It is common to hear appeals to the intent and values of the founders of our nation in attempts to give support to opinions and political positions. On this very morning I have heard news reports about the current dispute over the placing of a monument to the ten commandments adjacent to a court. People on either side of the debate were sure that the founding fathers would support the position each held. Each was sure that the values of the fathers were clearly those which he held, and that the intentions of the fathers were supportive.
The difficulty of determining the intentions of any person from the 17th and 18th century, has always seemed to me to be at best a process of measured probability, rather than certainty. Indeed, there are often times when I am not fully certain of my own intentions. I am generally aware of the various dynamics of my psyche, but part of that very awareness teaches me that examining intent enters a complex mass of ideas, experiences, and feelings. Defining intent can trick my most earnest attempts to know even the truth which is within me. How on earth can I be sure of the intent of even my neighbor? Multiply that uncertainty by a couple hundred, and the problem of determining intent of the founding fathers becomes obvious.
Clamoring to show the intent of some of our founders has led to searches of documents and other written words, records of speeches, reflections by their friends, any evidence which is specific, with a “concrete” character. Here I will speculate from fact to what I believe is a reasonable conclusion.
It is a fact that of the first seven Presidents of the United States, five of them owned slaves. From that fact I proceed to an assumption that ownership of slaves for those men was intentional. The evolution of the enslavement of Africans in this country followed a very slippery slope from indenture to a gradual enslavement. The gradual nature of that evolution has been argued as an unthinking decision, and it is easy to see the truth which may be in that theory. Here I will argue that the system of enslavement was in fact built on a remarkable series of intentioned decisions.
Pretending for a moment to have been one of those five Presidents who owned slaves as a long-term investment, here are some of the decisions which it seems probable that I would have had to make:
– I would have had to make a decision that owning slaves would be profitable for me. That would have included an assessment of my own ability to pay for any slaves, and a careful judgment weighing the cost, the predictability of increased income, and whether or not I could actually afford such an expenditure. This assessment would have included observation of others who were slave owners, reflection on their experiences, and a judgment about the economic viability of the system as a whole.
– Having decided that owning slaves would be a profitable venture, I would then have had to decide how I was to procure slaves. I would have to decide either to go to a slave auction or place where slaves were for sale, or send someone as my agent. If I were to send an agent to act for me, I would have to decide on which person to choose, and would have to enter into some decisive agreement about the value of his time, and recompense for which I would be responsible.
– I would need also to have made decisions about how to transport my newly acquired slaves to whatever place I wanted them to work.
– I would need to make decisions providing for the housing, feeding, clothing of the slaves.
– I would need to decide how I or some other employed person would make clear to the slaves the jobs they were to perform, the rules which would govern the way their time was spent.
– I would need to either supervise the work of the slaves, or employ someone to oversee the work, to make sure that the end production would be profitable for me.
– I would need to provide for at least minimal attention to the health of my slaves, to insure that production was consistent and uninterrupted.
– I would have to decide how I, or someone I might employ, would make sure that recalcitrant slaves were admonished by words or physical punishment.
– I would need to keep, or pay someone to keep financial records, to be sure that the slave production, over against cost, was annually profitable.
– I would need to enter into agreements with other slaveholders, stipulating methods which would govern, proscribe, and limit the movement of slaves from one site to another. This might also include the creation and payment of patrols of men who would make sure that movement among slaves was ordered and orderly.
– I would need to make decisions about the purchase and sale of slaves, how, when, and why to engage in trading, and with whom to enter into agreements to assist the process.
– I would need to be politically engaged with other slaveholders in my vicinity, to make sure that the system itself was protected against internal rebellion or external assault.
The above list could be expanded considerably, to indicate the multiple decisions I would have had to make to engage in the enterprise of slaveholding. If I were to continue that engagement over enough time to make sure it was profitable, these decisions would have had to be repeated numerous times. To assume that these decisions were made without intent would rob these founders of the most modest abilities of thought. It is clear that these five Presidents not only owned slaves, but intended to own slaves; to assume no intention is ludicrous.
Not all of the five Presidents mentioned were present at the founding of our nation and its Constitution in 1787. It is reasonable to count them as founding fathers, because giving stability to the new nation required time to make its base solid. These five men contributed to that solid foundation.
The Constitutional Convention made intentional decisions about slaveholding. While never referring to slavery or slaves directly, the members of that Convention clearly said that slaves were to be counted as 3/5 of a person each, that action about the slave trade would be postponed for at least twenty years, and that slaveholders had a right to reclaim any slaves who might run away. How those decisions were made and then recorded without using the words slavery, slaves, slave trade, or slaveholding remains a remarkable political sophistry. That was a carefully debated and finely worded document, clearly expressing the intent of those who were present. The intent to leave the issues of slaveholding unresolved, led to a compromise which effectively gave support to the institution. Those five of the first seven Presidents found in the new Constitution much to affirm their intended slaveholding.
What were the values which spawned these intentions? Two of the values were announced by the antislavery John Laurens, son of Henry Laurens, President of the Continental Congress, and one of South Carolina’s largest slave owners. John, serving as an aide to General George Washington, argued in the Carolina legislature for the emancipation of slaves and their inclusion in the Continental armed forces. After his arguments failed, he indicated that his voice of reason was drowned by the howling of a triple-headed monster in which prejudice, avarice and pusillanimity were united. Leaving aside the pusillanimity (timidity), the values of avarice and prejudice remain pointed in Lauren’s judgment of the action of the state legislators.
– Avarice means that slaveholders were profiting and wanted to have more money.
– Prejudice means that the slaveholders exercised a belief held by most of the new Americans, namely, that Africans were inferior and therefore justifiably enslaved.
There is little need to argue about the value which claimed white people to be superior to black Africans; there is abundant documentation of the linguistic legerdemain of the founders of our nation as they justified enslaving Africans. Giving birth to a new nation in a struggle against colonial slavery by Great Britain, most of our founders were in denial which left them blind to the contradictory fact that they were enslaving Africans. That same contradiction, that same denial, present at the birth of the nation, continues to confound the dream of one nation, “with liberty and justice for all.” The value which gave precedence to white life over black remains in the psyche of much of the nation, and is engrained in its socio-economic and political structures. It is mostly unseen, unrecognized, an unresolved contradiction, buried in the same denial.
Avarice as a dominant value guided much of the early decisions of our founders. Slavery was based on avarice, and avarice demanded its continuance. Slavery has been named as the original sin of our nation, and the avarice which motivated it remains an active ingredient of our national value system.
Making money of itself is a positive value; without money none of our fathers could have lived long. To value living in reasonable comfort, secure against the vicissitudes of life is both honorable and necessary to the pursuit of happiness. Beyond that reasonable expectation, the slaveholding system fed a human propensity to want more and more, and to seek the more at the expense of others, by the unrecompensed, free labor of others. Prejudice provided the rationale for who should be the enslaved.
Avarice and prejudice fit nicely the intentional slaveholding system; gaining wealth by misusing others became a dominant value on which our nation was founded. It became also our nation’s cardinal sin.