People who use the ‘Founding Fathers’ to argue their case against racism and white supremacy are using a double edged sword. Those who wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were in great part white supremacist slave owners. As a matter of fact, they enshrined slavery in the Constitution itself.
The Fugitive Slave Clause (Article IV, Section 2, Clause 3), clearly states that if a slave or indentured servant escape to another state, those in that other state are bound by law to return the escapee to his rightful owner, even if that state prohibits slavery.
“No person held to service or labour in one state, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labour may be due.”
Among other implicit references in the original Constitution to the legality of slavery is Article I, Section 2, Clause 3, commonly known as the Three-Fifths Compromise. This said a slave could be counted as three-fifths a person to determine how many seats a slave-holding state would have in the House of Representatives as well as apportioning direct taxes.
The Supreme Court — 1857
The Fugitive Slave Clause of the Constitution was major to the famous 1857 Dred Scott case (2, 3) where a slave sued for his freedom arguing that he was freed once taken into a territory where slavery was banned. The Supreme Court found that Black people, free or slave, had no rights or privileges because the Constitution did not include Black people.
Chief Justice Roger Taney did not mince his words:
“[black people] are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word “citizens” in the Constitution, and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens of the United States. On the contrary, they were at that time considered as a subordinate and inferior class of beings who had been subjugated by the dominant race, and, whether emancipated or not, yet remained subject to their authority, and had no rights or privileges but such as those who held the power and the Government might choose to grant them.” –Dred Scott, 60 U.S. at 404
In other words Black people, whether free or not, are not citizens, cannot sue as citizens in Federal Courts and States had no right to alter their station by granting them citizenship. The Court even struck down the Missouri Compromise which freed slaves north of the 36th parallel because it risked depriving slave owners of their legal right to their property.
This is the Supreme Court of the United States interpreting the meanings and intentions of the ‘Founding Fathers’. I argue that Taney’s interpretation is correct:
“Now, … the right of property in a slave is distinctly and expressly affirmed in the Constitution. … Upon these considerations, it is the opinion of the court that the act of Congress which prohibited a citizen from holding and owning property of this kind in the territory of the United States north of the [36°N 36′ latitude] line therein mentioned, is not warranted by the Constitution, and is therefore void.” Dred Scott, 60 U.S. at 451
There can be no question the United States of America was founded by White supremacists. Invoking their democratic ideals, albeit Athenian at best, is to ignore that the country’s history is one of division and domination.
Not Even Lincoln
In 1864, the 13th Amendment abolished slavery and involuntary servitude except as punishment for a crime, thus today’s private prisons and the prison industrial complex (5).
It is also important to note that, although Lincoln clearly did not like slavery, he was more than willing to live with it. He excluded from the Emancipation Proclamation those slave areas under Union control in Maryland, West Virginia and eastern Tennessee. He even offered the South to keep their slaves if they came back into the Union.
This is what Lincoln wrote in 1862 to the newspaper publisher Horace Greeley:
“My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.” (6)
The question here is not whether the Civil War could have been avoided and slavery ended without violence the way it had been in Britain and France. It is obvious to me Lincoln failed and pushed America into a war I feel was unnecessary but I drift from my point.
The point is The United States was founded by white supremacists and built upon racism. Even the Supreme Court enshrined this racism as the rule of the land so it is, in a way, hypocritical to call on the ‘Founding Fathers’ without reminding us of who they really were.
But like Christianity paved the way for the Renaissance, the Humanists, the Enlightenment and Democracy despite the Church, those who founded our country gave us the tools to move beyond this bleak past and build the country we have today; one that strives to be inclusive and is struggling to recognize everyone’s inalienable rights to life liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
There is no denying our country was built to western European Christian values, predominantly Anglo-Saxon Protestant, to which other waves of Catholic, Orthodox, and Jewish Europeans assimilated and including the descendants of slaves who, after more than 400 years of sharing our history, are as Anglo-Saxon as my mother culturally and psychologically.
There is also no denying the strain recent waves of different kinds of immigration are putting on that fabric. But I believe the tools are there to overcome these challenges as long as we are honest about where we come from and who we are.
- Wikipedia on Slave Clause click here:
- Cornell Law School on Dread Scott click here
- Wikipedia on the XIII Amendment click here
- See Robert Perkinson, Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire, Metropolitan Books, 2010.
- Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Horace Greeley click here
- There is a major push among conservative scholastics to promote white European immigration to regain the blance that non-white immigration and demography are challenging. This recent polemic at Penn State is a case in point: click here