Michael Medved Pretty Sure Noble Founders Ended US Slavery By Preserving It For Decades
The 1619 Project, with all its true statements about slavery, infuriated conservatives, who can never admit America has made any mistakes, aside from welfare and affirmative action obviously. Enslaving human beings is a pretty big oopsie, but conservatives love to find ways to insist it wasn't so bad. Besides, the founders planned to get rid of it ... eventually, just not when the country was founded on the premise of “all men are created equal." James Madison, who kept more than 100 humans in bondage, refused to use the word “slave" in the Constitution, which those geniuses at Donald Trump's 1776 Commission claimed made up for everything!
Conservative talk show host Michael Medved, in an op-ed for USA Today, praised the founders for sneaking an “anti-slavery time bomb" into the Constitution. Yeah, really.
While disparaging that document's accommodations to slavery, detractors also forget the hammer-blow against the evil institution delivered just weeks before the fateful gathering in Philadelphia to establish a new government.
Medved refers to Article I, Section 9, Clause 1, where everyone white agreed not to meddle with the importation of enslaved people "prior to the year one thousand eight hundred and eight" or at least 20 years after ratification. This was so the new nation wouldn't lose ... South Carolina.
James Madison initially deemed this concession to be "dishonorable" but later, in Federalist 42, hailed it as "great point gained in favor of humanity, that a period of twenty years may terminate forever with these states … the unnatural traffic" that was "the barbarism of modern policy."
Madison profited from slave labor for his entire privileged life. All these pretty words are just bullshit. Madison was a straight-up racist (not a stretch for someone who “owned" Black people). When his friend and former secretary Edward Coles freed the people he enslaved, Madison "praised this effort as 'a fair experiment for their happiness,' but wrote that unless Coles could change 'their colour as well as their legal condition,' the freedmen would lack the 'moral rank' and 'social blessings' to truly take advantage of their newfound freedom."
The slave trade ended in 1808, but slavery itself continued for another 55 years. The enslaved population exploded in the South, growing from around 1.1 million in 1810 to 3.9 million in 1860. This is because people are a self-replicating “crop." You don't need to spend money importing enslaved people when they already exist right here in significant numbers. A booming enslaved population also reflected increased wealth and political power in the South. The "time bomb" was a dud.
Of course, it's easy to sneer at [Thomas] Jefferson's hypocrisy – owning slaves even while he repeatedly denounced the very institution that sustained his private wealth – but his role in the public sphere left no doubt that he sought the "ultimate extinction" of human bondage, as President Lincoln put it.
Jefferson enslaved more than 600 human beings throughout his adult life. He freed a whopping two of them while he was alive and just seven after his death. Historian David Brion Davis found that Jefferson's emancipation efforts “virtually ceased" by the 1790s. So, yes, it's easy to sneer at Jefferson's hypocrisy because it's revolting.
Medved claims the founders launched the country “on the right direction," which is fairy tale pablum. The founders who owned people ensured they could continue to profit from this evil for the rest of their lives. Not a single one of them had Oskar Schindler's epiphany about how many lives could've been saved if he'd sacrificed more of his ill-gotten material comforts. No, the founders negotiated “compromises" without regard for the human beings who were compromised.
The founders appeased the slave-holding Southern states and the "time bomb" that eventually went off was the Civil War. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain appeased Hitler in the 1930s, allowing him to expand German territory unchecked. Chamberlain was eager to avoid war, but Winston Churchill correctly described this policy as an “unmitigated disaster." No serious person celebrates Chamberlain as a great leader who set Britain on the path to ending the Nazi threat.
Lincoln famously noted in the Gettysburg Address that "four score and seven years" had passed since the founding of America. That's 87 years, which coincidentally is roughly how long it's been since Hitler became chancellor of Germany. Imagine if the conditions of Nazi Germany had persisted until 2020 with the final blow to the Reich not happening until 2022. How many Anne Franks would that have been? How many generations of Jews tortured to death?
But we live in a nation where white conservatives (and even many white moderates) don't think additional generations of Black people living and dying in bondage is that big a deal, and it's somehow "ahistorical wokeness" to judge the founders harshly and teach our children that they were anything less than awesome.
If there was a ticking "time bomb" in the Constitution, it was the flawed premise that Black people would accept enslavement for as long as it was convenient to white Americans.
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Stephen Robinson is a writer and social kibbitzer based in Portland, Oregon. He writes reviews for the A.V. Club and make believe for Cafe Nordo, an immersive theatre space in Seattle. He's also on the board of the Portland Playhouse theatre. His son describes him as a “play typer guy."