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The Founders Were Hypocrites. Or Were They?

Some of the Founders owned slaves. So can we really trust them?

Image source: Americans for Prosperity

Russia’s Vladimir Putin, global strong man and rising power player, has a record of which many are unaware.

In a nation that for decades was steeped in the anti-Christianity that the Bolsheviks brought with them as they squeezed the life out of the last Czar, Putin has overseen the reconstruction and revitalizing of the Russian Orthodox Church. In fact, 23,000 churches have been rebuilt under Putin’s watch. Given the former Soviet Union’s history of persecution towards this faith, many would agree that this is technically a good thing.

All this doesn’t change the fact that Putin is still guilty of heinous human rights violations as part of the KGB and as Russia’s leader—including the infamous Pytochnye kolonii (torture colonies) where thousands have been and continue to be subjected to unspeakable treatment.

In other words, the so called good Putin has done for a once-persecuted group is grossly overshadowed by the hypocrisy of the behavior he has sanctioned for years.

Photo source: Americans for Prosperity Photo source: Americans for Prosperity

Some say that here in the United States, we’re no different. We continue to cling to the words and precepts of men who—despite all their talk about inalienable rights—owned their fellow human beings as if they were livestock.

It is because of this perceived hypocrisy that today, their vital role in establishing the freest nation on earth is quickly discredited by those who remind us of their transgression.

After all, how can we speak of the genius of our founding, and the greatness of men like Thomas Jefferson, when we know that human beings were enslaved at his hand?

It’s an entirely reasonable reaction.

Or is it?

Maybe the problem is that we simply don’t know our own history.

Today, we rightly see slavery as the abomination that it is. In the early days of our nation, people were only beginning to wake up to its injustice. As wrong as it was, it was an integral part of society at that time. Societies had operated on a system of forced or indentured human service for centuries; for millennia, really, in all corners of the world. The fact that the Founders and those who followed them were able to eradicate it entirely from this nation in just 89 years (from the Declaration in 1776 to the 13th Amendment in 1865) is quite remarkable.

Before we look at what they did to get there, it is imperative that we understand what they were up against.

A reader comment on my piece "Meet the Real Wall of Separation: Protecting Religious Freedom in Today's World." The reader argued that the Founding Fathers were hypocrites. A reader comment on my piece "Meet the Real Wall of Separation: Protecting Religious Freedom in Today's World." The reader argued that the Founding Fathers were hypocrites.

To be certain, the Founders weren’t perfect. Some of them still struggled with their own possession of slaves. Not all wanted to end slavery, yet what so often goes unrecognized is that so many of them did.

Contrary to what many may believe, slavery’s end did not begin with the 13th Amendment which, in 1865, formally abolished slavery in the United States. It actually began with the Three-Fifths compromise in 1787.

Just 11 years after the Declaration, Congress ratified the Constitution in 1787. With it, the Three-Fifths compromise was born, a concept that has endlessly served as the one of the lynchpins for the argument that the Constitution was flawed from the start.

Critics contend that counting slaves as “three-fifths” of a person was intended to qualify them as less than human, and furthered the institution of slavery. In reality, counting slaves in this manner actually helped, not hindered, the push to end slavery. Few realize that if the Constitution had counted all slaves for census purposes and tax liability as one rather than three-fifths, the states with large slave populations would have held a perpetual majority in Congress, and would have never voted against the institution of slavery.

Furthermore, had the compromise been the proslavery anthem many claim it to be, why did Congress attach personhood to the slaves? In doing what they did, they formally recognized that these slaves were truly humans. After all, if the Founders believed otherwise . . . the slaves would have been regarded as no more than property; something that never would have been considered as part of a census in the first place.

Slave auction poster

Moreover, certain southern delegates refused to support the Constitution without restrictions on Congress’ power to ban the slave trade. In another compromise, it was agreed that Congress wouldn’t touch the subject for 20 years, at which point it could be brought up again. For many, this day couldn’t come soon enough to end this “nefarious practice” and “barbarism of modern policy.”

In other words, there was enough time to begin shifting the debate in the country. And shift it did, as the nation watched a battle back and forth between compromises, eventually culminating in the Civil War, and the amendment that finally ended slavery.

Still, many will argue that these points too are moot, given the fact that throughout many of these debates, certain Founders owned slaves. To understand this, we must also understand the legal framework under which they lived.

Perhaps just as difficult as restructuring the way things were “always done,” was facing the “laws of manumission;” that is, each state’s protocol as to how slaves could be released, often dictated whether or not this was easily possible. Depending on the state (some weren’t as difficult), it meant financial support of the slave, significant legal petition on the part of the slave owner on behalf of the slave, etc. In other words, it often was no easy task a person could just carry out from one day to the next.

Instead some, like Jefferson, actively worked toward and looked forward to the day in which slavery could be eradicated from our society, and attempted to set plans in place to ensure that they would be educated. He believed national emancipation could be achieved, and he wanted them to be ready to live, work and prosper outside of slavery.

Thomas Jefferson. Thomas Jefferson.

In Jefferson’s case, provisions existed which allowed him to free slaves at his death, which he did. His indebtedness (some $2.5 million in today’s currency) would have prevented him from doing so beforehand, because, as “The Jefferson Lies” author David Barton notes, “emancipated slaves could thus be seized by creditors to pay off any debt owed by the owner.”

In sum, before we can sit and talk about what the Founders crafted and the impact it has on our nation today, we must understand their true history. If they’re the guilty hypocrites many paint them to be, then yes … their guidance of our nation is to be questioned. But given the context history lays out for us, this certainly doesn’t seem to be the case.

Instead of using slavery as the cornerstone of a thinly-veiled attempt to disregard our Founding principles in favor of something far more progressive, its eradication ought to be viewed as one of our Founders’ greatest accomplishments.

After all, slavery didn’t occur in a vacuum. It was something our world had struggled with for ages, and still does in certain countries. How amazing it is that we, thanks to the guidance of our Founders, were able to eradicate it from ours in just one lifetime?

Mary Ramirez is a full time writer, and creator of www.afuturefree.com--a political commentary blog. She can be reached at: afuturefree@aol.com; or on Twitter: @AFutureFree

TheBlaze contributor channel supports an open discourse on a range of views. The opinions expressed in this channel are solely those of each individual author.

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