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The Founding Fathers could have, and should have ended slavery, but the practice was so common throughout the world, including in the Americas, and economies so dependent upon the low-cost labor slavery provided that its abolition at that time was deemed, to borrow a quote from an entirely different era, “a bridge too far.” The struggle to reconcile the fundamental anti-democratic and inhumane practice of slavery with its institutionalization in many societies was noted by South Carolina farmer, member of the Second Continental Congress and American revolutionary Henry Laurens:
“I abhor slavery. . . In former days there was no combating the prejudices of men supported by interest; the day, I hope, is approaching when, from principles of gratitude as well as justice, every man will strive to be foremost in showing his readiness to comply with the Gold Rule.”
John Jay, one of the most important of the Founding Fathers, and one of the authors of the Federalist Papers, which continue to be used today when debating interpretations of the U.S. Constitution, similarly noted,
“Prior to the great Revolution, the great majority . . . of our people had been so long accustomed to the practice and convenience of having slaves that very few among them even doubted the propriety and rectitude of it.” [www.partyof 1776.net/p1776/fathers/JayJohn/quotes.html]
And, as any historians have pointed out, Thomas Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration of Independence condemned the practice of slavery, listing the British Crown’s “cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere . . .” The absence of this and additional references to the impropriety of slavery that were omitted from the final draft of the Declaration represent a silent testament to the difficulties these men and other faced when attempting to found a new nation truly predicated upon the principle that “all men are created equal.”
That slavery would continue to be an extremely divisive issue in the United States was certainly evident in the continued evolution of American politics during the first half of the 19th Century, as the country edged ever-closer to the civil war that would, at the cost of hundreds of thousands of dead, finally bring that abhorrent practice to an end. That the recognition of basic civil rights to American blacks would wait another 100 years, however, is the ultimate testament to the depths to which racism remains a part of mankind.
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