Leading Founding Fathers’ Views on Equality and Freedom

Throughout the beginning of the 17th century, the “system in which people are treated as property and can be bought and sold with no chance of being free from their owner,” also known as slavery, spread throughout America. Specifically, it spread through the British colonies significantly (Newman, Jason). African Americans were brought to the Americas to work on plantations where the conditions were too harsh for white men. American colonists saw the benefits in the free labor. The demand for slaves skyrocketed,and soon slaves were sold all over the British colonies. However, the Northern colonies, over time, started to see no economic benefit from slavery. Throughout the mid 17th century the leaders of the colonies had differing views on slavery, but most delegates agreed that they needed freedom from their mother country, Great Britain. The delegates then set out to write the Declaration of Independence.

In this document, written by Thomas Jefferson, the delegates stated; “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.” (The Declaration of Independence) Though Jefferson wrote this, he did not fully believe it. In fact, Jefferson was not alone, George Washington and other major delegates, had similar viewpoints. Specifically, Washington and Jefferson were two of the leading Founding Fathers throughout the early stages of America’s History. Washington and Jefferson both showed hypocrisy towards slaves throughout their lives. Although they said that all men are created equal in the Declaration of Independence, slaves were not treated the same as whites. Both put their lives on the line for their freedom but held others captive at the same time. Later on, Jefferson wrote that he suspected African Americans were inferior to whites (Jefferson, Thomas). In the late 1780s, the first Constitutional Convention took place in America. The colonists had just fought a long and hard war to earn their freedom from the British crown. As a result, the colonies had to create a government for everyone to agree on. In the beginning, the delegates from the colonies agreed on the Articles of Confederation. The Articles of Confederation placed very little power into the hands of the Congress.

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Under the Articles of Confederation, the colonies worked more like individual states than one country. To solve this the delegates met in September 1787 in Philadelphia, at the second Constitutional Convention. At the second Constitutional Convention, the main goal was to create a government that allowed the people to participate, but not to the point that there was no government because they controlled it too much. Two of the most known people at the Convention were George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence and George Washington was the leading General of the Continental Army during the American Revolution, so they were both well-known leaders. At the Constitutional Convention, the delegates discussed many matters; one being slavery. Though the delegates were discussing the future of the African Americans there were no slaves/ African Americans present to represent themselves. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both put their lives in jeopardy and on the line by supporting the American Revolution. As major leaders of the Revolution, they put their lives in more on the line than the average citizen. While both of these men were determined to win their freedom from their ‘master,’ they did not do anything about the fact that their slaves might want freedom from their master. Both men considered the fact that slavery was a crime, but neither did anything tremendous about it except in their wills. Even though Thomas Jefferson and George Washington assumed that eventually, the country would break over slavery, they did not do much to prevent that. They did this for selfish reasons. They needed to make money, and slave labor was the easiest way to do so. The consequences that followed this were Civil War and the separation of America for many years.

George Washington was the leader of the Continental Army during the American Revolution. He fought for his liberty and wanted to be free from Great Britain because he felt like he was being controlled. While he was fighting for his freedom he was controlling the 317 slaves that lived at Mount Vernon. Even though he did very little during his lifetime, he freed all the slaves that were owned by him in his will. Washington stated in his will that “Upon the decease of my wife, it is my Will & desire that all the Slaves which I hold in my own right, shall receive their freedom… it not being in my power, under the tenure by which the Dower Negros are held, to manumit them.” This was a tremendous step that Washington took, but he did not do much, though he did do some, for his slaves during his lifetime. Billy Lee was George Washington’s personal assistant. Lee was one of the slaves that Washington bought from Mary Lee. Billy Lee accompanied Washington everywhere and served with Washington during the American Revolution. In Yorktown, after the British had surrendered, Billy Lee witnessed George Washington’s last action. George Washington made sure to collect “ twenty-year-old Lucy and eighteen-year-old Ester, along with fifteen other runaways who had left Mount Vernon” (Davis, Kenneth). Washington saw to that some of his runaways from his farm were there. He made sure to collect them because they were worth money, money that he could not lose. Washington also did very little while he was alive because of the economic loss as well.

If he were to free his slaves he would lose hundreds of dollars, because those slaves would be worth money. He also then would not only lose that money but lose the labor that ran his farms. His farms could not function without the slaves, therefore; he did very little while he was alive, other than the writing his will. Thomas Jefferson was well- known because of his role of writing the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson wrote the words “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” (The Declaration of Independence). Though he wrote this he owned over one hundred slaves. He did not treat them equally and took the rights “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness,” (The Declaration of Independence) away from his slaves. According to the delegates and himself, these rights could not be taken away, and if they were, the people having these rights taken away had the right to rebel. Jefferson had many different views on slavery. While he did hold over one hundred slaves, he called slavery a “moral depravity and a hideous blot” (The Declaration of Independence). He only ended up freeing seven people through his life and will. He released two slaves while he was alive and then released five more people in his will. Thomas Jefferson was in debt most of his life, and the remaining slaves at Monticello were sold to pay off his debt after his death. Thomas Jefferson, like Washington, could not do anything about the fact that he needed to make money. The slaves allowed him to make money off of the cash crops he was growing. Though he did keep most of his slaves and then sell them, he did continually write about the wrongs of slavery. The government that he offered to the Congress for the Western Territory abolished slavery in that territory.

Though he did write and think about the wrongs of slavery, he never did much about it in the sense of releasing slaves. The man that wrote that all men are created equal, also wrote later that he considered African Americans to be inferior to the White race. These men also declared all men have certain ‘unalienable’ rights. Among these rights are the rights of “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness,” (The Declaration of Independence). Common actions in slavery went against each and every one of those ‘unalienable’ rights. As slave owners, these men took these rights away from their slaves. Even though they said that these rights could not be taken away, this did not apply to slaves. The slaves were used to create America’s wealth. Within the first years of America being a country, most of the money that the government gained was from cash crops. This is how America became as rich as it did. In the end, the money did help America as a whole, though slavery as a whole destroyed America for a short period of time. George Washington worked his plantation slaves extremely hard and for a long time like many other slave owners. “Mount Vernon’s enslaved community usually worked a six-day week, with Sunday generally being the day off for everyone on the plantation. On a daily basis, in addition to their day’s work, the enslaved had their own housekeeping work such as tending chickens and garden plots, cooking, preserving the produce of gardens, and caring for clothing.”(George Washington’s Mount Vernon). The delegates and George Washington stated that Life was one of the rights that could not be taken away. The slaves’ figurative lives were taken away from them, and some of the slaves actually lost their lives. The slaves had no freedom. If you don’t have the freedom to make your own choices, then your life isn’t your life.

Liberty was the second fundamental right. The slaves were not free, therefore; they did not have liberty. Their liberty was taken from then the second they got captured in Africa. Lastly, the pursuit of happiness. The slaves were held in bondage and were forced to do things all day long If they disobeyed there were differing consequences. A person that has zero freedom will most likely not be happy where they are, especially if they knew freedom before they were taken into bondage. Thomas Jefferson was known to write articles, letters, etc., about how horrendous slavery was, and how it would destroy the newborn nation. Thomas Jefferson realized this, but he did nothing about it. Throughout his lifetime, he only freed seven slaves, two while he was alive and five in his will (Jefferson’s Monticello). This impacted the rest of history because the issue just continued to grow over the years and the hate continued to grow as well.

Thomas Jefferson throughout his lifetime had conflicting views on slavery. Though he called it a “moral depravity and a hideous blot,”(Jefferson, Thomas) he also continued to hold many slaves. He did very little to back up the fact that he thought that slavery was a horrible thing. Jefferson had to make money to continue to be as rich as he was and therefore, found it impossible to make enough money without slave labor. Jefferson later stated that he assumed that African Americans were inferior to white people. He never fully backed up either of his opposing conflicts. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson had fought a long and hard war to bring an end to the tyranny that controlled them. Yet, while doing this they allowed the atrocious act known as slavery spread throughout the South and continue to grow by feeding into it. Both men owned slaves but unlike many other slave owners, they treated their slaves with more kindness than the norm. Washington and Jefferson felt as if their hands were tied because they knew that the United States needed the economic benefits that came from slave labor. While these men managed to defend their freedom, they fell short when protecting others’ rights that were different from them. Two of the most outstanding people in America’s history, showed hypocrisy when it came to African Americans. Though George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and the other colonists had won the war against the tyranny that controlled them, they allowed slavery to continue, causing lots of problems throughout the rest of history.

Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were two of the leading founding fathers, but while they wrote and stated that all men are equal and have rights that cannot be taken away, they thought that African Americans were less in worth than them, and took rights from those people. Both men considered freedom to be worth their lives but took freedom away from their slaves. Even though Thomas Jefferson wrote articles about the fact that slavery was a horrendous thing, he never did much about it, in fear of his money and reputation. The delegates were afraid of breaking the fragile newborn country, so they did not address slavery to the extent that they could have. Ignoring the event eventually led to the Civil War, greater discrimination, prejudice, and impacted hundreds of lives. Though the delegates thought they could not do anything about the topic of slavery, it was because of the fact that they wanted the personal gain that came with slave labor. Their choices had consequences that impacted the rest of American History.

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Leading Founding Fathers’ Views on Equality and Freedom. (2021, Dec 22). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/leading-founding-fathers-views-on-equality-and-freedom/