On the complex interconnections between our founding documents and slavery.
To their credit, secondary school history textbooks do, at least in my rapidly fading memories of them, often include in the midst of their celebrations of the Constitution some mention of the miserably cold 3/5ths compromise, the placating of the Southern states by means of an explicit definition of a slave as 3/5ths of a person when it came to determining population and so representation in the new Congress (and thus, ironically but very definitely, our founding legal document’s equally clear delineation of the absence of actual personhood, of any sense of belonging to “We the people,” in this key American community and population). But I think it would be even more beneficial for our national narratives of the Founders if we paid a bit more attention to the much more subtle way in which slavery was elided from the Declaration of Independence—Jefferson in his initial draft included a full paragraph on the topic, making it one of the list of wrongs that the King had foisted upon the colonies (“he has waged cruel war against human nature itself,” the passage began); but the paragraph was entirely excised by the Convention as a whole before the Declaration was published and read throughout the colonies. The irony of slavery existing alongside the self-evident truth that all men are created equal was, it would seem, a bit too biting to the Signers to bear any overt examination.
Historians have rightly made a great deal of this founding and abiding national irony, with Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom representing a particularly complex and rich engagement with the theme. But much less well-known, and significantly more inspiring, is the use to which a large number of contemporary African Americans put the founding documents and their rhetoric. Within a year of the 1776 establishment of state legislatures, one of their main points of business was responding to (or ignoring, although even that is a response of course) the numerous petitions by individual and groups of slaves, using the words and ideals of the Declaration and other Revolutionary era narratives in direct support of their pleas for freedom specifically and the abolition of slavery more generally. One such slave, Quock Walker, brought his case all the way to the Massachusetts Supreme Court, and the 1781 ruling in his favor pretty much ended slavery in Massachusetts (it’s easy to forget that just 80 years before the Civil War began slavery was still a pretty significant part of life in Massachusetts and throughout New England).
The slaves and activists who wrote a 1777 such petition made the link between founding document and anti-slavery argument crystal clear: “Your petitioners … cannot but express their astonishment,” they wrote, “that it has never been considered that every principle from which America has acted in the course of their unhappy difficulties with Great Britain pleads stronger than a thousand arguments in favor of your petitioners.” Seventy years later, the first women’s rights convention at Seneca Falls would produce a Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions that brilliantly adopted the Declaration’s language to argue for gender equality; that convention and text are rightly famous, but they, like Jefferson and his peers, comprised a highly educated and established community of reformers, writers, and activists, making that much more clearly impressive the similar efforts of these enslaved Americans three-quarters of a century earlier.
Similarly, much has been written, and justly so, about the striking accomplishments that are the Declaration and the Constitution, about their place not only in our national narratives but in reshaping world history. But it is petitions like these that are to my mind truly our founding documents, that truly exemplify the spirit and community from which America arose. We would do well to remember and celebrate them, and especially their authors, on the 4th of July. Next Revolutionary reality tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other Revolutionary histories or stories you’d highlight?
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