Commentary: Founders Didn't Invent Slavery, They Helped End It

Rob Roper

Slavery was and is a horrible, dehumanizing institution, but to call it the United States’ “original sin” and to tear down statues and deface memorials to our founders (not to be confused with Confederate generals) is historically ignorant and dangerous. Slavery was hardly an original concept in the late 18th and 19th Century. In fact, pretty much every society since the modern version of humans evolved had slavery up until that time.

The Greeks had slaves. The Romans had slaves. The Egyptians had slaves to build the pyramids, and the Chinese had slaves to build the Wall. Vikings enslaved Saxons. Muslims enslaved Vikings. The English enslaved Irish and Scots. The Russians had serfs (potAYto, potAHto). The Incas, Mayans and Aztecs all had slavery, as did the North American native tribes. African nations had slaves themselves and sold them to European slave traders. Slavery was the norm for all 5500 or so years of recorded human history — until those crusty, old, dead, European white guys abolished it.

Western Europeans and early Americans were not unique in having slavery; they were unique in declaring the practice immoral and putting laws into effect to stamp it out. For this, despite any or even many other faults, they deserve to be celebrated. 

Ending five millennia of slavery and the healing process to follow was never going to be an immediate process, nor a smooth one. There was staunch resistance in some quarters such as the Southern United States. Europe was quicker than the US to abolish slavery, but the U.S. beat Europe to the punch in declaring innate human equality and eliminating legal class distinctions, which was also remarkable step forward in societal evolution and deserving of celebration.  

Today’s critics like to point out Thomas Jefferson and others who signed their names beneath the words in our Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” owned slaves. Hypocritical? Yeah. But the more important point is they chose and adopted the principles equality and liberty as the cornerstone upon which we built our nation. In doing so they doomed slavery to the ashbin on history. Immediately? No. But inevitably.

The principles laid out in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights were the vaccine injected into the national bloodstream that killed the virus of slavery and are still at the heart of all battles for civil rights – equal treatment under the law, freedom to make a living, to worship as you choose, the right to fair trial. Without the Declaration and the Bill of Rights set down by our founders, there would be no Civil Rights movement for the simple reason that these are the civil rights marginalized groups want and deserve access to. Invalidate them, wipe them from our body politic, and then what exactly is left that we are we fighting for?

Before and during the Civil War, Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln did not argue the that the concept “all men are created equal” was invalid because the people who wrote it down didn’t fully live up to the promise. The opposite. They insisted on the validity of these principles and the moral necessity of applying them to all. As did Martin Luther King. As did the suffragettes in the battle for women’s civil rights. These are the principles we both stand on and reach toward in order to do better. To be, as the preamble to the Constitution intones, “a more perfect nation.”

We’re not perfect. The legacy of slavery in the United States is real, and its impact on the lives and opportunities of Black Americans persists. But the improvements we have made over the past hundred and fifty years were because of, not despite, the principles laid out in our founding documents by the likes of Jefferson and Washington. If we want to continue to make progress into the future, we had better not toss these tools into the trash.

The United States is unique and special in history: a multi-ethnic society built upon the shared ideals of its citizens and bonded together by a common history. These ideals and history are what inspire millions of people of all races from all other parts of the globe, sometimes at great personal risk, to come here every year. If we invalidate these ideals and eradicate the history behind them, we will have destroyed our country. And replaced it with… what exactly? A collection of angry tribes that do not respect each others’ rights to liberty, equality, property rights, and fair treatment under the law?

 Rob Roper is president of the Ethan Allen Institute.

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