Holding A Wolf By The Ears
Thomas Jefferson once said that slavery was “like holding a wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.” These days we almost never hear statements with so clear a meaning and that paint such a vivid picture. I like to think that it’s because life today is simply more complex, but it’s not. Life today is just as simple if not more so. So why did Jefferson and the other founders tolerate slavery after (and while) writing the founding documents of this country and declaring:
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.
It’s really pretty easy to see why. People are not angels. Jefferson, in Federalist 51 states:
If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.
(Thanks for bringing it up Jack.)
The Founders were not, in fact, angels of any kind. They were men as we are today, flesh and blood and just as apt to fall from the ideals they put forth in writing as we remain. Imagine the predicament…
Slavery was so far ingrained in the economy that had they taken on slavery in 1776 (really had bigger issues to worry about like a war) or in 1787 (starting a new nation, is it a good idea to crush the economy at the same time?) we likely would not have survived as a collective nation. Humans are weak and often times take the easy route, regardless of what they think is right and wrong. Assuming that they could have gotten the Constitution ratified with a prohibition on slaves, tehy certainly laid the ground work for it’s possible future prohibition by setting a process by which to amend the Constitution. Just imagine what would happen if you took away electricity today and had to pay people to do what electric machines do now. Mass chaos would ensue. That is somewhat the position we were in at that point in history.
Jefferson owned 200ish slaves when he wrote the Declaration of Independence and 600 over the course of his life. That’s quite a group of men (and women and children) for the man that wrote the Declaration of Independence .
Our country tolerated slavery for about 100 years more after the Constitution and it really does bear mention that like so much else, capitalism made emancipation economically plausible. It also explains perfectly why the South remained filled with slaves and the North swore off the practice. The North industrialized. The South, being more suitable for it, remained with agriculture, and machines that could reap and sow were still a dream. To put it back in flow with the quotes I have here, the North found a way to let go of the wolf without it eating them and the South never figured it out. Just imagine what would happen if you took away electricity today and had to pay people to do what electric machines do now. Mass chaos and economic collapse would ensue. Further, abolition of slavery in America could have very likely been achieved much earlier had race not entered into the mix.
For thousands of years slaves were held by almost every culture on Earth. Race played into it very little, if at all. Europeans started collecting blacks as slaves for no other reason besides the fact that they could. If fact one could say that very few Europeans enslaved any blacks (merely purchased them, which isn’t really better at all). The vast majority of black slaves were rounded up by and purchased from powerful black tribes along the African Coast. Whole rival tribes were captured and sold to slavers and at the point which this started race had nothing whatsoever to do with it. However, as more people started to abhor slavery, the individuals who could be enslaved shrank and eventually left us with only blacks who by their status as one of the few groups of people legally enslave-able and the typically substandard subsistence way of life in Africa, quickly became viewed subhuman.
What makes it even clearer that race is not a traditional part of slavery as an institution is that over a million Europeans were captured and pressed into slavery in Africa, between 1500 and 1780 AD. The Romans had slaves, but they were the spoils of war and a light skinned European was just as legitimate a slave as the darkest of black Africans. In North & South America, prior to European contact, many of the civilizations there often held slaves captured from other nations of people. Lastly there were white American slaves as during the revolutionary period, capture by Muslim slavers in the Atlantic, 7000 would be captured in the 10 years preceding Constitutional ratification.
In short there is no reason to beat up the founders and others about slavery, not only was it economically required but really , there was no other option. Similar to the trolly problem except there is no “right” answer. It certainly doesn’t make it right, but once again, People are not angels.