FAQ: Founders & Slavery

The issue of slavery in America’s Founding Era was complex. Initially, many people saw slavery as a normal part of life; this perspective is acknowledged by Chief Justice John Jay, who stated that, before the War for Independence, very few “doubted the propriety and rectitude of it.”1

However, the changing attitude towards slavery was evident even before the War for Independence when several colonies passed anti-slavery laws.2 (Each of these were overturned by King George III.3) Notably, a section of the Declaration of Independence written by Thomas Jefferson criticized the king for maintaining slavery and the slave trade.4

After the Declaration of Independence, states such as Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, and New Jersey abolished slavery.5 Additionally, Virginia, in 1778, outlawed the further importation of slaves.6

Among the Founders themselves, some slave-owners, such as Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, openly spoke against slavery.7 Conversely, others were demonstrably pro-slavery.8 There were also Founders involved in abolition movements. For example, Benjamin Franklin and Benjamin Rush helped establish the first abolition society in 1774.9 Furthermore, John Jay served as president of the New York abolition society.10

Again, this was a complicated issue for Americans during the Founding Era, but the actions of many demonstrate that this reprehensible practice had much opposition among the Founders. For more information on this topic, please see these additional resources.


Endnotes

1 John Jay, The Correspondence and Public Papers of John Jay, ed. Henry P. Johnston (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1891), 3:342, to the English Anti-Slavery Society, June 1788.

2 W.O. Blake, The History of Slavery and the Slave Trade (Columbus: J. & H. Miller, 1858), 386; George M. Stroud, A Sketch of the Laws Relating to Slavery in the Several States of the United States of America (Philadelphia: Kimber and Sharpless, 1827), 137; Thomas F. Gordon, The History of Pennsylvania from its Discovery by Europeans to the Declaration of Independence in 1776 (Philadelphia: Carey, Lea & Carey, 1829), 554-555.

3 Benjamin Franklin, The Works of Benjamin Franklin, ed. Jared Sparks (Boston: Tappan, Whittemore, and Mason, 1839), 8:42, to Dean Woodward on April 10, 1773; Benson J. Lossing, Harpers’ Popular Cyclopaedia of United States History (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1892), 1299.

4 Thomas Jefferson, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Albert Ellery Bergh (Washington DC: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1903), 1:34, from Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration of Independence. This section was removed on the objection of two states: Thomas Jefferson, Memoir, Correspondence, and Miscellanies, ed. Thomas Jefferson Randolph (London: Colburn and Bentley, 1829), 1:16, from his Autobiography.

5 A Constitution or Frame of Government Agreed Upon by the Delegates of the People of the State of Massachusetts-Bay (Boston: Benjamin Edes and Sons, 1780), 7; An Abridgement of the Laws of Pennsylvania, ed. Collinson Read, (Philadelphia: 1801), 264-266; The Public Statute Laws of the State of Connecticut (Hartford: Hudson and Goodwin, 1808), Book I, 623-625; Rhode Island Session Laws (Providence: Wheeler, 1784), 7-8; The Constitutions of the Sixteen States (Boston: Manning and Loring, 1797), 50, New Hampshire, 1792; The Federal and State Constitutions Colonial Charters, and Other Organic Laws of the States, Territories, and Colonies Now or Heretofore Forming The United States of America, ed. Francis Newton Thorpe (Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1909), 6:3762, Vermont, 1793; Laws of the State of New York, Passed at the Twenty-Second Session, Second Meeting of the Legislature (Albany: Loring Andrew, 1798), 721-723; Laws of the State of New Jersey Compiled and Published Under the Authority of the Legislature, ed. Joseph Bloomfield (Trenton: James J. Wilson, 1811), 103-105.

6 The Statues at Large; Being A Collection of all the Laws of Virginia From the First Session of the Legislature in the Year 1619, ed. William Waller Henning (Richmond: J & G Cochran, 1821), IX:471-472, “An act for preventing the farther importation of Slaves,” October, 1778.

7 Paul Leland Haworth, George Washington: Farmer (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1915), 192; Mary V. Thompson, “The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret,” Mount Vernon, 1999; The Works of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Paul Leicester Ford (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1905), 11:417, to Edward Coles on August 25, 1814; Thomas Jefferson, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, ed. H.A. Washington (New York: Riker, Thorne, & Co., 1855), 6:378, to Thomas Cooper on September 10, 1814; Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia (Philadelphia: Mathew Carey, 1794), 236-238, “Query XVIII.”

8 See, for example, Jeffrey Crow, “Liberty to Slaves: The Black Response,” Anchor, accessed August 23, 2023; James Madison, The Writings of James Madison, ed. Gaillard Hunt (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1903), 4:267-268, “Journal of the Constitutional Convention,” August 22, 1787; The Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States, ed. Joseph Gales (Washington DC: Gales and Seaton, 1834), 1:1242-1243, February 12, 1790.

9 Constitution of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, and the Relief of Free Negroes, Unlawfully Held in Bondage. Begun in the Year 1774, and Enlarged on the 23rd of April, 1787 (Philadelphia: Joseph James, 1787), 8.

10 “Race and Antebellum New York City: The New York Manumission Society,” New York Historical Society, accessed August 23, 2023; The Works of Samuel Hopkins (Boston: Doctrinal Tract and Book Society, 1854), 2:548, Advertisement page for “A Dialogue Concerning the Slavery of the Africans.”

America’s Heroes: Robert Smalls

Robert Smalls, who lived from 1839 to 1915, was a slave in Charleston, South Carolina. He piloted steamboats along the Atlantic seaboard and earned a reputation for his exceptional navigational skills. At the outbreak of the Civil War, he was forced into naval service on a boat called the Planter, which was the flagship of Confederate General Roswell Ripley. Although Robert was the pilot of the ship, he did not hold that title since a slave in the Confederate South was not allowed to have such an important post.

One evening, the officers went ashore to attend a party. Robert and the rest of the slave crew decided this was a perfect time for their escape. The Union navy had surrounded and blockaded Charleston, so if they could get the ship safely out of the harbor and reach those Union ships, they would be free from slavery. Robert headed the ship toward the open sea. Knowing he would have to pass Confederate checkpoints along the waterway, Robert donned the Confederate captain’s clothing and hoisted the Confederate flag. Moving the ship along and blowing its usual signals, he avoided unwanted attention but still faced two major obstacles: Fort Johnson and Fort Sumter. They safely passed the first, but as they neared Sumter, the starting place of the Civil War, some of the crew, fearing the great danger they now approached, urged him to turn back.

Finish reading Robert Smalls’ biography with your purchase of  “America’s Heroes: Black History Edition.”

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America’s Heroes: Bass Reeves

Bass Reeves, who lived from 1838 to 1910, is one of the most famous lawmen of the Old West. He served in a region, that at that time, was perhaps one of the most dangerous in the country, and the story of his life is filled with fascinating events and incredible moments.

Reeves was born into slavery, and like many former slaves in his day, the details of his early life are uncertain. The best accounts report that Bass was enslaved in Texas by a man named George Reeves. One day Bass and George got into a heated argument, which ultimately led to Bass knocking his master out cold. Knowing that he would likely be killed or at least brutally punished for what he had done, Bass fled across the Texas border to the wild and rugged Indian Territory, which would later become Oklahoma.

Few were inclined to pursue anyone into that Territory, not only because of the direct danger from Native Americans but also because of the countless outlaws and bandits who lived there. The Territory had little organized justice, so for years criminals from across the nation fled there to be safely beyond the reach of the law. Bass, fleeing from the injustice of slavery, did the same. He became friends with the Cherokee, Creek, and Seminole tribes. During his time there, he learned much about that wild and dangerous region, something which would be very valuable to him later.

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America’s Heroes: “Stagecoach” Mary Fields

 

“Stagecoach” Mary Fields lived from 1832 to 1914 and embodied the American Old West qualities of hard work, toughness, and faith.

Born into slavery in Tennessee, she was enslaved by a pro-slavery Unionist Democrat, Judge Edmund Dunne. He traveled the country extensively throughout his life. He moved from New York to Tennessee, became a California legislator, served as a Chief Justice of the Arizona Territory, a member of the convention that wrote the original constitution of Nevada, and he helped found a Catholic colony in Florida. Judge Dunne’s activities literally carried him from coast to coast.

After slavery ended with the passage of the 13th Amendment, Mary was freed but chose to continue living with the Dunne family. When the judge’s wife died in 1883, Mary took the judge’s five children to his sister, Mother Amadeus, a nun who headed a convent in Toledo, Ohio. The following year, Mother Amadeus was sent to Cascade, Montana, to start a school for Native American girls alongside a school for the Blackfeet Tribe run by Jesuit priests. When Mother Amadeus became deathly ill, Mary hurried to Montana to nurse her back to health.

Finish reading Mary Field’s biography with your purchase of “America’s Heroes: Black History Edition.”

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America’s Heroes: James Armistead Lafayette

James Armistead, who lived from 1748 to 1830, played an integral role in the American War for Independence and became an influential black patriot behind America’s most important victory in the War. For more than two centuries, Americans have celebrated him as a hero.

James was a slave owned by William Armistead on a farm near Richmond, Virginia. During the War for Independence, William became a military supply officer for the Continental Army and James accompanied him. In the latter stages of the War, both personally witnessed the vicious and brutal attack on their friends and neighbors in Richmond led by British General Benedict Arnold.

In the early part of the War, Arnold was an American general and a military hero from the Battle of Saratoga, the first major American victory in the Revolution. But Arnold’s wife and family supported the British, and Arnold was arrogant and wanted more recognition than he was receiving, so he became a traitor and defected to the British. They made him a general and he subsequently led a number of battles against the Americans.

In 1781, late in the War, Arnold led a surprise attack on Richmond. He had the British troops burn the city, ransack private homes, and loot personal valuables.

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Early Black Members of the US Congress

Born a slave in North Carolina in 1825, the “fair” education Benjamin Turner1 received was more than most slaves. Turner, who had helped manage his owner’s hotel and stable, had enough of his own money to purchase property in Selma, Alabama around the time the Civil War started. When the town was captured during the war, much of the city was burned leaving Turner with $8,000 in damages as the result. Turner’s elected positions included: tax collector (1869), councilman for Selma (1869), and US Congress (1871-1873). After his Congressional term, Turner2 returned to business pursuits and ran a farm until his death in 1894.

Josiah Walls3 was born into slavery in Virginia in 1842. He was a private servant to a Confederate soldier until he was emancipated by Union soldiers in 1862. Walls received some education before he decided to serve with the Union Army from 1863-1865. After his wartime service, he lived in Florida and used his earnings from working as a teacher to buy a farm. His elected positions included: state senator (1869-1872, 1876-1879) and US Congress (1871-January 1873; March 1873-1875 & 1875-1876). Walls4 returned to his farm after his political career ended and later ran the farm for Florida Normal College (now Florida A&M) until his death in 1905.

 Jefferson Long5, born a slave in Georgia in 1836, was self-educated and ran his own successful tailoring business. Long worked to promote literacy/education opportunities for blacks in Georgia after the Civil War and was known as a great orator. He became the second black American elected to the House of Representatives, and though he only served for 3 months (January-March 1871) Long was the first black representative to speak on the House floor. Long6 went back to his tailoring shop after his time in Congress and opened other businesses before his death in 1901.

It’s important for all of us to learn more about other black history heroes7 to keep alive the memory of these American heroes!


1 “Turner, Benjamin Sterling,” United States House of Representatives.
2 “Turner, Benjamin Sterling,” Biographical Directory of the United States Congress.
3 “Walls, Josiah Thomas,” United States House of Representatives.
4 “Walls, Josiah Thomas,” Biographical Directory of the United States Congress.
5 “Long, Jefferson Franklin,” United States House of Representatives.
6 “Long, Jefferson Franklin,” Biographical Directory of the United States Congress.
7 “Black History Resources,” WallBuilders.

Presidents Day: A Brief History

In the 1800s, February 22 was annually celebrated as George Washington’s Birthday in many localities throughout the new American nation. An official federal holiday recognizing this day, however, was not declared until 1879.

Black hero Lemuel Haynes has an interesting tie to Washington’s Birthday celebrations. Haynes was a Minuteman in the War for Independence and participated in the expedition against Fort Ticonderoga. After he became a minister in 1785, he preached for both all-white and mixed congregations. About 40 years after his participation in the War, Haynes preached a sermon on Washington’s Birthday, noting:

Perhaps it is not ostentatious [bragging] in the speaker to observe that in early life he devoted all for the sake of freedom and independence, and endured frequent campaigns in their defense, and has never viewed the sacrifice too great.

In 1968, a Congressional Act was passed that moved the celebration of Washington’s Birthday to the third Monday in February. This holiday is now called Presidents Day and celebrates all of America’s presidents.

If You Care About Black Lives—End Abortion

In the midst of all the passion, division, and activism, there should be at least one central premise that every American can agree on—that life matters. But increasingly the truth is becoming clear that only certain lives matter. Specifically speaking, leftist activist group “Black Lives Matter” says one thing but then works to destroy the lives of thousands of black people.

For example, on the BLM “What we Believe” page they claim to be:

Guided by the fact that all Black lives matter, regardless of actual or perceived sexual identity, gender identity, gender expression, economic status, ability, disability, religious beliefs or disbeliefs, immigration status, or location (emphasis added).[i]

In every location, that is, except the womb.

Since nearly the beginning of the organization, BLM has associated themselves with anti-life groups, while in the same breath ironically declaring that, “our lives are at stake.”[ii] One co-founders of BLM explained that, “we certainly understand that BLM and reproductive justice go hand in hand.”[iii]

Calling abortion “reproductive justice” cannot hide the fact that for every successful abortion there is a victim whose life apparently didn’t matter enough. Such double-speak only attempts to deflect the attention away from the ideological hypocrisy rampant in the organization.

Overall in America, there were 862,000 babies killed by abortion in 2017, which means an average of 2,362 a day.[iv] Statistically, in 2016 (the most recent year for which data exists), 38% of abortions were by black women.[v] Thus, an estimated 898 black babies die every single day, and as many as 327,560 per year.

To expand our inquiry even further, there have been over 60,000,000 abortions since Roe v. Wade in 1973.[vi] Just how many millions of black children didn’t matter? Certainly more than the total number of slaves ever brought from Africa. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that in New York a higher percentage of black babies are aborted than born.[vii] This is an odd kind of justice.

Paradoxically, the main group claiming to champion black lives supports those institutions that kill more black people daily than the police have killed—whether justified or not—in the last three years combined.[viii] Comparatively, a black person is 1,187 times more likely to never be born than they are to be killed by a police officer.[ix] Historically speaking, it takes abortion clinics less than four days to kill more black people than all of the Jim Crow lynchings combined.[x]

So, do black lives really matter? I believe they do, and that is why we must abolish abortion.


Endnotes

[i] “What We Believe,” Black Lives Matter (accessed June 19, 2020).

[ii] “Black Lives Matter Partners With Reproductive Justice Groups to Fight for Black Women,” Color Lines (February 9, 2016), accessed June 19, 2020, here.

[iii] “Black Lives Matter Partners With Reproductive Justice Groups to Fight for Black Women,” Color Lines (February 9, 2016), accessed June 19, 2020, here.

[iv] “The U.S. Abortion Rate Continues to Drop: Once Again, State Abortion Restrictions Are Not the Main Driver,” Guttmacher Institute (September 18, 2019), accessed June 19, 2020, here.

[v] “Abortion Surveillance — United States, 2016,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (November 29, 2019), accessed June 19, 2020, here.

[vi] “The State of Abortion in the United States,” National Right to Life Committee (January 18, 2018), accessed June 19, 2020, here.

[vii] “Abortion Reporting: New York City (2016),” Charlotte Lozier Institute (December 19, 2018), accessed June 19, 2020, here.

[viii] “National Trends,” Mapping Police Violence (accessed June 19, 2020), here. More specifically there were 783 black Americans killed by police in both justified and unjustified situations in the years, 2017 (276), 2018 (248), and 2019 (259).

[ix] Comparing the numbers from 2017

[x] “History of Lynching,” NAACP (accessed June 19, 2020), here.

Did America Create Slavery?

Democratic Senator Tim Kaine announced on the floor of the Senate that:

“The United States didn’t inherit slavery from anybody. We created it.”1

For even the most basic student of world history such a statement ought to immediately be recognized as incomprehensively ridiculous. Historically, every single people, nation, culture, and race has at various times been both the slave and the master. Indeed, “all have sinned and fallen short” (Romans 3:23). Sen. Kaine, just like the famously inaccurate 1619 Project, must ignore documented history and create his own fantasy world to arrive at such a conclusion.

For example, in ancient Greece—which existed thousands of years before America—nearly 30% of their population were slaves. The Roman Empire reached a staggering 40%.2 In fact, one of the most significant and widely known aspects of the Bible centers around the Israelites being delivered out of slavery in Egypt through the famous Exodus. We could walk through every nation in human history and find a tragic past riddled with slavery.

Arab Slavers

Prior to the creation of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade by the Spanish from Africa to South America in the early 1500s, Africa already participated in a robust trans-Saharan and Indian Ocean slave trade. Black tribes would raid, capture, and enslave other black tribes for profit, selling them across the continent and beyond. Many of these slaves were sold into the Islamic Middle East, and “medieval Arabs came to associate the most degrading forms of labor with black slaves.”3 Most likely it was this racial bias which was translated to the Iberian Peninsula (i.e., Spain and Portugal) when the Muslims conquered parts of that area in the 8th century. When the Spanish became the first European nation to significantly colonize the New World, they seemingly brought this bias with them which was thereby disseminated through the Americas, North, Central, and South. In this sense, America very literally inherited racial slavery—from the Arab Middle East through Spain.

Christian Slaves

What is perhaps even more astounding is that a larger number of white Europeans were captured and sold into African slavery than the number of Africans sold into the land that would become the United States. Just over 300,000 black slaves landed in the North American colonies which became America4 but 1,250,000 white Europeans were captured and shipped to slave markets in Northern Africa.5 This Barbary Coast Trade lasted longer than American slavery and was only stopped through the naval efforts of the British and Americans. Furthermore, it was not until the late 17th century that black slaves in the New World outnumbered white slaves in the Old.6

Additionally, for hundreds of years before Christopher Columbus ever conceived of the idea to sail westward, the Native Americans practiced mass slavery amid other practices including human sacrifice and cannibalism. This pre-Columbian native slave trade was so prolific that “wherever European conquistadors set foot in American tropics, they found evidence of indigenous warfare, war captives, and captive slaves.”7 Indeed, indigenous cultures saw slavery rates so prevalent that up to 20-40% of all Indians were enslaved by other Indians.8

Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade

Even today, nearly 160 years after America became one of the first nations to abolish slavery, there are still 94 nations that do not have laws criminalizing slavery.9 This has led to the enslavement of over 40 million people in the world right now. In a stroke of tragic irony, Africa has the highest rate of slavery today, closely followed by Asia,10 while North America has the lowest.11 Currently, Africa holds some 9,240,000 people in chains and slavery today,12 which is nearly identical to the total number of slaves disembarked in the entire New World (North, Central, and South America) throughout the almost four centuries of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.13

So, clearly Sen. Tim Kaine must either be completely ignorant about the history of slavery or maliciously intentional in his presentation of “facts.” America in no way created slavery—in fact, if we were to say anyone “created” slavery in America we must conclude that the indigenous people did so. By contrast, the United States, despite its well-known shortcomings, ought to receive credit for having done more than nearly any other nation in the history of the world to fight slavery both in the past and today.

(Our book, The American Story: The Beginnings, has extensive information on the history of slavery not only in the United States but also the world.)


Endnotes

1 Tobias Hoonhout, “Dem Sen. Kaine Claims United States ‘Created’ Slavery and ‘Didn’t Inherit Slavery from Anybody,’” National Review, June 16, 2020.
2 Fernando Santos-Granero, Vital Enemies: Slavery, Predation, and the Amerindian Political Economy of Life (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2009), 226-227.
3 Philip Morgan, “Origins of American Slavery,” Organization of American History Magazine of History (July 2005), 19:4:53.
4 “Summary Statistics,” Slave Voyages, accessed June 16, 2020. Summary Statistics with the Principle Place of Slave Landing being restricted to Rhode Island, Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, the Gulf Coast, and “Other North America.”
5 Past & Present (Aug., 2001), No. 172, 118, Robert C. Davis, “Counting European Slaves on the Barbary Coast”; Robert C. Davis, Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters: White Slavery in the Mediterranean, the Barbary Coast, and Italy, 1500-1800 (NY: Palgrave MacMillan, 2004), 23-24.
6 Morgan, “Origins of American Slavery,” American History Magazine (July 2005), 19:4:53.
7 Santos-Granero, Vital Enemiese (2009), 1.
8 Santos-Granero, Vital Enemies (2009), 226-227.
9 Sonia Elks, “Slavery is Not a Crime for Almost Half the Countries in the World,” Reuters (February 12, 2020), accessed June 16, 2020.
10 “Prevalence Across the Regions,” Global Slavery Index (2018), accessed June 16, 2020, here.
11 “Regional Highlights: Americas,” Global Slavery Index (2018), accessed June 17, 2020, here.
12 “Region Highlights: Africa,” Global Slavery Index (2018), accessed June 16, 2020, here.
13 “Summary Statistics,” Slave Voyages, accessed June 16, 2020.

America’s Exceptional History of Anti-Slavery

“Moral Map of the US”

Recently the idea of American Exceptionalism has been ridiculed in academic and political circles with entire books dedicated to the purpose of tearing down any thought of an ethical America.[i] Much of this recent shift centers around America’s record on slavery. For instance, organizations such as the New York Times have started initiatives declaring that the “true founding” was not until the introduction of slavery 1619[ii] and that the “founding ideals were false” due to the existence of slavery.[iii]

The shift to a negative perspective of America largely stems from the revisionist school of history beginning in the 1960’s and culminating with Howard Zinn’s monumental 1980 People’s History of the United States. This book popularized the historiographical approach of doing “history from the bottom up,” which means telling the story of America through the interpretive lens of oppression. A fellow activist historian of Zinn’s, Staughton Lynd explains the fundamental premises underlying this approach in his Doing History from the Bottom Up. In their interpretive model, “was founded on crimes against humanity directed at…enslaved African Americans,” and therefore must be evil.[iv]

Such anti-American revisionism forgets that America’s record of anti-slavery actually is exceptional compared to the rest of the world. Rarely do revisionists remember that over half of the American states had passed laws abolishing slavery by 1804, nearly thirty years before William Wilberforce effected the similar results in England. This wide-scale abolitionism was planted by the Biblical beliefs of several early colonies, was watered by the advocacy and action of the patriots during the American Revolution, and finally brought forth fruit through the establishment of a Constitutional Republic designed to advance liberty and defend the ideals of the Declaration.

A careful review of the colonial anti-slavery context, the development of abolitionist thought during the War for Independence, and the staunch leadership of the pro-freedom Founding Fathers reveals how America led the way in abolishing slavery. Instead of the modern academic narrative which attempts to debunk American exceptionalism, history shows that America was exceptional in their struggle for emancipation.

As mentioned earlier, by 1804 all of the New England states as well as Vermont, New York, and New Jersey had either completely abolished slavery or enacted positive laws for the gradual abolition of it. This is four years before the Federal Congress ends the slave trade, and almost three decades before England votes to follow suit and abolishes slavery. The American wave of emancipation constituted the largest group of people who had voluntarily freed their slaves up to that point in modern history.

The 1810 census documents that the total population of those states—Massachusetts (Maine included), New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Vermont, Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey—stood at 3,486,675.[v]  This was approximately 48% of the total population, slave and free, of the United States at that time. Although not entirely free of slavery due to the gradual emancipation laws in states such as New York and New Jersey, the total percentage of the population waiting for emancipation was only 0.9% in states originally a colony. So, by 1804 half of America had succeeded in passing laws for the abolition of slavery, and only six years later they had been 99% effective in accomplishing that goal. Nobody else in the world was anywhere close to what those Northern States had succeeded in doing—in this America was exceptional.

Massachusetts itself has the honor of being the only state to have totally abolished slavery by the time the first census was completed in 1790, and Vermont was not far behind with only seventeen slaves left to be liberated by their laws.[vi] Massachusetts also receives distinction for passing potentially the earliest anti-slavery law in the American colonies within the 1641 enactment of the Massachusetts Body of Liberties. The tenth capital crime in that legal code stated that, “if any man stealeth a man or mankind, he shall surely be put to death. Ex. xxi.16.”[vii] Taken from the Bible as evidenced by the scriptural citation, manstealing was interpreted by the New England colonists to include what they considered improper enslavement—later it was to expand to all vestiges of slavery.

Blackstone describes manstealing as, “the forcible abduction or stealing away of a man, woman, or child, from their own country, and sending them into another.”[viii] Going further to say, “this is unquestionably a very heinous crime, as it robs the king of his subjects, banishes a man from his country, and may in its consequences be productive of the most cruel and disagreeable hardships.”[ix]

This law was not simply an empty letter either, and when the first instance of manstealing occurred in 1646 the General Court of Massachusetts was vigorous in its prosecution. The record explains that:

The General Court, conceiving themselves bound by the first opportunity to bear witness against the heinous and crying sin of man stealing, as also to proscribe such timely redress for what is past, and such a law for the future as may sufficiently deter all others belonging to us to have to do in such vile and most odious courses, justly abhorred of all good and just men, do order that the negro interpreter, with others unlawfully taken, be, by the first opportunity, (at the charge of the country for present,) sent to his native country of Ginny, and a letter with him of the indignation of the Court thereabouts, and justice hereof, desiring of honored Governor would please put this order in execution.[x]

Interestingly, the Court chose to go farther than the law necessarily required, deciding to send back the slaves at the cost of the community. After making arrangements for the liberated slaves, the General Court then, “appointed a committee to examine witnesses and draw up the case about Captain Smith and Mr. Kezar killing stealing, and wronging of the negroes, etc.”[xi] This response to the arrival of a slave ship is markedly different than when the first one arrived on the shores of Jamestown, and it indicates an entirely different culture which from an extremely early period looked down upon the slave trade.

Religion Fueled Anti-Slavery

Their reliance upon the Bible to begin to understand their relationship to slavery led New Englanders down a dramatically different path than both the Southern colonies and the world. Instead of viewing enslavement as a natural product of race, they understood it arose out of either personal misfortunes (such as debt) or bad choices (such as crime). The New England slaves therefore attained levels of rights unheard of practically anywhere else.

The Puritans’ idea of a “Bible commonwealth” relied upon the Mosaic laws for much of their own statutes concerning servitude. Therefore, slaves had an increased level of social status with rights including the right to own property, testify in court against white men, wives could not be compelled to testify against their husbands, had legal standing to sue which included suing their masters for freedom.[xii] Additionally, enslaved people had the equal procedural rights within the courtroom which, together with the right to sue, led many slaves to advocate for freedom through the New England government.[xiii]

The wider context of slavery both domestically and globally makes North America’s record even more exceptional. First it must be noted that slavery has existed within every culture historically documented. In fact, the story of American slavery begins long before Christopher Columbus ever dreamed of sailing across the ocean sea. The native tribes he discovered all had slaves and on a whole it is estimated that 20 to 40 percent of native populations were slaves, making the native Americans on par with the slave empires of Greece and Rome.[xiv] This native American tradition of slavery continued uninterrupted by colonization, and by 1860, 12.5% of the population in the Indian Nations were black slaves, equaling one slave for every eight Indians.[xv]

Expanding the scope of inquiry even wider, throughout the nearly 400 years of the trans-Atlantic slave trade 12,521,337 Africans were taken to be slaves around the world. Only a small minority of that number ever embarked to the areas that would become the United States—305,326 to be exact, totaling 2.4%.[xvi] For comparison, Spain and her territories received 1,061,524 slaves during that same period representing nearly 8.5%, and France only barely received more with 11% (1,381,404). Next was Great Britain with 3,259,441 slaves taken from Africa, meaning that over one quarter (26%) of all slaves sourced from the African continent were intended for English lands. That, however, pales in comparison to Portugal and Brazil, where 5,848,266 enslaved humans were shipped—nearly 47% of the total number. Even the Netherland had more stake in the trans-Atlantic slave trade than America did, themselves accounting for 554,336 and 4.4%.[xvii]

What is more, slavery both globally and in America was never simply white on black. Just as every people group has owned slaves, every people group has correspondingly been enslaved. Prior to the 1700s there were more white slaves globally than there were black slaves.[xviii] In fact, early records from Massachusetts reveal that in December of 1738 several white men were sentenced to slavery for a variety of crimes. One had been an indentured servant who physically assaulted the man he was working for, and then “did conspire also against the life of his said whole common wealth,” and two others for theft alongside breaking and entering.[xix] The next year the Massachusetts court similarly sentenced another white criminal to slavery for attempted rape.[xx]

In addition to white slavery in America, Americans themselves were sold into slavery in the Barbary Coast of North Africa after being captured by Muslim slave traders. Charles Sumner, the famous abolitionist and founder or the Republican party, documented that fourteen men from Boston and Philadelphia would fetch $34,792 in the African slave market of 1785.[xxi] Beyond just the American sailors, the Muslim Barbary Pirates conducted extensive slave raids along the European coast, meaning that:

“Between 1530 and 1780 there were almost certainly a million and quite possibly as many as a million and a quarter white, European Christians enslaved by the Muslims of the Barbary Coast.”[xxii]

Just as there were white slaves both in America and the world, there also were black slave masters. Carter Woodson, often considered the “Father of Black History,” conducted a close study of the 1830 census data in order to investigate rates of free blacks who themselves owned slaves. His research revealed that, out of those free blacks who were eligible to own slaves (head of households living in states which would later join the Confederacy), 16% of them owned black slaves.[xxiii] Certain states, however, stand out in their relatively high frequency. South Carolina for instance saw 43% of eligible free black people own slaves, 40% in Louisiana, 26% in Mississippi, 25% in Alabama, and 20% in Georgia.[xxiv] Such statistical data simply shows just how varied the institution of slavery was throughout both history and the American story—far from the monolithic image presented by revisionists.

With so much of the world having been embroiled with slavery and the slave trade for hundreds of years, it makes the actions of America not only unique but remarkable. By the time the 18th century began, many of the northern colonies began passing laws which established duties on importing slaves. The intent was for such acts cut away the slaver’s profit margin and therefore making it economically undesirable to import slaves into those regions. In 1700 elements of the Massachusetts citizenry petitioned the legislature for restrictive duty on slaves “to discourage the bringing of them” of forty shillings.[xxv] The next year the colony sought to set a limit to the period of slavery that a person could serve, and in 1705 they were successful in obtaining a four-pound import duty.[xxvi] Rhode Island had passed a slightly smaller duty two years earlier of a still substantial three-pounds.[xxvii]

Other colonies such as New York and Pennsylvania attempt to pass even more restrictive bills regulating the slave trade into relative non-existence but many of their efforts were vetoed by the authority of the Crown.[xxviii] The Royal veto of anti-slavery measures, often because of the economic benefit which England derived from the global trade, became a common response to colonial attempts at restricting slavery.

Nearly seventy years later such practices nearly made it into the Declaration of Independence after appearing in Thomas Jefferson’s draft and being approved by Benjamin Franklin and John Adams. The grievance against the slave trade was the longest out of all of them, occupying the better part of a page in addition to having the most words underlined or capitalized outside of the title. The grievance in the draft reported to Congress read as follows:

He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of distant people, who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation tither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian king of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where Men should be bought and sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce.[xxix]

“Am I not a man and a brother.”

Many other Founding Fathers agreed with Jefferson—in fact, the majority of Founding Fathers agreed with him. Only two states voted against the grievance thus keeping it out of the final Declaration of Independence.

(It should also be noted that although many today claim that when the Declaration states that “all men are created equal” the Founding Fathers really meant to say “all white men are created equal,” Jefferson himself explicitly identifies slaves as men and thereby included in the American promise.)

With over a century of anti-slavery activity, it should come as no surprise to see a dramatic increase in manumissions and widespread emancipation during and immediately following the War for Independence. From 1790 to 1810 the number of free blacks in America increased from 59,466 to 108,395, displaying a growth rate of 82%. The next decade saw that number expand another 72% to 186,446.[xxx] While the number continued to grow albeit at a lower rate of growth in the years leading up to the Civil War, those first two decades of the American Republic saw the strongest rate of voluntary emancipation ever recorded up to that time. It is this period which Arthur Zilversmit calls the First Emancipation.[xxxi]

John Adams, an attorney prior to becoming a politician, recalled the environment of emancipation during those years saying:

“I was concerned in several Causes, in which Negroes sued for their Freedom before the Revolution.…I never knew a Jury, by a Verdict to determine a Negro to be a slave—They always found them free.”[xxxii]

During the Revolution itself many slaves who fought for freedom from England also achieved freedom from slavery, being manumitted on account of their service. William Whipple, signer of the Declaration and General under Washington, freed his slave, Prince Whipple during campaign after realizing the incongruity of his own actions.[xxxiii] Another veteran of the Revolutionary War, a slave named Prime, was actually re-enslaved after the war but, with the help of anti-slavery advocates, he successfully petitioned for his emancipation, winning his freedom not only on the battlefield but in the courtroom as well.

Upon examining this period, renown historian Benjamin Quarles remarked that the War for Independence and the environment leading up to it empowered the black population with the tools and personal agency to reach for their freedom as Americans. He writes that the slaves, “gave a personal interpretation to the theory of natural rights and the slogans of liberty and independence,” and many white leaders who were awakening to the injustice helped them in that greater revolution.[xxxiv]

This brief examination of the overarching facts and context concerning America’s early history with slavery shows that the story is infinitely more nuanced than the revisionist narratives propagated by Zinn, Lynd, and the New York Times. The real history, however, reveals that America’s record for anti-slavery is exceptional when placed in the context of the world at that time. Instead of presenting a view of history as if it Jamestown won the ideological battle for America, historians today must realize that the tree of slavery was choked out by the tree of liberty. That the ideas of Plymouth overcame those of Jamestown.

The story of the northern colonies, when properly told, shows that America was among the first places in the world to lead a successful fight against slavery in both word and deed. Furthermore, the anti-slavery Founding Fathers paved the path which many of the global abolitionist followed in the decades to come. America ought not to be remembered as a land of oppression but rather one of liberation. The New World has been the frontier of freedom from the beginning, being the first to struggle for emancipation and find large-scale success. Those small American Republics, carved out of the wilderness, showed a level of civilization unheard of at that early period, passing anti-slavery and abolition laws before virtually anywhere else in the world. America was indeed exceptional—a seedbed of liberty for themselves and the rest of the world.


[i] Andrew Bacevich, The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism (New York: Holt Paperbacks, 2009); Godfrey Hodgson, The Myth of American Exceptionalism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010).

[ii] “The 1619 Project,” The New York Times (accessed December 5, 2019), https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/1619-america-slavery.html

[iii] Nikole Hannah-Jones, “Our Democracy’s Founding Ideals were False When They were Written,” The New York Times (December 5, 2019), https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/black-history-american-democracy.html

[iv] Staughton Lynd, Doing History from the Bottom Up: On E. P. Thompson, Howard Zinn, and Rebuilding the Labor Movement from Below (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2014), xii.

[v] Aggregate Amount of Each Description of Persons Within the United States of America, and the Territories Thereof (Washington: 1811), 1.

[vi] The American Almanac and Repository of Useful Knowledge for the Year 1858 (Boston: Crosby, Nicholas, and Company, 1858), 214.

[vii] Francis Bowen, editor, Documents of the Constitution of England and America, from Magna Charta to the Federal Constitution of 1789, (Cambridge: John Bartlett, 1854), 72.

[viii] William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England (London: A. Strahan and W. Woodfall, 1795), 4.218-219.

[ix] Ibid., 4.219.

[x] Nathaniel Shurtleff, Records of the Governor and Company of the Massachusetts Bay in New England (Boston: William Whites, 1853), 1.168.

[xi] Ibid., 1.176.

[xii] Arthur Zilversmit, The First Emancipation: The Abolition of Slavery in the North (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1968), 19.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Fernando Santos-Granero, Vital Enemies: Slavery, Predation, and the Amerindian Political Economy of Life (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2009), 226-227.

[xv] Joseph Kennedy, Preliminary Reports on the Eighth Census, 1860 (Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1862), 11.

[xvi] “Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade – Estimates,” Slave Voyages, https://www.slavevoyages.org/assessment/estimates (accessed December 6, 2019).

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] Philip Morgan, “Origins of American Slavery,” Organization of American History Magazine of History, Vol. 19, No. 4 (July 2005), p. 53

[xix] Nathaniel Shurtleff, Records of the Governor and Company of the Massachusetts Bay in New England (Boston: William Whites, 1853), 1.246.

[xx] Ibid., 1.269.

[xxi] Charles Sumner, White Slaves in the Barbary States (Boston: William D. Ticknor and Company, 1847), 32.

[xxii] Robert Davis, “Counting European on the Barbary Coast,” Past &Present, No. 172 (August 2001), 118.

[xxiii] Thomas J. Pressly, “‘The Known World’ of Free Black Slaveholders: A Research Note on the Scholarship of Carter G. Woodson,” The Journal of African American History 91, no. 1 (2006): 85.

[xxiv] Ibid.

[xxv] Zilversmit, The First Emancipation, 51.

[xxvi] Ibid.

[xxvii] Ibid.

[xxviii] Ibid., 47-49.

[xxix] Thomas Jefferson, The Works of Thomas Jefferson, edited by Paul Leicester Ford (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904), 210-211.

[xxx] Kennedy, Preliminary Reports, 7.

[xxxi] Zilversmit, The First Emancipation.

[xxxii] Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society (Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1877), 401-402.

[xxxiii] William Nell, Colored Patriots of the American Revolution (Boston: Robert Wallcut, 1855), 198.

[xxxiv] Benjamin Quarles, “The Revolutionary War as a Black Declaration of Independence,” Slavery and Freedom in the Age of the American Revolution, edited by Ira Berlin (Charlottesville: The University Press of Virginia, 1983), 285.

*Originally published: April 6, 2020