There is no question that the Declaration of Independence’s statement that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” was not immediately realized in the final draft of the Constitution of the United States. One can argue that, consequently, there did exist a contradiction between these documents’ assertions and the realities that existed in the decades following their adoption. I would argue, however, that such an assertion gives short shrift to the depth of divisions among citizens of the newly established country regarding the issue of slavery and the extent of the struggle by abolitionists among the country’s founders to both forge a new nation and resolve that the practice of slavery was antithetical to the nascent nation’s ideals.
As students of American history know, the issue of slavery was the single most contentious debated during the country’s founding. Serious geographical, cultural, and economic differences existed between the northern and southern halves of the republic. The South, of course, was an agrarian society heavily dependent upon slavery as a source of labor. Southern politicians and wealthy plantation owners fought tenaciously to preserve the right to own slaves, and Northern politicians decided that their higher immediate priority—independence and the forging of a viable nation-state—would have to be subordinated, at least temporarily, to the South’s demand for the right to continue the practice of slavery. Easy resolution of that issue was, of course, elusive, and the issue was ultimately decided by the outcome of the Civil War.
That some of the Founding Fathers were slave-owners has tarnished their image among many Americans. Clearly, such a record is a blight on one’s historical record. At the same time, it is interesting that even many of these slave-owners, particularly Benjamin Franklin, understood that the institution of slavery was anachronistic and destined to go away (though this does not excuse their participation in the institution). The division between North and South, however, was borne of the bitter differences between regions regarding the future of slavery, and the country’s histories of both slavery and institutionalized segregation marked a distinct and unfortunate contradiction between ideals and practice—a phenomenon that we would see repeated in the issue of women's suffrage.