FAQ: Founders & Slavery

The issue of slavery in America’s Founding Era was complex. Initially, many people saw slavery as a normal part of life; this perspective is acknowledged by Chief Justice John Jay, who stated that, before the War for Independence, very few “doubted the propriety and rectitude of it.”1

However, the changing attitude towards slavery was evident even before the War for Independence when several colonies passed anti-slavery laws.2 (Each of these were overturned by King George III.3) Notably, a section of the Declaration of Independence written by Thomas Jefferson criticized the king for maintaining slavery and the slave trade.4

After the Declaration of Independence, states such as Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, and New Jersey abolished slavery.5 Additionally, Virginia, in 1778, outlawed the further importation of slaves.6

Among the Founders themselves, some slave-owners, such as Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, openly spoke against slavery.7 Conversely, others were demonstrably pro-slavery.8 There were also Founders involved in abolition movements. For example, Benjamin Franklin and Benjamin Rush helped establish the first abolition society in 1774.9 Furthermore, John Jay served as president of the New York abolition society.10

Again, this was a complicated issue for Americans during the Founding Era, but the actions of many demonstrate that this reprehensible practice had much opposition among the Founders. For more information on this topic, please see these additional resources.


1 John Jay, The Correspondence and Public Papers of John Jay, ed. Henry P. Johnston (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1891), 3:342, to the English Anti-Slavery Society, June 1788.
2 W.O. Blake, The History of Slavery and the Slave Trade (Columbus: J. & H. Miller, 1858), 386; George M. Stroud, A Sketch of the Laws Relating to Slavery in the Several States of the United States of America (Philadelphia: Kimber and Sharpless, 1827), 137; Thomas F. Gordon, The History of Pennsylvania from its Discovery by Europeans to the Declaration of Independence in 1776 (Philadelphia: Carey, Lea & Carey, 1829), 554-555.
3 Benjamin Franklin, The Works of Benjamin Franklin, ed. Jared Sparks (Boston: Tappan, Whittemore, and Mason, 1839), 8:42, to Dean Woodward on April 10, 1773; Benson J. Lossing, Harpers’ Popular Cyclopaedia of United States History (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1892), 1299.
4 Thomas Jefferson, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Albert Ellery Bergh (Washington DC: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1903), 1:34, from Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration of Independence. This section was removed on the objection of two states: Thomas Jefferson, Memoir, Correspondence, and Miscellanies, ed. Thomas Jefferson Randolph (London: Colburn and Bentley, 1829), 1:16, from his Autobiography.
5 A Constitution or Frame of Government Agreed Upon by the Delegates of the People of the State of Massachusetts-Bay (Boston: Benjamin Edes and Sons, 1780), 7; An Abridgement of the Laws of Pennsylvania, ed. Collinson Read, (Philadelphia: 1801), 264-266; The Public Statute Laws of the State of Connecticut (Hartford: Hudson and Goodwin, 1808), Book I, 623-625; Rhode Island Session Laws (Providence: Wheeler, 1784), 7-8; The Constitutions of the Sixteen States (Boston: Manning and Loring, 1797), 50, New Hampshire, 1792; The Federal and State Constitutions Colonial Charters, and Other Organic Laws of the States, Territories, and Colonies Now or Heretofore Forming The United States of America, ed. Francis Newton Thorpe (Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1909), 6:3762, Vermont, 1793; Laws of the State of New York, Passed at the Twenty-Second Session, Second Meeting of the Legislature (Albany: Loring Andrew, 1798), 721-723; Laws of the State of New Jersey Compiled and Published Under the Authority of the Legislature, ed. Joseph Bloomfield (Trenton: James J. Wilson, 1811), 103-105.
6 The Statues at Large; Being A Collection of all the Laws of Virginia From the First Session of the Legislature in the Year 1619, ed. William Waller Henning (Richmond: J & G Cochran, 1821), IX:471-472, “An act for preventing the farther importation of Slaves,” October, 1778.
7 Paul Leland Haworth, George Washington: Farmer (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1915), 192; Mary V. Thompson, “The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret,” Mount Vernon, 1999; The Works of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Paul Leicester Ford (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1905), 11:417, to Edward Coles on August 25, 1814; Thomas Jefferson, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, ed. H.A. Washington (New York: Riker, Thorne, & Co., 1855), 6:378, to Thomas Cooper on September 10, 1814; Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia (Philadelphia: Mathew Carey, 1794), 236-238, “Query XVIII.”
8 See, for example, Jeffrey Crow, “Liberty to Slaves: The Black Response,” Anchor, accessed August 23, 2023; James Madison, The Writings of James Madison, ed. Gaillard Hunt (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1903), 4:267-268, “Journal of the Constitutional Convention,” August 22, 1787; The Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States, ed. Joseph Gales (Washington DC: Gales and Seaton, 1834), 1:1242-1243, February 12, 1790.
9 Constitution of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, and the Relief of Free Negroes, Unlawfully Held in Bondage. Begun in the Year 1774, and Enlarged on the 23rd of April, 1787 (Philadelphia: Joseph James, 1787), 8.
10 “Race and Antebellum New York City: The New York Manumission Society,” New York Historical Society, accessed August 23, 2023; The Works of Samuel Hopkins (Boston: Doctrinal Tract and Book Society, 1854), 2:548, Advertisement page for “A Dialogue Concerning the Slavery of the Africans.”

America’s Heroes: Robert Smalls

Robert Smalls, who lived from 1839 to 1915, was a slave in Charleston, South Carolina. He piloted steamboats along the Atlantic seaboard and earned a reputation for his exceptional navigational skills. At the outbreak of the Civil War, he was forced into naval service on a boat called the Planter, which was the flagship of Confederate General Roswell Ripley. Although Robert was the pilot of the ship, he did not hold that title since a slave in the Confederate South was not allowed to have such an important post.

One evening, the officers went ashore to attend a party. Robert and the rest of the slave crew decided this was a perfect time for their escape. The Union navy had surrounded and blockaded Charleston, so if they could get the ship safely out of the harbor and reach those Union ships, they would be free from slavery. Robert headed the ship toward the open sea. Knowing he would have to pass Confederate checkpoints along the waterway, Robert donned the Confederate captain’s clothing and hoisted the Confederate flag. Moving the ship along and blowing its usual signals, he avoided unwanted attention but still faced two major obstacles: Fort Johnson and Fort Sumter. They safely passed the first, but as they neared Sumter, the starting place of the Civil War, some of the crew, fearing the great danger they now approached, urged him to turn back.

Finish reading Robert Smalls’ biography with your purchase of  “America’s Heroes: Black History Edition.”

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America’s Heroes: Bass Reeves

Bass Reeves, who lived from 1838 to 1910, is one of the most famous lawmen of the Old West. He served in a region, that at that time, was perhaps one of the most dangerous in the country, and the story of his life is filled with fascinating events and incredible moments.

Reeves was born into slavery, and like many former slaves in his day, the details of his early life are uncertain. The best accounts report that Bass was enslaved in Texas by a man named George Reeves. One day Bass and George got into a heated argument, which ultimately led to Bass knocking his master out cold. Knowing that he would likely be killed or at least brutally punished for what he had done, Bass fled across the Texas border to the wild and rugged Indian Territory, which would later become Oklahoma.

Few were inclined to pursue anyone into that Territory, not only because of the direct danger from Native Americans but also because of the countless outlaws and bandits who lived there. The Territory had little organized justice, so for years criminals from across the nation fled there to be safely beyond the reach of the law. Bass, fleeing from the injustice of slavery, did the same. He became friends with the Cherokee, Creek, and Seminole tribes. During his time there, he learned much about that wild and dangerous region, something which would be very valuable to him later.

Finish reading Bass Reeve’s biography with your purchase of “America’s Heroes: Black History Edition.”

If you would like to read more biographies like this, please visit WallBuilders’ store! And be sure to share this link with others!


America’s Heroes: “Stagecoach” Mary Fields


“Stagecoach” Mary Fields lived from 1832 to 1914 and embodied the American Old West qualities of hard work, toughness, and faith.

Born into slavery in Tennessee, she was enslaved by a pro-slavery Unionist Democrat, Judge Edmund Dunne. He traveled the country extensively throughout his life. He moved from New York to Tennessee, became a California legislator, served as a Chief Justice of the Arizona Territory, a member of the convention that wrote the original constitution of Nevada, and he helped found a Catholic colony in Florida. Judge Dunne’s activities literally carried him from coast to coast.

After slavery ended with the passage of the 13th Amendment, Mary was freed but chose to continue living with the Dunne family. When the judge’s wife died in 1883, Mary took the judge’s five children to his sister, Mother Amadeus, a nun who headed a convent in Toledo, Ohio. The following year, Mother Amadeus was sent to Cascade, Montana, to start a school for Native American girls alongside a school for the Blackfeet Tribe run by Jesuit priests. When Mother Amadeus became deathly ill, Mary hurried to Montana to nurse her back to health.

Finish reading Mary Field’s biography with your purchase of “America’s Heroes: Black History Edition.”

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America’s Heroes: James Armistead Lafayette

James Armistead, who lived from 1748 to 1830, played an integral role in the American War for Independence and became an influential black patriot behind America’s most important victory in the War. For more than two centuries, Americans have celebrated him as a hero.

James was a slave owned by William Armistead on a farm near Richmond, Virginia. During the War for Independence, William became a military supply officer for the Continental Army and James accompanied him. In the latter stages of the War, both personally witnessed the vicious and brutal attack on their friends and neighbors in Richmond led by British General Benedict Arnold.

In the early part of the War, Arnold was an American general and a military hero from the Battle of Saratoga, the first major American victory in the Revolution. But Arnold’s wife and family supported the British, and Arnold was arrogant and wanted more recognition than he was receiving, so he became a traitor and defected to the British. They made him a general and he subsequently led a number of battles against the Americans.

In 1781, late in the War, Arnold led a surprise attack on Richmond. He had the British troops burn the city, ransack private homes, and loot personal valuables.

Finish reading James Armistead Lafayette’s biography with your purchase of “America’s Heroes: Black History Edition.”

If you would like to read more biographies like this, please visit WallBuilders’ store! And be sure to share this link with others!


Early Black Members of the US Congress

Born a slave in North Carolina in 1825, the “fair” education Benjamin Turner1 received was more than most slaves. Turner, who had helped manage his owner’s hotel and stable, had enough of his own money to purchase property in Selma, Alabama around the time the Civil War started. When the town was captured during the war, much of the city was burned leaving Turner with $8,000 in damages as the result. Turner’s elected positions included: tax collector (1869), councilman for Selma (1869), and US Congress (1871-1873). After his Congressional term, Turner2 returned to business pursuits and ran a farm until his death in 1894.

Josiah Walls3 was born into slavery in Virginia in 1842. He was a private servant to a Confederate soldier until he was emancipated by Union soldiers in 1862. Walls received some education before he decided to serve with the Union Army from 1863-1865. After his wartime service, he lived in Florida and used his earnings from working as a teacher to buy a farm. His elected positions included: state senator (1869-1872, 1876-1879) and US Congress (1871-January 1873; March 1873-1875 & 1875-1876). Walls4 returned to his farm after his political career ended and later ran the farm for Florida Normal College (now Florida A&M) until his death in 1905.

 Jefferson Long5, born a slave in Georgia in 1836, was self-educated and ran his own successful tailoring business. Long worked to promote literacy/education opportunities for blacks in Georgia after the Civil War and was known as a great orator. He became the second black American elected to the House of Representatives, and though he only served for 3 months (January-March 1871) Long was the first black representative to speak on the House floor. Long6 went back to his tailoring shop after his time in Congress and opened other businesses before his death in 1901.

It’s important for all of us to learn more about other black history heroes7 to keep alive the memory of these American heroes!

1 “Turner, Benjamin Sterling,” United States House of Representatives.
2 “Turner, Benjamin Sterling,” Biographical Directory of the United States Congress.
3 “Walls, Josiah Thomas,” United States House of Representatives.
4 “Walls, Josiah Thomas,” Biographical Directory of the United States Congress.
5 “Long, Jefferson Franklin,” United States House of Representatives.
6 “Long, Jefferson Franklin,” Biographical Directory of the United States Congress.
7 “Black History Resources,” WallBuilders.

Presidents Day: A Brief History

In the 1800s, February 22 was annually celebrated as George Washington’s Birthday in many localities throughout the new American nation. An official federal holiday recognizing this day, however, was not declared until 1879.

Black hero Lemuel Haynes has an interesting tie to Washington’s Birthday celebrations. Haynes was a Minuteman in the War for Independence and participated in the expedition against Fort Ticonderoga. After he became a minister in 1785, he preached for both all-white and mixed congregations. About 40 years after his participation in the War, Haynes preached a sermon on Washington’s Birthday, noting:

Perhaps it is not ostentatious [bragging] in the speaker to observe that in early life he devoted all for the sake of freedom and independence, and endured frequent campaigns in their defense, and has never viewed the sacrifice too great.

In 1968, a Congressional Act was passed that moved the celebration of Washington’s Birthday to the third Monday in February. This holiday is now called Presidents Day and celebrates all of America’s presidents.

If You Care About Black Lives—End Abortion

In the midst of all the passion, division, and activism, there should be at least one central premise that every American can agree on—that life matters. But increasingly the truth is becoming clear that only certain lives matter. Specifically speaking, leftist activist group “Black Lives Matter” says one thing but then works to destroy the lives of thousands of black people.

For example, on the BLM “What we Believe” page they claim to be:

Guided by the fact that all Black lives matter, regardless of actual or perceived sexual identity, gender identity, gender expression, economic status, ability, disability, religious beliefs or disbeliefs, immigration status, or location (emphasis added).[i]

In every location, that is, except the womb.

Since nearly the beginning of the organization, BLM has associated themselves with anti-life groups, while in the same breath ironically declaring that, “our lives are at stake.”[ii] One co-founders of BLM explained that, “we certainly understand that BLM and reproductive justice go hand in hand.”[iii]

Calling abortion “reproductive justice” cannot hide the fact that for every successful abortion there is a victim whose life apparently didn’t matter enough. Such double-speak only attempts to deflect the attention away from the ideological hypocrisy rampant in the organization.

Overall in America, there were 862,000 babies killed by abortion in 2017, which means an average of 2,362 a day.[iv] Statistically, in 2016 (the most recent year for which data exists), 38% of abortions were by black women.[v] Thus, an estimated 898 black babies die every single day, and as many as 327,560 per year.

To expand our inquiry even further, there have been over 60,000,000 abortions since Roe v. Wade in 1973.[vi] Just how many millions of black children didn’t matter? Certainly more than the total number of slaves ever brought from Africa. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that in New York a higher percentage of black babies are aborted than born.[vii] This is an odd kind of justice.

Paradoxically, the main group claiming to champion black lives supports those institutions that kill more black people daily than the police have killed—whether justified or not—in the last three years combined.[viii] Comparatively, a black person is 1,187 times more likely to never be born than they are to be killed by a police officer.[ix] Historically speaking, it takes abortion clinics less than four days to kill more black people than all of the Jim Crow lynchings combined.[x]

So, do black lives really matter? I believe they do, and that is why we must abolish abortion.

[i] “What We Believe,” Black Lives Matter (accessed June 19, 2020), here.

[ii] “Black Lives Matter Partners With Reproductive Justice Groups to Fight for Black Women,” Color Lines (February 9, 2016), accessed June 19, 2020, here.

[iii] “Black Lives Matter Partners With Reproductive Justice Groups to Fight for Black Women,” Color Lines (February 9, 2016), accessed June 19, 2020, here.

[iv] “The U.S. Abortion Rate Continues to Drop: Once Again, State Abortion Restrictions Are Not the Main Driver,” Guttmacher Institute (September 18, 2019), accessed June 19, 2020, here.

[v] “Abortion Surveillance — United States, 2016,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (November 29, 2019), accessed June 19, 2020, here.

[vi] “The State of Abortion in the United States,” National Right to Life Committee (January 18, 2018), accessed June 19, 2020, here.

[vii] “Abortion Reporting: New York City (2016),” Charlotte Lozier Institute (December 19, 2018), accessed June 19, 2020, here.

[viii] “National Trends,” Mapping Police Violence (accessed June 19, 2020), here. More specifically there were 783 black Americans killed by police in both justified and unjustified situations in the years, 2017 (276), 2018 (248), and 2019 (259).

[ix] Comparing the numbers from 2017

[x] “History of Lynching,” NAACP (accessed June 19, 2020), here.

Early Black Political Leaders

The first black US Senator was Hiram Rhodes Revels. Revels (1827-1901) attended a seminary in Indiana before becoming a preacher in 1845. He was jailed in 1854 for preaching to slaves in St. Louis, even though he “sedulously refrained from doing anything that would incite slaves to run away from their masters.” During the Civil War, he helped in recruiting two black regiments and also served as a chaplain. Revels was in the Senate for a partial term, from February 1870 to March 1871, and spent the remainder of his life serving various religious and educational offices.

Blanche Kelso Bruce was the first black US Senator to serve a full term in office. Bruce (1841-1898) was born into slavery but fled to Kansas during the Civil War where he attempted to enlist. His enlistment was refused and he taught school for a time before moving to Mississippi where he was elected to various local political offices in the early 1870s. Bruce took his seat in the US Senate in 1875 and served until 1881, in this role he championed the rights of black war veterans and Native Americans. He was also the first black person to preside over a Senate session on February 14, 1879. Bruce spent the remainder of his life after the Senate in various other political offices.

Joseph Hayne Rainey was the first black person to serve in the US House of Representatives. Rainey (1832-1887) was born into slavery but his father was able to purchase freedom for his family. Rainey worked as a barber before being pressed into service by the Confederacy during the Civil War; in 1862 he escaped to Bermuda where he remained until the end of the war. He was a delegate to the 1868 South Carolina state constitutional convention. Rainey was elected to the US House of Representatives where he served from 1870-1879. He also has the distinction of being the first black person to preside over the House of Representatives in 1874.

We encourage you to take some time to learn more about these men and other black history heroes!

Lemuel Haynes

July 18th marks the anniversary of the birth of Lemuel Haynes in 1753. Most Americans probably don’t know who this man was, but his is a story definitely worth noting!

Lemuel Haynes was a black American, abandoned at five months old by his parents and hired as an indentured servant. During his years of service, he was treated well and given the opportunity to attend school — a rare experience for blacks in that day. Haynes showed a talent for preaching from a young age and was frequently called on to give sermons and to proofread the sermons of others.

When his term of indenture ended, he enlisted as a Minuteman in the American War for Independence and participated in the siege of Boston and the expedition against Fort Ticonderoga. Decades later, while giving a sermon in his church celebrating George Washington’s birthday, he recounted his own service:

Perhaps it is not ostentatious [bragging] in the speaker to observe that in early life he devoted all for the sake of freedom and independence, and endured frequent campaigns in their defense, and has never viewed the sacrifice too great.

It was in 1785 that he became an ordained minister. During his decades of service as a pastor, as a black American he led churches that were all-white and some that were mixed (whites and blacks worshiping together — a circumstance many are unaware existed in America). He was a remarkable pastor and leader, and his churches experienced revival and growth — evidenced by an 1803 letter he penned:

Not a day nor night in a week but people would crowd to meetings. The great inquiry among the youth and others was, “What shall we do to be saved?” Children of eleven and twelve years of age seemed to be more engaged about religion than they were before about their play. The minds of the people in general were attentive. My house has been often thronged with people who desired to discourse about religion…Thus it has pleased the Lord to do wonders among us, to the praise of His glorious grace.

In 1804, Lemuel received an honorary Masters degree from Middlebury College — the first black man to receive a degree of higher education in America. (One of the amazing items in WallBuilders’ collection is a Bible handbook signed by Lemuel Haynes.)

Lemuel Haynes died in 1833, leaving behind a legacy of sacrificial service for both God and country. This American hero deserves to be remembered today!


*Originally published: January 30, 2020.