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The Founders and Slavery: Little Ventured, Little Gained

By Paul Finkelman


The American Founding is rightly celebrated for creating a republic that allowed great liberty to its citizens, provided democratic self-rule for those who were enfranchised, and guaranteed fundamental rights and freedoms to political and religious minorities. It even allowed easy access to citizenship for voluntary migrants from other nations. No nation before ours, and relatively few since, has been able to achieve these results. The success of the political system became most apparent in 1801, when an opposition candidate, Thomas Jefferson, defeated an incumbent President, John Adams, and then peacefully took office. In his inaugural address Jefferson proudly proclaimed that Americans had \u22banished from our land that religious intolerance under which mankind so long bled and suffered\u22 and promised it would not be replaced by \u22political intolerance.\u22 He noted that \u22every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle,\u22 and that both his supporters and those of Adams were \u22brethren of the same principle.\u22 Indeed, offering up a theory of freedom of expression that the Supreme Court would not truly accept until the 1960s, Jefferson declared that opponents of the Constitution should be free to speak out, that they might \u22stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.\u22 Following a nasty and often personally vicious campaign, Jefferson stood ready to embrace his political opponents: \u22We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.\u22 Unfortunately, this accommodation of political differences glossed over the fundamental contradiction of the Founding: The constitution for a free people protected slavery

Topics: Arts and Humanities, History, Law
Publisher: Yale Law School Legal Scholarship Repository
Year: 2013
OAI identifier: oai:digitalcommons.law.yale.edu:yjlh-1245
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