The fight for racial equality in the USA has existed from the moment of its inception. Thomas Jefferson wrote of the unalienable rights of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness, but owned over 600 slaves in his lifetime. While believing that “All Men Are Created Equal”, black people were segregated from society. And now, five decades on from the Civil Rights Movement, the country is still having to be told that Black Lives Matter. How is it that the Land of the Free has not lived up to its name?
The answer to this question is anything but brief and begins in 1619, the year in which the first 20 African slaves landed in Virginia. At the time, black people were simply regarded as an inferior race, with some even going as far as claiming that “Negroes had no souls.”  From this pivotal moment, slavery soon spread throughout the British colonies, and became necessary for any plantation owner trying to profit off of their land. Especially in the Southern States, slavery was vital for the survival of the economy.
It was in this bigoted world that Thomas Jefferson sat to write the immortal words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”. In 1775, the founding fathers of America convened for the Second Continental Congress, which would act as a government for the fledgeling nation. Their first task was declaring their independence; they chose a committee of five to write their declaration. The first draft of this document was written by Jefferson and contained a passage about the injustice of the slave trade. However, he inexplicably blamed King George III rather than Americans for the proliferation of slavery. He described slavery as “cruel war against human nature itself” and an “assemblage of horrors”.
With words this strong in the document which would serve as the backbone for a nation of liberty, how could it be possible for the USA to avoid abolishing slavery? Sadly, the Founding Fathers were not willing to commit fully to their promise of unalienable rights for all. The Continental Congress removed this passage from the Declaration. Their talk of liberty rang hollow, as it became clear that their independence was more important than backing up their words with actions. That stability as a union was more important than the principles that they claimed unified them.
It was on the 4th of July 1776 that the Continental Congress accepted the Declaration of Independence, without its declaration on slavery, and thus the nation began in hypocrisy. The Revolutionary War preoccupied the decision-makers from trivial issues such as slavery up until 1787, when the Constitutional Convention took place. It was on this battleground that the ideas that had defined the American revolution ran headfirst into the practices used to maintain them. Despite vehement protests by men such as Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton, slavery was not banned in the new constitution. Such was the power of the southern states, particularly Georgia and the Carolinas, that three-fifths of a state’s slave population counted towards a state’s representation in Congress. They also agreed not to ban the importation of new slaves until 1808.
But why? Why was it that the founding fathers could acknowledge the injustice of slavery and yet do nothing about it? How could they let black people be alienated from their unalienable rights? The issue, as it is so often, was money. Slaves made up about one-fifth of the population of the states, with 90% of those being held in the southern states. Nearly half of the families in Virginia, the largest and richest state, owned slaves. Slave labour was so integral to the agriculture of the south that the rich delegates refused to make any compromise that might harm the institution, lest their economy collapse. The white men at the Constitutional Convention decided again, just as they had at the Continental Congress 12 years prior, that their unity and their prosperity was more important than the lives of black people.
Perhaps the best representation of the USA’s hypocrisy with slavery is the author of the Declaration himself, Thomas Jefferson. Remarkably eloquent, vastly knowledgable and undeniably charismatic, Jefferson was as close to the statesmen of old as any America has ever produced. As discussed before, Jefferson condemned the slave trade in 1775, and he went on to do so again in his book Notes on the State of Virginia, published in 1781, strongly asserting that it went against the core values of their revolution. But he also wrote of the inferiorities of the black race. Jefferson believed that black people and white people could never live together in harmony; he thought it best to export all slaves away from the USA. Shockingly, this was a very progressive attitude to have, and put Jefferson among the chief advocates for emancipation in the early days of the Union.
However, during the 1780s, something changed in Jefferson. He had always been a slaveholder – slaves built his mansion, Monticello – but after fighting to stop the sale of new slaves in Virginia, he fell silent. He shied away from the controversy his words had created. He was unwilling to turn his words into reality. He only ever freed 5 of the 600 slaves he owned in his lifetime. As he fell into debt, he needed slaves to remain profitable. Someone of Jefferson’s calibre, his undeniable talent, would have been indispensable for the abolition movement, which was spearheaded by the 2nd President, John Adams. By the time 1808 arrived, and Congress banned the importation of slaves, Jefferson was the President. If there was ever a time he could act on his convictions, finally make good on the promise he had written in 1775, it was then. Jefferson, through his silence, endorsed and encouraged the flourishing trade in the South. Jefferson’s inaction condemned black people to another 50 years of bondage, and possibly another two centuries of inequality.
- Ruth Danenhower Wilson, “Justifications of Slavery, Past and Present”, The Phylon Quarterly, 4th Qtr. 1957
- Greg Timmons, “How Slavery Became the Economic Engine of the South”, HISTORY, 18th Dec. 2019
- Julian P. Boyd, “The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. Vol. 1, 1760-1776.” Princeton University Press, 1950, pp 243-247
- “Constitutional Convention”, Encyclopaedia Britannica, accessed 31st May 2020
- United States Bureau of the Census, “A century of population growth from the first census of the United States to the twelfth”, 1909
- Joseph J. Ellis, “Thomas Jefferson – Slavery and Racism”, Encyclopaedia Britannica, accessed 31st May 2020
- Henry Wiencek, “The Dark Side of Thomas Jefferson”, Smithsonian Magazine, Oct. 2012