The slaves who freed our Founders

Observing the passage of another Independence Day, Frederick Douglass famously asked a patriotic crowd in Rochester, N.Y., a century and a half ago, to consider "what, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?" His intent was to get prideful white citizens to ponder the limits of their country's freedom from another's point of view.

In the view of slaves, the abolitionist said, "Your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass-fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy - a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages."

Douglass cherished the aims of our revolution, but his focus was on its shortfalls. He insisted on reminding white Americans of the cost of their freedom, and the currencies our Founding Fathers used to purchase it. Take Thomas Jefferson, whom we credit with penning the glorious words of the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal...." He had the luxury of time free from physical toil to contemplate our nation's future because enslaved Africans were working his fields.

Or consider James Madison, whom we call "father of our Constitution." An enslaved man named Moses ran an ironworks on Madison's Virginia plantation, turning out everything from nails to farm implements that were sold to neighboring planters to accumulate cash that helped pay Madison's tuition to the College of New Jersey (now known as Princeton), where he studied the strengths and weaknesses of ancient republics - lessons he would weave together to form our democracy.

When Madison rode north to Philadelphia in the spring of 1780 to attend the Continental Congress, an enslaved man known as Billey accompanied him. Serving as Madison's manservant in what was then the nation's capital, Billey soaked up the talk of freedom and natural rights. He would have heard lively and eloquent endorsements of equality everywhere - in the rooming houses where Madison and his colleagues bunked, and among the large community of Philadelphia's free blacks.

By the time Madison was ready to turn south again toward his family's Montpelier plantation, he found that Billey was "too thoroughly tainted to be a fit companion for fellow slaves in Virginia." Nearly four years of breathing the air of freedom had spoiled Billey for bondage. Fearing he would contaminate other slaves with his spirited memories, Madison decided to sell Billey. As Madison wrote to his father, however, he couldn't blame Billey "merely for coveting that liberty for which we have paid the price of so much blood, and have proclaimed so often to be right, and worthy the pursuit, of every human being."

But neither was Madison prepared to forfeit the capital that Billey embodied by freeing him outright. So Madison struck a compromise between ethics and economics - a stance that has been all too common in our nation ever since. He arranged to sell Billey in Philadelphia, where he knew that Quaker-inspired law determined he be set free within seven years. (In freedom, Billey took the name William Gardner, and worked as a merchant seaman and shipping agent.)

This year marks the 250th anniversary of Madison's birth, and many celebrations have been organized to pay homage to his genius for statecraft and his dedication to our nation. But African-American citizens of Orange County, Va., home to Madison's Montpelier estate, have determined that it is also an appropriate time to finally begin to recognize the crucial role that enslaved Africans and their descendants played in founding our country. I am talking about the people who cleared so much of the wilderness and worked the land, whose dreams were dashed as our nation took shape, who laid the foundations - literally and figuratively - for our temples of democracy.

Descendants of the Madison family's enslaved workers came together recently at Montpelier to imagine what the unwritten chapters of our history might say, were their ancestors included in our image of the past. They took a tour of the mansion from an enslaved house servant's point of view, to get an idea of the kind and quality of work invested in Dolley Madison's reputation as a world-class hostess. And they watched a historical interpreter go through some of the skilled motions of Moses the ironworker. They considered the untold contributions of our African-American forebears - and how their enslavement set our founders free.

Frederick Douglass said that "Americans are remarkably familiar with all facts in their own favor... [and] we have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and the future." But, he scolded: "You have no right to enjoy a child's share in the labor of your fathers, unless your children are to be blest by your labors."

There is work still to be done. Too many shameful legacies of slavery endure. The revolution is not finished. Let that be our cry in this week of independence.

Mary Ann French is coordinator of the Montpelier Slave Commemoration and an officer of the Orange County African-American Historical Society.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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