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.

When visitors alight from their tour buses for Friday's opening of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, they'll be celebrating Independence Day in a place where the story of American freedom is anything but simple.

The center is part of the 45-acre Independence National Historical Park, where ongoing revitalization plans are a flash point for fierce debates over whose truth is being told, and how.

The symbolic fault lines can be found just beneath the soil. Under the bus drop-off area, for instance, lies the historic homesite of James Dexter, a former slave who cofounded The Free African Society in 1787. The site would have been paved over with no exploration, if not for a concerted drive by local African-American activists.

Now that it has been excavated and commemorated in an exhibit, the site can put into context to a more familiar event of 1787 - the Constitutional Convention. Delegates met three blocks from Dexter's home, at what is now known as Independence Hall, to hammer out the terms of the new nation - including counting each slave as three-fifths of a person and extending the slave trade for the next 20 years.

Although disputes continue to bubble up, many historians, activists, and park officials say this juncture is a unique opportunity to examine the paradoxes at the country's very foundation. While popular history often relegates slavery to the shadows when celebrating the Founding Fathers, now its inextricable links to the economic and political beginnings of the United States are being brought to light.

"It will challenge old ideas [for people to see that] America's most-agreed-upon 'birthplace of freedom' was 'complicated' by slavery - that is something that Americans need to know," says Clement Alexander Price, a history professor at Rutgers University, and a consultant to the park service on the site where Presidents George Washington and John Adams lived and governed.

"Liberty for some Americans came at the price of enslavement for other Americans," he says. "The 1790s was a very critical period, because it was the first decade of the new republic, and at end of it, the country had pretty much decided that it was not going to deal with slavery."

Some activists say decisionmakers today are still not dealing adequately with the slavery issue - and they worry that, with over $100 million of federal money being poured into the park's revitalization, this key opportunity might be squandered. At the time of publication, two groups were planning demonstrations: a candlelight memorial walk Wednesday to Philadelphia sites where Africans were sold as slaves; and a "Black Independence Day" Thursday on Independence Mall, to "free" the stories of African ancestors.

For their part, representatives of the Constitution Center (an independent nonprofit organization) and the park say they've never had any intention of shying away from slavery and other complexities of early American history.

Central to that story are the slavery compromises at the Constitutional Convention (see story), which left a mixed legacy of prosperity and victimization, unity and civil war, treasured diversity and modern-day racism. Efforts to portray that legacy are often caught between two camps: those who say there's not enough truth-telling about racial injustice, and those who say that a patriotic view of the Founding Fathers will be unnecessarily sullied by dwelling too much on slavery.

"There are lots of people who think that kids will not want to be American if they learn [about slavery and] genocide against Indians," says Gary Nash, a historian at the University of California, Los Angeles, who has done extensive research on Colonial Pennsylvania and has advocated for greater representation of African-American history at Independence Park. But for the most part, he adds, "Americans do not think that it is unpatriotic to talk about our blemishes."

The saving grace in Philadelphia may be that the story of the African-American experience there is not just a story of slavery, but also of "free" blacks and their crucial role in establishing black churches, the Underground Railroad, and other key institutions.

"The best way to shed light on the juxtaposition of freedom and slavery," Professor Price says, "is to point to the fact that as more Americans of African ancestry were gaining their freedom during and after the American Revolution, they put a very high premium on freedom - hence enhancing the meaning of freedom in a society that still had not made up its mind as to how free or how enslaved it was going to be."

Indeed, the Constitution Center aims to celebrate "the struggles of generations to realize the promise" of that revered document, says research director Stephen Frank.

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.

Slavery was the economic engine

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.

George Washington as 'a good guy'

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."

But Philadelphia isn't the first place such issues have surfaced at popular historical sites. In 1999, Colonial Williamsburg incorporated new research on slavery into a yearlong series of reenactments. In 2000, the National Park Service began teaching about the role of blacks at Revolutionary War sites. That same year, US Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D) of Illinois succeeded in adding a provision to an appropriations bill directing that Civil War battlefield sites incorporate information about slavery.

Despite such moves, many people believe that the tragedy of slavery, if not ignored outright, is often watered down.

In Philadelphia, groups such as the Avenging the Ancestors Coalition (ATAC) have staged protests and sponsored petitions to try to ensure that doesn't happen at Independence Mall sites.

Their concerns were sparked when they discovered that the new Liberty Bell Center opening this fall would have its entryway right where local historians believe the slave quarters were in Washington's house. (The mansion was also home of the executive branch of the government from 1790 to 1800, though when Adams lived there, he did not keep slaves. It was torn down in the 1830s.)

Prompted by new research by historian Edward Lawler, activists lobbied for telling more fully the stories of the enslaved Africans in Washington's house. Washington had more than 100 slaves at Mount Vernon, Va. When he moved to Philadelphia, he brought eight of them, including two who later escaped at separate times: a woman named Oney Judge and the renowned household chef, Hercules.

In response to activists, the Park Service brought in Price as a consultant last year. The Liberty Bell Center design was already far along, but was changed to include more about slavery.

Then in January, the conceptual design for the adjacent President's House site was presented at a community meeting. Pavers in the ground would outline the homesite and slave quarters, and a scene would be etched in glass depicting the interaction of the white and black members of the household. A curving, 15-ft. wall would include a timeline of slavery on one side and of the free black community on the other. And in breaks in the wall, large sculptures would honor the contributions of African-American tradesmen (whether enslaved or free) to the building of the country. The estimated cost: $4.5 million.

At the time, people questioned whether money for such an ambitious project would come through. The park is waiting to hear about funding requests. Others at the meeting suggested that the process had been paternalistic and should start over using black designers and architects.

Price is African-American, but he upset people at the meeting when he characterized George Washington as a benevolent slaveholder. Later, in a phone interview, he said records show that slaves themselves made such distinctions between owners. "I was unprepared for the rage, which makes [some black activists] want to see slavery as an institution with no gradations," he says.

The struggle continues

Talks have yielded some results, but "it is obvious to us our full history does not get represented without struggle," Michael Coard, an African-American lawyer here and an ATAC spokesman, said in a phone interview. The struggle continues, he says, because they were promised four more meetings this spring with the Park Service that have yet to materialize. Hence the Black Independence Day demonstration his group plans to stage Thursday.

Even the idea of calling Independence Mall the birthplace of democracy should be challenged, says Philadelphia talk-show host Reggie Bryant, reached by phone. "There's a certain falsity about the whole concept." He is involved with the local group Generations Unlimited, sponsor of the candlelight memorial walk. Their intent is to mark "a trail of blood and tears," Mr. Bryant says, and to offer a contrast to the celebratory "bombs bursting in air" on the Fourth of July.

Park officials say they plan to continue soliciting a wide range of input. "There's a way you can tell an accurate and full story without ignoring anybody's voice," says Phil Sheridan, Park Service spokesman. "[The display] won't be a condemnation of George Washington, but it also won't deny that he did have slaves."

Some members of the local black community see great potential in the $137.5 million Constitution Center and the Independence Mall proposals.

Take the Rev. Jeffrey Leath of Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, just a few blocks from the mall. He was a point person for efforts to do more with the Dexter homesite.

Mr. Leath says it was "a triumph of reason" when the center decided to excavate the site in February. He anticipates discussion forums that will deepen people's understanding of Philadelphia's complex story.

"At first, the mall projects may be a little less of a tribute to what our nation was and more a place of what we can become," he says. "I have a lot of hope, but this is not a completed task."

The Liberty Bell's link to abolition

How did the bell that rang out in Philadelphia at the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence come to be called the "Liberty Bell"?

If you think we have the Founding Fathers to thank for that moniker, think again. The famous bell didn't get its name until about 50 years later, when abolitionists in Philadelphia were pushing to end slavery. They dubbed it the Liberty Bell because of the inscription it bears from the Bible (Leviticus 25:10): "Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof."

The National Park Service, which has charge of the bell, has long made that story known. But it has not addressed what the abolitionists were fighting against. With urging from historians and members of the local African-American community, officials altered plans for the new Liberty Bell Center, set to open in October. Now it will present a fuller picture of slavery and other aspects of American history that color the notion of liberty.

The bell is "a symbol for liberty attained, in some cases, but in others, liberty not yet achieved," says Park Service spokesman Phil Sheridan.

Some activists say they are still lobbying to include information about a former Speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly, Isaac Norris, who commissioned the bell in 1751. They want to point out the irony that he was involved in the slave trade.

Despite such unresolved issues, "a highly triumphal scenario has been replaced by a much more realistic and balanced presentation of the Liberty Bell and its long history," says Gary Nash, a Colonial historian who has participated in community discussions with the National Park Service.

The Constitution and compromise

One-fifth of the population was enslaved in 1787, when delegates met in Philadelphia to draft the US Constitution. In Southern states, that ratio was 1 in 3. Delegates who wanted to eliminate slavery bowed to those who wanted to keep it, in exchange for forming a strong central government.

The so-called slavery compromise of the Constitution consisted of three parts:

• The three-fifths clause. Article I, Section 2 didn't use the word "slaves," but in outlining how to number the population for purposes of congressional representation and taxation, it counts "free Persons ... and ... three-fifths of all other persons."

• The extension of slavery. Article I, Section 9 prohibited Congress from outlawing the slave trade before 1808. It did allow a $10 per-person tax to be "imposed on such Importation."

• The fugitive-slave clause. Article IV, Section 2 required that runaways be returned to their owners, even if captured in a state that had abolished slavery.

"In effect, the delegates were endorsing slavery when they refused to pass a motion condemning the institution," writes Yale historian Robert Johnston in "The Making of America."

Because slave traders had only a 20-year window, they picked up the pace, says Ira Berlin, a historian at the University of Maryland. Between 1787 and 1808, when Congress outlawed the importation of slaves, 25,000 Africans were brought forcibly to the United States, he says.

The results were devastating for generations of people of African ancestry in America, including those who were free. "One little-known tragedy is that ... by the 1820s, Northern states that were free of slavery rewrote their Constitutions to strip rights away from people of color," says Prof. Gary Nash of the University of California, Los Angeles. "The compromise gave them 'permission' for racism and was indeed the bitter harvest of the Founding Fathers."

Without this compromise, observers note, there would have been no union. But the country paid a high price with the Civil War, when 600,000 died. Bridging the black-white divide the compromise perpetuated is still an unfinished project.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to The other side of liberty
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today