Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Seven words you can never say on TV: "Actually, just a slight majority of slaveholders"

I saw this item concerning the recent death of comedian George Carlin:

Quipped Carlin in one of his routines,

"This country was founded by a group of slave owners who told us that all men are created equal. That is what's known as being stunningly, stunningly full of [expletive]."

One never takes a comedian too literally, as comics paint in a medium where laughs are important, accuracy is irrelevant. But the item on the late funnyman did get me to wondering just how many of the founders owned slaves. Obviously, with his connection of "slavery" and "all men are created equal," Carlin is referring to the Declaration of Independence in general and to Thomas Jefferson in particular. But where slaveholders are concerned, I'm more interested in the Constitution, as this was the document that essentially founded the country, and this is where the compromises on slavery are found, like the three-fifths clause.

So how many of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention had slaves? There were fifty-five of them, although only thirty-nine ultimately signed the finished product. According to Forrest McDonald, "at least" thirty of the fifty-five were slaveholders (Novus Ordo Seclorum: The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution, 1985, p. 220). I'm not sure about the Professor's use of the qualifying phrase "at least." Maybe there are a couple of delegates we don't know about. Perhaps some of the men were involved in confusing ownership arrangements where it isn't clear if they owned land or also the slaves toiling on it, an interesting possibility since there was some legal disagreement and confusion as to whether slaves were real property or personal property (see Fehrenbacher, The Dred Scott Case, 1978, p. 32). And of course, one could make the argument that a New England delegate in the business of exporting textiles made from southern cotton was involved with slavery, whether or not he personally was a slaveholder.

With those codicils, if there actually were thirty slaveholders out of fifty-five men at the Constitutional Convention, that's just a little more than half, 54.5%. So the country wasn't really founded by slaveholders; some slaveholders were founders.

I'll bet they'd all have laughed at Carlin's routine about his dog farting, however...

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