Why Can't We Have a Rational Conversation About the Founders and Slavery?

Signing of the Declaration of Independence by John Trumbull, public domain.

When Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) allegedly called slavery a “necessary evil” for the Founders, leftists had a conniption.

Nikole Hannah-Jones, founder of the “1619 Project,” said, “If chattel slavery — heritable, generational, permanent, race-based slavery where it was legal to rape, torture, and sell human beings for profit — were a ‘necessary evil’ as [Tom Cotton] says, it’s hard to imagine what cannot be justified if it is a means to an end.”

Robert Reich, secretary of Labor under former President Bill Clinton, suggested Cotton’s remark was so beyond the pale that it alone necessitated a Democrat takeover of the Senate in November.

“This, my friends, is today’s GOP. Make sure they lose control of the Senate on November 3. In fact, make sure they lose control of everything. They’ve lost the right to govern,” Reich tweeted.

The rapper Ice Cube claimed that Tom Cotton himself is an “unnecessary evil.”

Tom Cotton later claimed that he had been misquoted.

“What I said is that many founders believed that only with the Union and the Constitution could we put slavery on the path to its ultimate extinction. That’s exactly what Lincoln said,” the senator explained.

Then he condemned slavery in no uncertain terms.

“Of course, slavery is an evil institution in all its forms at all times in America’s past or around the world today. But the fundamental moral principle of America is right there in the Declaration—all men are created equal. And the history of America is the long and sometimes difficult struggle to live up to that principle,” Cotton explained.

Cotton was right on both counts, but the backlash to his comments revealed a gross misunderstanding of American history.

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“Necessary evil”

What did Cotton say that inspired such a storm of controversy? The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette quoted him as saying, “As the founding fathers said, it was the necessary evil upon which the union was built, but the union was built in a way, as Lincoln said, to put slavery on the course to its ultimate extinction.”

Now, Cotton would likely not have claimed that America was built upon slavery. He was pushing back against the 1619 Project, which claims that race-based slavery is essential to America’s character.

Even so, it seems the outrage focused on the “necessary evil” bit. It seems Hannah-Jones, Robert Reich, and Ice Cube interpreted Cotton as saying that race-based slavery in the past — along with its alleged remnants in the present — is morally acceptable in exchange for the freedom and prosperity America now enjoys.

Such an argument is rightly condemned as heinous, but that’s not what Cotton was arguing.

Tom Cotton was likely trying to make the point later expressed to me by Matt Spalding, a professor of government at Hillsdale College. He argued that the Founders were “prudent” to consider slavery a “necessary evil” in a limited sense.

The Founders viewed slavery as “evil in principle but still necessary in practice for gaining the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and all the principles and institutions, as Lincoln later explained, that were the keystones to the abolition of slavery. For the vast majority of the Founders, the consensus view was that slavery was an evil that under the immediate circumstances had to be tolerated in the short term.”

The Founders faced a practical situation where slavery “existed on the ground and could not be abolished immediately without thereby preventing the founding of a country dedicated to human liberty and equality.”

Spalding noted that while the Founders made certain compromises in the Constitution, they did not endorse slavery, and, as James Madison explained in the Constitutional Convention and again in The Federalist Papers, kept the idea of “property in men” out of the Constitution.

In fact, the Founders prevented the expansion of slavery into the Northwest Territory — an area that would become the states of Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, and part of Minnesota.

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Why didn’t the Founders just abolish slavery?

When Hannah-Jones, Robert Reich, and Ice Cube interpreted Cotton’s remark as a defense of slavery, they unwittingly demonstrated just how poorly many Americans think about the conditions of historical movements.

Modern Americans who enjoy the benefit of hindsight, not to mention tremendous political freedom and material prosperity, may console themselves with the thought that they are morally superior to their ancestors. We often think, “If I was a leader in 1776, I would have insisted on abolition, the consequences be damned!” If only the Founders were as morally upright as millennials, they would have freed the slaves on day one!

Yet millennials are not as morally perfect as we think ourselves, and the Founders faced a far more difficult situation than we imagine.

If the abolitionists among the Founders had insisted that America could not exist with slavery, then the union would have broken apart. The southern states would not have joined the union in the first place. The northern states might not have agreed with the abolitionists on this issue, and they themselves might have broken apart.

At the time, the colonial empires of Great Britain, Spain, and Portugal still dominated much of the Americas. The War of 1812 demonstrated that Britain still desired to rule its American colonies. Had the union not held together, it is rather likely that American independence would have been a short blip in the history of the British Empire.

The Declaration of Independence did not just make America free. It also inspired revolutions and independence movements around the world. It inspired the French Revolution (which ended in tragedy and oppression), the slave revolution in Haiti (one of the noblest uprisings in history that sadly devolved), the independence movements in Latin America led by Simon Bolivar, and many more. These revolutions began with hope because America succeded. If America had failed, Europe’s colonial powers may have endured far longer.

Yet there is another possibility, worse for the slaves in the American South. If America had remained independent but splintered, the Civil War could not have resulted in the abolition of the slaves. If the Confederacy had begun in 1776 instead of 1861, there would have been no Union to bring it to heel and force emancipation. Because the Founders decided to compromise and allow slavery to exist for a time, the union held together — and that union enabled Congress and President Abraham Lincoln to abolish slavery in the Thirteenth Amendment.

In other words, accepting the fact that slavery was impossible to eradicate at the time enabled the Founders to set up the system of government that ultimately freed the slaves.

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A bitter truth to swallow

So, what makes modern Americans think we would have done better than the Founders, whose very success enables us to discuss these issues? One word: hubris.

When thinking about history, we often assume we would be the heroes in any situation. Christians often identify with David in the story of David and Goliath, for example. We hear of the plucky youth hero arising to defeat the powerful villain, and instantly identify with the good guy. But statistically speaking, you and I would likely have been either disgruntled Israelites or angry Philistines in the story. The heroism of David is remarkable because it was so rare.

It is easy to identify with the sympathetic character, but each of us also has a dark side, and we must be honest with ourselves about it. If you grew up in a society where black people were slaves, that would have shaped your worldview. If you were a poor white, you would have been highly tempted to feel superior to black people just because you were free. If you were rich, you would have been highly tempted to excuse or explain away the injustice that benefited you. If you were the black slave, you would have chafed against bondage but you would also have learned the horrible truth that those who ran away faced a terrifying brutal death.

Americans are right to condemn this injustice — and I resonate with Lincoln’s suggestion that God brought the Civil War on America as an awful judgment for this heinous evil — but we cannot assume that if we had been there, we would have supported immediate abolition.

It is not so easy to judge our ancestors as we suppose. Some small victories that laid the groundwork for the ultimate abolition of slavery may have been the only things they could achieve, given their circumstances. Whatever the case, they won those small victories, and we should thank our lucky stars (and perhaps Providence) that the heinous evil of slavery was ultimately abolished.

By the way, the Three-Fifths Compromise — so hated and demonized today — was one of those small victories. The fact that slaves — to whom the Constitution refers as “persons” — only counted for 3/5 of a citizen when it came to proportional representation actually dealt a significant political blow against the slaveholders in the South. The point was not that black people were “only 3/5 of a person” (on the contrary, they were considered whole persons, as the Constitution makes clear) but that slaveholders should not gain more political power by claiming to represent their slaves’ interests.

The demonization of Tom Cotton’s alleged words and the demonization of the Three-Fifths Compromise both come from the same confusion about history. Partisans like Nikole Hannah-Jones twist history to fit their narrative, working off of the hubristic assumption that they could have done better than the Founders.

In reality, the Founders achieved a tremendously difficult thing in tremendously difficult circumstances. If it was “necessary” to allow the evil of slavery to exist, the Founders nonetheless worked to set this horrific institution on its path to ultimate extinction. For that, Americans should be grateful.

Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.

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