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Should we Criticize the Founding Fathers for Owning Slaves?

By Tyler Bauer

As I usually do with controversial ideas, I’ll begin this with a preface. This should be obvious, but to avoid being misunderstood, I feel the need to say the following: I don’t in any way support or condone slavery or slave owners. People are too sensitive nowadays, so I like to take the time to prevent being labeled a racist or a bigot or anything outrageous like that.

I was talking with a friend yesterday and he pointed out that, while we look up to the Founding Fathers and credit them with creating our political system, they weren’t the greatest of people. The best of our Founding Fathers were indifferent (at best) on the issue of slavery, and many of them practiced and benefitted from slavery. Some of our most notable early presidents owned slaves at some point. So, how do we deal with this conflict? How can we simultaneously acknowledge the success of our Founding Fathers while admitting their glaring faults?

I don’t mean to excuse slavery (it’s one of the worst parts of our history, after all), but every single group in history has their own shortcomings. Early Americans generally supported or were indifferent to slavery. Similarly, post-Civil War America did not respect women’s rights. Then, early-to-mid twentieth century America did not respect equal rights among different races. After that, late twentieth century and early twenty-first century America did not – and still does not in some cases – respect LGBTQ rights.

Are abolishing slavery, achieving women’s suffrage, and legalizing gay marriage all equal accomplishments? Objectively, no, they are not. Slavery is clearly worse than restricting the right to vote or the right to get married. My point is this – our society, like any other society, is constantly evolving. What our ancestors believed when it comes to slavery seems repulsive to us. Similarly, a century from now, I don’t think Americans will be able to understand how earlier generations prohibited gay marriage. Even among millennials, it can be hard to understand why gay marriage was restricted. Attitudes on issues are constantly changing.

The fact of the matter is that our Founding Fathers were products of the society in which they were born and raised. Does this excuse slavery? Of course not. However, I think we must understand that it was a central aspect of life back then. This doesn’t mean it was morally justifiable – it just means that slavery was commonplace. As Tom Woods points out, it takes no bravery to oppose slavery today. However, in 1855, opposing slavery could easily get you killed if you voiced your opinion in the wrong part of the country. So, can we fault the Founding Fathers for owning slaves? Yes, but we have to understand the broader social context in which slavery took place. They were in the vast majority. The majority isn’t always right, but it is always influential.

I think our inability to come to terms with the Founding Fathers’ use of slavery stems from how most of us were taught about our Founding Fathers in school. For example, I was taught that George Washington never told a lie. This is clearly impossible. Seriously, who among us has never told a lie? We aren’t taught to look at the Founding Fathers as humans – we’re taught to view the Founding Fathers as something other-worldly, something greater than human. On the other hand, some people are taught that the Founding Fathers were nothing more than racist slave-owners. The fact that we are taught to view the Founding Fathers as either purely good or purely evil makes it difficult, if not impossible, to understand and appreciate their legacy as a whole.

Our inability to understand the Founding Fathers’ legacy as a whole is where the title of this article comes from. If we honor our Founding Fathers in a religious-like manner because they founded our country, we can’t understand that they had faults, too. Similarly, if we despise our Founding Fathers because they were slave-owners, we can’t understand the success they had in creating our country and political system. Much like any other area of life, we have to learn to take the good with the bad, and understand that our Founding Fathers, like you and I, did both good and evil things during their lives.

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