The Founding Fathers Were Not Racist

George Washington

“I can only say that there is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it [slavery].”

“I never mean to possess another slave by purchase; it being among my first wishes to see some plan adopted by the Legislature, by which slavery in this Country may be abolished by slow, sure and imperceptible degrees.”

“It is demonstratively clear, that on this Estate [Mount Vernon] I have more working Negroes by a full moiety, than can be employed to any advantage in the farming system….To sell the overplus I cannot, because I am principled against this kind of traffic in the human species. To hire them out, is almost as bad, because they could not be disposed of in families to any advantage, and to disperse the families I have an aversion.”

“I have another motive that ‘is indeed more powerful than all the rest, namely to liberate a certain species of property which I possess…”

Thomas Jefferson

“Sir,—I have received the favor of your letter of August 17th, and with it the volume you were so kind to send me on the ‘Literature of Negroes.’ Be assured that no person living wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a complete refutation of the doubts I have myself entertained and expressed on the grade of understanding allotted to them by nature, and to find that in this respect they are on a par with ourselves. My doubts were the result of personal observation on the limited sphere of my own State, where the opportunity for the development of their genius were not favorable and those of exercising it still less so. I expressed them therefore with great hesitation; but whatever be their degree of talent it is no measure of their rights. Because Sir Isaac Newton was superior to others in understanding, he was not therefore lord of the person or property of others. On this subject they are gaining daily in the opinions of nations, and hopeful advances are making toward their re-establishment on an equal footing with the other colors of the human family. I pray you therefore to accept my thanks for the many instances you have enabled me to observe of respectable intelligence in that race of men, which cannot fail to have effect in hastening the day of their relief; and to be assured of the sentiments of high and just esteem and consideration which I tender to yourself with all sincerity.”

(Letter of February 25, 1809 from Thomas Jefferson to French author Monsieur Gregoire, from The Writings of Thomas Jefferson (H. A. Worthington, ed.), Volume V, p. 429. Citation and quote from Morris Kominsky, The Hoaxers, pp. 110–111.)

“I congratulate, you fellow citizens, on the approach of the period at which you may interpose your authority constitutionally to withdraw the citizens of the United States from all further participation in those violations of human rights which have been so long continued on the unoffending inhabitants of Africa, and which the morality, the reputation, and the best interests of our country have long been eager to proscribe.” ( Fred L. Israel and J. F. Watts, Thomas Jefferson’s recommendation to end the African slave trade (1806)2000, pg 38)

“Nobody wishes more ardently to see an abolition, not only of the trade, but of the condition of slavery; and certainly, nobody will be more willing to encounter every sacrifice for that object.” –Thomas Jefferson to Brissot de Warville, ME 6:428

“Do not mistake me. I am not advocating slavery. I am not justifying the wrongs we have committed on a foreign people… On the contrary, there is nothing I would not sacrifice to a practicable plan of abolishing every vestige of this moral and political depravity.” –Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Cooper, ME 14:184 (

“Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free.” (Autobiography, 1821)

James Madison

“We have seen the mere distinction of colour made in the most enlightened period of time, a ground of the most oppressive dominion ever exercised by man over man.” (Constitutional Convention, June 1787)

“[The Convention] thought it wrong to admit in the Constitution the idea that there could be property in men.” (Records of the Convention, August 25, 1787)

American citizens are instrumental in carrying on a traffic in enslaved Africans, equally in violation of the laws of humanity and in defiance of those of their own country. The same just and benevolent motives which produced interdiction in force against this criminal conduct will doubtless be felt by Congress in devising further means of suppressing the evil. (State of the Union,1810)

Patrick Henry

“I believe a time will come when an opportunity will be offered to abolish this lamentable evil.” (letter to Robert Pleasants, January 18, 1773)

John Adams

“Every measure of prudence, therefore, ought to be assumed for the eventual total extirpation of slavery from the United States … I have, throughout my whole life, held the practice of slavery in … abhorrence.” (letter to Robert Evans, June 8, 1819)

John Jay

“It is much to be wished that slavery may be abolished. The honour of the States, as well as justice and humanity, in my opinion, loudly call upon them to emancipate these unhappy people. To contend for our own liberty, and to deny that blessing to others, involves an inconsistency not to be excused.” (letter to R. Lushington, March 15, 1786)

William Livingston

“I would most ardently wish to become a member of it [the society in New York] and… I can safely promise them that neither my tongue, nor my pen, nor purse shall be wanting to promote the abolition of what to me appears so inconsistent with humanity and Christianity… May the great and the equal Father of the human race, who has expressly declared His abhorrence of oppression, and that He is no respecter of persons, succeed a design so laudably calculated to undo the heavy burdens, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke.”

Charles Carroll

“[W]hy keep alive the question of slavery? It is admitted by all to be a great evil.” (New York and London: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1898, Vol. II, pg. 231.)

James Wilson

“Slavery, or an absolute and unlimited power in the master over life and fortune of the slave, is unauthorized by the common law… The reasons which we sometimes see assigned for the origin and the continuance of slavery appear, when examined to the bottom, to be built upon a false foundation. In the enjoyment of their persons and of their property, the common law protects all.” (The Works of James Wilson, Robert Green McCloskey, editor (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1967), Vol. II, pg. 605.)

Alexander Hamilton

“The existence of slavery makes us fancy many things that are founded neither in reason or experience.” (

Benjamin Franklin

“Slavery is such an atrocious debasement of human nature, that its very extirpation, if not performed with solicitous care, may sometimes open a source of serious evils.” (An Address to the Public, November 1789)

3 Responses to The Founding Fathers Were Not Racist

  1. Eric Kuha says:

    Re-Thomas Jefferson. Yes, he was pretty racist. He definitely believed that black people were inferior. When Benjamin Banneker sent him a copy of his brilliant almanac, Jefferson just said, (and I’m paraphrasing), “Well, you’re exceptional. You’re going to have to supply a lot more evidence to convince me that black people are as smart as white people.”

    So…Yeah. I think you’re equating being in favor of abolition with being in favor of equality. The vast majority of the men cited here are not talking about black people being equal. They are talking about slavery as an institution. With the possible exception of Ben Franklin, I think that almost all of these men are deeply racist men.

  2. briankorale says:

    Hi Eric,

    Thanks for starting the debate– I think it is a worthy topic to debate since there are several points on both sides.

    For example- Jefferson owned slaves…but he clearly wasn’t against abolition of slavery. Although you may contend that Jefferson didn’t whole-heartedly agree with Banneker, in Jefferson’s reply to Banneker, he espoused his belief that black people had talents and abilities they were not able to develop because they were enslaved- a statement which seems anti-racist to me. Jefferson also added that he hoped with time Black people would receive better treatment.

    We need to make a distinction when discussing Jefferson’s view on the topic blacks’ “equality,” – There is the question of “equality” of rights, ie abolition- a question that you seemed to concede in my favor, that is, that the founding fathers were not against abolition of slavery. Then there is the separate question of “equality” of ability (education, refinement, skill, etc.) – that is where you seem to contend that Jefferson believed the blacks were inferior to whites. In this respect, Jefferson’s own words clearly contradict that notion: “no body wishes more than I do to see such proofs as you exhibit, that nature has given to our black brethren, talents equal to those of the other colours of me”

    The worst that can be said of Thomas Jefferson in this respect is that he believed that Blacks were capable of much more than they were presently exhibiting- I think that’s something everyone could agree with.

    Interestingly, Banneker himself said of Jefferson in his letter to Jefferson: “you are measurably friendly, and well disposed towards us ; and…you are willing and ready to lend your aid and assistance to our relief, from those many distresses, and numerous calamities, to which we are reduced.”

    Finally, to be fair, we ought to read Jefferson’s letter to Banneker in context:

    Jefferson’s response to Banneker
    Philadelphia Aug. 30. 1791.

    I thank you sincerely for your letter of the 19th. instant and for the Almanac it contained. no body wishes more than I do to see such proofs as you exhibit, that nature has given to our black brethren, talents equal to those of the other colours of men, & that the appearance of a want of them is owing merely to the degraded condition of their existence both in Africa & America. I can add with truth that no body wishes more ardently to see a good system commenced for raising the condition both of their body & mind to what it ought to be, as fast as the imbecillity of their present existence, and other circumstance which cannot be neglected, will admit. I have taken the liberty of sending your almanac to Monsieur de Condorcet, Secretary of the Academy of sciences at Paris, and member of the Philanthropic society because I considered it as a document to which your whole colour had a right for their justification against the doubts which have been entertained of them. I am with great esteem, Sir, Your most obedt. humble servt. Th. Jefferson”

    Here is another quote from Jefferson that I think may help us better understand why he himself owned slaves, and how he felt about those slaves:

    “My opinion has ever been that, until more can be done for them, we should endeavor, with those whom fortune has thrown on our hands, to feed and clothe them well, protect them from all ill usage, require such reasonable labor only as is performed voluntarily by freemen, & be led by no repugnancies to abdicate them, and our duties to them. The laws do not permit us to turn them loose, if that were for their good: and to commute them for other property is to commit them to those whose usage of them we cannot control.”

    To re-emphasize my point that the founding fathers were not racist:

    “In Lincoln’s famous 1860 Cooper Union speech, he noted that of the 39 framers of the Constitution, 22 had voted on the question of banning slavery in the new territories. Twenty of the 22 voted to ban it, while another one of the Constitution’s framers–George Washington–signed into law legislation enforcing the Northwest Ordinance that banned slavery in the Northwest Territories. At Cooper Union, Lincoln also quoted Thomas Jefferson, who had argued in favor of Virginia emancipation: ‘It is still in our power to direct the process of emancipation….peaceably, and in such slow degrees, as that the evil will wear off insensibly….'”

  3. Eli says:

    This is very true. George Washington also wished well on a young black poet.

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