The other side of liberty
At the very moment they were in Philadelphia declaring that all men are created equal, many of America's Founding Fathers were slave owners. Activists are now demanding a fuller accounting at democracy's birthplace.
(Page 2 of 4)
Indeed, the Constitution Center aims to celebrate "the struggles of generations to realize the promise" of that revered document, says research director Stephen Frank.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Its exhibits and multimedia presentations address not just Colonial history, but the Civil War, the civil rights movement, and various ways that citizens today can make a difference. The center will also incorporate artifacts from its own building site - including evidence of enslaved African and native American populations. Excavated in 2001, the site is considered the richest trove of Colonial American artifacts ever found in an urban area.
The center's presentations relating to slavery, Mr. Frank says, reflect the most recent scholarship.
That body of scholarship - on everything from the economic impact of slavery to antislavery sentiment at the time of the revolution - has been building for decades, gradually correcting longstanding mistaken notions.
Prior to World War II, for instance, it was widely believed that slavery had not been profitable, says Barbara Solow, an economic historian retired from Boston University. Americans held to images of Pilgrims landing and intrepid frontiersmen pushing West, while largely ignoring the economic underpinnings of plantation slavery.
But in recent decades, historians have shown that slavery provided the primary financial support of the Colonies and the United States in its first 50 years, she says. "If you look at what was moving across the Atlantic [during the Colonial period], it was either slaves, the products of slaves, supplies to sustain slaves, or things bought with the earnings of slave labor. Seventy-five percent of Colonial New England's exports went to the Caribbean to support the slave system."
From 1807 to 1865, adds Harvard economic historian Sven Beckert, "the center of our economy was cotton," and both North and South profited.
"The old history separated 'American capitalism' and 'democracy' from 'slavery.' " Dr. Beckert says. "In the 'new history,' the three are organically connected."
Much of this scholarship is not yet widely appreciated outside the realm of economic historians themselves, Solow says. But it is getting more attention, especially from advocates of the slavery-reparations movement.
Nash agrees that only in this generation have historians come to accept the idea that "Slavery allowed there to be liberty.... There could not have been as much liberty as the colonists gained had there not been enslavement of a fifth of the population."
But that's not to say there wasn't strong opposition to slavery at the time. It arose alongside colonists' arguments against the tyranny of Britain. "The paradox became part of the whole Revolutionary discourse," Nash says.
That's why he rejects the argument that a politically correct move is under way to impose 21st-century values on 18th-century individuals. It's simply a matter of acknowledging that the Founding Fathers embodied contradictions, he and others say.
Of the 55 Constitutional Convention delegates, 25 owned slaves. At one time Benjamin Franklin owned a total of five slaves, but it's not clear if any were still serving him at the time of the convention, Nash says. By 1787, Franklin was president of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, but he declined to read a statement condemning slavery at the convention. There were two main obstacles to people like Franklin using their moral capital to eliminate slavery, Nash says: the question of how to compensate slave owners for the slaves they regarded as their property, and the concerns that black and white people would not be able to live together peaceably on equal footing.
As this scholarship pushes its way into the public consciousness, it makes some people uneasy. "Public history is very difficult," Price says, "because [it] acknowledges two often-contradictory threads.... It acknowledges heritage, what people want to remember - and we want to remember George Washington as a good guy, as the founder of the republic. Yet historical scholarship shows that as a member of [the planter aristocracy] he behaved a certain way. How much light do you shed on that? [This] is what makes the Philadelphia project controversial."