One of the most contentious issues in American history is the existence of slavery in a country “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” as Lincoln said in the Gettysburg Address. Inspired by critical race theory and the Black Lives Matter movement, the New York Times has even campaigned with its 1619 Project to popularise the idea that the country was founded on the bondage of slavery, not the liberty extolled by its Founding Fathers.

MercatorNet interviewed Robert R. Reilly about this debate. Reilly is the author of America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding. He recently added a special chapter on slavery

MercatorNet: Did the United States fight the Revolution primarily to protect the institution of slavery?

Robert R. Reilly: It had absolutely nothing to do with protecting slavery. To suggest otherwise is a singular act of ignorance – one that the 1619 Project commits. Gordon Wood is perhaps the foremost historian of the American Revolution. He makes clear that, “this claim is false. In 1776 Great Britain was not threatening to abolish slavery in its empire… It was the American colonists who were interested in abolitionism in 1776.”

Princeton historian Sean Wilentz explained, “Had the Americans not won their independence in 1783, it is almost inconceivable that the British government would have ended slavery in any of its colonies thereafter.” Indeed, the British Empire was the leading slave trader in the world, and many of its colonies in the Western Hemisphere relied on slavery for their economic output and well-being.

Legal scholar Paul Finkelman relates that “the British government gave special protection to the Royal African Company, which brought more slaves to the American colonies than any other single entity. Investors in the Royal African Company reached the highest echelons of British society, and included members of the Royal family.”

In 1769, Virginia raised taxes on the importation of slaves, but the Crown overruled it. In 1772, Virginia passed another law with a prohibitively high tax on the slave trade. The legislators appealed to the king that “[t]he importation of slaves into the colonies from the coast of Africa, hath long been considered as a trade of great inhumanity” and asked him to “remove all those restraints on your majesty’s governors of this colony, which inhibit their assenting to such laws as might check so very pernicious a commerce.” Once again, the British government overrode the law.

Thomas Jefferson complained in 1774 of the Crown’s interference in the colonies’ efforts to end the transatlantic slave trade. Great Britain eventually passed legislation to end it in 1807, several weeks after the United States did.

“Anti-Black racism runs in the very DNA of this country” is the catchcry of critical race theory and the 1619 Project. How do you respond to this allegation?

If it were in the DNA of America, then it couldn’t be changed, but it has been. People who have not seen the change in race relations in this country over the past half-century since the civil rights movement must be blind. I don’t know a sector of American society in which racism is not considered morally repugnant. Of course, to our shame, that was not always so.

Was the slavery practiced in the American slave states the worst in the world at the time?

There is no gainsaying the fact that it was very bad, indeed. It was certainly just as bad if not worse in the Caribbean and in South America. Slavery in Africa was also vicious.

How did the Founders reconcile in their own mind the statement that “all men are created equal” and the existence of slavery? To us, after all, the double standard seems so obvious.

It was the Founders who publicly raised the moral standard by which slavery, which had existed since time immemorial, would be seen as a great wrong. Why was that hypocritical?

Gordon Wood said, “Far from protecting slavery, the American Revolution inflicted a massive blow to the entire slave system of the New World.” Benjamin Franklin held that slavery was such “an atrocious debasement of human nature” that he formed a Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery and raised funds for the “relief of free negroes unlawfully held in bondage”. Pennsylvania became the first government in history to abolish slavery. John Adams considered slavery a “foul contagion in the human character.” He said, “Negro slavery is an evil of colossal magnitude.” At the Constitutional Convention, Gouverneur Morris excoriated slavery as being “in defiance of the most sacred laws of humanity,” which “damns them to the most cruel bondages.”

In the decade between the Declaration and the Constitution, every state north of the Mason-Dixon Line, and north of the Ohio River, abolished slavery or passed measures leading to its abolition by 1804. The Northwest Ordinance, passed by Congress in 1787, forbade slavery in the huge territory that would later comprise five Midwestern states (Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin). None of these things would have happened had not the American founding principle been that “all men are created equal.”

Could we focus on two key figures in your analysis? First, Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration, the third President – and a slaveowner. Doesn’t his record support the 1619 Project’s accusation of hypocrisy?

In 1779 Jefferson proposed a law for gradual emancipation in Virginia. It failed passage. In addition, in Congress in 1784, he proposed the law, which came within one vote of adoption, that would have banned slavery from the entire Western territory of the United States.

In Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration, he had written that George III “has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him”, which was a condemnation of Great Britain’s participation in and perpetuation of the slave trade. According to Jefferson, this sentence was removed at the insistence of South Carolina and Georgia. Ironically, in earlier colonial times, Georgia had been overruled in London when it tried to ban slavery.

In regard to American slavery, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever… The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest… The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other.”

In 1807, President Jefferson applauded the approaching congressional measure to forbid the foreign slave trade “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, and which the morality, the reputation, and the best interests of our country have long been eager to proscribe”. 

Like many others, Jefferson presumed that slavery would peacefully die out over the course of time. He freed only two slaves during his lifetime, allowed three others to leave Monticello with his tacit consent, and manumitted five more in his will.

Why not more? Robert F. Turner explains that “the reason Jefferson did not free but five of his own slaves in his will is simple: Under Virginia law at the time, slaves were considered ‘property,’ and they were expressly subject to the claims of creditors. Jefferson died deeply in debt.” In fact, Jefferson took on a sizable debt that came with his inherited estates and accrued more debt when he co-signed a large loan for a friend who subsequently defaulted.

This is not to gainsay the fact that Jefferson practiced slavery and benefitted from it. Nonetheless, in 1823, he wrote that slavery was “a hideous blot” and that he was “happy in believing that the conviction of the necessity of removing this evil gains ground with time”. Unfortunately, this was not to be so.

The other figure is Frederick Douglass, the brilliant freed slave and abolitionist leader who was loud in his praise of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Founding Fathers. How does the 1619 Project account for his attitude?

It can’t, because what Douglas said gives the lie to its central thesis. He was emphatic that the Constitution was not a pro-slavery document precisely because it did not mention slavery and thought it was “a slander upon their memory” to think otherwise of the Founders’ intentions.

In a Fourth of July oration in 1852, he said, “In that instrument I hold there is neither warrant, license, nor sanction of the hateful thing; but interpreted, as it ought to be interpreted, the Constitution is a GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT. Read its preamble, consider its purposes. Is slavery among them? Is it at the gateway? Or is it in the temple? It is neither.”

There are at least three provisions in the Constitution which appear to support slavery – the importation clause, the three-fifths clause, and the fugitive slave clause. They clearly seem to support slavery… How do you account for those?

In order to reach ratification, the framers did include three compromises regarding slavery’s existence in the Constitution. The “Importation Clause” of article I, section 9, prevented Congress from banning the importation of slaves for a period of 20 years. As mentioned above, the ban was passed in 1809.

The “Three-Fifths Clause” of the Constitution (article I, section 2) for apportioning representation in the House of Representatives is often misunderstood as a denial that slaves were fully human because they each counted as only three-fifths a person. The purpose of the clause, however, was to lessen the power of the slave states and was not in any way premised on the belief that slaves were not fully human beings. Had the slave states been able to include the slaves in “the whole Number of free Persons” it would have enhanced their power by increasing their number of representatives, which was determined by population. It was an anti-slavery clause.

The so-called “Fugitive Slave Clause” (article IV, section 2) appears to be the most troubling of the compromises because it provided for the return of runaway slaves. It at least avoided the word “slave,” tellingly using “person” instead, in order to undercut condescension toward them as property. This revision emphasized that slaves were held according to the laws of individual states and, as the historian Don Fehrenbacher has noted, “made it impossible to infer from the passage that the Constitution itself legally sanctioned slavery.”

So, these were prudential compromises necessary for there to be a United States in the first place – without which slavery would not have been ultimately abolished.

How do historians view the 1619 Project? After all, the project creator, Nikole Hannah-Jones, received a Pulitzer Prize for her work.

That speaks volumes about the Pulitzer Prize, unless it was given in the category of fiction. Hannah-Jones is not an historian; she is a journalist. Some of the most prestigious professional historians of the American Founding wrote a joint letter protesting her misrepresentations.

Is the story of the founding basically just an academic quarrel or does it have political consequences in 2021?

The whole point of the calumny is to support attacks on the United States. If the Founders can be tagged as supporters of the odious practice of slavery, ipso facto, they stand condemned. More than any other issue today, slavery is used to limn the American Founding as corrupt in its origins. The most often repeated charge, especially from the Left, is that the United States was rooted in racism from the beginning, actually even before the beginning. Therefore, this country is irredeemable. If it is irredeemable, it must be taken down.

This accounts for its current political relevance, and it is why it must be countered if we wish to preserve the first nation in the history of the world to be founded on the principle that all people are created equal.

Robert R. Reilly is Director of the Westminster Institute. In his 25 years of government service, he has taught at National Defense University (2007), and served in the Office of The Secretary of Defense,...