As many have noted, ”all men are created equal” did not hold true for the vast majority of Americans until 1865, 1919, and even beyond. The founders did not create a republic for all. They created a republic for the few, but even this was a significant accomplishment—no other country had affirmed and secured natural rights in the same way that the United States did in 1788.
In any case, this hasn’t stopped Randall Kennedy, a professor at Harvard Law, from categorically negating the legacy of the founders. In an editorial special to CNN last month, Kennedy writes that black people, in large part, reject Herman Cain because he esteems the founders as great men, who “did their job … a great job.”
Kennedy, in response to Cain, wrote that Cain “makes no mention of … the Constitution’s protection of slavery, or that the initial Constitution forbade Congress from prohibiting American participation in the international slave trade for 20 years and indeed made that provision unamendable. Cain evinces no recognition of the Founding Fathers’ role in erecting a cruel pigmentocracy that continues to poison virtually every aspect of American political, social, and cultural life.”
To begin, the notion that black Americans wouldn’t support a candidate that demonstrates respect for the founders is ridiculous. Barack Obama, hugely popular among black people at the time of his inauguration and still now, said in his inaugural address, “Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils that we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man.” Black voters, of course, didn’t repudiate Obama over this statement. Where was Kennedy in January 2009? Why didn’t he remind the President that the founding fathers owned slaves?
The fact is that what the founders did, while imperfect, was tremendously significant. The nation was never perfect, and it still isn’t. Denying the Founding Fathers’ eminence because they did not abolish slavery in the new nation is not only to ignore their role in setting up representative government, but to gloss over the historical fact that many founders did work, albeit quietly, to slow the spread of slavery and limit its prominence.
Thomas Jefferson himself saw slavery as an evil, unjust institution, but he did not see a way to emancipate slaves and keep social stability. Jefferson deeply mistrusted vagrants—to him—people without land were only free in name. The founders distrusted landless whites just as they distrusted landless, freed black men and women. England had a history of landless whites creating unrest. To Jefferson, the nation could only remain safe so long as slavery existed. He, like Lincoln, never envisioned a multiracial society. He imagined if the United States were to rid itself of slavery, then it would need to recolonize Africa.
There were historical reasons why black people remained unfree. It wasn’t simply because the founders didn’t have the moral backbone to do it. A slave-based agrarian economy had been, by 1788, ingrained in the United States for about one hundred years. The framers couldn’t simply have broken it at the time of the Constitution. The southern states, Georgia and South Carolina, certainly, would never have ratified a Constitution limiting an institution they so desperately relied on. In large part, the founders did the best they could to limit the spread of slavery while forming a Union.
The Continental Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance, banning the importation of slavery into the Northwest Territory; five signers voted for it, one against. The Congress of the United States voted to enforce the measure; 16 signers voted for it, none against, with Washington signing it.
When the Northwest Ordinance passed, it passed quietly, without dissent. The framers attempted to limit the spread of slavery, behind closed doors. So while it’s fair to say that the framers didn’t—or, more properly, couldn’t—end slavery, at least 21 of 39 acted to limit it so that it would be contained and, in their minds, die off.
This approach treads on moral relativism, but history is about examining those who lived in the past on their own terms. Yes, slavery was just as evil then as we know it to be now. Yet we need thank the founders for achieving what was possible—not ending slavery outright, but perhaps slowing its spread so that it would be easier to end in the future.