When Thomas Jefferson sat down as part of a five-man committee and began drafting a declaration of independence, he probably had little idea how exceptional that first of American documents would become. But by the time he had written the second sentence, he probably had a pretty good idea of how accusatory it would be.
The words of the second sentence are incredibly famous, we pretty much know them by heart. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
They are indeed lofty, full of promise for a people weighed down by an oppressive regime an ocean away. For the men who composed it, and for those that endorsed it in July of 1776, it was a immense release…a throwing off of the proverbial shackles, leaving a perceived plantation, and starting anew.
But, what about those in the Colonies for whom the shackles were real? What about those for whom the “plantation” was not an ethereal concept discussed in the halls and taverns, but an everyday, back-breaking reality? Where was their “declaration of independence?”
The men that brought freedom to America through pen and sword had to grapple with the finger of hypocrisy that pointed at many of them. They preached “freedom” to their countrymen, while simultaneously endorsing the scourge of slavery.
A good number of the Founding Fathers were very much against slavery. Men like John Adams and Alexander Hamilton spent most (or all) of their lives abhorring the practice. But many others were, at the very least, conflicted. George Washington had many slaves his entire life and, while he was relatively good to them (and freed them when he died), he was still a slave owner. As was Thomas Jefferson. Eliza Hamilton’s side of the family owned them. Benjamin Franklin brokered slaves and didn’t become an abolitionist until later in life. James Madison owned more than 100.
Slavery was an intensely divisive issue (as secession and the Civil War would prove), and a dangerous one for politicians to touch. Though the early Presidents largely spoke out against the practice, they did little to push for change, because the southern states thoroughly endorsed it, and they were an immensely powerful voting block. And while it’s easy to look at lower part of the map and say slavery was “the South’s demon”, we have to recognize that a good number of Northerners owned slaves as well. Passing legislation through a House and Senate that contained a significant pro-slavery contingent would have been very difficult.
As a result, early abolitionist movements had to start in a “low” place. Small groups of people had to get together and begin acting on their own to change the situation. The New York Society for Promoting the Manumission of Slavery was one such group. It met for the first time on January 25, 1785, at an inn owned by John Simmons. For the 19 men in attendance, their goal was to battle against slavery in the state of New York and, ultimately, the emancipation of all the state’s slaves.
But even within the New York Manumission Society (its abbreviated name), there were those that owned at least one slave. Robert Troup owned a couple. John Jay (shown above), a long-time abolitionist and the Society’s first chairman, owned five. Aaron Burr, an early abolitionist and supporter, owned several. In fact, while all the members were against slavery, at least half the members were slave owners.
The Society spoke out against slavery, printed essays and pamphlets, and created a register of all freed slaves to prevent them from being re-enslaved. The African Free School, set up by the Society, offered education, training, and apprenticeship for freed slaves. They pushed for state legislation to outlaw slavery which, given how widespread the practice was even in the North, didn’t get very far.
The New York Manumission Society did a lot of good things and worked hard to keep free men free, but the double standards of many of its members not only “stained” the Society’s good intentions, they clearly reflected the conflicted nature of the issue in the 1780’s, where citizens believed strongly in freedom, but pandered to (or fully supported) slavery.
Recommended Reading: Alexander Hamilton