What Made America's Founders Perpetuate Slavery

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This Fourth of July, with the clock ticking down to the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence in 2026, the United States once again confronts an anguished question: Why did the founders of the nation, supposedly enlightened demi-gods, perpetuate the horror and hypocrisy of slavery rather than banish it outright?

Many theories have been put forth. Some historians attribute the founders’ failure to enact some federal plan of emancipation to entrenched white supremacy. Others place the blame on a trans-Atlantic economic system that simultaneously enriched Southern white planters and Northern merchants on the profits of the slave trade and slave labor. No matter how heinous these crimes against humanity, the economic argument emphasizes, the founders simply could not break their addiction to the lucrative status quo.

These social and economic interpretations of the founders’ grotesque inaction on slavery are certainly correct. But they overlook another vital explanatory model: the survivalist interpretation, according to which the founders perpetuated slavery because, had they not, the then young country would have split apart into separate confederacies and killed one another in civil wars. According to this model, it was a matter of white self-preservation versus African-American freedom.

In the 1770s and 1780s, the founders feared a three-step chain reaction that would begin with the secession of one or more states from the Union. When such disunion happened, they were confident that the U.S. would rupture into separate confederacies––either Northern and Southern or New England, Middle, and Southern.

It was this second step––disunion––that constituted an epic nightmare for the founders because, in their view, disbanding into separate confederacies would rapidly precipitate civil wars over commerce, undivided war debt, state-federal financial accounting, disputed state boundaries, and the rich bounty of western territory claimed by Anglo-Americans across the Appalachian Mountains extending to the Mississippi River.

The founders knew, beyond a doubt, they must either “Unite or Die.” George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and the rest felt the guns of disunion and civil war pointing at their backs in every decision they made in the 1770s and 1780s, including those relating to slavery and the slave trade.

Had a coalition of abolitionist-minded Northern leaders demanded an end to the slave trade or even a gradual plan for emancipation, some of the Southern states, if not all, would have seceded from the Union, triggering the deadly three-step chain reaction: disunion, the formation of separate confederations, and, in short order, bloody civil wars.

Statesmen Thomas Lynch of South Carolina laid bare the risk of secession over slavery as early as July of 1776, pledging on the floor of the Assembly Room in Independence Hall that any attempt by Northerners even to politically define enslaved persons as human beings, rather than property, would provoke their withdrawal from the Union.

“If it is debated whether their slaves are their property,” Lynch declared, “there is an end of the confederation.”

A year earlier, the delegates deliberated upon the violent dynamic of disunion as they debated how to counter the Coercive Acts adopted by the British Parliament in response to the Boston Tea Party.

One delegate in Congress, Pennsylvanian Joseph Galloway, warned his fellow Americans that the 13 colonies would find it nearly impossible to unite if they separated from the British empire, and, as a result, they would soon fall into two subcategories of geographic civil war: land, border, and boundary wars between individual colonies, and finally, at some point, a bloody conflagration between North and South.

Galloway did not say what would spark the North-South civil war, but he predicted that when it came the vulnerable agricultural South would suffer a crushing loss.

“The northern colonies, inured to military discipline and hardships,” Galloway prognosticated in 1775, “will, in all probability, be the first to enter the list of military controversy; and, like the northern Saxons and Danes, carry devastation and havoc over the southern, who, weak for want of discipline, and having a dangerous enemy within their own bowels, must, after suffering all the horrors of a civil war, yield to the superior force, and submit to the will of the conquerors.”

That “dangerous enemy within,” of course, was the half-million enslaved persons living in the Southern colonies primed for a revolution of their own against their feudal overlords. Clearly, the Pennsylvanian was indicating, enslaved Black Americans would rise up for their own freedom in such a war, joining the Northerners in the conquest.

In debates over the Articles of Confederation, New Jersey delegate John Witherspoon, president of the college later renamed Princeton, made a similar argument in response to proposals by some delegates to forgo a tight-knit, perpetual constitutional union in favor of a loose association of the states that would endure only until the end of the war. Witherspoon called the idea “madness.”

They must unite into one indissoluble government, Witherspoon warned in a speech on July 30, because, if not, the War of Independence was going to be “only a prelude to a contest of a more dreadful nature, and indeed much more properly a civil war than that which now often obtains the name.”

Why, Witherspoon asked, should the citizens of the American states expend their mutual treasure and blood now seeking to obtain independence from the British “with a certainty, as soon as peace was settled with them of a more lasting war, a more unnatural, more bloody, and much more hopeless war, among the colonies themselves?”

John Dickinson, another Pennsylvania delegate, also spoke about the violent sequela of disunion, predicting that an American civil war would likely commence within two or three decades after independence when New England split off to form its own separate confederation. Soon thereafter, New Englanders would invade New York to secure control of the Hudson River, setting off a civil war with unknowable consequences. Dickinson foresaw this scenario in what he called the “Doomsday Book of America,” calling it “dreadful” to contemplate.

Years later James Madison, tacitly acknowledging that the American Union was a shotgun wedding, explained why the framers did not immediately abolish the slave trade in the U.S. Constitution. If they had mandated such a plan, he said, South Carolina and Georgia would have seceded from the Union.

Read More: July 1776 Was a Shotgun Wedding

“Great as the evil is,” Madison continued, referring to the slave trade, “a dismemberment of the union would be worse.”

Thus, if the survivalist interpretation of the founders’ political decision-making is correct, where are we left today in our historical understanding of why they turned a blind eye to one of the greatest crimes against humanity ever committed?

The founders did this, for one thing, because they lived in a culture of pervasive white supremacy and, for another, because they were inextricably bound up in an economic system that exploited slavery and the slave trade for economic gain and profits.

But, as the study of history often reveals, the story is more complex. American political leaders faced a stark choice in the 1770s and 1780s––and thereafter until the outbreak of the Civil War. They could either advance a program for ending slavery, or they could secure freedom from civil wars for themselves.

The founders did virtually nothing at the federal level to rescue African-Americans from the despotism of slavery because, fearing for their lives, they put their own safety, security, and self-preservation first. It was a grievous devil’s bargain with vast and tragic consequences for the Revolutionary era and the future of the nation.

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