America's Founding Fathers & Slave Ownership

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  • 0:03 Differing Ideas About Slavery
  • 0:55 Non-Slave-Holding…
  • 2:25 Slave-Holding Founding Fathers
  • 4:29 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we'll examine America's Founding Fathers and their interactions with slavery. We'll identify which Founders owned slaves and which did not, and we'll explore their views on the issue.

Differing Ideas About Slavery

A lot of times we make the mistake of thinking of America's Founding Fathers as a homogeneous bunch. We tend to think they were one big bunch of friends who thought pretty much along the same lines. But just because they all worked in various capacities to bring about the birth of the American Republic, this doesn't mean they agreed on everything - or even liked each other.

On the issue of slavery our Founders were very much divided. Not all of them held the same view. There was a whole spectrum of views and approaches on slavery to which our Founding Fathers held. On one hand, it is remarkable that some of our Founding Fathers could hold to the notion that 'all men are created equal' and yet own slaves; but on the other hand, we have to acknowledge the culture of the time period and the complexities associated with it. Let's look at some the leading Founding Fathers and highlight their views on slavery.

Non-Slave-Holding Founding Fathers

Let's begin by looking at some of the Founding Fathers who did not hold slaves. These individuals tended to be strongly committed to abolitionist principles. John Adams was staunchly opposed to slavery. His view toward slavery can be summed up by his quote: 'I have, through my whole life, held the practice of slavery in such abhorrence, that I have never owned a negro or any other slave...' His cousin, Samuel Adams, likewise held an anti-slavery position and was not a slave-owner.

Both of these Founders were Massachusetts men. In the Revolutionary Era, Massachusetts was known for its radicalism, and abolitionism was a pretty radical idea at the time. Anti-slavery sentiment was pretty widespread throughout Massachusetts and the North as a whole. Radical writer Thomas Paine was the author of such well-known works as the Age of Reason and Common Sense and also did not own slaves; he was a Pennsylvanian. Alexander Hamilton of New York also had no slaves.

The bottom line here, we should remember, is that geography and the culture that accompanied it was a decisive factor in whether or not various Founders were slave-owners. The North tended to be more radical, more free-thinking, and more democratic, while the South was more conservative and had closer ties to Great Britain. And don't forget about the economies of the North and South. The Southern economy, with its reliance on agriculture, was naturally more conducive to slavery. So we see that with a few exceptions, most of our slave-owning Founders tended to be from Southern colonies.

Slave-Holding Founding Fathers

One of the most well-known slave-holding Founding Fathers was Thomas Jefferson. Despite writing the Declaration of Independence and the words 'all men are created equal,' Jefferson owned some 600 slaves, many of which labored at his home, Monticello, in Virginia. Among Jefferson's most famous slaves was Sally Hemmings, whom it is believed Jefferson had a long-term sexual relationship with.

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