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Ideals and Realities
The Declaration of Independence declares that “All men are created equal.” How could the Founding Fathers own slaves?

declarationby Damon Huss

What is the reality?

Not all of the Founding Fathers owned slaves. John Adams, for example, never owned slaves. Calling it “a cancer,” he strongly opposed slavery and worked to get rid of it.

But many Founders did own slaves. As a planter in Virginia, George Washington was a slave owner. By 1761, he owned 50 slaves who had been brought in chains from Africa. In 1772, however, Washington switched from tobacco-planting to grain-farming and stopped buying slaves. The population of slaves on his plantation continued to grow. Later in life, he was troubled by slavery and wrote privately that it should be abolished. At the time of his death, he and his wife owned more than 250 slaves.

Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, was also a slave owner in Virginia. He expressed serious misgivings about the cruel institution. He inherited slaves from his father and father-in-law. In a typical year, he owned about 200 slaves. In his original draft of the Declaration of Independence, however, he added slavery to the list of grievances against King George III. Congress omitted his anti-slavery clause, which had read as follows:

He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither.

Benjamin Franklin resided in Pennsylvania and did own some slaves in his early adulthood. In his private letters, however, he condemned slavery. He also published several abolitionist pamphlets by Quakers, a Christian sect that stressed equality. Franklin became an outspoken critic of slavery after the ratification of the Constitution in 1787, when he was 81-years-old.

Today, we might be puzzled by the Founders who owned slaves. They said they were fighting for freedom, yet they ignored the plight of the thousands of slaves living among them. Many of the founders saw the contradiction, and it upset them. Many believed slavery would die out over time. It didn’t. It took the Civil War years later to end it.

The Declaration of Independence set the ideals for our nation. The abolitionists in the 19th century and the civil rights movement in the 20th century called on the country to live up to these ideals. Today our country stands much closer to these ideals.

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