"Allah Bismillah, etc., God is great, and Mahomet is his prophet.
"Have these Erika considered the consequences of granting their petition? If we cease our cruises against the Christians, how shall we be furnished with the commodities of their countries produce which are so necessary for us? If we forbear to make slaves of their people, who in this hot climate are to cultivate our lands? Who are to perform the commons labors of our city and in our families?"
What did the Founding Fathers believe of liberty when it came to human rights? To restate the recurring theme of my previous Yapping Dogs articles, the Founding Fathers were not a monolith of thought or intent. This includes human rights, especially the human rights issue of slavery.
To some Founding Fathers, liberty in America meant no exceptions. Liberty meant suffrage for women and abolishing slavery. To others, exceptions were acceptable.
One case of strident disagreement occurred in 1790 when southern legislatures faced down those who signed the Declaration of Independence and/or the Constitution over slavery. In fact, the 1790 argument spurred the quote in my opening paragraph.
But, before I name the author quoted above, I want to go back 14 years earlier, 1776. Samuel Hopkins, a preacher and former slaveholder from Rhode Island, pleaded with the Continental Congress to abolish slavery.Hopkins wrote, "But if we obstinately refuse to reform what we have implicitly declared to be wrong, and engaged to put away the holding the African in slavery, which is so particularly pointed out by the evil with which we are threatened and is such a glaring contradiction to our professed
aversion to slavery and struggle for civil liberty..., have we not the greatest reason to fear, yea, may we not with certainty conclude, God will withdraw His kind protection from us and punish us yet seven times more?"
In February 1790, the Petitions Against Slavery were brought before the house. The threat of the British had forced one of the more bitter compromises, continuing slavery. To keep the southern states in the union and to ratify the constitution, America perpetuated that compromise. But, it was a compromise, not a stamp of approval on slavery. Constitutionally, the compromise could not be "taken up" until 1808. Some of the Founding Fathers wanted action against slavery before that date.
Those who spoke in opposition of the petitions were: Abraham Baldwin, GA; James Jackson, GA; Ædamus Burke, SC; Thomas Tucker, SC; William Smith, SC; Michael Stone, MD.
Those for the petitions were: James Madison, VA; John Page, VA; Thomas Scott, PA; Thomas Hartley, PA; Roger Sherman, CT, and Elbridge Gerry, MA.
Of those who spoke for the Petitions Against Slavery: Sherman signed both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Gerry signed the Declaration of Independence. Madison signed the Constitution.
Of those who opposed, only Abraham Baldwin signed a founding document. He signed the Constitution, only. Of him the record shows, "Mr. Baldwin was sorry the subject had ever been brought before Congress.... Gentlemen who had been present at the formation of this Constitution could not avoid the recollection of the pain and difficulty which the subject caused in that body."
Yet, the petitions were defeated because of States’ Rights and the 1808 Constitutional restriction.
Now, to the quote in my opening paragraph, it was taken from an essay published by the Federal Gazette, March 25, 1790. The author is Ben Franklin. Ben Franklin, who signed both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, waded into the argument. He and Samuel Hopkins shared the ideal that slavery was incompatible with the concepts of morality and the ideals of liberty.
While Hopkins’ argument was straightforward, Franklin’s argument was a cutting parody on several levels. Franklin created a fictional people called the Erika who asked their leader to stop enslaving Americans. His argument was meant to ridicule James Jackson’s reasons for supporting slavery. Franklin’s essay implied that the southern states perpetuated slavery for the same reasons as his fictional leaders of Algiers - slavery sustained their society and profits.
So, here we have another problem in the dogma of the yapping dogs. The Founding Fathers did not have the same beliefs concerning liberty. When some heavy hitting Founding Fathers tried to address America’s "glaring contradiction," they were defeated. They were blocked by the compromise that was meant to insure their own liberty. This very compromise helped set the course for a civil war. In that war between the states, perhaps, Samuel Hopkins may have been right when it came to slavery, "...may we not with certainty conclude, God will withdraw His kind protection from us and punish us yet seven times more?"
Acknowledgements: Though the quotes concerning the "Petitions Against Slavery" were cross-referenced, the initial reading was taken from "Great Debates in American History", Volume 4, Current Literature Publishing Company, New York, 1913.
Hardy is retired military. He lives in Richmond Hill. This column is the third in a series he calls Yapping Dogs.