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Home arrow Geography arrow The Myths That Made America : An Introduction to American Studies

Contradictions and Opposition: Black Slaves and Black Protest vs. the Founding Fathers

The simultaneous development of slavery and freedom is the central paradox of American history. [...] George Washington led Americans in battle against British oppression. Thomas Jefferson led them in declaring independence. Virginians drafted not only the Declaration, but the Constitution and its first ten amendments as well. They were all slaveholders.

Edmund S. Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom

There is a painting in Philadelphia of the men who signed it. These men are relaxed; they are enjoying the activity of thinking, the luxury of it. They have the time to examine this thing called their conscience and to act on it. They need not feel compromised because they do not need to compromise. They are wonderful to look at. Some keep their hair in an unkempt style (Jefferson, Washington), and others keep their hair well groomed (Franklin). Their clothes are pressed, their shoes polished; nothing about their appearance is shameful. Can they buy as much land as they like? Can they cross the street in a manner that they would like? Can their children cleave to their breasts until death, or until the children simply grow up and leave home? The answer is yes.

Jamaica Kincaid, “The Little Revenge”

Even if in the context of the American Revolution, ‘slavery’ often referred metaphorically to the political situation of being colonized (cf. Foner, Story 29), the continued existence of real slavery in the young republic has to be seen as one of the most glaring contradictions at the heart of the new political system created by the Founding Fathers. Despite the anti-slavery imperative of the Declaration of independence, the founding documents not only do not abolish slavery, but the Constitution ultimately affirms it by way of the Fugitive Slave Clause and further regulations concerning the representation of the slave states in the federal government (such as the Three-Fifths Compromise), which has led Paul Finkel- man in his Slavery and the Founders to refer to the Constitution as a “proslavery compact” (34); even if “the word ‘slavery’ is never mentioned in the Constitution,” “its presence was felt everywhere” (ibid). Thus, the articulations of independence, freedom, and liberty in the founding documents cast a dubious light on some of the Founding Fathers and their status as slaveholders. As mentioned previously, Jefferson, Madison, and Washington were among those Founding Fathers who owned slaves, i.e. they held human beings as property, like chattel.

Edmund Morgan has analyzed the “ordeal” of Virginia regarding its racial politics (cf. American Slavery). To be sure, many Founding Fathers (defined in a broad sense) owned slaves, including practically all of the Virginia delegates. Whereas we have little or no information about most of these slaves, individual slaves have become modestly well-known in the context of the American Revolution: these include Jefferson’s slave Sally Hemings and her brother James, both of whom accompanied Jefferson as servants to Paris (Sally was also Jefferson’s mistress); Washington’s slave and groom Henry/Harry Washington, who later escaped from slavery; Hercules, who was Washington’s chef at the White House; and James Madison’s manservant and ‘factotum’ Paul Jennings (cf. Dowling Taylor, Slave xx), who gained his freedom many years after Madison’s death with the help of then-senator Daniel Webster at the age of 48 (cf. ibid. xxi). Jennings composed what became known as the first White House memoir, in which he recounts his time in the White House with the Madisons and which has recently been reprinted in Elizabeth Dowling Taylor’s careful study of Jennings’s life and career within the larger context of politics, abolitionism, and African American culture.

It is also recorded that Harry Washington, who was born around 1740 in Africa, after repeated attempts to escape from slavery eventually managed to do so and became part of the group of black loyalists who sided with Britain in order to gain their freedom and boarded a ship to Nova Scotia; his name (along with those of many other fugitive slaves of the Founding Fathers) is recorded in the “Book of Negroes” that lists all of those who escaped to the North. Jill Lepore records Harry Washington’s path to Nova Scotia and back to Africa in 1792, where he was one of many to build a colony in Sierra Leone and thus became a founding father of sorts in his own right. By 1799, the colony was plagued by disease und unrest; after Harry Washington briefly became the leader of a group of exile rebels, he ultimately died not far from where he had been born (cf. Lepore, “Goodbye Columbus”). The histories of those black American fugitives who tried to gain their freedom at the same time yet in dramatically different ways than the American colonies have long been neglected. For many slaves, “the vaunted war for liberty was [...] a war for the perpetuation of servitude” (Schama qdt. in Davis, America’s Hidden History 159). Cassandra Pybus and Simon Schama have traced the fugitive slaves’ paths to many places, including Africa and Australia (cf. Pybus, Epic Journeys; Schama, Rough Crossings). Lepore suggests that we may want to think about those fugitives as “honorary Founding Fathers” (cf. “Goodbye Columbus”).

Hercules, Washington’s cook, was more than a mere provider of warm meals; historical sources refer to him as “a celebrated artiste” and “as highly accomplished a proficient in the culinary art as could be found in the United States” (Custis, Recollections 422). He earned money on the side by selling leftovers from his kitchen. Given the freedom to walk the city by himself, he eventually failed to return and made the black community of Philadelphia his new home. His former owner, George Washington, assumed that it would discredit him as President of the US in the North to aggressively try to recapture one of his slaves, an estimation that worked to Hercules’s advantage - he was never caught.

Singularly prominent by now is the story of Sally Hemings and her family at Jefferson’s Monticello estate. Recent scholarship, such as Annette Gordon- Reed’s study The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (2009), as well as popular cultural productions have dealt with the relationship between Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings; her descendants, proven to be indeed descendants of Jefferson by DNA tests in 1996, may now also be interred on the burying ground of the Jefferson family at Monticello. The fate of their children was already the topic of William Wells Brown’s sentimental novel Clotel, Or the President’s Daughter (1853), published in London and considered to be the first novel by an African American; Clotel, the protagonist, time and again escapes enslavement, yet ultimately cannot protect herself or her daughter, who becomes Clotel’s former white lover’s servant and commits suicide by jumping into the Potomac River near the White House, where her father had once lived. The 2012 exhibition Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty, held at the National Museum of American History (which is part of the Smithsonian Institution), detailed the lives of six slave families (among them the Hemingses) living at Monticello as slaves of Jefferson. Of all the slaves he owned, Jefferson only ever freed four: Sally Hemings, and three children he had with her.

The stories of Paul Jennings, Harry Washington, and Sally Hemings not only evidence the complicated and close relationships some of the Founding Fathers had with some of their slaves who yet did not figure in their scheme of independence and emancipation, but also what canonical historiography has ignored for a long time and what has only recently been addressed: the symbolic significance and cultural authority of the slaves’ and fugitives’ stories for creating newly foundational and anti-foundational narratives regarding the myth of the Founding Fathers. American fugitives like Harry Washington not only left America, they also disappeared from American historiography, as Jill Lepore notes (cf. “Goodbye Columbus”), and need to be put back into the picture. And Saidiya Hartman contends that whereas “assertions of free will, singularity, autonomy and consent necessarily obscure relations of power and domination,” any “genealogy of freedom, to the contrary, discloses the intimacy of liberty, domination, and subjection” (Scenes 123). Thus, a genealogy of the myth of the Founding Fathers reveals the dialectic of free and unfree, of master and slave that is at the core of that myth. The mixed-race heritage explicated by Clarence E. Walker in his study Mongrel Nation: The America Begotten by Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings (2009) renders Hemings a black founding mother, and Jefferson and Hemings “founding parents” (29) of an (albeit often unacknowledged) American “mixed-race state” (17). Of course, we must not romanticize the Jefferson-Hemings union, as it took place in a context of glaring asymmetries between a master and a slave, i.e. a person considered property and used for profit (cf. e.g. Henry Wiencek’s 2012 study The Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves). The stories of the slaves of the Founding Fathers serve to disqualify once and for all statements such as Arthur Schlesinger’s that “to deny the essentially European origins of American culture is to falsify history” (“When Ethnic” A14).

The African American revolutionary experience has often been left out of history books, from which “it would appear that the British and the Americans fought for seven years as if half a million African Americans had been magically whisked off the continent” (Nash, Forgotten Fifth 4). Important contributions to black revolutionary historiography were made by Herbert Aptheker, Benjamin Quarles, and, most recently, Gary Nash, who chronicles, among other things, the many “freedom suits” in which African American individuals sued successfully for their freedom from slavery in the courts of New England in the revolutionary era (cf. Forgotten Fifth 18), as well as the repercussions of the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) that led to Haitian independence from the French colonial empire and to the first black republic in the Americas. In particular, Nash stresses the very different conditions that black Americans faced in the revolutionary moment:

[T]he black American people, who composed one-fifth of the population, had to begin the world anew with only the rudimentary education and often with only the scantiest necessities of life. [...] They [their emerging black leaders] could not write state constitutions or transform the political system under which white revolutionaries intended to live as an independent people. But the black founding fathers embarked on a project to accomplish what is almost always part of modern revolutionary agendas - to recast the social system. (Forgotten Fifth 50)

Slavery has repeatedly been referred to as the unfinished business of the American Revolution by which a system of bondage was continued that ran counter to the ideals of liberty and freedom supposedly at the core of American independence, even as a substantial number of slave-owning Southerners freed their slaves “to the extent that one of every eight black Virginians was free by the year of Washington’s death, 1799” (ibid. 105). It has also to be noted that the Northern states, one after the other, legislated for the gradual emancipation of slaves. Northern abolition came into increasingly stark contrast with Southern slaveholding and plantation life. By 1810, 75% of all blacks in the North were free, and in 1840 virtually all of them had been emancipated (cf. Kolchin, American Slavery 81). Of course, abolition in the North did not imply racial equality, quite the contrary - free black people were subjected to racism in all matters of daily private and public life.

The paradoxes, contradictions, and (negative) dialectics in the Founding Fathers’ political vision revealed by slavery and racial inequality did not remain uncommented on by those who suffered from exclusion on the basis of race. Black protest continually addressed the grievances of disenfranchised African Americans, slaves and free, in the US, and the rise of the black press in the 19th century created new platforms for these articulations. Among the early, most vocal voices of opposition is David Walker (1785-1830), the author of David Walker’s Appeal (published in 1826), which Robert Levine considers “one of the most influential and explosive black-nationalist documents authored by an African American” (Dislocating 70). Walker was the son of a free black mother and an enslaved father; born in Wilmington, North Carolina, he apparently traveled quite a bit before he went to live in Boston in the 1820s. He was a member of the Methodist Church and an active abolitionist. In 1827, he became an agent and writer for the newly founded Freedom’s Journal. In 1829, one year before his death, he published his famous Appeal, which expresses as much anger and despair about racial hatred in the North than about the system of slavery in the South, and articulates an open attack on American society and the founders. Many in the South wanted him dead, and in fact Walker did die shortly after the publication of his Appeal under somewhat mysterious circumstances.

It is particularly Thomas Jefferson whom Walker takes to task for his views on race and for what Walker sees as his feeble attempts to justify slavery and racism; the Appeal elaborately chides him for his writings on race, African Americans, and slavery, particularly in his Notes on the State of Virginia, and offers a harsh and biting critique of Jefferson’s pseudo-scientific findings, abstractions, and generalizations concerning black people. Walker claims natural rights for African Americans - “nothing but the rights of man” (qtd. in Levine, Dislocating 66) - and repeatedly accuses slaveholders of cruelty and barbarity. Walker ends the four articles of his Appeal by quoting from the Declaration of

Independence’s list of grievances addressed to the British King, and challenges his white readers:

Do you understand your own language? [...] Compare your own language above, extracted from your Declaration of Independence, with your cruelties and murders inflicted by your cruel and unmerciful fathers and yourselves on our fathers and on us [...]. Now, Americans! I ask you candidly, was your suffering under Great Britain, one hundredth part as cruel and tyrannical as you have rendered ours under you? (75)

Walker’s strategy is twofold: on the one hand, he identifies the gap between the vision of freedom and the reality of black people in the republic in no uncertain terms; on the other hand, he uses the Declaration as a model of resistance and empowerment for African Americans by enlisting Jefferson’s revolutionary and liberatory rhetoric for his own cause (cf. Levine, Dislocating 96f.).

Clearly, David Walker is one of the more militant voices of black opposition and nationalism, particularly by early 19th-century standards. Another rhetorical masterpiece which engages the political legacy of the Founding Fathers from the perspective of a former African American slave is Frederick Douglass’s famous text “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” (1841). In this text, Douglass debunks the myth of the American founding by addressing his white audience as “you” (celebrating “your National Independence” and “your political freedom”) and as “fellow citizens” at the same time, which marks the paradox that he is invited to give a speech at an event commemorating American independence while at the same time being excluded from what is celebrated on the Fourth of July:

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy - a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour. (“What”)

The myth of American ‘independence’ crumbles under Douglass’s harsh criticism. What indeed is there to be celebrated for African Americans on July 4, 1841? For Douglass, the patriotic rhetoric of Fourth-of-July festivities mocks

African Americans in their continued plight by ’’veiling” the injustices perpetrated in the name of American independence and democracy, and he describes slavery as a singularly barbaric aspect of American exceptionalism. With Douglass, we may consider the slaveholding Founding Fathers as savages who led a nation of savages into independence on the backs of enslaved blacks who cooked their meals, groomed their horses, and took care of all aspects of their physical wellbeing. The sentimentality of the festivities appalls Douglass, who considers them hollow and hypocritical.

The texts of both Walker and Douglass thus hold the founders up to the egalitarian ideals articulated in the founding documents and present a stark contrast to the image of sober reflection and cultural refinement attached to the Founding Fathers in many representations; John Trumbull for instance certainly did not represent “savages” or “barbarians” in his painting. Yet, from the perspective of African Americans, the founding of the US with its continued tolerance of and acquiescence to the system of slavery may very well be considered a barbaric act, as it consolidated some people’s freedom at the expense of the freedom of others.

In many ways, the Emancipation Proclamation issued by President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863, has been viewed as the founding document for African Americans. The Proclamation along with the defeat of the Confederacy and the end of the Civil War is often called a “second founding” or a “re-founding” (cf. Quigley, Second Founding; Kantrowitz, “Abraham Lincoln”) with regard to the preservation of the national union, the abolition of slavery, and the granting of citizenship to blacks, whereby nearly four million people were freed from lifelong bondage. Quigley introduces the term “Second Founding” in his 2004 study and suggests that “[b]ack in 1787, America’s first founding had produced a constitution profoundly skeptical of democracy. James Madison and his coauthors in Philadelphia left undecided fundamental questions of slavery and freedom. All that would change in the 1860s and 1870s” (Second Founding ix). For many scholars “the ‘Second Founding’ marked the beginning of constitutional reforms that aimed at establishing an interracial democracy” (Twelbeck, “New Rules” 179). Much of the discourse on these efforts at reform still crystallizes in the figure of Abraham Lincoln as a symbol of integration, even if the historical accuracy of this assessment is debatable. Lincoln has been referred to as the founding father for African Americans, particularly in the context of civil rights in the 20th century. Stephen Kantrowitz even calls him “the only, the lonely founding father of the modern United States that emerged from the ashes of the civil war” also (but not only) with regard to racial politics (“Abraham Lincoln”) and also regards him as the author of a “New American Testament” (with refer?ence to Pauline Maier’s “American Scripture” metaphor for the founding documents of the 18th century; cf. her book of the same title) (ibid.).

Illustration 3: Barack Obama as Founding Father

Drew Friedman, cover ill. for The New Yorker (Jan. 26, 2009). © Conde Nast

Barack Obama has invoked Lincoln’s presidency and his legacy for African American political culture both as presidential candidate and as elected president. Like Martin Luther King and Jesse Jackson before him, Obama takes up Lincoln’s place in a collective black imagination and affirms the great role of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution passed during and after the Civil War. Obama’s 2008 speech “A

More Perfect Union” has been compared to Lincoln’s Cooper Union Speech of 1860 and his Gettysburg Address of 1863. Lincoln and Obama have also been compared because of their shared background in law and Illinois politics. Probing the visual iconography of the election of the first non-white American president, The New Yorker featured a picture of Obama on the cover dressed up like George Washington, i.e., a founding father; this anachronistic fashioning draws attention both to the perceived ‘whiteness’ of the US presidency and the Founding Fathers and to the fact that this whiteness may itself have become as anachronistic as a wig.

Within the national paradigm, the various contestations of the Founding Fathers myth discussed in this section call into question the narrow canon of (white) Founding Fathers by recognizing and reflecting upon the different roles of African Americans in the context of independence, revolution, and nationbuilding.

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