Slavery and the Declaration
Let’s look at the underpinnings of the system of government the Founders created. First, one more look at the Declaration (see Truth v. Myth: The Declaration of Independence), because I said we’d come back to Locke and the line we changed to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Locke (1632-1704) was the person who really formulated a theory of government based on natural rights (emphasis on theory—he never thought it could be put into practice).
In 1689 and 1690, he published two treatises on government. In them, he stated that “Reason…teaches all Mankind…that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his Life, Health, Liberty, or Possessions.” You can see the “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” kernel here.
Of all the possessions that a person could have, property was most important to Locke. Now, property meant something different to Locke than it does to us. It didn’t mean things or land that were owned. For Locke, property basically meant the work a person is able to do. Your body is your own property, and the work you are able to do belongs to you and you alone. The only reason to accept government is if that government pledges to protect your right to do the work you want to do, and your right to the profits from that labor. If your government won’t do that, you have the right to rebel against it.
[You’d think Locke was anti-slavery, right? No. Unbelievably, he was not. That’s because his thinking about property extended only to educated, non-poor people. Like many educated people at the time, Locke believed that the poor and uneducated were dangerous, and could never be turned into thinking, free people. The best thing for them was to be put to work serving those who were actually free, thinking people. Locke proposed that poor children should be put to work at the age of three, basically in conditions of slavery. There were calls by Enlightenment thinkers to enslave 200,000 poor English and Scots people in Britain—the same number of people who were at that time enslaved in Virginia. See Edmund Morgan’s great book American Slavery, American Freedom for more on this.]
So Locke’s principles were summed up as Life, Liberty, and Property. And the Founders were basing their declaration of independence from Britain on Locke’s principle, that a government that did not allow those natural rights could be overthrown. So why doesn’t the Declaration say “that among these are, Life, Liberty, and Property”?
Because of slavery. Anti-slavery Founders did not want to write “Property” into the foundation of the new nation because they knew that Locke’s definition of property as the right to work was unique to him. No one else thought of property that way. They thought of property as things you buy and sell and own. Slaveholding Americans included human beings in this definition of property. So if the Declaration stated that property was a natural right, then slaveholders would be able to say that slavery was not only protected by the Declaration, but was one of the very foundation stones of the United States.
But the anti-slavery Founders couldn’t come out and say this, or slaveholding delegates would leave Philadelphia, and there would be no Declaration, no United States. So they cleverly chose to focus on a different Lockeian idea: happiness.
To Locke, happiness was not pleasure, but being free to pursue an ideal as you see fit. For example, an athlete who devotes her life to training and competition, always striving for perfect form and high achievement, breaking and setting new records, is pursuing an ideal, and therefore to Locke, she is experiencing happiness. Everyone has the right to pursue whatever ideal appeals to them. They should not be prevented from doing so, by being forced to do meaningless work where perfection means nothing, and they should not be forced into pursuing an ideal they don’t care about. Happiness is a commitment to a passionate perfection of being.
So the anti-slavery Founders put in happiness instead of property, thus avoiding sanctioning slavery as a natural and inalienable right. Because Americans did care about slavery, and there were many who wanted to get rid of it, and enough Founders who either wanted to get rid of slavery or who were too ashamed of their pro-slavery stance to allow for the substitution of happiness for property. There’s the first blow to the idea that “no one cared” about slavery, and that the Founders betrayed all revolutionary principles by allowing slavery.
The basic problem Americans faced for the next 85 years is made plain here. Anti-slavery Americans could not fight the war or create the nation without pro-slavery Americans. Of course Americans, including the Founders, saw that slavery was a violation of natural rights. And that did matter to them. But here was the catch: if you insisted on banning slavery, there would be no United States; if you allowed slavery, there wouldn’t be the United States you really wanted.
Why didn’t non-slaveholding Americans just say screw it, if I can’t have the United States I really want, I don’t want any United States at all? First, because that was a lot to throw away, especially after a devastating war for independence that seemed to have been won only by the will of God. Second, because many antislavery Americans felt that slavery would soon be a non-issue.
So many slaveholding Americans were inspired by the ideals of the Declaration—the Spirit of ’76—that they talked openly of getting rid of slavery. There was real momentum during the war to get rid of slavery, even amongst slaveholders, that lasted until after the Constitution was written. Even slaveholders were inspired by what the new nation was trying to do. They admitted that slavery was morally wrong, and out of keeping with the ideals of the Revolution. “Slavery is a Moral, and political Evil,” wrote James Madison in 1790; “and …Whoever brings forward …some [plan] for the Gradual Emancipation of Slaves, will deserve Well of his Country.” [Ellis 114] In 1782, the Virginia legislature passed a law allowing slaveholders to free the people they were enslaving if the slaveholders wished to do so. By 1790, over 12,000 enslaved Americans had been freed. [Ellis 90]
It was really only a progressive segment of slaveholders, mostly in Virginia, who held these views. But as Virginia went, so went the South, and it seemed feasible to hope that slaveholders were almost ready to let go of slavery on their own. Therefore, anti-slavery Founders believed there was no point pushing hard for abolition. That would just cause friction and get slaveholders angry. It would sabotage the cause. If anti-slavery Americans just waited, in a very short time slaveholders would end slavery on their own, peacefully. The whole slave system was dying of cancer; there was no need to shoot it.
So the Founders put in Happiness and left out Property and looked forward to a time, just a few years away, when slavery would disappear, dying under the weight of its own shame.