Anti-slavery revolutionaries who practiced what they preached


George Washington once described slavery as his life’s “only unavoidable subject of regret.” Thomas Jefferson decried the practice as a “moral depravity” and a “hideous blot” and said that slavery presented the greatest threat to the future survival of America. And James Madison called it “the most oppressive dominion ever exercised by man over man.”

Though each of these men publicly deplored its existence, they never ended the practice of slavery in their personal lives.

Not every Founding Father who bemoaned the practice is guilty of hypocrisy, however. The following men — along with John Laurens, Samuel Adams, Robert Paine, and Oliver Ellsworth, among others — not only spoke out against the institution publicly, they refused to participate in the enterprise in their personal lives as well.

John Adams, for instance, disavowed slavery completely. Adams accomplished a great deal as the second president of the United States and as a Founding Father. He contributed significantly to America’s founding documents, championed independence from Great Britain, was an integral diplomat abroad who negotiated desperately needed loans from the Dutch to keep America afloat during the Revolutionary War, and kept the country out of war with France during his presidency.

Perhaps his most praiseworthy accomplishment though is his being one of only two of America’s first 12 presidents to never own a slave — his son, John Quincy Adams, being the other.

The senior Adams decried the institution as a “foul contagion in the human character” and as “an evil of colossal magnitude” and said the American Revolution would never be complete until all slaves were free. Despite being personally opposed to slavery, Adams did not support most attempts at abolitionism during America’s fragile infancy and said he preferred a more gradual approach. He did, however, offer encouragement to abolitionists who sought a more sudden end to the practice, writing: “(I) wish you success in your benevolent endeavors to relieve the distress of our fellow creatures, and shall always be ready to cooperate with you, as far as my means and opportunities can reasonably be expected to extend.”

Thomas Paine took an even stronger position against slavery. Referred to as “The Father of the American Revolution” for his writing “Common Sense,” Paine may deserve more credit than any of the founders for galvanizing the colonies into seeking outright independence from Great Britain. His writings were so widely-read and influential that John Adams once said: “Without the pen of the author of ‘Common Sense,’ the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain.”

Paine was famous throughout the new nation and used his influence to advocate for the abolishment of slavery. He never owned a slave himself and spoke out against the practice with ferocity. He published an article in the Pennsylvania Magazine that attacked slavery as an “execrable commerce” and an “outrage against humanity and justice.” He wrote a similar tract in London to aid in passing the abolitionist “Slave Act” when he resided on the other side of the Atlantic.

Marquis de Lafayette is another such example. While Lafayette never signed any of America’s founding documents and is not usually considered a Founding Father, his contributions to the cause are significant and worth noting. The wealthy Frenchman left his home country at the start of the American Revolution to aid the Continental Army in their fight against the British. He immediately became a close friend and aide to George Washington and served under his command. He was promoted to the rank of General and negotiated tirelessly between America and our ally, France. Historians praise his efforts and recognize his significant contributions to the Continental Army’s victory at Yorktown.

During the war Lafayette became friends with an enslaved soldier named James Armistead, who fought alongside the young Frenchman in the siege of Richmond. Their friendship affected his views on slavery. Though he never owned slaves, Lafayette became an advocate for emancipation and one of the first things he did after the war was to lobby Washington to join his cause — an offer the General politely declined.

Using his personal funds, Lafayette purchased a plantation in the French colony of Cayenne with the intention of freeing slaves through gradual manumission. He also appealed to King Louis XVI to support the endeavor and became an inspiration to other abolitionists through his words and his deeds. Frederick Douglass praised Lafayette’s efforts and wrote that he considered the revolutionary to be a “true abolitionist” and one of the few men of the time who embraced racial equality.

Roger Sherman called the slave trade “iniquitous” and never owned a slave either. He’s the only Founding Father to sign all four of America’s founding documents: The Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, the Articles of Confederation and the Articles of Association — which ended trade with Great Britain. What’s more, the U.S. Constitution may have never come to be if it wasn’t for the Connecticut delegate’s “Great Compromise” proposal to provide a duel system of congressional representation by dividing Congress into the Senate and the House of Representatives.

In addition to ending the deadlock at the Constitutional Convention, Sherman opposed a tax on slaves as well, stating that doing so would imply they were property and not human beings. He was also instrumental in passing several acts aimed at restricting and eventually eliminating slavery in his home state of Connecticut. Even though he did at last compromise with southern colonies at the convention on some of the provisions protecting slaves in order to keep those colonies in the union, Sherman deserves to be recognized for being what his biographer, Mark David Hall, praised as a “lifelong opponent of slavery.” Hall writes in “Roger Sherman and the Creation of the American Republic” that Sherman “consistently opposed slavery because he believed all humans were made in the image of God and must be treated with dignity.”

Gouverneur Morris believed similarly and was another delegate at the Constitutional Convention who spoke openly against slavery. Though Morris came from a slave-owning family, he never owned slaves himself. Morris is one of the more noteworthy Founding Fathers because he wrote the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution and aided Madison with much of the founding document’s language. He also signed both the U.S. Constitution and the Articles of Confederation and he represented Pennsylvania at the Constitutional Convention.

In addition to advocating for a strong central government, Morris gave a blazing anti-slavery speech at the convention stating that it was incongruous to say that a slave was both property and a man at the same time. Madison characterized Morris’s speech as recognizing that the institution of slavery acted “in defiance of the most sacred laws of humanity,” and that Morris viewed the “nefarious practice” with “a laudable horror.”

Nearly a century later, when President Lincoln was citing the “most noted antislavery men of those times,” Gouverneur Morris was one of three founders he recognized especially.

Alexander Hamilton needs no introduction thanks to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton.” The “Founding Father without a father” helped Washington lead the Continental Army to victory against the British, founded the U.S. Coast Guard and the nation’s financial system as America’s first Treasury Secretary, and he wrote the majority of the Federalist Papers — helping to ensure the eventual ratification of the U.S. Constitution by all Thirteen Colonies.

One of his most respectable accomplishments was being a founding member of the New York Manumission Society — an organization dedicated to abolishing slavery in his home state of New York. The society pushed for gradual emancipation in the state and such a law did eventually pass during Hamilton’s lifetime. Despite this, it should be noted that Hamilton is not considered by some historians to be an abolitionist. Though he’s universally recognized as being genuinely antislavery, historian Annette Gordon-Reed has noted that “opposing slavery was never at the forefront of his agenda,” and historian Michelle DuRoss has pointed to documentation suggesting Hamilton and his wife Eliza may have owned slaves after all. (A point which has been contested by other scholars.)

Indeed in “Alexander Hamilton,” historian Ron Chernow praises Hamilton as an “unwavering abolitionist who saw emancipation of the slaves as an inseparable part of the struggle for freedom,” and lauds Hamilton for never owning slaves while so many of his contemporaries profited handsomely from the enterprise. “Few, if any, other Founding Fathers opposed slavery more consistently or toiled harder to eradicate it than Hamilton,” writes Chernow.

Benjamin Franklin’s objections to slavery are also worth noting, despite his being the only revolutionary on this list to have ever personally owned slaves. Franklin’s contributions to the great American experiment have been noted far and wide. He helped draft both the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, and he negotiated the Treaty of Paris which effectively ended the Revolutionary War. Franklin was also an important philosopher, inventor, lawmaker, printer, scientist, and diplomat. He has consistently been proven to be a man ahead of his time — including in his personal evolutions on the issue of slavery.

While he owned a few slaves as household servants for part of his life, and, as a young man, carried advertisements for the sale of slaves in his newspaper, Franklin eventually came to recognize the evils of the practice and freed his slaves and became a staunch abolitionist. Franklin served as president of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery — a society dedicated to both freeing slaves and helping them become better citizens.

What’s more, in February 1790 — just three months before his death — Franklin presented Congress with a formal abolition petition that declared: “Mankind are all formed by the same almighty being, alike objects of his care, and equally designed for the enjoyment of happiness.”

While each of these men deserve to be praised for practicing what they preached regarding slavery, they still had many shortcomings and made mistakes along the way. Like Washington, Jefferson and Madison, they were all products of their time and often didn’t speak or act as they should have despite their being on the right side of history on the issue of slavery.

Writing for The New Yorker, journalist Louisa Thomas captures the moment in time for every founder: “There was then, as there is now, an idealized vision of a grand new experiment in freedom. But, in their lives, there were messy, sometimes intolerable contradictions. The past is like the present, in one important way: it isn’t always what we want it to be.”

Daryl Austin is an editor and writer based in Utah. He has written for The Wall Street Journal, NBC News, Live Science, Business Insider and Newsweek.