What the Founders Said About Slavery
- “The augmentation of slaves weakens the states; and such a trade is diabolical in itself, and disgraceful to mankind.”
– George Mason
- “It were doubtless to be wished, that the power of prohibiting the importation of slaves had not been postponed until the year 1808, or rather that it had been suffered to have immediate operation. But it is not difficult to account, either for this restriction on the general government, or for the manner in which the whole clause is expressed. It ought to be considered as a great point gained in favor of humanity, that a period of twenty years may terminate forever, within these States, a traffic which has so long and so loudly upbraided the barbarism of modern policy; that within that period, it will receive a considerable discouragement from the federal government, and may be totally abolished, by a concurrence of the few States which continue the unnatural traffic, in the prohibitory example which has been given by so great a majority of the Union. 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!”
– James Madison, Federalist Paper No. 42
- “Bigotry is the disease of ignorance, or morbid minds; enthusiasm of the free and buoyant. Education and free discussion are the antidotes of both.”
– Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, 1816
- “I believe a time will come when an opportunity will be offered to abolish this lamentable evil.”
– Patrick Henry, letter to Robert Pleasants, January 18, 1773
- “Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free.”
– Thomas Jefferson, Autobiography, 1821
- “[The Convention] thought it wrong to admit in the Constitution the idea that there could be property in men.”
– James Madison, Records of the Convention, August 25, 1787
- “There is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it.”
– George Washington, letter to Robert Morris, April 12, 1786
- “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.”
– James Madison, speech at the Constitutional Convention, June 6, 1787
- “Every measure of prudence, therefore, ought to be assumed for the eventual total extirpation of slavery from the United States … I have, throughout my whole life, held the practice of slavery in … abhorrence.”
– John Adams, letter to Robert Evans, June 8, 1819
- “It is much to be wished that slavery may be abolished. The honour of the States, as well as justice and humanity, in my opinion, loudly call upon them to emancipate these unhappy people. To contend for our own liberty, and to deny that blessing to others, involves an inconsistency not to be excused.”
–John Jay, letter to R. Lushington, March 15, 1786
- Another of my wishes is to depend as little as possible on the labour of slaves.
– James Madison, Letter to R. H. Lee, July 17, 1785 (Madison, 1865, I, page 161)
- [W]e must deny the fact, that slaves are considered merely as property, and in no respect whatever as persons. The true state of the case is, that they partake of both these qualities: being considered by our laws, in some respects, as persons, and in other respects as property. In being compelled to labor, not for himself, but for a master; in being vendible by one master to another master; and in being subject at all times to be restrained in his liberty and chastised in his body, by the capricious will of another, the slave may appear to be degraded from the human rank, and classed with those irrational animals which fall under the legal denomination of property. In being protected, on the other hand, in his life and in his limbs, against the violence of all others, even the master of his labor and his liberty; and in being punishable himself for all violence committed against others, the slave is no less evidently regarded by the law as a member of the society, not as a part of the irrational creation; as a moral person, not as a mere article of property.
– James Madison, Federalist, no. 54
- 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. The same just and benevolent motives which produced interdiction in force against this criminal conduct will doubtless be felt by Congress in devising further means of suppressing the evil.
– James Madison, State of the Union,1810
- It is due to justice; due to humanity; due to truth; due to the sympathies of our nature; in fine, to our character as a people, both abroad and at home, that they should be considered, as much as possible, in the light of human beings, and not as mere property. As such, they are acted on by our laws, and have an interest in our laws. They may be considered as making a part, though a degraded part, of the families to which they belong.
– James Madison, Speech in the Virginia State Convention of 1829-30, on the Question of the Ratio of Representation in the two Branches of the Legislature, December 2, 1829.
- Outlets for the freed blacks are alone wanted for the erasure of the blot from our Republican character.
– James Madison, Letter to General La Fayette, February 1, 1830.
- [I]f slavery, as a national evil, is to be abolished, and it be just that it be done at the national expense, the amount of the expense is not a paramount consideration.
– James Madison, Letter to Robert J. Evans
- In contemplating the pecuniary resources needed for the removal of such a number to so great a distance [freed slaves to Africa], my thoughts and hopes have long been turned to the rich fund presented in the western lands of the nation . . .”
– James Madison, Letter to R. R. Gurley, December 28, 1831.