Roper: Founders didn’t invent slavery, they helped end it

By Rob Roper

Slavery was and is a horrible, dehumanizing institution, but to call it the the United States’ “original sin” and to tear down statues and deface memorials to our founders (not to be confused with Confederate generals) is historically ignorant and dangerous. Slavery was hardly an original concept in the late 18th and 19th century. In fact, pretty much every society since the modern version of humans evolved had slavery up until that time.

The Greeks had slaves. The Romans had slaves. The Egyptians had slaves to build the pyramids, and the Chinese had slaves to build the Wall. Vikings enslaved Saxons. Muslims enslaved Vikings. The English enslaved Irish and Scots. The Russians had serfs (potAYto, potAHto). The Incas, Mayans and Aztecs all had slavery, as did the North American native tribes. African nations had slaves themselves and sold them to European slave traders. Slavery was the norm for all 5500 or so years of recorded human history — until those crusty, old, dead, European white guys abolished it.

Rob Roper is the president of the Ethan Allen Institute.

Western Europeans and early Americans were not unique in having slavery; they were unique in declaring the practice immoral and putting laws into effect to stamp it out. For this, despite any or even many other faults, they deserve to be celebrated.

Ending five millennia of slavery and the healing process to follow was never going to be an immediate process, nor a smooth one. There was staunch resistance in some quarters such as the Southern United States. Europe was quicker than the US to abolish slavery, but the U.S. beat Europe to the punch in declaring innate human equality and eliminating legal class distinctions, which was also remarkable step forward in societal evolution and deserving of celebration.

Today’s critics like to point out Thomas Jefferson and others who signed their names beneath the words in our Declaration of Independence, “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,” owned slaves. Hypocritical? Yeah. But the more important point is they chose and adopted the principles equality and liberty as the cornerstone upon which we built our nation. In doing so they doomed slavery to the ashbin on history. Immediately? No. But inevitably.

The principles laid out in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights were the vaccine injected into the national bloodstream that killed the virus of slavery and are still at the heart of all battles for civil rights – equal treatment under the law, freedom to make a living, to worship as you choose, the right to fair trial. Without the Declaration and the Bill of Rights set down by our founders, there would be no Civil Rights movement for the simple reason that these are the civil rights marginalized groups want and deserve access to. Invalidate them, wipe them from our body politic, and then what exactly is left that we are we fighting for?

Before and during the Civil War, Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln did not argue the that the concept “all men are created equal” was invalid because the people who wrote it down didn’t fully live up to the promise. The opposite: They insisted on the validity of these principles and the moral necessity of applying them to all. As did Martin Luther King. As did the suffragettes in the battle for women’s civil rights. These are the principles we both stand on and reach toward in order to do better. To be, as the preamble to the Constitution intones, “a more perfect nation.”

We’re not perfect. The legacy of slavery in the United States is real, and its impact on the lives and opportunities of Black Americans persists. But the improvements we have made over the past 150 years were because of, not despite, the principles laid out in our founding documents by the likes of Jefferson and Washington. If we want to continue to make progress into the future, we had better not toss these tools into the trash.

The United States is unique and special in history: a multi-ethnic society built upon the shared ideals of its citizens and bonded together by a common history. These ideals and history are what inspire millions of people of all races from all other parts of the globe, sometimes at great personal risk, to come here every year. If we invalidate these ideals and eradicate the history behind them, we will have destroyed our country. And replaced it with what exactly? A collection of angry tribes that do not respect each others’ rights to liberty, equality, property rights, and fair treatment under the law?

Rob Roper is president of the Ethan Allen Institute. He lives in Stowe.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Dean Franklin

24 thoughts on “Roper: Founders didn’t invent slavery, they helped end it

    • They claim 400 years of slavery in the United States, forgetting that we were a colony of the British empire for 200+ years, as a free country we were well on our way with the abolition of slavery. You can’t ask somebody to pay for another’s crime, it makes no sense, but if you are going to send the bill, send the reparations bill to England. 🙂

    • And in our Vermont constitution, the first time Vermont declared itself a sovergn state, it’s own nation, what did we do? Abolished slavery. Very proud history that some want to change, that some want to twist and misconscrew.

      History is not such a bad thing to study, we should bring back history classes to the Vermont educational system!

  1. Kristi Noem Defends America’s Founders Against Campaign to Eliminate Them from History
    “South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (R), in a speech during the Mount Rushmore Independence Day celebration, defended America’s founders against what she said was an “organized, coordinated campaign” to eliminate them from history.”

    “Across America these last several weeks, we have been witnessing a very troubling situation unfold,” she said.”

    • Biggs: ‘Hypocrisy’ on Mount Rushmore Visits a Huge Problem for Dems
      by Ian Hanchett 3 Jul 2020 70

      During the Fox News Channel’s coverage of President Trump’s speech at Mount Rushmore on Friday, House Freedom Caucus Chair Andy Biggs (R-AZ) stated that the Democratic Party is most exposed on the “problem of hypocrisy that they have.” Biggs specifically argued that Democrats are engaging in a double standard by criticizing President Trump for speaking at Mount Rushmore when multiple Democrats have visited the site in the past without any objections.

      • *Disgraceful*

        Protesters defy Donald Trump and risk ten years in jail as they throw Columbus statue into Baltimore harbor just hours after he called them ‘Nazis and terrorists’ in July Fourth address as protests break out across the US
        By Reuters and Lauren Edmonds and Karen Ruiz For
        Published: 20:13 EDT, 4 July 2020 | Updated: 10:42 EDT, 5 July 2020

        Donald J Trump:
        “‘American heroes defeated the Nazis, dethroned the fascists toppled the communists, saved American values, upheld American principles, and chased down terrorists to the very ends of the earth,’ he said.”

  2. Vermont’s legislature as a republic, outlawed slavery in 1777 two years prior to becoming a state. Of course, even our public indoctrination/activist public school training centers probably do not teach VT or US history anymore. If they do I bet it has a political slant to favor disliking America. Vermont played a very large role in the civil war and already paid dearly with blood and life. We don’t owe anyone anything related to our history as a state and as a republic.

    • Vermonters sent the most troops per capita to fight in the civil war i.e. to free the slaves. Most of the people in our legislature are ignorant when it comes to VT history. We owe nothing to freed slave decedents that our blood did not pay for.

  3. As so well documented by Rob, slavery was not unique to the US. It’s been going on for centuries and still exists in some countries. This fact in no way should be interpreted as an excuse for slavery in the US. It just points out that as horrible as it was, it was the accepted as common practice. While some owners had overseers who mistrated the slaves under their supervision, many owners were humane and treated their slaves well. While the objection to slavery may seem to be the motivating factor causing riots and the desicration of historic statues, my guess is that if you asked many of the perpetrators to take a quiz requiring identification and historical significance of these statues, they would fail miserably. It’s all about the mob mentality.

  4. HISTORY, why do you think they are trying to destroy it ??, it because the truth
    doesn’t fit their agenda !!

    History good or bad we can learn from it and we have, the problem today is that
    idiots ” Liberals ” have been feed a stream of lies and they want to bury the truth
    and they think it will all go away, or make them feel better………. Idiots, oh yeah !!

    They are destroying their own neighborhoods why ?? History will show this also.

    • C Henry. If you could read and comprehend, you would not demean liberals. The folks who gave you social security and medical benefits and, at least tried to give YOU an education. People like Trump own neighborhoods, and control them. History, you say? You have no idea, sir.

      • Tighty-whities in a bunch much – kindly keep your powder dry – and take some deep breaths pls. If you could read and comprehend you’d know this is a Maoist Cultural Revolution and innocent ppl are being murdered and raped – The CHOP victims were all black sir!

        My, my property is being destroyed, our *Democrat* – run cities are burning to the ground courtesy of leftwing domestic terrorists and not a peep from the destructive Dems. And all the likes of you wish to do is just change the subject and discuss safety nets that are magnets for fraud waste and abuse – wonderful – keep up the great work!

        May I suggest you do a little research as it’s pretty clear ya don’t know what you’re talking about. And you’re not the first leftwing loon to storm in loaded for bear with hair across a** bc your butthurt lol – forget to take meds? For the Democrats and assorted leftwingers it’s par for your course – nothing new here.

        Even a clock is right twice a day – two times out of twelve still not a very good record!

      • American loving democrats are great, these New World Order pimps are ruining America, many of us would rather not become a colony of the United Nations.

        • Those who vote Democrat are in the camp of and serving as minions of the malevolent mayhem makers by keeping the officials in power who are weaponizing domestic terrorists against us.

          If they truly love America they will vote against the Democrats who are destroying our nation, all we stand for and the future of our children.

      • The teachers who assisted me in elementary school, high school, college and the Naval Postgraduate School were anything but liberals. I’m quite thankful for that, since they were dedicated to education and not indoctrination.

    • Keep’em coming CHenry… targeted bc these destroyers fear the taking back of our state and nation from their mob rule whose residence is the Democrat Party

  5. I think we all agree several hundred thousand Union soldiers, and our greatest President gave their lives in the fight against slavery. This is the proud heritage of America, the sacrifices these men made should not be forgotten. The story of America can not be told without this important chapter, and the fact that black an white lives have been woven into the fabric of modern America. Any discussions of our failures in achieving justice and equality should acknowledge the huge sacrifices that have been made in an effort to correct the mistakes of our past.

  6. I mostly agree with all your articles, but note that the civil war was not about slavery until Lincoln announced it two years into the war and then only after draft riots in New York that killed or injured hundreds. — And those confederate generals started fighting for their independence from a tax crazy federal government, not slaves. Just like the founding father fought against the British 90 years earlier. Most of the history was written by the victors. If you dig, you find many writings with truths that are not in the accepted narrative.

    • The Confederacy’s initial cause was ‘State’s Rights’. But we all know that was a euphemism for the right to own slaves. The point is that the wheels of justice tend to move slowly in the perspective of one’s lifetime, especially a slave’s lifetime. The SCOTUS 1857 Dred Scott ruling wasn’t overturned until 1868 when the 14th amendment was ratified.

      The Framers of America found themselves in the middle of a ubiquitous political and moral swamp, realizing they must travel in it in order to extricate themselves from it. And, given that the institution of slavery had existed even longer than Mr. Roper reports (Mesopotamia 7000 years ago), that it took only 87 years, from the Declaration of Independence to the Emancipation Proclamation, to formally end it, is but the blink of an eye in human history.

      The problem, unmentioned by the self-righteous indignation we hear today, is that there are reportedly more people, of various races, in slavery now around the world than existed at the beginning of the Civil War.

      • US Customs just seized 13 tons of human hair at the NY/Newark Port that came here from China.
        Do you know how much hair it takes to add up to 13 tons? You think these women all volunteered to have buzz cuts?
        Then we have the booming sex slavery trade- even worse, many are kids.
        Human Organs.. Labor Camps..
        How Happy and Free does your average Walmart worker feel right now wearing a mask against their Will all day just to keep that job to keep a roof over their head?

        Just what is Slavery anyway?
        Is an Economic Slave today any less important than the Black Slaves of our past?

        Please tell me how we have the audacity to be arguing about what happened 200 years ago when look at what is going on today right under our noses.
        If we are going here, then lets just fully open this whole can of worms right up.
        It’s seems only Fair.

    • Mr. Letourneau: your claim that “the civil war was not about slavery until Lincoln announced it two years into the war” is simply not correct.

      The Civil War began when South Carolina voted to secede on December 24, 1860. They declared their reason for doing so quite explicitly in their document entitled “Articles of Secession.” Virtually every other southern state seceded with a similar document. You can find a copy of it here:

      Those Articles are THEIR words, not my opinion. Although rather long, they boil down to two arguments. First, they were angry at non-slave states for not appreciating slave states’ right to be left alone to have slavery. They recoiled at the fact that a new president had been elected (Lincoln) who did not support slavery, which would lead to further encroachments on slavery as an institution. Second, they were angry that the federal government, as well as explicitly named northern states individually, were not enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act, which required return of run-away slaves to their owners. They concluded by saying these acts nullified the compact between the states. That was why they were seceding, no more no less.

      Your belief that confederate generals started fighting because of “a tax crazy federal government,” appears nowhere in the Articles of Secession. In fact, the only reference to taxes that appears in South Carolina’s Articles was their acknowledgment that their slaves were taxed at the rate of “three fifths” of a person each.

      If by LIncoln’s “announcement” two years into the war you mean his Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, that document was strategically targeted at Great Britain, who was expected to recognize and lend support to the Confederacy in order to maintain the flow of cotton to Britain’s textile mills. By issuing that Proclamation, Lincoln knew Britain would be forced into choosing support for slavery, which she herself outlawed three decades before. Lincoln’s strategy worked. Britain withheld its support and turned to Egypt for its cotton.

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