The beginning, it has been wisely said, is more than half the whole. For any political society, the story of the founding moment is a natural reference point, a distinctively powerful source of orientation for its members’ reflections on their present and future course. Americans of late are sharply divided over the proper direction and even the core identity of our common country, and divided, accordingly, over the character and worth of the American Founding. But from the top to the bottom, none of our divisions is more perilous or profound than those touching the matter of race.
So central is race-focused injustice to the American story that some say we should reset the date marking the country’s true origin. What happened in 1776 and 1787 is best understood, the New York Times contends, as a mere continuation or perpetuation of what happened in 1619—the year the first Africans arrived as unfree laborers, imports rather than immigrants, on America’s shores. At long last it is time, says the Times, that Americans and especially America’s schoolchildren be brought squarely to face the fact that their nation, pleased to think of itself as the modern world’s first new nation, was conceived in slavery, not liberty.
At issue is more than the relation of the Founding and slavery. When Chief Justice Roger Taney, writing for the U.S. Supreme Court in the infamous ruling in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857), issued what remains the single most damaging account of the Founding ever written, he went beyond claiming (erroneously) that “the right of property in a slave is distinctly and expressly affirmed in the Constitution.” He further claimed it was undisputed among founding-generation whites that black Africans and their descendants in America were “beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race either in social or political relations” (emphasis added). The U.S., in short, was designed to be a republic for whites only.
Here is the enduring challenge: What did the Founders think about the possibility and desirability of an interracial republic in America? Were they closer to the exclusionary positions of Justice Taney and Senator Stephen A. Douglas, who claimed the U.S. was founded “on the white basis,” or to the view of Martin Luther King, Jr., who conceived of the Founding as a “promissory note” for a fully integrated America, where character would matter and color would not?
The short answer is the Founders were divided, with some favoring integration and others favoring separation of blacks and whites in the aftermath of emancipation—and yet, on the whole, with its internal tensions and complications duly considered, the Founders’ thought inclines toward the integrationist position. That leading Founders, including Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay, were strongly integrationist is greatly important, and an adequate treatment of the question would devote extended attention to their speech and actions. For purposed of a brief essay, however, I focus attention where the Founders’ thinking seems most vulnerable to the challenge posed by Justice Taney and the Times, and turn to the arguments of the most prominent separationists.
Those arguments came, unsurprisingly, from leaders in the state that enslaved a larger population than any other during the Founding era. Among the great Virginians of the era, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison stood out in maintaining that slavery’s abolition was a moral and a prudential imperative, and that a policy of separating the erstwhile masters and slaves—of colonizing those newly freed, at some “asylum” outside the United States—must follow closely upon emancipation. On the perceived imperative of separation Jefferson was particularly emphatic: the freedpeople, he insisted, must be “removed beyond the reach of mixture.”
In the infamous Query 14 of Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson asked: After their emancipation, “why not retain and incorporate the blacks into the state?” His answer earned its infamy by his extended speculations on “the real distinctions which nature has made” between whites and blacks. Prior to those speculations, however, Jefferson presented elements of an astute analysis of the main difficulties: “Deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained; [and the] new provocations” that the interplay of the first two causes would predictably produce.
The primary causes of enduring division, in Jefferson’s account, derived from the radical injustice of slavery itself. One dimension of that injustice involved slavery’s corruption of its practitioners. Elsewhere in the Notes, Jefferson observed: “The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions … the most unremitting despotism” by members of the master class. Habituated in tyranny, most whites in a society that enslaved blacks naturally acquired a strong inclination, in the interest of moral self-justification, to deprecate their victims’ humanity. The race prejudice so acquired would long outlast slavery itself, Jefferson and Madison agreed; it “must be considered as permanent and insuperable,” Madison concluded.
Yet, deep-rooted as it was, that prejudice could not simply expunge whites’ cognizance of blacks’ humanity—or the fear such cognizance generated. In his conjectures on racial inequality, Jefferson observed in blacks no deficit in moral sense, and this fact filled him with foreboding. Acutely aware of the injustice they endured, blacks’ “ten thousand recollections” of it, Jefferson believed, would naturally fuel desires for liberation and for reprisal. Slavery, as John Locke remarked, was a state of war between conqueror and captive; Jefferson expected it was only a matter of time before blacks in America seized an opportunity to join that war in deadly earnest. Alarmed by the Haitian revolution, he wrote to fellow Virginian St. George Tucker in 1797: “if something is not done, & soon done, we shall be the murderers of our own children.”
For those reasons Jefferson and Madison urged abolition and colonization as indissolubly linked imperatives. As they did so, however, they knew that colonization as they conceived of it was a deeply problematic idea.
A primary question was whether colonization was to be effectuated with or without the consent of those who were to depart. There Jefferson and Madison differed; where Jefferson argued for coercive removal, Madison maintained that for any such plan to be viable, “the Master as well as the slave [must] concur in it.” Either way, the idea was fraught with insuperable difficulties. Madison rejected deportation on grounds of equity. To remove by force the population of black Americans from the only homes they had ever known, to a destination distant, unfamiliar, and rife with danger, would have been a clear act of tyranny. A secondary consideration, scarcely less troubling and recognized by Jefferson, is that any such attempt might well have precipitated the interracial war proponents hoped colonization would avert. As both statesmen were aware, the majority of black Americans rejected any suggestion that they leave the country after emancipation.
Colonizationist visions notwithstanding, America for any future realistically foreseeable by the Founders would continue to be an interracial society. The society that hoped to model government by reflection and choice (see Federalist No. 1) was compelled to acknowledge that in this matter it had no choice. It could only choose what sort of interracial society it would be—a republic, pure and simple, or a racial oligarchy.
Incontestably, the Founders’ bedrock commitment was to the establishment of a natural-rights republic in America. The hope some held for colonization reflected this commitment, as proponents judged it the optimal means for achieving slavery’s reasonably prompt abolition and for avoiding thereafter a racialized caste society. But as the futility of the hope for anything approaching a comprehensive colonization became evident, the Founders’ commitment to republican government obliged them to revisit their opinions of the durability of the obstructions to integration.
For Jefferson and Madison themselves, it was too late to meet that obligation. On further consideration, however, one finds in the great Virginians’ thinking some useful lessons and even some sources of inspiration for the integrationist position. Consider first the matter of white prejudice. That anti-black prejudices among whites (northern and southern) were strong was incontestable. Yet the claim that those prejudices were insuperable stands at odds with other positions the two men took, of general and specific pertinence.
In his valedictory letter to Roger Weightman, Jefferson extolled the American Revolution, in its grandest significance, as a war of reason against prejudice. Its ultimate effect, he predicted, would be to spread worldwide the doctrine of the rights of man and so to put to rest the presumption that the mass of mankind—that any portion of mankind—was born with saddles on their backs. “Is it not the glory of the people of America,” Madison asked in Federalist No. 14, to have “accomplished a revolution which has no parallel in the annals of human society”? If Americans could overthrow the rule of established noble families, why could they not likewise disestablish the rule of purportedly noble races—a dominion grounded on nothing more solid, Madison maintained, than “the mere distinction of colour”?
At least for a moment, even Jefferson believed they could. A few years after the publication of his Notes, he declared an intention to conduct his own experiment with emancipation and integration. He would mingle his erstwhile slaves with German immigrants on small farms, seeing to it that all the children would be educated “in habits of property and foresight.” He harbored “no doubt,” he said, “but that they will be good citizens.”
Jefferson never conducted that experiment. But his stated commitment to do so, however momentary, shows in his thinking (it was present in Madison’s, too) a glimmer of the argument that shone somewhat more brightly among their northern antislavery counterparts: abolition might be effectually hastened, and white prejudices dispelled, by a forthright effort to assist blacks in the improvement of their condition.
For those who would wish to advance the integration cause further than they themselves did, Jefferson’s and Madison’s thinking also contained elements of prudent guidance. Foremost, Jefferson’s observations concerning white prejudice and black recollection yield the basic psychological insight that what divided the two racial groups was deeper than divergent material interests or even questions of rights. Slavery generated powerful sources of indignation, rooted in the natural desire or demand for moral respect, that would require some measure of deference in any well-conceived attempt to promote the cause of racial reconciliation.
One instance of such deference appears in the Virginians’ endorsement, prompted by the Missouri controversy in 1820, of slavery’s “diffusion” into federal territories. This was an ill-conceived idea, as Lincoln would later explain, due to the further entrenchment of slavery that it would have likely caused. Yet its underlying rationale was at least in part defensible. As slavery was a national transgression, it was unjust to stain the slaveholding region in particular with culpability for it, just as it was unjust to assign to that region exclusively the costs attending its abolition and remediation. In supporting the diffusion idea, Jefferson and Madison meant to weaken the attachment of southern pride to the cause of resistance to abolition. They also meant to allay whites’ fears of post-slavery reprisals, on the premise that diffusing the institution of slavery would serve to diffuse, thus to render less fearsome, the population of those enslaved.
Madison likely meant something like this when he suggested in 1833, after conceding that a comprehensive colonization was a near-term impossibility, “a partial success will have its value.” But the partial colonization idea contained also the kernel of a suggestion pertinent to the moderation and reorientation of indignation among blacks. Among slavery’s demoralizing effects, Jefferson noted, was its tendency to destroy any basis for “amor patriae” in its victims—an observation that, conjoined with his warning of the “ten thousand recollections,” indicates a tacit recognition of the power of black nationalist sentiments among some of the more spirited members of the enslaved class. Those sentiments need not and generally did not generate a desire to emigrate to a new homeland abroad, but they did signify the roots of an enduring strand of black American political thought, to which proponents of integration would have to pay due respect. Madison’s idea of a partial colonization—if prudently modified to involve only a domestic migration and to operate by inducement, say in the form of a federal homestead program for those newly emancipated—could have served to dissipate sentiments of alienation and resentment among blacks as it provided time and space for blacks and whites gradually (as Lincoln would say) to live their way out of their former relations to one another.
In the end, the Founders’ common desire to remove the evil of racialized slavery rendered their great experiment in republican government an even grander enterprise than many of them foresaw. When Hamilton remarked that by their decision on the newly proposed constitution, Americans would also decide “the important question” whether human societies are capable of free, republican government, he understated the scope of the task. “Where slavery exists,” Madison observed at the Convention, “the Republican Theory becomes still more fallacious.” The true test was not whether Americans could agree on a constitution but whether they could make their constitutional order operate in a truly republican manner—and the most severe portion of that test was the eradication of slavery and the broader regime of racialized caste that it represented.
In America, as Douglass and W.E.B. Du Bois would observe, two extreme polarities among humankind’s racially classified groups met amid the most trying historical circumstances, and their separation was not a viable option. Although the Founders as a group saw with only partial clarity, by their principles and prudence they prepared their descendants to see more fully that the fate of their republic depended on the reconciliation of “the sons of master and man.” In this sense Douglass had reason to say, as he said in an 1870 speech, that Thomas Jefferson was the real author of the 14th Amendment. Douglass well understood what present-day authorities in the anti-racism cause regrettably do not, that to renounce the Founders’ legacy in this crucial complex of issues is an act of the most profound shortsightedness.
Peter C. Myers is Professor of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. These remarks were based on a presentation given at Arizona State University on January 22, 2020.