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- Women and the Right to Vote

- Women and the Family

- Was the Founding Undemocratic? The Property Requirement for Voting

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- Immigration and the Moral Conditions of Citizenship

- Afterword: Liberals and Conservatives Abandon the Principles of the Founding


Home > Document Library > Slavery > Today’s View of the Founders on Slavery

Today’s View of the Founders on Slavery

Morison, Wood, O’Brien, Abernathy

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[Four recent denunciations of the Founders on the subject of slavery. — TGW]


[The late Samuel Eliot Morison was a famous Harvard historian. The best-selling book from which this quotation comes is still in print:]

Did Jefferson think of Negroes when he wrote, "all men are created equal"? His subsequent career indicates that he did not; that in his view Negroes were not "men."

—Morison, Oxford History of the American People (orig. pub. 1965; New York: Mentor, 1972), 1:295.

[Many regard Gordon Wood as the leading historian of the political thought of the American founding:]

What was radical about the Declaration in 1776? We know it did not mean that blacks and women were created equal to white men (although it would in time be used to justify those equalities too). It was radical in 1776 because it meant that all white men were equal.

—"Equality and Social Conflict in the American Revolution," William and Mary Quarterly 51 (1994), 707.

[Conor Cruise O’Brien is a well-known historian. This is from his book on Jefferson:]

It is accepted that the words "all men are created equal" do not, in their literal meaning, apply to women, and were not intended by the Founding Fathers (collectively) to apply to slaves. Yet it is also accepted that the expectations aroused by this formula have been a force which eventually changed the meaning of the formula, to include women and people of all races.

…The sublime principles of the Declaration did not apply to them [i.e., blacks]. They are for whites only.

The Long Affair: Thomas Jefferson and the French Revolution, 1785-1800 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 319.

[Ralph David Abernathy was a prominent black civil rights activist of the 1960s and 70s, a close associate of Martin Luther King.]

There can be no pure memory of an American Revolution that published a declaration that liberty was a right accorded to "all men" and then created a Constitution that specifically prohibited blacks from enjoying that right. The only logical conclusion that modern blacks can draw from such circumstances is that their forefathers were not regarded as "men" by the white founders of this country.

And the Walls Came Tumbling Down: An Autobiography (New York: Harper Perennial, 1990), 17.


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