks on August 25), and pp. 601 (report of Committee of Style),
628 (Sept. 15). See also Madison's Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention
of 1787, August 25.(Return)
35. Luther Martin, Genuine Information (1788), in Herbert
J. Storing, ed., The Complete Anti-Federalist (Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1981), vol. 2, p. 62. In West, p. 6..(Return)
36. Remarks at the Constitutional Convention, August 22, Farrand, vol. 2, pp.. 369-72. In West, pp. 7-8.(Return)
37. Henry to Robert Pleasants, Jan. 18, 1773, in Philip B.
Kurland and Ralph Lerner, eds. The Founders' Constitution (Chicago: University
of Chicago Press, 1987), vol. 1, p. 517; Elliot, Debates, vol. 3, p.
590. In West, p. 6. Henry also pointed out that convenience contributed to the
continuation of slavery. He said: "Is it not surprising that at a time when
the rights of humanity are defined with precision in a country above all others
fond of liberty ‹ that, in such an age, and in such a country, we find men,
professing a religion the most humane and gentle, adopting a principle as repugnant
to humanity as it is inconsistent with the Bible and destructive to liberty?
Believe me, I honor the Quakers for their noble efforts to abolish slavery.
Every thinking, honest man regrets it in speculation, yet how few in practice
from conscientious motives. Would any man believe that I am master of slaves
of my own purchase? I am drawn along by the general inconvenience of living
without them. I will not, I cannot justify it. For however culpable my conduct,
I will so far pay my devoir to virtue as to won the excellence and rectitude
of her precepts, and to lament my own non-conformity to them." In John Hancock,
Essays on the Elective Franchise; or, Who Has the Right to Vote? (Philadelphia:
Merrihew & Son, 1865), pp. 31-32.(Return)
38. Jefferson's Notes, Query XIV, p. 188. (Return)
39. See America's Providential History, chapter 16
for more on a providential view of the war.(Return)
40. See Hart, pp. 67 ff. Hart records that in 1860 only about
5% of the white population made a substantial profit of slave-keeping (a direct
profit; many others benefited from the commerce associated with slavery). About
2% of this number (0.1% of the total white population) were large plantation
owners who exerted much political influence.
Some people have pointed out that only 3% of Southerners owned slaves. While
this is technically true in some measure, it is misleading. The 3% reflects
ownership by the head of the household and does not include all its inhabitants.
Taking this into account, at the time of the Civil War about 19% of the population
lived in households with slaves; and this was 19% of total population which
included a large number of slaves. When you consider that in 6 Southern states
(Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina), there were
almost as many or more slaves than whites, this 19% figure actually represents
35%-45% of the white population (in those states) having a direct relation to
a home that had slaves.(Return)
41. See America's Providential History, chapter 16
for some positive and negative effects of the war. (Return)
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