Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Paradox of the American Revolution

We've talked at length on this blog about the issue of slavery. In fact, some of our best discussions have focused on this topic. As we all know, slavery is often a very heated subject in both the historical community and the general public. Needless to say, opinions and beliefs of the historical community differ over the issue of how slavery impacted the American Revolution. I'm sure we have all read historians who argue that the institution of slavery is damning to the legacy of the Founding Fathers. At the same time, we all know of writers that address the slavery issue as nothing more than an unfortunate fact of life in colonial America.

I bring this up because I believe that slavery is one of the most important issues of the American Revolution. How we choose to reckon slavery and the American Revolution is not only important, but also imperative to the historiography of early America. As most of you know by now, I tend to take a centrist view on most political and historical issues. For me, slavery is an undeniable black eye that will forever plague early American society. Their inability to effectively address the issue is the most obvious error of their generation. At the same time, however, I am forced to recognize that these Founding Fathers were, in the end, human. We would be foolish to expect perfection of them. Every society and generation has their proverbial skeletons in the closet. It would not be a stretch, for instance, to imagine future generations condemning us for allowing poverty, genocide or global warming.

Our Founding Fathers were exceptional individuals, who would stand out in almost any era of history. Their endeavors to establish a sovereign republic, where the voice of the people rules supreme is undeniably the foundation upon which we currently stand. We cannot discard all the good that they gave the world simply because they owned slaves. At the same time, we cannot give the Founders (or any slaveholders for that matter) a free pass simply because they were brilliant statesmen. In essence, the slavery issue becomes the great paradox of the American Revolution.

Keeping this in mind, I would invite you to read the following article from the Avenging Our Ancestors Coalition. The article attempts to give a quasi-condemnation of George Washington for his owning of slaves. Though I personally believe that the article has an obvious bias, I decided to post it here in the hopes that it might stir further discussion on the issue.

Here are a few segments from the article that I found most surprising. Even though this article singles George Washington out in particular, these same attacks are often leveled against every single slaveowner:

Although he personally cannot be held responsible for the institution of slavery in America, he personally — as president of the Constitutional Convention and president of the United States of America — can be held responsible for condoning, hence encouraging, slavery. He can be held so responsible because he enslaved Black human beings and because he refused to use his considerable political power to condemn slavery during his presidency of the convention and of the country...

The problem is that much of his money was earned from his investment in the slave economy and some of it specifically from the slave trade. In other words, his wealth, to a significant extent, was blood money earned literally from the blood, sweat, and tears of enslaved Africans and their enslaved descendants.


Lindsey Shuman said...

First off, I disliked what the article from the very beginning, but I can see why you posted it. We would all do well to remember that the slavery issue is still a very hot issue for a number of people. I felt that the article (as you put it) was completely biased against Washington.

As far as slavery goes (and I don't wish to drone on about issues that we've already addresses), I feel that we should continue to give emphasis to further research and understanding into the role slavery played in early America. After all, 1/5 of the population did a tremendous amout of work that is often forgotten. As historians, we need to give the subaltern (in this case the slaves) a voice. For too long we've been trying to understand Black history from the perspective and sources of white colonials. I'm glad to see that this is changing.

I think your title says it all. Slavery is THE paradox of not only the American Revolution, but of the Civil War and other eras of history.

Lindsey Shuman said...

I would also like to add something about the article. Virtually everything it says about Washington and slavery is true. Yes, Washington owned slaves. Yes, he profited from them. Yes, he did little to end the institution. I will not refute those claims because, for the most part, they are right on the money.

I do want to reiterate something Gary Nash stated about the Founders and slavery (and of course I am paraphrasing here). He stated that one's ownership of slaves was both a blessing and a curse during the Revolution. Slave owners (whether or not they admitted it) had a very strong awareness that what they were doing was wrong (at least most of them did). Since most of them were born into families that owned slaves, they were forced into a difficult predicament (what Brad has called the "paradox" of the Revolution). The fact that the founders even addresses the possible abolition of slavery during the revolution is evidence that their intentions were headed in the right place. The fact that slavery remained, however, is evidence that they failed in their endeavors for equality.

Brian Tubbs said...

We've talked about the Founders overall and slavery at length here, so I'll follow the article's lead and focus squarely on George Washington.

In my opinion...

1) George Washington should be held up as a hero by all corners of our society, in spite of his being a slave owner.

2) While we should acknowledge Washington's ties with slavery, it is wrong to define his entire legacy around slavery. There are OTHER important aspects to Washington's life, such as his refusal to seize power after the Revolution, his courageous and clever performance at Newburgh, and his walking away from power again after two terms as President. That's just to name a few.

3) George Washington did more to contribute to the demise of slavery than many people give him credit. GW understood that his every move and word was HEAVILY scrutinized, and so he was very cautious and temperate in just about every public stand he took - including his support of the Constitution and later Hamilton's economic programs. He was very guarded and cautious, and his later-life position on slavery (including his last will and testament) should be seen in this light.

Steve Becknall said...

I finally get to join a good debate in progress!

When it comes to slavery, I agree that we should give it the attention it deserves. I also think (as does Brian) that to judge a person based exclusively on the negative is foolish. To judge the founders by the measuring stick of slavery negates too many of the good things that they did, which are worth embracing.

There is a flip-side to this coin, however. We cannot exclusively judge somebody by the good that they've done. It is imerative that we remember the imperfections as well.

This article, though clearly a one-sided view of Washington, does give us a sample of the slavery problem that surrounds so many of our early Americans. It is a stain that will never be washed away. I want to argue here that I think this stain is a good thing. It not only humanizes the Founders, but it allows us to learn from past mistakes (by the way, isn't this one of the most important reasons for studying history). Believe me, people will be ripping our generation apart for things that we may not even be aware of. Who knows, maybe future generations will see democracy as a horrible idea, because it is likely that humans will one day discover a better way of governing.

So in conclusion, I believe we should not only remember the faults of our past Founders (in this case regarding slavery), but I think we should embrace them. Who cares if these men (or women) were less than perfect. That is what makes them exciting. Let's endeavor to learn from their bad mistakes, but also never forget to embrace their successes.

David Mabry said...

Okay, my late two cwnts worth. I have a new approach argument. The Founing Fathers could not solve the two issues at once. We needed to create a government that would hold this disparate collection of states together, or try to abolish slavery. After studying the revolutionary era and particularly the Constitutional Covention, I will confidently say that they could not do both. The issue of slavery was purposely postponed for another generation to tackle. The question of slcvary was not going to be solved by the Founding generation. Be as indignant as you want, but the simple fact was that slavery was accepted by many as a natural order, by others as an economic necessiey and by the last group as an unwanted necessary evil to invent a republic. I am not urposely ignoring the voices of the Quaker abolitionists or other like minded folk, but they were shouting in the wind at that time.

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