Debunking Historical Myths: Those “Hypocritical” Founders by Garrett Smith

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” We’ve all heard this phrase, and it comes directly from one of our most upstanding founding documents: The Declaration of Independence. It has often been said, especially among the left-wing academia, that the founding fathers were hypocrites who, though they said, “all men,” actually just meant a “select few white men,” therefore excluding minorities. Are we being told the whole story of this narrative? Let’s take a closer look at facts and quotes from our founders.

What you were taught: The founding fathers were hypocrites. They said, “All men are created equal,” but everyone knows they just meant a select few white males. After all, they were slave-owners.

Reality: Though the founders may not have shared the total-equality view that we have today when it came to race, they still believed all people, regardless, shared unalienable rights. In terms of slavery, only select founders owned slaves.

George Washington is often at the forefront of the leftist claim that the founders were hypocrites. It is true that Washington owned slaves. But Washington, however, freed his slaves upon his death in 1799, as part of his will. He was the only slave-owning founder to do so. Thomas Jefferson is also viewed as a hypocrite, due to the fact that he was also a slave-owner. Though Jefferson owned hundreds of slaves, he, along with Washington, was constantly troubled by the institution, and both men knew that the Constitution and Declaration of Independence were not compatible with slavery. Jefferson spent most of his political career working towards gradual emancipation.

Washington and Jefferson may not have believed in total racial equality, but the fact is that they were constantly troubled by slavery, and they knew that the institution was incompatible with the liberty and freedom that they spoke so fondly of. Some of the other founding fathers, however, were not slave-owners, but this is constantly overlooked by leftists in academia. Alexander Hamilton, the primary architect of the Constitution, was an abolitionist who never owned slaves. John Jay, though he owned up to 17 slaves at one point, was a proponent of abolitionism, and he, along with Hamilton, founded the New York Manumission Society, which promoted gradual abolition. Benjamin Franklin, though a slave-owner at one point in his life, became an abolitionist, and wrote several essays stressing the importance of abolition.

It is true that some of the founders were slave-owners, and that many of them held the 18th century view that not all races were equal in terms of social equality. This did not, however, mean that they viewed those people as being unworthy of the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Don’t take my word for it, however. Let’s take a look at what two of our finest Republican statesmen – Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln – said about the issue.

On July 5, 1852, Frederick Douglass delivered a speech titled, What to the Slave is the Fourth of July? In this speech, Douglass states that, though he held a certain anger toward the founders for their participation in American slavery, he still admired them for creating the greatest nation in history. He defended their reputation from the Democrats, who insisted that they held a constitutional “right” to own slaves. Douglass said, “And instead of being the honest men I have before declared them to be, they were the veriest imposters that ever practiced on mankind. This is the inevitable conclusion, and from it there is no escape. But I differ from those who charge this baseness on the framers of the Constitution of the United States. It is a slander upon their memory, at least, so I believe.” Douglass later stated, “Now, take the Constitution according to its plain reading, and I defy the presentation of a single pro-slavery clause in it. On the other hand it will be found to contain principles and purposes, entirely hostile to the existence of slavery…While drawing encouragement from the Declaration of Independence, the great principles it contains, and the genius of American institutions, my spirit is also cheered by the obvious tendencies of the age.”

Several years later, Abraham Lincoln faced the challenge of defending the reputation of the founders from his Democratic opponents, who insisted that Black Americans did not deserve citizenship or constitutional rights. The Supreme Court had recently handed down its decision in Dred Scott v. Sanford, during which the court ruled that Black Americans were never intended to be made citizens. Lincoln responded to this in expert fashion. Before reading, it is important for readers to note the strong emphasis on 18th and 19th century politics and racial views.

Lincoln said, “I believe the authors of that notable instrument (Declaration of Independence) intended to include all men, but they did not intend to declare all men equal in all respects. They did not mean to say all were equal in color, size, intellect, moral developments, or social capacity. They defined with tolerable distinctness, in what respects they did consider all men created equal – equal in certain unalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This they said, and this they meant. They did not mean to assert the obvious untruth, that all were then actually enjoying that equality, nor yet, that they were about to confer it immediately upon them. In fact they had no power to confer such a boon. They simply meant to guarantee the right, so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit. They meant to set up a standard maxim for a free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere.” Both Douglass and Lincoln knew that the founders were not without their faults. The founders, just like anyone else, were human, and with all people come faults. They were certainly men of their time in some respects, but Douglass and Lincoln understood that they were also far ahead of their time in other respects, notably in their willingness to look beyond their faults in pursuit of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Though some of them owned slaves, they were constantly and consistently troubled by their wrongdoing, and they worked to eliminate, as they coined it, that hideous blot. The founders knew that, someday, America would be the best hope the world has to offer. Not just for a select few, but for all.

Follow @GWSmith1993, historian and political analyst.

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