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.
- The Founding Fathers and Slavery
- America’s Exceptional History of Anti-Slavery
- George Washington, Thomas Jefferson & Slavery in Virginia
- Dr. Benjamin Rush
- The American Story: The Beginnings
- Setting the Record Straight: American History in Black & White
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.”