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Washington, Jefferson, Madison: There’s No Defending Founders Who Practiced Slavery

| October 23, 2017

Founding shackles. (National Museum of American History)

Founding shackles. (National Museum of American History)

By Sarah Browning

This summer, on the very day that white supremacists rioted in Charlottesville, Virginia, I was down the road visiting Montpelier — the home of James Madison, our fourth president.


On the house tour, we stopped in Madison’s upstairs library, where he spent hundreds of hours reading about earlier attempts at self-governance.

There, he imagined the previously unimaginable: freedom of religion, freedom of expression, the right to a jury of one’s peers. Madison would go on to write those amendments into the Constitution, earning him the name “Father of the Bill of Rights.”

As we stepped outside to Montpelier’s beautiful grounds, we learned something else: To keep his small family of four white people in the height of 18th century luxury, James Madison enslaved 100 black people.

Indeed, Montpelier now has an Enslaved Community Exhibit and tour. I was eager to see how these two Madisons were being interpreted: the man who conceived unimaginable freedoms for himself and his kind, while simultaneously denying freedom to countless others.

The Enslaved Community Exhibit is powerful: historians, archeologists, and descendants have worked hard to document the lives of the hundreds of African Americans enslaved at Montpelier over the years.

Artifacts of their lives are on display, and hundreds of their names are painted on the exhibit walls. Videos recreate the story of enslaved people who tried to escape and were recaptured and imprisoned.

Then I took the tour.

The white guide began to explain why James Madison didn’t free any of the people he enslaved when he died. “James Madison was a practical man,” the guide said. “He knew that they would not be welcomed into the deeply prejudiced society of the time.”

I tried to give the man a way out. “Perhaps this is what Madison told himself so he could sleep at night. But if he’d asked any of the people he enslaved, I’m sure they would’ve preferred freedom.”

“No, no,” the guide continued, “slave states required that freed men and women leave the state within a year. Even the North wasn’t welcoming. … They would’ve had to go all the way to Canada.”

other-wordsCanada? Would that really have been worse than slavery?

When I wrote to the Montpelier administration afterward expressing my outrage that their staff would justify slavery on any grounds, the reply included this information: “A visitor to Montpelier in 1835 noted that [Madison] ‘talked more on the subject of slavery than on any other, acknowledging, without limitation or hesitation, all the evils with which it has ever been charged.’”

My correspondent then explained that Madison’s solution was support for the American Colonization Society, which proposed — and implemented — the outrageous scheme of sending African Americans to West Africa, to what’s now Liberia.

In other words, though Madison could imagine a brand new form of government, he couldn’t imagine living a more modest lifestyle, side by side with people whose skin was a different color from his own.

Let’s pause a moment and consider the possibility: What if James Madison — and the other most powerful men of his time — had declared publicly, as apparently they did at home, the evils of slavery? What if the original Bill of Rights had ended slavery outright?

It seems shocking, I know. But in 1789, so did freedom of religion.

What if we were the new revolutionaries, and dedicated ourselves to building a society that truly enacted the promise James Madison imagined — for all our people?

Sarah Browning directs the Split This Rock poetry collective. She’s an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies.

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18 Responses for “Washington, Jefferson, Madison: There’s No Defending Founders Who Practiced Slavery”

  1. Pogo says:

    @Sarah Browning

    Well stated. How about a word on this slavery:

    wage slavery
    https://www.google.com/search?q=wage+slavery&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8

    The Preacher and the Slave

  2. Merrill Shapiro says:

    John Adams, Samuel Adams, George Clymer, William Elery, Elbridge Gerry, Samuel Huntington, Thomas McKean, Robert Treat Paine, George Ross, Roger Sherman, James Smith, Matthew Thornton, George Walton, William Williams, James Wilson of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, never owned slaves. Nor did John Quincy Adams or Thomas Paine, Nathan Hale or Ethan Allen. Those who did own slaves could just as easily followed the example of these find founders of our nation!

  3. another vet says:

    I know I will catch hell for saying this but can we judge society of 200 years ago by our standards today?

  4. Dear Soldier says:

    American is abolishonist. Leftover leftist blind and bind.
    They appeal to a knee bending kind.
    Slavery happened to all of mankind.
    Time to free your mind.

  5. r&r says:

    What you never hear is the blacks were SOLD by their parents to a buyer of slaves who was a black man. Why keep blaming the whites for everything.

  6. Chris A Pickett says:

    IS there any excuse for the millions of Africans who were sold into slavery by other Africans who captured them and sold them to European slave traders?

  7. By the way says:

    If rich white men didn’t buy slaves there would have been no market for other “Africans” or “parents” to sell them into slavery. Your arguments do not hold water.

  8. Jon Hardison says:

    r&r and By the way:

    What exactly does one have to do with the other? Lets drop slavery from the conversation for a second. Do you blame the farmer that farms the drugs for our drug problem? Do you blame the cartel that gets it across the boarder? Do you blame the street dealer? How about the addicts (demand)?

    I’m pretty sure we can agree that we can agree that all parties share some part of the blame but the farmer in this case is the least of our problems. The farmer wouldn’t grow what there was no demand for.

    Likewise, the African didn’t invent Slavery. Did they sell slaves? Absolutely! And European whites that established posts on the coast created the trading system that compensated, armed and further enabled Africans to address the tremendous demand.

    I find it mind boggling that capitalists such as yourselves have such a selective understanding of supply and demand. But this demand wasn’t American. The world ran on Slaves. To inject this idea that “Blacks did it too” as a way of absolving what slavers of any responsibility is ridiculous. We’re not even having the same conversation!

    Whites owned black slaves. Blacks owned black slaves. Native Americans owned black slaves.
    EVERY DAMNED BODY THAT OWNED LAND AND NEEDED IT WORKED OWNED SLAVES!

    This doesn’t reflect poorly on you. The probability that you have benefitted from slavery somewhere down the line doesn’t reflect on you. What DOES reflect on you is your denial of one specific group’s roll in that demand.
    I’m Black. You think I enjoyed writing any of the above? You think I like the idea that ANYONE benefitted from slavery, let alone black people? Of course not, but that’s what happened.

    It really only becomes a problem for us – in this time – when we start acting like kids that got busted raiding the cookie jar and think the best defense is to produce a list of all the other kids that also stole cookies.
    a) THAT DOESN’T CHANGE THE FACT THAT YOU STOLE COOKIES, and
    b) No one is accusing you of owning slaves!

    Calm the hell down!

  9. Pogo says:

    @Racist hypocrites and other Republicans

    Your selective memory and knowledge of human history says more about you than you know. And it’s not surprising – you know the price of everything, and the value of almost nothing. And BTW, you shouldn’t complain about never hearing when the real problem is your not listening and/or learning, e.g.:

    “…The capture and sale of enslaved Africans. … Most of the Africans who were enslaved were captured in battles or were kidnapped, though some were sold into slavery for debt or as punishment. The captives were marched to the coast, often enduring long journeys of weeks or even months, shackled to one another…”

    african participation in the slave trade
    https://www.google.com/search?source=hp&q=african+participation+in+the+slave+trade&oq=African+partic&gs_l=psy-ab.1.0.0l4j0i22i30k1l6.3082.1977439.0.1985460.32.24.8.0.0.0.420.4133.0j21j2j0j1.24.0….0…1.1.64.psy-ab..0.32.4291…0i131k1j0i3k1j0i131i46k1j46i131k1j0i10k1.0.ck7SRDQ6aCM

    racial segregation in america
    https://www.google.com/search?q=racial+segregation+in+america&oq=racial+segregation&gs_l=psy-ab.1.3.0i67k1j0i131k1j0l5j0i67k1j0l2.46336.50026.0.59279.8.7.1.0.0.0.221.1063.1j5j1.7.0….0…1.1.64.psy-ab..1.7.991…0i22i30k1.0.DZgJOCZIdfw

    racial discrimination in america
    https://www.google.com/search?q=racial+discrimination+in+america&oq=racial+discrimination+in+america&gs_l=psy-ab.3..0j0i7i30k1l4j0j0i7i30k1j0l3.69863.85116.0.86810.25.25.0.0.0.0.286.4038.0j18j5.23.0….0…1.1.64.psy-ab..2.23.4024…0i13k1.0.RDuE0KFCx6c

  10. JasonB says:

    It never fails to amaze me how apparently reasonable people will twist themselves into knots in an attempt to justify the institution of slavery.

  11. George says:

    Republicans and old white conservatives act like slavery is fake news.

    “You weren’t there, stop blaming white people for slavery. For all you know they might have wanted to be slaves. Tide goes in, tide goes out…you can’t explain that!”

  12. Anonymous says:

    If the slave owners in America back then would have known how much it would cost today to keep these blacks fed, housed, receiving welfare, and on Medicaid, they would never have brought the first black slave to America to start with.

  13. Anonymous says:

    By the way, that last comment was not meant to sound racist, it was economically inspired. I abhor slavery and believe it to be a blight on the history of mankind on this planet..

  14. Sherry says:

    Thanks so much (again) Jon. Your perspective is always illuminating, thoughtful and wise.

    To those bigots who incessantly try to justify their prejudice, like my mother used to say: “two wrongs don’t make a right”. Excusing the whole of a horrific sin by “cherry picking” the claim . . . like a child. . . “he did it first” just screams ignorance, fear, immaturity and insecurity. SAD and Pathetic!

  15. knightwatch says:

    So, r&r, you’re blaming “blacks” for their own slavery. Are you insane? Do you not read history? Do you not know that Africans were forced into slavery by slavers…some white, some black, some brown. No matter how they arrived in West Indie sugar plantations or Charleston, SC cotton plantations, they were forcibly held against their will. It was a monstrous system aided and abetted by whites. Just because times were “different” then, and some of our founding fathers held slaves does not make slavery less monstrous or less a national shame.

  16. CarolR says:

    r&r . . . You never hear it because it isn’t true. There was a kind of indentured servitude practiced in some parts of West Africa, but the slavery was never brutal and never a lifetime. There was a prescribed period of time, after which the person was returned to his or her tribe or family. This was most certainly not the case with slaves in the U.S.

  17. Sherry says:

    @anonymous . . .” to keep these blacks fed, housed, receiving welfare, and on Medicaid”. . . IS most certainly a very racist statement! Maybe you abhor slavery. . . but, that certainly doesn’t justify your obvious very generalized bigotry and complete lack of compassion towards their descendants. Don’t worry, you can put your hood back on now.

  18. Sw says:

    Ancient history. Learn from it move on

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