July 4th Ultimately Promises Independence for All Americans

COMMENTARY: How the Nation Came to Deliver on Liberty

‘The Declaration of Independence,’ 1819, by John Trumbull
‘The Declaration of Independence,’ 1819, by John Trumbull (photo: Public domain)

Twenty-five years ago this summer, I first visited Mount Vernon, beloved home of America’s first president, George Washington. It has been preserved as best as historians could muster, from Washington’s favorite backdoor view to his favorite chair to his slave quarters.

Yes, the slave quarters. It is something that most assuredly gives visitors pause.

George Washington left the presidency in 1787 to retreat to a peaceful retirement at Mount Vernon, which he had inherited as a young man in his 20s. At its peak of prosperity, the massive property comprised 8,162 acres, roughly 3,200 acres of which was under cultivation. The nation’s first president was a wheat farmer.

Washington had 316 slaves, of which 143 were in his possession entirely, on his property.

Washington is the father of our country. He was the hero of the American Revolution, who pulled off a shocking victory against the British Empire, one that his countrymen considered miraculous. Washington was his countrymen’s choice for not only military general but later for their new nation’s first president. He was so revered by his countrymen that many wanted him to become king. 

And yet, this great leader of liberty owned slaves.

Washington kept the slaves not because he felt it was right for one man to own another, but because he viewed them as a necessary evil to maintain his farm. It could not exist without them; Washington felt that if he freed them and replaced them with hired labor, he would be forced to sell his farm.

This situation tore not only at Washington’s wallet but his conscience. He felt he personally could not financially extricate himself from the situation. The devil had him by the tail.

“There is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it,” wrote Washington to Robert Morris in an April 12, 1786, letter.

At the time of his death in 1799, Washington freed his slaves. In fact, he went further, setting up financial endowments for all of them. One former slave was still collecting money from his endowment in 1835, long after Washington’s death.

As for Washington’s farm, by 1827, it was in complete disrepair and ruin. Washington’s brother, to whom he bequeathed the farm, learned what George Washington had already determined, namely: The farm could not be maintained without slave labor. It was purely selfish.

Slavery has been called America’s original sin. And so many of the Founders were conflicted by it. They knew it was wrong and said so explicitly.

Thomas Jefferson, another Virginia slave owner, lamented, “We have the wolf by the ears, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.”

In his 1787 Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson feared, “Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever. … I think a change already perceptible, since the origin of the present revolution. The spirit of the master is abating, that of the slave rising from the dust, his condition mollifying, the way I hope preparing, under the auspices of heaven, for a total emancipation.” 

Jefferson responded with more than mere words. In his first term in Virginia’s House of Burgesses, Jefferson, even as he personally owned 200 slaves, nonetheless proposed legislation to emancipate slaves in Virginia. The motion was firmly defeated. 

In his 1774 draft instructions to the Virginia delegates to the First Continental Congress, he explicitly called for an end to the slave trade. His draft constitution for the Commonwealth of Virginia forbade the importation of slaves. In 1784, in Congress, he proposed a law that would have banished slavery from the entire Western territory of the new United States after the year 1800; it failed by just one vote. 

As president in 1807, Jefferson urged Congress to “withdraw the citizens of the United States from all further participation in those violations of human rights which have been so long continued on the unoffending inhabitants of Africa.” This would have officially ended American participation in the slave trade.

“Jefferson wrote a law to end slavery in Virginia,” notes historian David Tucker in “Core Documents: Slavery and Its Consequences” (On Principle). “It wasn’t enacted, but he had no reason to do that if he didn’t believe in the principles of the Declaration. … Anyone who tries to diminish the importance of the Declaration of Independence is undermining the fight against racism. Without 1776, no other date in the history of slavery in America would matter.”

It was what Jefferson wrote in that Declaration that mattered. He might be a personal failure on the matter of slavery, but politically, even morally, his July 4, 1776, accomplishment was monumental, whether he personally owned slaves or not.

The same can be said of James Madison, the father of the Bill of Rights. He also owned slaves, but likewise opposed the practice in principle, calling it “the most oppressive dominion ever exercised by man over man.”

Of course, not all of the Founders owned slaves — quite the contrary. Many outright organized against it. That includes major figures like Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, Ben Franklin, Benjamin Rush and John Jay, who has been called “America’s Wilberforce.” In England, politician William Wilberforce crusaded to end the slave trade in the early 1800s.

One of Franklin’s final public works was head of the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery. “Slavery is such an atrocious debasement of human nature,” he said in a November 1789 speech. In his Feb. 3, 1790, petition to the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, Franklin urged that they “devise means for removing this Inconsistency from the Character of the American People, that you will promote mercy and Justice towards this distressed Race, & that you will Step to the very verge of the Powers vested in you for discouraging every Species of Traffick in the Persons of our fellow men.” 

Again, so many of the Founders felt this way. Professor Thomas West put it categorically in Vindicating the Founders: “Every leading Founder acknowledged that slavery was wrong.” 

That being the case, why didn’t the Founders end slavery on July 4, 1776? Because politically, they couldn’t.

The institution of slavery could not be abolished in 1776, least of all because the entirety of the southern states would have seceded from the very American republic being conceived and attempted at the time. The Founders could have found themselves in a civil war among themselves rather than a revolution to break free from the British. The abolition of slavery was not possible in 1776. 

Slavery, of course, was ultimately ended through a constitutional amendment in December 1865. But America needed a constitution to begin with. If there was no U.S. Constitution, there would be no later 13th Amendment. This process took time.

But even then, the Founders made attempts to limit slavery long before 1865. It is forgotten, and likely not taught, that on Jan. 1, 1808, Congress passed legislation outlawing the slave trade. That was not all. At the start of the American Revolution, slavery had existed in all 13 colonies. 

Tom West notes: “Official actions aiming at the abolition of slavery began in 1774, before independence was declared, and this movement achieved substantial victories over the next thirty-five years. The growth of slavery was quickly limited by reducing or abolishing the slave trade. Delegates to the First Continental Congress in 1774 pledged to stop the importation of slaves into America. By 1798 every state had outlawed slave importation.”

West notes that abolition came quickest in states where few slaves were held, not surprisingly. The first to forbid slavery outright in its constitution was Vermont in 1777. Thereafter, in states like Massachusetts and New Hampshire, court cases and the actions of town governments ended slavery in the 1780s. It was in Pennsylvania in 1780 that the first legislation was passed for gradual emancipation, with Rhode Island and Connecticut following in 1783 and 1784, respectively, and New York and New Jersey in 1799 and 1804.

Of course, this is crucial information. We can see that the process toward abolition was uneven and difficult, but there is no denying that attempts were made — by religious leaders, by political leaders, by Christian abolitionists, and by presidents like Abraham Lincoln. Unfortunately, abolishing slavery entirely, nationwide, would require dramatic, bloody action. What action? The Civil War, the deadliest conflict in U.S. history, where white boys slaughtered white boys in this brutal conflict that ultimately ended slavery.

As Lincoln said in the Gettysburg Address in 1863: “Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that ‘all men are created equal.’ Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure.”

Lincoln understood those ideals and how this was at long last the test of whether those ideals and whether that nation — indeed conceived in liberty — could prevail. 

Consequently, then, there were really two wars fought to advance the ideals contained in the Declaration of Independence: the American Revolution (1776-81) and the Civil War (1861-65). Both were necessary for achieving full liberty for all Americans, including Black Americans held in bondage.

For this sin, America would suffer terribly.

On the plus side, one institution that led the way in condemning slavery worldwide is the Catholic Church. Our Church denounced the practice for centuries, including in encyclicals like the January 1435 Sicut Dudum, which was titled, “Against the Enslaving of Black Natives From the Canary Islands,” and (among others) in June 1537, with Pope Paul III’s Sublimis Deus. Paul III’s papal bulls declared that European exploiters of Indians were nothing less than “instruments of Satan.” He and other popes credited the institution of slavery to the Father of Lies.

Pope St. Pius X excoriated what he called “the slavery of Satan and of wicked men” (Lacrimabili Statu, June 1912). John Paul II described slavery as “this sin of man against man, this sin of man against God” (February 1992). Pius X summed up slavery as “the worst of indignities.”

The Catholic Church was way out ahead on this injustice. But as for young nations like the newly conceived United States of America in July 1776, there were some major birth pains. It would take time before the promise of liberty in the Declaration of Independence could come to full fruition for all Americans, white and Black. But, ultimately, the nation delivered on the promise.

Paul Kengor’s forthcoming book is titled, The Worst of Indignities: The Catholic Church on Slavery (Emmaus Road Publishing, July 2023).