President Donald Trump questioned earlier this week where the tearing down of statues will end, wondering if George Washington and Thomas Jefferson will be next, given that they were slaveholders.
Many commentators have rightly pointed out following Trump’s comments that there is a major distinction to be made between Confederate war heroes like Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, who despite their personal virtues fought to tear the country apart, and Washington and Jefferson, who despite owning slaves played central roles in establishing the nation that has been the greatest experiment in liberty in world history.
Nonetheless Trump’s question does not seem so far-fetched in this age of political correctness. Rev. Al Sharpton called for the federal defunding of the Jefferson Memorial on Wednesday, saying it is an “insult to my family.”
A prominent Chicago pastor wants Washington’s statue removed from a city park named after the nation’s first president:
“When I see that, I see a person who fought for the liberties, and I see people that fought for the justice and freedom of white America, because at that moment, we were still chattel slavery, and was three-fifths of humans,” said Bishop James Dukes.
— POLITICO (@politico) August 15, 2017
Before we start tearing down statues of Washington and Jefferson and others of the founding era, a brief review of the facts is in order.
First, it should be noted that many of the Founders recognized the evil of slavery and took steps to halt its growth and end it in the United States.
Slavery had existed in America since 1619 (about a century and a half before the founding of the nation in 1776), when it was introduced in the Virginia colony. However, with the onset of the Revolutionary War, several states took steps to abolish slavery. By the early 19th century all the states north of the Mason-Dixon Line had at least taken measures to begin abolishing slavery within their borders, though the process was gradual. By 1830, there were more than 120,000 free blacks in the north.
In 1787, the same year the Constitution was written, the Continental Congress adopted the Northwest Ordinance, which established the laws governing the territorial land encompassing the future states of Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin. The ordinance specifically forbade the introduction of slavery in those lands.
Three years earlier, a similar provision failed to pass in the Ordinance of 1784 by one vote, due to one delegate being absent because of illness. That ordinance was the law governing all territorial lands (north and south), before passage of the Northwest Ordinance superseded it in the northern portion.
Jefferson, who had penned the provision making slavery illegal in the Ordinance of 1784, lamented, “Thus we see the fate of millions unborn hanging on the tongue of one man, and Heaven was silent in that awful moment! But it is to be hoped it will not always be silent, and that friends to the rights of human nature will prevail.”
However, an initial victory against slavery’s unmitigated growth had been achieved by limiting it to the Southern states.
Other victories happened at the Constitutional Convention itself, where George Washington presided.
The so-called three-fifths clause in the Constitution, dictating that the slave population would be counted as three-fifths of the non-slave population, was a compromise reached with the northern delegates to the constitutional convention who opposed slavery. It meant slave states would have less representation in the House of Representatives than a strict population count would have mandated, and thereby less power to strengthen and perpetuate slavery.
Another limit to the growth of slavery found in the Constitution gave Congress the power to end the importation of slaves in 1808 (approximately twenty years from the date the constitutional government took effect). Congress did so that year, and President Jefferson signed the bill into law.
George Washington, though a prominent member of the plantation society, grew to detest the institution of slavery.
During the Revolutionary War, black men, both free and slave, fought in the Continental Army, and Washington saw the inconsistency of these men fighting for liberty yet being held in bondage.
In response to a letter from one of his commanders, the Marquis de Lafayette, who in 1786, after the war, asked why the slaves could not be freed, Washington responded, “Would to God a like spirit (to liberate the slaves) would diffuse itself generally into the minds of the people of this country; but I despair seeing it.”
Washington noted that bills had been introduced in the Virginia legislature but could scarcely get a reading. He believed that if all the slaves were set free at once, a chaotic situation would ensue, leading to “much inconvenience and mischief” (probably referring to homelessness, poverty and crime due to the newly-released slaves’ dire circumstances); instead, he believed that a gradualist plan would best allow the former slaves to assimilate into society.
That same year, Washington also wrote New Jersey legislator Robert Morris, stating, “There is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it; but there is only one effectual mode by which it can be accomplished, and that by legislative authority; and this as far as my suffrage is concerned will never be wanting.”
In his will, Washington freed his slaves, and he included provisions to pay for those who wanted to learn a trade.
Jefferson took multiple very public stands against slavery, including introducing several bills in the Virginia legislature to abolish it.
Each bill met stiff opposition, as Washington alluded to in his correspondence above, never even reaching the floor for a vote. After repeated attempts and much public maligning of the institution, Jefferson decided the time for the freeing of the slaves had not yet come.
Jefferson wrote passionately about the evils of the slave trade in the Declaration of Independence, identifying it as “cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty.” But that language was struck when the document came before the full Continental Congress, so as not to offend the body’s slave-holding members.
In Jefferson’s only book — Notes on the State of Virginia — published the same year the Constitutional Convention met, the Virginian wrote that the practice of slavery corrupts society and clearly contradicts God’s will.
“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,” he wrote. “Our children see this, and learn to imitate it, for man is an imitative animal.”
Looking to the future, Jefferson observed that unless the government acted to right this wrong, another armed revolution might occur at God’s instigation.
In that event, “(t)he Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest. God who gave us life gave us liberty. 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? I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever. …”
Jefferson’s words, which are etched in the walls of a memorial next to his statue on the Washington Mall, proved prophetic.
Jefferson Memorial was awe inspiring. Beautiful and iconic. Loved it! pic.twitter.com/vhMDr3nJ0W
— Mixtopher (@MIXtopher) July 10, 2017
The Civil War erupted less than 40 years after Jefferson’s death in 1826, and ultimately decided the issue of slavery once and for all. More than 600,000 Americans sacrificed their lives in the nation’s most costly war.
While localities have every right to debate and decide, lawfully and peaceably, whether Confederate monuments in the public square are appropriate, the central role Washington and Jefferson played in establishing this country as “the land of the free” is beyond dispute.
We can and should continue to take pride in them as Americans.