John Jay is often lost in the long shadow cast by the legacies and genius of his Federalist co-authors, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton. Indeed, Jay authored only five of the eighty-five articles. This was not because his co-authors doubted his abilities or influence, but because Jay was stricken with illness and unable to contribute further. John Jay was a politician, patriot, Chief Justice, and a man of deep and seasoned principles. Being so driven by principle, one of the great causes Jay undertook was to limit the institution of slavery however possible in America. This endeavor is the subject of his “Letter to the English Anti-Slavery Society.”
As president of the anti-slavery New York Manumission Society, Jay was diligently working to abolish the institution, though often without results. In this brief but substantial piece, written in June, 1788, Jay responds to criticism that anti-slavery measures in the United States are having too little an effect. He demonstrates that the existence of the institution is inconsistent with American principles and the promise of the Declaration of Independence. However, slavery is also a long established practice in which self-interest and prejudice are deeply seated. In addition, Jay specifically addresses the reason the Founders compromised on slavery at the Constitutional Convention: to preserve that sacred union for which so many men had valiantly fought and died.
Jay begins his response to the English by acknowledging the wretched stain slavery is on the American constitution. He writes, “It undoubtedly is very inconsistent with their declarations on the subject of human rights to permit a single slave to be found within their jurisdiction, and we confess the justice of your strictures on that head.” To put it another way, how can a nation, founded on the principles of natural political equality and self-government, deny such rights to an entire race within its borders?
Jay’s justification for the contradiction in the American system is not one of principle, but of practicality. The institution of slavery was deeply entrenched in America. As Jay mentions, “It is well known that errors, either in opinion or practice, long entertained or indulged, are difficult to eradicate, and particularly so when they have become, as it were, incorporated in the civil institutions and domestic economy of a whole people.” Slavery was part of the culture and economy of the Southern States and would not be uprooted without a struggle. Jay believed it would be possible, but it would take time and perseverance to wrest the “peculiar institution” from the South.
When Jay writes this letter, the Constitutional Convention has yet to celebrate its one year anniversary. Drafting the Constitution had been an exhausting battle. Fifty-five men in heavy wool clothing were locked in a stuffy room in the summer heat and given the task of debating the most important questions facing the young and fragile American republic.
One of the most daunting tasks ahead of them was dealing with slavery. Those delegates representing the South could not allow slavery to be abolished; their constituents would never ratify a constitution which crippled their state economy in such a fashion. Yet, how could the Founders allow slavery to exist when it was a glaring betrayal of the principle that “all men are created equal?” How could these demigods, the majority of whom, if not all, personally found slavery to be a wretched and repugnant institution, draft a compromise?
Jay gives an answer. He says, “Several of the States conceived that restraints on slavery might be too rapid to consist with their particular circumstances; and the importance of union rendered it necessary that their wishes on that head should, in some degree, be gratified.” Had the northern delegates insisted on ridding the nation of slavery, the fragile union would have crumbled. America was fractured after the Revolutionary War; state and local interests were prevailing at the expense of the whole. There remained a danger that the states would splinter into smaller confederacies, rather than form a united country. If that happened, not a single slave would have been freed. The continued union of north and south, however, offered hope that slavery might be abolished in the United States in the long run. Accordingly, John Jay and the other Founders had little choice but to comply with the southern states’ demand for non-interference, albeit with the understanding that slavery was a temporary and necessary evil.
After making the compromise, the Founders did not simply sit back and hope slavery would undermine itself. If any change were to occur, it was their duty to force its development. They took measures, like reaffirming the Northwest Ordinance o f 1787, which prohibited the expansion of slavery in the Northwest Territories, and abolishing the slave trade in 1808, to encourage its extinction. Unexpected events, such as the invention of the cotton gin, which once again made slavery more economically lucrative, upset their vision and eventually led to a civil war.
Jay closes his letter with hopeful optimism. He is making progress in his city and state. Black children are being educated, slaves are able to be liberated, and exportation and importation of new slaves is prohibited. Jay was chipping away at the institution, putting it on the road to ultimate extinction. With a vision for the future, he says, “we have reason to expect that the maxim, that every man, of whatever color, is to be presumed to be free until the contrary be shown, will prevail in our courts of justice.” Abraham Lincoln would later take up Jay’s mantle and see that cherished maxim that “all men are created equal,” fully recognized. It would take another war to preserve the sacred union, this time with brother fighting against brother, to complete the task- and the promise- of the Founding.
Read John Jay’s Letter to the English Anti-Slavery Society here: https://constitutingamerica.org/?p=4055
Brenda Hafera is the Finance and Events Co-Ordinator at the Matthew J. Ryan Center For the Study of Free Institutions and the Public Good at Villanova University, where she is currently pursuing her Masters in Political Science.
April 17, 2013 – Essay #43