Slavery officially ended in the United States on Dec. 18, 1865, when the secretary of state announced the ratification of the 13th Amendment. Today, 150 years later, slavery still enters the debate in many controversial political issues, from inequality to racism. While it’s become almost chic in certain academic circles to stereotype America’s Founding Fathers as narrow-minded slave owners, the reality is much more nuanced. Certainly, the U.S. Constitution codified slavery. However, many of these early American leaders abhorred slavery, but realized that confronting the issue during the fragile republic’s early years could have disastrous consequences. Yet some of these early leaders who spoke passionately against slavery were, in fact, slave owners. Unfortunately, history is never quite as black and white — pardon the expression — as we would like to believe.
5. George Washington: Hated Slavery, But Owned Slaves
George Washington became a slave owner at age 11, when his father died and left him 10 slaves. He owned slaves the rest of his life. The young Washington’s slave holdings expanded in 1759 with his marriage to Martha Dandridge Custis, who brought 84 slaves entrusted to her when her wealthy husband died without a will a couple of years earlier. At the time of his death in 1799, Washington’s Mount Vernon estate had 318 slaves.
But Washington’s views on slavery underwent a radical transformation during the American Revolution. How could he, a general leading the fight for the 13 colonies’ freedom from Great Britain, condone slavery? Washington also came to admire the fighting skills of black soldiers, and approved the enlistment of blacks in the Continental Army. In a letter to an associate in 1786, Washington noted, “There is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it.” Washington’s will left instructions for the slaves under his control to be freed following his wife’s death.
4. Thomas Jefferson: Slave Owner Said Slavery ‘Abominable’
It’s common knowledge that the third president of the United States and the author of the Declaration of Independence owned slaves. That seems unconscionable for a man who called slavery “an abominable crime,” the man who in 1778 drafted legislation that would prohibit the importation of slaves into Virginia. Jefferson maintained his slave holdings his entire life out of a sense of duty: Influenced by the prevailing wisdom of the era, he thought blacks incapable of caring for themselves in free society. In 1820, Jefferson wrote, “Nothing would induce me to put my negroes out of my own protection.”
Jefferson believed that blacks were inferior to whites, and that giving freedom to, “persons whose habits have been formed in slavery is like abandoning children.” Upon Jefferson’s death, he freed only a handful of slaves, tradesmen he thought could make it on their own in society.
3. James Madison: Thought Integration to Be Impossible
The fourth U.S. president wrote and spoke eloquently about the abolition of slavery on many occasions. In a speech at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, he said, “We have seen the mere distinction of color made in the most enlightened period of time, a ground of the most oppressive dominion ever exercised by man over man.” In a letter to an associate, he wrote, “If slavery, as a national evil, is to be abolished, and it be just that it be done at the national expense, the amount of the expense is not a paramount consideration.”
You can probably guess where this is going — despite his personal feelings on the issue, Madison owned slaves. Upon his father’s death in 1801, he inherited a large plantation, Montpelier, and more than 100 slaves. If he were so opposed in theory to slavery, why not free his slaves? And why not work harder for the abolition of slavery? According to Montpelier.org, he became obsessed with the issue of slavery later in life, but was convinced that freed slaves and whites could never live together. As he wrote to one abolitionist, “the physical peculiarities of those held in bondage,” made them unfit for integration into white society. That led Madison to support efforts to free slaves and ship them back to Africa. Yet Madison died without ever freeing a slave, leaving his “negroes and people of colour” to his wife, Dolley.
2. James Monroe: Wanted to Free Slaves, Send Them to Africa
The fifth American president supported the “repatriation” of freed slaves to Liberia, a country founded in Africa as a colony for freed American slaves; the colony’s capitol, Monrovia, is named in his honor. Monroe inherited his first slave, “a negro boy Ralph,” when he was 16. Like many early leaders, he philosophically opposed slavery, but did not support equal rights. He worried that freeing slaves would lead to violence and a race war. Generally regarded as a kind slave owner, Monroe advocated mercy for slaves even under the most difficult circumstances. While governor of Virginia in 1800, he sent the militia to counter a massive slave uprising, known as Gabriel’s Rebellion. At the trial for the rebellious slaves, Monroe argued on behalf of those slaves he believed had been coerced into incriminating testimony.
1. Abraham Lincoln: Worried About Union, Not Ending Slavery
The 16th president earned the nickname “The Great Emancipator,” and slaves were freed by the 13th Amendment that Congress ratified several months after the Civil War ended. So it’s understandable that many Americans have the misconception that Lincoln freed the slaves. Although Lincoln had long been adamantly opposed to slavery, he had no interest in going to war against the South for abolition purposes. His primary mission: preserving the Union. In a famous letter to the editor of the New York Tribune in 1862, Lincoln noted, “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery.”
Contrary to popular belief, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation did not technically free a single slave. It applied only to slaves in states that were “in rebellion against the United States.” Of course, he had no power over those states at the time.