Slavery and the American Founding: The "Inconsistency not to be excused"

The question of whether the American founders were in favor of or against slavery is not a new one. On the one hand, Americans failed to do away with slavery, as several insuperable obstacles seemed to make immediate abolition impossible – not the least of which was the threat from certain Southern states to refrain from joining the Union if slavery was not sufficiently protected in the proposed Constitution. On the other hand, most of the prominent American founders understood that slavery was inconsistent with the principle that “all men are created equal.” As John Jay wrote in 1786, “To contend for our own liberty, and to deny that blessing to others, involves an inconsistency not to be excused."

The result was that plans for gradual rather than immediate abolition were adopted, with many states passing laws for the gradual emancipation or individual manumission of slaves. The founders hoped that slavery would ultimately die a natural death, or that some solution would present itself to future generations of Americans. Yet this hope was mixed with fear that if slavery was not extirpated peacefully, it might culminate in either a bloody slave rebellion or the violent dissolution of the Union.

This lesson will focus on the views of the founders as expressed in primary documents from their own time and in their own words. Students will see that many of the major founders opposed slavery as contrary to the principles of the American Revolution. Students will also gain a better understanding of the views of many founders, even those who owned slaves – including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson – who looked forward to a time when slavery would no longer mar the American Republic. Students will become aware of the obstacles – real and imagined – that ultimately led to the failure of the founders to achieve immediate emancipation in 1789. At the same time, students will see that the people of many states did take action to gradually emancipate slaves, while in other states legal sanctions were enforced to make manumission of their slaves more difficult for slave owners.

Guiding Questions

What were the American founders' views on slavery, and how did they act on them in creating a new republic?

Learning Objectives

After completing this lesson, students should be able to: Articulate the views of prominent American founders regarding slavery, and explain why they believed it was inconsistent with the principles of the Revolution.

Understand the obstacles Americans faced in doing away with slavery in the United States.

Explain why most of the founders preferred gradual rather than immediate abolition, and understand the plans in the various states for the gradual emancipation of slaves.

Identify the means taken by certain states to either eliminate or protect slavery.