Guest Essayist: Julie Silverbrook, Executive Director of The Constitutional Sources Project

George Washington, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison on Slavery

Historian William Freehling has famously said, “[i[f men were evaluated in terms of dreams rather than deeds everyone would concede the antislavery credentials of the Founding Fathers.”[i] While the Founding generation unquestionably aspired to create a nation founded on universal freedom, the challenges of creating a nation, maintaining a profitable economy — both personally and nationally, and overcoming personal prejudices made that dream a distant reality.

The overriding interest in 1787 was the creation of a stable and unified American Republic. In order to ensure that Georgia, South Carolina, and other southern states agreed to the 1787 Federal Constitution, the text provided explicit safeguards for the institution of slavery — including the three-fifths clause, fugitive slave clause, and the slave trade clause. These clauses, seen as essential compromises in 1787, would later cause abolitionist Frederick Douglass to remark that the Constitution was “thus marked with blood, and stained with pollution[.]”[ii]

George Washington: The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret

“The unfortunate condition of the persons, whose labour in part I employed, has been the only unavoidable subject of regret. To make the Adults among them as easy and as comfortable in their circumstances as their actual state of ignorance and improvidence would admit; and to lay the foundation to prepare the rising generation for a destiny different from that in which they were born; afforded some satisfaction to my mind, and could not I hoped be displeasing to the justice of the Creator.” — George Washington[iii]

Douglass was not alone in his dismay over the slavery clauses in the Constitution. George Washington would later lament that his participation in the maintenance of the institution of slavery was his “only unavoidable subject of regret.” Despite these later feelings of remorse, slavery was always an intricate part of Washington’s life.  Like other Virginia planters, he lived with and off of the labor of slaves. For Washington, particularly in his earlier years, slave ownership was almost certainly viewed as a commercial enterprise. Washington became a slave owner at age 11 when he inherited 10 or 11 slaves as a result of his father’s untimely death.[iv] At the time of his own death in 1799, there were approximately 316 slaves working on Washington’s estate at Mount Vernon.

Although a slave-owner, Washington did have a reputation as a comparatively kind and humane master.[v]  Indeed, Washington frequently referred to his slaves as part of his family; as human beings rather than mere property, Washington also expressed concern about slave families and so began recognizing the validity of slave marriages and other personal relationships. Washington also disliked the practice of splitting up slaves who had established personal and familial ties, and did what he could to keep his slaves together.[vi]

Heavily influenced by the rhetoric of the American Revolution, George Washington became increasingly critical of the institution of slavery. While his growing opposition to slavery was genuine, almost all of his anti-slavery remarks were expressed in private correspondences or conversations.[vii] Washington never took a public stance against slavery or called for its end.[viii]

Although we cannot know for sure, it seems that Washington’s reticence to take a public stance on the eradication of chattel slavery was based on his overarching desire to create and maintain a united American republic. He feared that an early attack on the institution would destroy the nation before it could be properly and fully established.[ix]

Despite a lack of contemporary public remarks on the subject, Washington did leave a powerful parting note for posterity. In his last will and testament, he freed all of his personal slaves. By law, he could not free those slaves belonging to his wife and her family’s estate. Ultimately, Martha Washington did free the Custis slaves prior to her death — although not for purely altruistic reasons. Her husband, however, showed great courage and kindness in his final statement on slavery — providing not only for the emancipation of his personal slaves but also for their education, clothing, and daily food provisions.[x]

John Adams: A Massachusetts Man who Never Owned a Slave

Unlike the President he served under, slavery never figured prominently into the greater part of John Adams’s life. John and Abigail never used slaves in their household or on their farm. John would later recall with great pride that he resisted the temptation of slave labor, even when most of New England society accepted the practice.[xi]

Because slavery was not a major part of Adams’s daily life, it would not be until 1819, when the slavery issue erupted as a result of Missouri’s application for admission to the union, that Adams would begin to significantly question the issue of chattel slavery. During this time, Adams began corresponding with family and friends about the perils of the institution.[xii]

In particular, Adams feared that slavery would disrupt the unity of the country by exacerbating long-standing sectional divisions. He warned that America’s enemies, including the recently defeated British, would attempt to exploit these divisions by encouraging slave revolts. Adams predicted that a widespread insurrection of black slaves against white slave-owners would not only threaten the union but would also tempt slave-owners to seek the extermination of slaves.[xiii] Either catastrophic scenario was unpalatable to Adams — both practically and morally.

Although to Adams these apprehensions were as real as his desire for the “eventual extirpation” of slavery, our nation’s second president favored no precipitate action. Adams advocated for a slow and careful emancipation — one that allowed for due regard of the effects on southern slaveholders. While Adams acted cautiously in the realm of emancipation, he allowed for no equivocation on his stance against slavery’s expansion. He stood firmly against the admission of slavery into Missouri and the other western territories.[xiv]

Adams concerns over slavery and its expansion would ultimately impact the views of his son John Quincy Adams, who would later become one of the most eloquent and powerful voices of the abolition movement.

Benjamin Franklin: From Slave Owner to Abolitionist

Like his colleague John Adams, Benjamin Franklin was less concerned with slavery than were his southern counterparts. In 1750, the slave population of Pennsylvania was a mere 8 percent, compared to 60 percent in a state like South Carolina.[xv]  Unlike Adams, however, Franklin did, in fact, participate in the slave trade. Franklin sold slaves for other owners and bought them from time to time as an investment.  Franklin also kept slaves for domestic use.[xvi]

Franklin first indicated anti-slavery sentiment in 1751 in his essay Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind. Here, slavery was first attacked from an economic standpoint: “Reckon then the Interest of the first Purchase of a Slave, . . . . Expences in his sickness and Loss of Time, . . . . Expence of a Driver to keep him at Work, and his Pilfering from Time to Time, almost every Slave being by Nature a Thief, and . . . you will see that Labour is much cheaper there [in England] than it ever can be by Negroes here.”[xvii] Franklin also objected to slavery on the ground that “[s]laves also pejorate the Families that use them; the white Children become proud, disgusted with labour, and being educated in Idleness, are rendered unfit to get a Living by Industry.”[xviii]

While Franklin’s views counseled against the use of slave labor, his observations were not based on the notion of universal freedom or even on humanitarian concerns for slaves. Indeed, like most of his contemporaries, Franklin viewed black slaves as racially inferior. In his economic argument against slavery, he stated that slaves were “by nature” thieves. He also wrote, “Why should we in the sight of Superior Beings, darken its People? Why increase the Sons of Africa. . . .?”[xix]

Franklin’s views on slavery and racial inferiority began to change, however, as he continued to interact with abolitionists and humanitarians in Pennsylvania and London. Some of his most influential interactions were with those who participated in Britain’s most respected philanthropic society, the Associates of Dr. Bray. Bray’s Associates hoped to inculcate Christian behavior in slaves through formal education. In promoting the mission of Bray’s Associates, Franklin helped establish separate schools for blacks in the colonies. Through his association in this philanthropic effort, Franklin grew to respect the black individuals he interacted with and began to contribute to improving their welfare.[xx]

Writing to John Waring in 1758, Franklin remarked that he “was on the whole much pleas’d and from what I then saw, have conceiv’d a higher Opinion of the natural Capacities of the black Race than I had ever before entertained.”[xxi]

Franklin’s new views were expressed in several of his writings. In the 1796 edition of his Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, the last paragraph, quoted above, which clearly stated Franklin’s racial preference, was omitted in its entirety. He also revised his original statement that every slave is a thief “by Nature,” instead suggesting that slaves are made thieves “from the nature of [the institution] of slavery.”[xxii]

As Franklin aged, he became more involved in the abolition movement, eventually becoming the president of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society. In the last years of his life, he published a number of anti-slavery documents, including A Plan for Improving the Condition of the Free Blacks, and a memorial to Congress entreating it to abolish the slave trade.[xxiii]  At the time of his death, Franklin had come a long way since his slave trading and holding days. Like many Americans, his view on the institution of slavery evolved as he spent more time exploring the philosophical underpinnings of liberty and interacting with black persons in America.

Alexander Hamilton: A Man for Manumission

Unlike Benjamin Franklin, whose views on slavery evolved over time, Alexander Hamilton was a strong and early opponent of slavery — although, he devoted most of his energy to the immediate task of nation-building. Hamilton was a founding member of the New York Manumission Society, an organization founded to promote the abolition of slavery. The Society’s founding charter contained broad statements of universal freedom and humanitarian principles. The preamble, for instance, stated:

“The benevolent Creator and Father of Men having given to them all, an equal Right to Life, Liberty, and Property; no Sovereign Power, on Earth, can justly deprive them of either; but in Conformity to impartial Government and laws to which they have expressly or tacitly consented.”[xxiv]

The charter later went on to say:

“It is our Duty, therefore, both as free citizens and Christians, not only to regard, with compassion and Injustice done to those, among us, who are held as Slaves, but to endeavor by lawful ways and means, to enable them to Share, equally with us, in that civil and religious Liberty with which an indulgent Providence has blessed these States. . . .”[xxv]

Hamilton, with his tremendous intellectual talent, became a natural leader in the organization, chairing important committees, including one tasked with making recommendations for the Society’s code of conduct. Hamilton and his committee proposed that members undertake a gradual emancipation of their personal slaves — freeing their oldest slaves immediately and their youngest ones by the age of 35. The proposal did not pass, but in 1809, the society denied membership to anyone owning slaves.[xxvi]

Hamilton remained an active member of the Society throughout his life, and became its second president. The Society actively pressed state legislatures to allow for the gradual emancipation of slaves. Hamilton was also involved in the drafting of a petition to end the slave trade, which was described in the petition as “a commerce so repugnant to humanity, and so inconsistent with the liberality and justice which should distinguish a free and enlightened people.”[xxvii] In 1787, the year the Constitution was drafted, the society opened the doors of the African Free School in New York City to educate black children. The school had the imprimatur of a distinguished group of founding-era statesmen, including Hamilton, John Jay, James Duane, Melancton Smith, Robert Troup, and Noah Webster.[xxviii]

It is not entirely clear whether or not Hamilton himself owned slaves. Historian Forrest McDonald argues that there is no credible evidence to suggest that Hamilton was slave-owner. Despite his strong anti-slavery credentials, Hamilton was also concerned with the rights of property owners and was deeply committed to preserving the union at all costs.[xxix]

As such, he considered the Constitution’s slavery clauses as the “result of the spirit of accommodation, which governed the Convention; and without its indulgence, no union could possibly have been formed.” He did, however, caveat this statement by adding that “[i]t will however by no means be admitted, that slaves are considered altogether as property. They are men, though degraded to the condition of slavery.”[xxx]

While continuing to support the work of the New York Manumission Society, Hamilton also began to establish an institutional framework capable of providing a viable economic alternative to slavery. The solution, in Hamilton’s mind, was a transition to an industrial economy. In truth, Hamilton viewed an industrial economy as a panacea for many of America’s early ailments, but he also believed the commercial ethos of industrialization would put an end to the system of slave labor.[xxxi]

James Madison: A Conflicted Champion of Liberty

In contrast to the cosmopolitan abolitionist views of Alexander Hamilton were the more provincial and locally contingent views of James Madison. In the Southern culture that Madison was raised in, slavery was viewed as an integral part of the Southern economy. When Madison was only eight years old, his grandmother gifted him his first slave, Jemmy. Madison’s lifetime experience with and economic dependence on chattel slavery ultimately prevented him from becoming a full and true champion of liberty and equality for black slaves.

Madison’s letters reveal a man who was deeply conflicted over the institution of slavery. While Madison believed that “the magnitude of this evil [slavery] among us is so deeply felt, and so universally acknowledged: that no merit could be greater than that of devising a satisfactory remedy for it,” he also thought the process of emancipation ought to be “gradual, equitable & satisfactory to the individual immediately concerned, and consistent with the existing & durable prejudices of the nation.”[xxxii]

Emancipation raised a number of concerns for Madison. Writing to the Marquis de Lafayette in 1826, Madison said, “the two races cannot co-exist, both being free & equal. The great sine qua non therefore is some external asylum for the colored race.”[xxxiii] These feelings ultimately led Madison to become an early supporter of the American Colonization Society (ACS). The ACS was committed to freeing slaves and transporting those freed slaves back to Africa, specifically to Liberia. Madison eventually became president of the ACS in 1833 and served in that capacity until his death in 1836. While Madison did not support the institution of slavery, he was deeply conflicted about what freedom and equality might look like for freed black slaves.[xxxiv]

As the chief architect of the Federal Constitution, Madison was acutely aware of and sensitive to the division between slave states and non-slaveholding states. Indeed, it was Madison’s strong feeling that the interests of both needed to be protected, which led to the drafting of the three-fifths clause.

At the same time, Madison, like most convention delegates, counseled for an immediate close of the African slave trade. In arguing against the provision prohibiting Congress from closing the African trade before 1808, Madison said: “Twenty years will produce all the mischief that can be apprehended from the liberty to import slaves. So long a term will be more dishonorable to the American character than to say nothing about it in the Constitution.”[xxxv] Madison also warned against the use of the word slavery in the Constitution, thinking “it wrong to admit . . . the idea that there could be property in men.”[xxxvi]

In the First Federal Congress, Madison proposed introducing a levy of $10 on every slave brought into America–the maximum allowed under Article I, section 9 of the Constitution. Madison supported the tax from “the dictates of humanity, the principles of the people, the national safety and happiness, and prudent policy . . . . It is hoped that by expressing a national disapprobation of this trade, we may destroy it, and save ourselves from reproaches, and our posterity the imbecility ever attendant on a country filled with slaves.”[xxxvii]

Despite these great constitutional acts toward emancipation, Madison’s early feelings on racial differences deepened as Madison grew older and ultimately affected his views on the abolition of slavery. Indeed in 1791, Madison refused to submit a memorial to Congress from the Virginia Abolition Society condemning slavery.[xxxviii]

Madison’s refusal to take a bold moral stand against slavery was representative of the deep conflict faced by many of the Founding Fathers. Although they were willing to risk life and limb for independence and union, they refused to go to great lengths to ensure the liberty of enslaved blacks. The great champions of full emancipation would not emerge until later in the nation’s history.

Read George Washington, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison on Slavery here:

Julie Silverbrook is Executive Director of The Constitutional Sources Project (, a non-profit organization devoted to facilitating greater understanding of U.S. Constitutional History. Julie holds a bachelor’s degree in American Politics from The George Washington University and a Juris Doctor from the William & Mary Law School.

Friday, April 12, 2013

[i] William Freehling, The Founding Fathers and Slavery, 77 Am. Hist. Rev. 81, 82 (1972)

[ii] Frederick Douglass, What to the Slave is the Fourth of July (July 5, 1852), available at

[iii] George Washington, Undated Manuscript, George Washington’s Papers, Rosenbach Library.

[iv] Peter R. Henriques, “The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret”: George Washington and Slavery, available at

[v] Id.

[vi] Id.

[vii] Id.

[viii] Id.

[ix] Id.

[x] Id.

[xi] John R. Howe, Jr., John Adams’s View of Slavery, 49 J. of Negro Hist. 201, 201 (1964)

[xii] Id. at 202

[xiii] John Adams to Louisa Catherine Adams, 23 December 1819.

[xiv] Howe at 203 & 205.

[xv] William E. Juhnke, Benjamin Franklin’s View of the Negro and Slavery, 41 Pennsylvania History 374, 376 (1974)

[xvi] Id. at 377


[xvii] Benjamin Franklin, Observation Concerning the Increase of Mankind (Boston, 1755).

[xviii] Id.

[xix] Juhnke at 378-79

[xx] Id. at 380-81

[xxi] Benjamin Franklin to John Waring, January 3, 1758.

[xxii] Juhnke at 382

[xxiii] Id. at 386-87

[xxiv] New-York Historical Society, New York Manumission Society Records, 6:3-4.

[xxv] Id.

[xxvi] Michael D. Chan, Alexander Hamilton on Slavery, 66 Rev. of Pol. 207, 223 (2004)

[xxvii] “Memorial to Abolish the Slave Trade,” 13 March 1786.

[xxviii] Chan at 225

[xxix] Chan at 223

[xxx] Alexander Hamilton, Remarks in the N.Y. Ratifying Convention, 20 June 1788.

[xxxi] Chan at 226

[xxxiii] Id.

[xxxiv] Id.

[xxxvi] Id.

[xxxvii] John P. Kaminski, James Madison: Champion of Liberty and Justice 37-38 (2006)

[xxxviii] Id. at 39


2 replies
  1. Barb Zack
    Barb Zack says:

    Interesting and informative. Slavery really was ingrained in our early Nation, and obviously, even the Founders were conflicted. With the birth and survival of our Nation at stake, I can see why the Founders were reluctant to take a public stand on this issue. If the politically correct class we have now understand the real history and context of slavery within the early days of our Nation, they may not be so quick to condemn the Founders with one strike as racists and evildoers. You can also see the earliest of threads of a kind of racism that built even into the 20th Century and beyond and lead ultimately to the Civil Rights Marches of the 1960’s. These lessons and readings are truly remarkable!

  2. Ralph Howarth
    Ralph Howarth says:

    What is often not expounded on is that the 3/5ths representation rule was a carry over from the Articles of Confederation article VIII mandate to assess land value for taxation purposes. The 3/5ths rule was then derived as an expedient as a crude method of property tax assessment for lack of having adequate survey data to assess property values. Population then was used in lieu of the lack of land survey assessment and became a defacto apportionment rule of tax assessment. The reasoning was that freeholders represented a nominal evidence of land by counting persons, and slaves represented a greater of extend of land owned by free holders with a rough assessment of 3/5ths of the slave population. So a heavier tax was levied on account of slave holding plantations as it was assessed roughly that there was that much more developed land to tax. Later, as repugnant at the 3/5ths person’s rule was to the Abolitionist, Fredrick Douglas, as a political person, found it expedient to exploit the 3/5ths person’s rule in advocating black suffrage. He took a platform to promote giving the black man the right to vote with his freedom as an inducement for slave states to increase for slave states to broker their own emancipation to gain more political influence in the federal comity.

    In addition, the original draft constitution submitted for consideration at the Philadelphia Convention of 1787 had no slave trade importation ban and no federal tax on the importation of slaves. The final copy submitted to the states was marginally tougher on slavery than at the first as it established 1808 as the year of a potential federal ban on the slave importation trade and added a tax.

    Later, under President James Monroe administration the US became more proactive in shutting down the international slave trade, which in a dubious fashion the domestic interstate slave trade was still hot. Monroe advocated the use of US naval forces to interdict in the slave trade at its source by intercepting slave ships that made a run from the Congo for the trade winds westward. Federal agents would shadow retrofitted merchant ships in the New York harbor suspected as prize slave ships heading for Britain to Africa. The suspected ships would be reported to be on the look out about the Congo, and hopefully caught in the act before being whisked out to sea. If US forces were successful in capturing and saving slaves on the high seas, they would be taken to the port of Monrovia known as present day Liberia to be released. They were not returned to the Congo for it was feared that taking them back to their home would only put them at risk of being captured again especially when it was often their own chieftains that consorted to the selling them into slavery. So rather than risking returning them to their homeland, they were set free in a free land and introduced to a morsel of civilization there while being somewhat similar to their homeland.


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