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LIES THE GOVERNMENT TOLD YOUMyth, Power, and Deception in American History
By Andrew P. Napolitano
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2010 Andrew P. Napolitano
All right reserved.
Chapter OneLie #1 "All Men Are Created Equal"
On July 4th 1776, the thirteen United States of America declared independence from Great Britain and its tyrannical king, George III. The Continental Congress, in the Declaration of Independence, stated that "all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable1 Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness." The delegates to the Continental Congress who signed the Declaration believed that government power is fueled by the consent of the governed, and that its primary purposes are to ensure the people's freedom to pursue happiness and to protect their inalienable rights. King George III had never embraced this philosophy, and the bulk of the Declaration listed the ways in which he had abused his power: Great Britain taxed the colonies without granting them representation, prohibited them from trading with the rest of the world, and broke its own laws to exploit them. According to Congress, the King left the United States no alternative but to sever ties with Great Britain and form a new nation with its own government, one that would keep secure its people's natural rights.
Thegovernment that emerged from the American victory in the Revolutionary War, however, did not treat all men equally. The United States Constitution, for example, contained provisions that implicitly and explicitly recognized slavery's legitimacy, protected it as an institution, and insulated it from regulation or interference by the federal government. In fact, the government permitted slavery for almost one hundred years after Thomas Jefferson wrote the immortal "all Men are created equal" language. It was not until recently that the government's behavior matched these words and African-Americans truly became equal under the law.
President Barack Obama stated that it is an American tradition that "all men are created equal under the law and ... no one is above it." The implication in that statement is false. It may be true that no one is above the law, but for much of American history, African-Americans were below it. The Founding Fathers, as brilliant and courageous as they were, lied to us. Abraham Lincoln, the so-called "Great Emancipator," lied to us. The Supreme Court of the United States, in upholding Jim Crow laws, lied to us. Thankfully, one of the great things about this country is that over time, Americans get smarter. We recognize our transgressions and work to correct them. Some of the greatest advances in human rights have come after some of the greatest assaults on them. After 230 years of exceptional indignity, lawlessness, and bloodshed, we can now say that "all Men are created equal," and mean it. But that was not the case in 1776.
Founding Slave Owners
Upon the signing of the Declaration of Independence, 20 percent of America's population was enslaved. Most of the approximately five hundred thousand slaves living in the United States in 1776 were concentrated in the five southernmost states, where they represented 40 percent of the population. The Founding Fathers owned slaves. In fact, four of the first five American Presidents, including the still-beloved George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, owned slaves.
Thomas Jefferson condemned slavery and vehemently opposed its expansion. In his first term in the Virginia House of Burgesses, Jefferson proposed a law to free Virginia's slaves. In 1774, Jefferson urged the Virginia delegates to the First Continental Congress to abolish the slave trade. According to Jefferson, "[t]he abolition of domestic slavery is the great object of desire in those colonies where it was unhappily introduced...." Furthermore, Jefferson wrote a draft constitution for the State of Virginia that forbade the importation of slaves. Also, in a draft of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson complained of Britain's introduction of slavery and the slave trade to the colonies.
Jefferson also played an integral role in enacting the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which quickened the westward expansion of the United States, while also providing that "[t]here shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory ..." Later, in 1808, President Jefferson signed a statute prohibiting the Atlantic slave trade.
Jefferson should be admired for instilling in America the democratic and egalitarian principles that we hold so sacred today. The fact remains, however, that Jefferson owned slaves. At the time he wrote that "all Men are created equal," he owned about two hundred slaves, and slavery played an integral role in his life. Slaves constructed his majestic home and even his personal coffin.
According to Jefferson, African-Americans may not have been inferior to whites, but they certainly were different. In his book, Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson recounted his observations of the physical differences between blacks and whites and wrote negatively and positively about African-American behavior. For example, Jefferson noticed that as compared to whites, blacks required less sleep, but were more adventurous than whites. In analyzing their mental capacity, Jefferson observed that blacks had better memories than whites, but could not reason nearly as well as their white counterparts. From his observations, Jefferson concluded that by nature, African-Americans were not as intelligent as whites. However, with respect to moral capacity (the "heart," as Jefferson called it), Jefferson believed that God did create all men equal. Furthermore, Jefferson wrote that "nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that [slaves] are to be free," and he believed that African-Americans had "a natural right" to pursue freedom.
Moreover, according to the historian John C. Miller, in the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson may have intentionally left "property" off the list of inalienable rights to pave the road for placing slaves' human rights above the property rights of their slave owners. Alexander Hamilton, a Founding Father who once owned slaves in New York, and the first United States Secretary of the Treasury, wrote in The Federalist, No. 1, written for the People of New York, and more broadly, the citizens of the United States, that signing the Constitution "is the safest course for your liberty, your dignity, and your happiness" (emphasis added). However, the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution states, in part, that "[n]o person shall be ... deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law" (emphasis added). In ratifying the Constitution, did Congress abandon Jefferson's intent? Did it become less sympathetic to human rights? Did the Founders find no shame in condoning slavery as a property right protected by due process?
Regardless of his ideas on the equality of men, Jefferson believed that blacks and whites could not coexist as equals. He feared that if whites did not treat blacks paternalistically, there would be a race war resulting in the black race overtaking the white. Jefferson stated, "We have the wolf by the ears and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice in one scale, and self-preservation in the other." Nevertheless, Thomas Jefferson freed five of his slaves in his will, and even though Virginia law mandated that freed slaves leave the state within a year of their emancipation, Jefferson petitioned the Virginia assembly to permit his freed slaves to remain "where their families and connections are." The Virginia assembly honored Jefferson's request.
George Washington, known throughout the ages as the "Father" of his country, was a Southern planter who owned and relied on slaves. Washington punished his slaves by whipping or selling them, divided their families so they would work more efficiently, and provided them with as little means as tolerable. He also raffled off the slaves of those bankrupt slaveholders who owed him money. Washington's most gruesome act as a slave owner came in 1784, five years before he became President of the United States. In that year, Washington hired a dentist to extract nine teeth from the mouths of his slaves, and implant them into his own mouth.
During his presidency (1789 to 1797), Washington lived at the President's House in Philadelphia. In 1780, Pennsylvania had passed "An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery," which prohibited nonresidents from holding slaves in the state longer than six months. In an attempt to circumvent this law, Washington and his wife, Martha Dandridge Custis Washington, neither a permanent resident of Pennsylvania, rotated their slaves in and out of Pennsylvania so that none of them established continuous residency for six months. This practice violated the Pennsylvania Act, but the Washingtons were never prosecuted under it.
During the Revolutionary War, however, Washington's attitude toward African-Americans was markedly different. Washington recruited free blacks into the Continental Army, and by the time of the Battle of Yorktown, African-Americans constituted 25 percent of the Army. By 1786, Washington promised never to buy another slave. By the time of his death, Washington found slavery morally wrong, and freed his slaves in his will, upon the death of his wife, Martha. He even expressed a desire to have his freed slaves educated.
Like Jefferson, however, Washington, did not seek to abolish slavery swiftly, or with any type of urgency. Despite not purchasing a slave after 1786, and eventually freeing his slaves, Washington believed slavery would be abolished by "slow, sure and imperceptible degrees."
A Less Perfect Union
The Founding Fathers overtly defended slavery and racism in the United States Constitution. Protecting the institution of slavery was necessary to gain the South's support for a new, centralized federal government. It is important to realize that our Constitution legitimized the ownership of some human beings by other human beings. This was, of course, directly opposed to the Natural Law values of the Declaration of Independence, which asserted that the rights of "all Men" come from our "Creator" and are thus "unalienable," absent due process. The Constitution contained express provisions recognizing slavery's existence, protecting it as a legal institution, and insulating it from regulation or interference by the federal government.
Three provisions of the Constitution implicitly recognize the existence of slavery: the Fugitive Slave Clause (Article IV, Section 2, Clause 3), the Importation Clause (Article I, Section 9, Clause 1), and the Three-Fifths Clause (Article I, Section 2, Clause 3). The Fugitive Slave Clause provides that "[n]o Person held to Service of Labour in one State" shall be discharged from such labor if he or she escapes into another State. This clause essentially required the States to return fugitive slaves who escaped into their territory. The courts interpreted this clause as providing slaveholders with a right to their slave property that no state where slavery was prohibited could qualify, control, or undo.
The Importation Clause in the Constitution forbade Congress from outlawing the "importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper" until 1808. This clause permitted the international slave trade until at least 1808. The United States discontinued the international slave trade in that year when President Jefferson signed legislation prohibiting it.
The "Three-Fifths Compromise" was the clearest example of the delegates who wrote the Constitution abandoning ethical and moral standards, and even core values, in order to construct a new federal government. The Northerners wanted apportionment for the House of Representatives to be based solely on the population of free persons living in each state, whereas the Southerners wanted their slaves to count as whole persons, thus increasing Southern representation in Congress. The infamous and despicable Three-Fifths Clause emerged from the debate. It provides that apportionment be determined by the "whole number of free Persons" in each state, minus the number of "Indians not taxed," plus "three fifths of all other Persons." Therefore, the Constitution counted slaves ("other Persons") only as 60 percent of free, white persons.
In Their Defense ...
Regardless of their faults, many of the Founding Fathers did not own slaves and recognized slavery's inherent immorality. Benjamin Franklin, for example, called slavery "a source of serious evils" and "an atrocious debasement of human nature." In 1774, two years before signing the Declaration of Independence, Franklin and his fellow Founding Father, Benjamin Rush, formed the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting Abolition of Slavery. John Jay, an author of The Federalist Papers and President of a comparable society in New York, as well as the first Chief Justice of the United States, declared that "[t]he honour of the states, as well as justice and humanity ... 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."
James Madison owned slaves, yet deemed slavery "the most oppressive dominion ever exercised by man over man." Madison noted that the delegates to the Constitutional Convention "thought it wrong to admit in the Constitution the idea that there could be property in men." In The Federalist, No. 54, Madison stated that "we must deny the fact, that slaves are considered merely as property, and in no respect whatever persons."
The Founders seemed to believe that slavery would meet its natural demise in the United States. At the Constitutional Convention, a Connecticut delegate, Roger Sherman, stated, "The abolition of slavery seemed to be going on in the United States.... The good sense of the several states would probably by degrees complete it." George Washington, in a draft of his first inaugural address, expressed the desire for the country to "reverse the absurd position that the many were made for the few." Just before his death, Thomas Jefferson, referring to slavery, asserted that "[a]ll eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man."
Excerpted from LIES THE GOVERNMENT TOLD YOU by Andrew P. Napolitano Copyright © 2010 by Andrew P. Napolitano. Excerpted by permission.
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