Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Three Friends: Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe and Slavery

Most students of the Civil War understand that the founding fathers sowed the seeds of disunion. Among those leaders were Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe. I had the opportunity to learn more about these men during a Road Scholar program in Charlottesville, VA on November 16-19, 2014.

As presidents, founders, and plantation owners, these men shared a common problem --- a conflict between the moral dilemma of slavery vis-a-vis freedom and their personal dependence on the evil institution for their own welfare. In the end, all three decided to leave it to future generations to solve the issue. Practicality trumped ethical beliefs.

Jefferson statue at Monticello
Thomas Jefferson is considered the architect of the Declaration of Independence. The opening sentence of the second paragraph states the fundamental aspect of democracy: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." There is no asterisk after all men, but it seems clear that all men excludes slaves and other disenfranchised minorities. According to the website, Vindicating the Founders, Jefferson included a paragraph condemning the king's role in promoting the slave trade. The paragraph was omitted after objections by representatives from South Carolina and Georgia.

Slave life exhibit at Monticello
Thomas Jefferson owned many slaves in spite of his opposition to the institution of slavery on both moral and practical grounds. He attempted to advance legislation to abolish slavery. Jefferson advocated passage of the Northwest Ordinance, which was approved in 1787.  

Article 6 - "There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory, otherwise than in the punishment of crimes whereof the party shall have been duly convicted: Provided, always, That any person escaping into the same, from whom labor or service is lawfully claimed in any one of the original States, such fugitive may be lawfully reclaimed and conveyed to the person claiming his or her labor or service as aforesaid. "

James and Dolley Madison
statue at Montpelier
James Madison is regarded as the author of the Constitution. The Constitution addresses slavery in three passages.

Article I - Section 2 - "Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons."

Article I - Section 9 -"The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a Tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person."

Article IV - Section 2 - "No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due."

James Monroe statue at
Ash Lawn-Highland
When James Monroe was governor of Virginia, he was involved in two slave uprisings. In the first incident in 1799, Monroe "help[ed] secure a modicum of civil protection for slaves sentenced to death for capital crimes." In 1800, hundreds of slaves in Virginia planned to kidnap Monroe, take him Richmond, and negotiate for their freedom. A storm prevented the slaves from carrying out their plans. Governor Monroe called out the militia and soon the slaves were captured. The accused conspirators were given quick trials without a jury. Monroe convinced the Virginia courts to pardon and sell some slaves instead of hanging them. However, between twenty-six and thirty-five slaves were executed. As president of Virginia's constitutional convention in the fall of 1829, Monroe blamed Britain for bringing slavery to the Colonies. Monroe proposed that Virginia accept the federal government's financial assistance to emancipate and transport freed slaves to other countries.

Membership Certificate from
American Colonization Society
Aside from being consecutive presidents, influential policy makers, and good friends; the three Virginians shared another distinction --- they were all members of the American Colonization Society (ACS). The Society was founded in 1816 to advocate and finance the return of free African Americans to Africa. The group was established by abolitionists who believed blacks would face better chances for full lives in Africa than in the United States and slaveholders who to wanted to remove free blacks as "promoters of mischief" and avoid slave rebellions. Virginia society was strongly opposed to freed slaves becoming citizens, and black colonization was viewed as an acceptable alternative. However, most blacks wanted to remain in the US, where they had been born, and opposed "repatriation." With about $100,000 in Federal grant money, the organization also bought land for the freedmen in what is today Liberia. The Society closely controlled the development of Liberia until its declaration of independence. Beginning in 1821, the ACS transported thousands of free blacks to Liberia. Over twenty years, the colony continued to grow and establish economic stability. In 1847, the legislature of Liberia declared the nation an independent state. The capital of Liberia was named Monrovia after President Monroe

President Abraham Lincoln initiated several failed attempts to resettle blacks in the Caribbean. In the five years following the Civil War, the ACS sent 2,492 blacks to Liberia. By 1867, the ACS had moved more than 13,000 blacks to Liberia. The Freedmen's Bureau provided some financial support for the relocation. The Society finally disbanded in 1964.

In 1779, Jefferson proposed a gradual emancipation plan to the Virginia legislature. The plan consisted of voluntary training, sponsorship, and resettlement for slave families outside the US. Following the slave uprising in 1800, Jefferson again proposed a colonization plan for freed slaves to prevent a violent race war. While President, Jefferson was unsuccessful in his personal attempts to settle freed Virginia slaves to Sierra Leone through British and Portugal companies.

Madison supported the ACS efforts and believed that colonization would achieve a "rapid erasure of the blot on our Republican character." The British sociologist, Harriet Martineau, visited with Madison during her tour of the United States in 1834. She characterized his faith in colonization as the solution to slavery as "bizarre and incongruous." Madison may have sold or donated his gristmill in support of the ACS. The historian Drew R. McCoy believes that "The Convention of 1829, we might say, pushed Madison steadily to the brink of self-delusion, if not despair. The dilemma of slavery undid him."

Monroe was part of the American Colonization Society formed in 1816, which members included Henry Clay and Andrew Jackson. They found common ground with some abolitionists in supporting colonization. They helped send several thousand freed slaves to the new colony of Liberia in Africa from 1820 to 1840. Slave owners like Monroe and Jackson wanted to prevent free blacks from encouraging slaves in the South to rebel.

1 comment:

Allen Mesch said...

I just discovered a collection of maps of Liberia in the Library of Congress. This collection of Liberia maps includes twenty examples from the American Colonization Society (ACS), organized in 1817 to resettle free black Americans in West Africa. These maps show early settlements in Liberia, indigenous political subdivisions, and some of the building lots that were assigned to settlers. This on-line presentation also includes other nineteenth-century maps of Liberia: a map prepared for a book first published in the 1820's by ACS agent Jehudi Ashmun, a map showing the areas in Liberia that were ceded to the society by indigenous chiefs, and a detailed map dated 1869 by a man thought to be the black American explorer Benjamin Anderson. See