In the alcove across from the Slack Special Collections is a group of busts that represent three of the most important figures from the American Revolution. Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson all contributed talent and vision to the founding of the United States. All of these men struggled with the radical assertion “that all men are created equal”. In putting this aim to work, these Founding Fathers would be challenged by the carry-over of the heritage of slavery into the life of the new republic.
Benjamin Franklin (1705-1790) was a Pennsylvanian and one of the drafters of the Declaration of Independence. As an inventor, printer, diplomat, and scientist, he stood at the cutting-edge of the intellectual tempo of his times. As a young man he owned slaves, and carried advertisements for their sale in his newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette. Later in life, he turned against the institution publishing numerous pamphlets against slavery and condemning its practice in his private correspondence. After the failure of the Constitution Convention to debate slavery, Franklin remained outspoken as one of the more committed anti-slavery voices among the Founding Fathers.
George Washington (1732-1799) was the commanding general of the Continental Army and the first President of the United States. He was a Virginian born into a prominent family where slavery was deeply rooted. His estate at Mount Vernon was home to hundreds of enslaved men, woman, and children. Throughout his life, Washington’s estate was the source of his prosperity and he stayed committed to the social system that made it possible. As president, he remained silent on the issue of slavery fearing that it had the potential to tear the nation apart. In his later years, Washington harbored private doubts about the viability of slavery and was even willing in his will to grant freedom to a percentage of the Mount Vernon slaves at the death of his wife.
Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) was the principle author of the Declaration of Independence and the third President of the United States. Like Washington, Jefferson was a Virginian born into a landed family with close ties to the institution of slavery. His estate at Monticello was a fully functional plantation that depended on the labor of enslaved people. His involvement with slavery even extended to an African American branch of his family that arose from his long-term relationship with his house slave Sally Hemings. In an ethical sense, Jefferson had deep concerns about slavery calling it a “moral depravity” and “hideous blot”. As a practical matter, however, he found it impossible to separate himself from the institution. He had a great fear of the chaos that might arise from outright abolition, and by confronting slavery “we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go”.
Any reflection on the lives of these men must be based on a firm understanding that history reveals ourselves in all our virtues and vices. To grow, learn, and heal, we must recognize the monumental contribution of our founding fathers, and simultaneously acknowledge their involvement with slavery. We must strive for an accurate account of our past that understands that many Founding Fathers held slaves and grew both their personal wealth and much of the wealth of the nation on the labor of enslaved people. When we do this, we move closer to the truth with an understanding that nuance and complexity only open up a richer appreciation of our collective past.Information provided by:
|Prof. Jolene Powell||Prof. Joe Straw|
|McCoy Professor of Art Director, Gallery 310 Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Coordinator||Legacy Library Reference & Instruction Librarian|