James Madison & Slavery

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

James Madison was one of America's top defenders of liberty. However, like many founding figures he was also a slave owner. In this lesson, we'll examine this contradiction and see how Madison grappled with it.

James Madison and Slavery

''We have seen the mere distinction of color made in the most enlightened period of time, a ground of the most oppressive dominion ever exercised by man over man.''

''American citizens are instrumental in carrying on a traffic in enslaved Africans, equally in violation of the laws of humanity and in defiance of those of their own country.''

''Happy would it be for the unfortunate Africans, if an equal prospect lay before them of being redeemed from the oppressions of their European brethren!''

Are these the sort of quotes you'd expect from somebody who owned the largest slave-operated plantation in Orange County, Virginia? James Madison was one of the most influential of the nation's founding figures, doing more than nearly anyone else to help define early American ideas of liberty, freedom, and justice. Paradoxically, he was also a slave owner. Have a hard time reconciling these two ideas? So did Madison. Throughout his life he was aware of this inconsistency, and, like many other slave-owning founding figures, was never quite able to align his personal life with his political beliefs. Madison wasn't the only one to embrace this ''Do as I say, not as I do'' philosophy.

James Madison
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Madison's Political Views

Let's start by looking at Madison's political views on slavery. Madison was deeply indoctrinated in the philosophy of the Enlightenment, the movement from which American ideas about representative government, human rights, and liberty were all derived. Madison helped write Virginia's state constitution, which was one of the most revolutionary, and went on to assist in the creation of the United States Constitution.

He was well aware of the fact that slavery did not align with the values of the new republic he was helping to design. In various letters he described slavery as a stain on the ideals of the republic, and a national evil. Perhaps most significantly, he wrote about the issue in the Federalist Papers, a collection of essays that advocated for the ratification of the Constitution and set some of the most important precedents in defining our interpretation of this document to this day.

In Federalist no. 54 (published anonymously but generally credited to Madison), Madison directly tackles the issue of whether slaves are people or property. His assertion is that a slave was ''regarded by the law as a member of society…a moral person, not as a mere article of property.'' That's a big deal. If a slave is a moral person, then slaves are owed the same universal liberties that white Americans fought their revolution for.

In addition to the personal conflict he felt over slavery, Madison also seemed to be very aware that slavery was hurting America's international reputation. It's important to remember that the United States was acting almost without precedent in creating a republic-style government. Many European nations believed the American experiment could never work, and slavery was part of the proof. Madison described the taunts and jeers of European aristocrats who listened to Americans prattle on about freedom and liberty while operating one of the largest slave markets in the world. Slavery was damaging the American reputation, and Madison knew it.

The obvious question, then, is this: Why didn't Madison work harder to stop it? He knew slavery was a problem, but never pushed for national abolition of it. Madison supported a strong central government, but also supported the concept of states' rights. Madison also worried about the industrial, Northern states pushing their views and values onto the more agricultural South. Nationally mandated abolition carried other threats of Northern supremacy and authoritarian government. To Madison, maintaining slavery was the lesser of these evils.

The Madison estate of Montpelier was worked by over 100 slaves
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