Fact, Opinion and Annoyance

The Forgotten Man and the Slaveowning Founding Fathers
January 25, 2012, 7:28 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

It’s been a while since I updated this “political” blog – Facebook is generally a sufficient outlet for my venting.  But sometimes you can’t really vent – like when a friend comments on his friend’s link who is NOT your friend, so you can see the comment but you can’t respond.  It was a response to the following picture titled The Forgotten Man that caught my eye.

The comment that motivated me was this: “Most founding fathers would think [Obama’s] a slave. What does that say?”

After spending a lot of time considering the current popularity of demonizing the Founding Fathers as “evil, white slaveowners,” I have developed an opinion in response.

First of all, the comment is just wrong.  Internet searches consistently show that more of the Founding Fathers were abolitionists than slave owners or supporters of slavery.  One site estimated the number at 75% while others just used the term “most.”  But what can be said for the ones who were slave owners, such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson?

Well, they were wrong about it.  And while I believe that whole-heartedly, I think it is overly simplistic to negate every other action of their lives.  All of us have fallen short, we struggle with our human nature daily.  Human beings are complex creatures – rarely do we find such stark examples of the good in humanity as Mother Teresa, or of the evil in it as Adolf Hitler.  My own father, who had several very close friends who were African-American, was uncomfortable with interracial marriage.  He thought it wasn’t fair to the children, that they wouldn’t be accepted by either race.  Was my father a racist?  I don’t think so, and I think the fact that he had greatly softened on his position before his death (even to the point of agreeing to be a witness for my cousin who entered into an interracial marriage – and he adored their children) shows this.  But should every good thing he ever did be ignored because he held this opinion for much of his life?

I suppose the argument could be made that the sin of slavery is so egregious that it does nullify other good things accomplished.  My response would be to consider all the kind, generous, caring people in this world who nevertheless find it acceptable for a woman to destroy the child living in her womb.  Someday, when our political will has finally caught up with science and we recognize that upon fertilization, a unique, individual human being is formed – will every pro-choice politician and humanitarian be demonized into perpetuity?  Will any objective good that they have done be ignored?  I wonder. . .

There are also the considerations of culture.  Growing up in a culture can blind someone to the evils in it.  That does not make it less evil, and I am not promoting any sort of moral equivalence, but I do think it requires grace from those who are outside of the culture and can so obviously see the problems.  Dinesh D’Souza has a great piece about the world history of slavery and how the culture developed in America entitled We the Slave Owners:

‘Throughout world history, slavery had few defenders for the simple reason that it had few critics. The institution was uncontroversial, and that which is established and taken for granted does not have to be justified. The American South was unique among slave societies in history in that it produced a comprehensive proslavery ideology. In part, this was because slavery was under assault to a degree unrivaled anywhere else in the world.”

“It was only when the institution of slavery came under moral assault for betraying the Declaration of Independence and Christian charity that many Southern apologists such as John C. Calhoun, James Henry Hammond, Edmund Ruffin, George Frederick Holmes, and George Fitzhugh responded by formulating an audacious defense of slavery as a positive good. Hammond, among others, repudiated the Jeffersonian doctrine of equality as ‘ridiculously absurd.'”

The Founding Fathers, though flawed in some ways, developed the documents that would later end slavery.  I think this speaks to their idealism, if not their perfect character.  And for that, I think their shortcomings should be known and considered, but their good deeds honored.

1 Comment so far
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Well said. The Founding Fathers were great men and should be studied and respected even though imperfect beings. Slavery is disgusting but it is intellectual dishonesty for us in 2012 to look back and judge a person for living in accordance with the laws and morals of their time. This of course is not to defend or support slavery which is again disgusting but keep a man’s character and brilliance in context with the times they live.

Many children today could draw futuristic flying machines but does that make Da Vinci less genious?

Comment by J M

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