Several years ago, Bill Cosby’s only son, Ennis, was shot to death by a Ukrainian immigrant. Mrs. Cosby was understandably devastated. I was saddened to hear her declare that America had “made Mikhail Markhasev a killer.” She said that America was such a racist society that we put slaveholders on our currency. For anyone interested, here is the truth about America’s founding fathers. It’s a lot more complicated than you might think.
George Washington is on the one-dollar bill. Revisionist historians love to bring up that he was one of America’s wealthiest landowners, with many slaves on his plantation. What most people don’t know is that most of the slaves at Mount Vernon were not Washington’s property. They either belonged to his wife, Martha, or were part of a trust that he’d inherited. Even before the Revolutionary War, Washington had strictly forbade his overseers to buy new slaves. He also declared that all young male slaves on the plantation be taught a useful trade. Before the end of the war, Washington had become what you might call a lukewarm abolitionist. A person on his staff suggested that Washington that the states institute a policy of granting freedom to any slave who volunteered to serve in the Continental Army. That officer went back to his home state of North Carolina with Washington’s encouragement and put the proposal before the North Carolina legislature, where it did not enjoy much support. As President, Washington continued to be a slaveowner and to advocate the abolition of slavery. He was well aware that he could not press the issue too hard, as the American Union was a shaky thing in those early years. After Washington’s death, his will instructed in iron-clad terms that no Mount Vernon slave was to be sold for any reason. He also mandated that after Lady Washington’s death, the slaves would have the option: they could be manumented or be provided for at Mount Vernon until their deaths. Washington’s estate was still making payments to elderly slaves in the 1830s, more than three decades after Washington’s death. Washington had a better retirement program than most current-day corporations.
Thomas Jefferson is a paradox and a tragedy. The same man who ringingly condemned slavery in his first draft of the Declaration of Independence was a slaveholder for his entire adult life. Contrary to popular belief, it is still somewhat in doubt whether he fathered Sally Hemings’ children or whether it was one of his brothers.
Critics of Abraham Lincoln love to cite an 1858 speech he made during his campaign for the Senate against his great rival, Stephen Douglas. Real students of history learn of the evolution of Lincoln’s views mere opposition of the extension of slavery to his later signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. In early April 1965, he endorsed suffrage to blacks who had served in the Union Army. One of the people in the audience that day was a young actor who commented about Lincoln, “He’s a dead man.”
Alexander Hamilton was running his own business in his early teens in the West Indies, an economy built on slavery. By the time he was twenty, Hamilton became one of the founding members of New York’s Abolition Society.
Andrew Jackson was a slaveowner and Indian fighter. I’ll bet you don’t know that, after one battle with the Indians, he found a small Indian child on the battlefield. When he inquired of the survivors whose child it was, the Indians said that they should let the child die because its parents were dead. Jackson and his wife raised the child as their own.
Ulysses S. Grant executed Lincoln’s orders to end slavery. You could fault him because he didn’t follow through on Reconstruction. Perhaps he figured that we had already fought one horrendous civil war and didn’t need another one. Ironically, Grant had owned a slave through an inheritance from his wife’s family. He was a black man named Jones and came to him in the 1850s. Although Grant was in such dire straits that he was selling firewood on the street, he simply let the man go.
Benjamin Franklin is another paradox. As a young man, he was a slaveowner. Yes, in Philadelphia. However, his views underwent a sea change when he visited a school for freed black children. He came to the conclusion that the facility of blacks were as great as those of whites, and became one of Philadelphia’s abolitionist society.