Why didn’t our founding fathers set their slaves free if they were so interested in freedom? What does that have to do with Pride and Prejudice or Downton Abbey? Why should you read my recent history book, Able and Mighty Men? Let’s address the issue of slavery and the founding fathers with a bit of actual history, shall we?
Today’s narrative about our founders is that they were all slaveholding white supremacists. On the surface, you might be inclined to agree with them. I mean, if they believed “all men are created equal,” shouldn’t that apply to slaves, too?They certainly did believe it, but they were also still held to an old British system of law called entail (or fee tail), which had its roots in an even older system called primogeniture.
Primogeniture only allowed a noble title (King, earl, etc.) to pass down through families through the oldest male heir. And entail is essentially the land and property form of primogentiure.
In Pride and Prejudice, remember the annoying cousin Mr. Collins, who was the heir to Mr. Bennet’s estate? Remember cousin Matthew in Downton Abbey, who was the heir to the Earl of Grantham’s estate? They did not own their titles or estates outright, so they could not decide who would inherit them next. The estates were entailed by law. Daughters could not inherit, so estates passed to the closest male heir.
Entail in the Colonies
This is the same law that the American colonists were under. Washington, Jefferson, and all the landowners in the colonies were British subjects, and as such, their estates were also entailed. They could not simply “set their slaves free” or will them away.
“The first bill he [Thomas Jefferson] introduced was aimed at the slave trade, and prohibited the farther importation of negroes into Virginia. This act alone is a triumphant confutation of the accusation often reiterated against Mr. Jefferson, that he was an advocate of slavery. To its principles he was always opposed, and SUBMITTED TO IT PRACTICALLY ONLY BY ENTAIL. That he struck the first blow at the unhallowed trade of importing human beings for the purpose of consigning them to bondage, is a fact beyond dispute. That this was the first grand step towards a correction of the most cruel features of the traffic, will not be denied.” (Able and Mighty Men: Biographies of the Men Who Signed the Declaration of Independence)
Very soon after the Declaration of Independence was signed, Jefferson introduced a bill to abolish the entail in Virginia. He set the standard for the other colonies to follow, and soon this outdated system went the way of monarchy in America. But just as independence wasn’t automatic (it took 7 years of war and countless lives to win), entails and slavery didn’t end overnight. Many of our founders argued tirelessly for the abolition of slavery, but they were arguing for many, many things during this time. To be fair, fighting a revolution and starting a new system of government from scratch are lofty endeavors, and every battle couldn’t be won at the same time.
History shows us, if we will just look, that they set the wheels in motion with the war for independence, as well as the abolition of the entail and many other British laws and customs. You won’t read this in a school textbook, or learn it at a university (unless you study law), or see it in a museum. You’ll only find this kind of information in the old books that were written by people who understood the times because they lived in them, and by people who knew our founders and wrote what they saw and heard.
This is why I published Able and Mighty Men, and this is why I’m so passionate about preserving accurate history in printed books. The internet is ever-changing. But printed books, journals, eyewitness accounts, firsthand reports, letters, speeches — these are the link to our real history. This is how you know that our founders weren’t evil racists.
There’s always more to the story.
“The Founding Fathers Were White Supremacists”
You have probably read or heard by now that “all whites are racists.” Similarly, you may have read that all the founding fathers were racist or white supremacists. But the “all” in these phrases is simply unfair. Humans are individuals and cannot, in any circumstance, be categorized so easily. Some of our founders did own slaves, but not all. Some of them did view their black slaves as inferior humans, but not all. Some slaveowners were cruel masters, but not all. I could go on. History is the long story of individuals making decisions for good or bad, right or wrong, and the results of those decisions. Some decisions are huge, and affect generations of people (or millenia, as in the case of slavery).
A true student of history will refrain from:
- Lumping “all” into one category based on a few
- Quoting only from modern sources on historic events
- Presuming to understand the thoughts and actions of historic persons without any written proof
Instead, we should read all we can from original sources, and even then, not make assumptions. Let’s learn from our ancestors, and vow not to repeat their wrongs.
Able and Mighty Men
And if you homeschool, get my free download of the History of the Declaration of Independence study as a supplement to this book!
RELATED POST: Read Nicki Truesdell’s post on The 1619 Project here.