Michelle Bachmann Was Half-Right: New York's Founding Fathers Worked to End Slavery

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Alan Singer is a historian and Professor of Secondary Education at Hofstra University, author of New York and Slavery: Time to Teach the Truth (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2008), and editor of the New York and Slavery: Complicity and Resistance curriculum that received the 2005 National Council for the Social Studies program of excellence award.

Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann, a candidate for the 2012 Republican nomination for president of the United States, argues that the founders of the nation “worked tirelessly” to end slavery in the United States.  The historical record is certainly more complicated than Bachmann claims.  Many of the most prominent founders were not proponents of freedom for enslaved Africans at all.

Prior to approval of the Declaration of Independence, the “Founders” removed a clause denouncing King George for promoting the trans-Atlantic slave trade.  During the Revolutionary War, George Washington refused to enlist enslaved Africans who wanted to secure their freedom by joining the Revolutionary army and at the end of the war he sent a letter to British commanders demanding that they return runaway slaves as wartime contraband.  When Thomas Jefferson, the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, was president, he refused to recognize the newly independent government of Haiti because Africans who had fought a bloody war to end enslavement governed the former French colony.

On the other hand, Representative Bachmann was not entirely wrong.  Many founders from New York State were opponents of slavery and did work to bring it to an end.  They included Alexander Hamilton, Washington’s aide-de-camp during the Revolutionary War, a member of the convention that wrote the U.S. Constitution, and later the secretary of the Treasury of the United States. During the War for Independence, Hamilton argued that Africans had the same natural abilities as Europeans and that slaves should be recruited as soldiers and given “their freedom with their muskets.”

Other opponents of slavery included John Jay, the first chief justice of the Supreme Court and an early governor of New York State; and Gouverneur Morris and Thomas Tredwell, members of New York’s Revolutionary Congress who helped draft the state’s first constitution.  Jay, Morris, and Tredwell came from families that owned significant estates and large numbers of enslaved Africans.  However, they each worked to end slavery in New York and the United States.

In 1777, Gouverneur Morris proposed a motion, which was defeated, at the state’s constitutional convention recommending that “the Legislatures of the State of New York to take measures consistent with the public safety for abolishing domestic slavery.” Morris later relocated to Philadelphia and he represented Pennsylvania at the federal constitutional convention in 1787, where he opposed constitutional protection for slavery, the slave trade, and the three-fifths compromise.

After the American Revolution, the Society for Promoting the Manumission of Slaves was headed by John Jay and Alexander Hamilton.  It purchased the freedom of persons held in bondage and founded the African Free School.  Jay and Hamilton also helped win dozens of legal cases in defense of the freedom of black New Yorkers threatened with kidnapping and being sent to the south as slaves.  In 1799, as governor, John Jay signed a gradual emancipation law providing that from July 4th of that year onward, all children born to slave parents in New York State would be free upon reaching adulthood and that the export of slaves from the state was prohibited.

Thomas Tredwell was an Anti-Federalist who opposed adoption of the United States Constitution by New York State because of its complicity with the slave system.  In 1794, Tredwell relocated his family from Suffolk County to the North Country where he emancipated the people he owned and established them as free farmers on their own land.

In an interview with George Stephanopoulos on ABC News, Representative Bachmann essentially mythologized about America’s anti-slavery past.  She argued that what was “marvelous is that in this country and under our constitution, we have the ability when we recognize that something is wrong to change it.  And that’s what we did in our country.  We changed it.  We no longer have slavery. “

The reality is that the founders, when they wrote the Constitution and created the nation, left the issue of slavery unresolved because they could not agree on the future of Africans in the United States.  John Jay, who supported adoption of the Constitution, recognized this when he wrote, “When it is considered how many of the legislators in the different States are proprietors of slaves, and what opinions and prejudices they have imbibed on the subject from their infancy, a sudden and total stop to this species of oppression is not to be expected.”

During the first decades of the nineteenth century, slavery gradually withered away in the Northern states.  However, in the South, with the growth of cotton production and expansion west, the “peculiar institution” thrived.  According to the federal census, there were fewer than one million enslaved Africans in the Southern states in 1800, but by 1860 that number had swollen to four million, despite the abolishment of the trans-Atlantic slave trade in 1808.

Unfortunately, constitutional means failed to heal the slavery divide. It took decades of struggle by free blacks in the Northern states, runaway slaves, and white abolitionist allies to promote the anti-slavery cause.  Many such as Frederick Douglass, Henry Highland Garnet, Lewis and Arthur Tappan, Gerrit Smith, and William Seward were based in New York State.  Finally an aggrieved South anxious to preserve slavery tried to secede from the union created by the Constitution and, from 1861 to 1865, the United States fought a bloody civil war that finally ended slavery.

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