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Important quotes from the American Founders on equality, slavery, and race.

Essential Quotes

The U.S. National Archives / FlickrDeclaration 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. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” – From Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776

 

Unknown source Gilbert StuartThomas Jefferson

“The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.” – 

From “Letter to Roger C. Weightman,” June 24, 1826

“He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither….Determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought and sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce.” – From “Rough Draft of the Declaration of Independence,” July 2, 1776

“And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever.…The spirit of the master is abating, that of the slave rising from the dust, his condition mollifying, the way I hope preparing, under the auspices of heaven, for a total emancipation, and that this is disposed, in the order of events, to be with the consent of the masters, rather than by their extirpation.” – From “Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XVIII,” 1781

“The cession of that kind of property, for so it is misnamed, is a bagatelle which would not cost me a second thought, if, in that way, a general emancipation and expatriation could be effected; and, gradually, and with due sacrifices, I think it might be. But as it is, we have the wolf by the ears, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.” – From “Letter to John Holmes,” April 22, 1820

UT Library img395 Alonzo Chappel

George Washington

"I hope it will not be conceived from these observations, that it is my wish to hold the unhappy people, who are the subject of this letter, in slavery. I can only say that there is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it." – From “Letter to Robert Morris,” April 12, 1786

"I could wish, I own, that the dispute had been left to Posterity to determine, but the Crisis is arrivd when we must assert our Rights, or Submit to every Imposition that can be heap’d upon us; till custom and use, will make us as tame, & abject Slaves, as the Blacks we Rule over with such arbitrary Sway." – From “Letter to Bryan Fairfax,” August 24, 1774

Wikipedia CommonsJohn Adams

"The terpitude the inhumanity the Cruelty and the Infamy of the Affrican Commerce in Slaves have been so impressively represented to the publick—by the Highest powers of Eloquence that nothing that I can say would increase the just Odium in which it is and ought to be held every measure of prudence therefore ought to be assumed for the eventual total extirpation of Slavery—from the U.S." – From “Letter to Robert J. Evans,” June 9, 1819

 

Public domainBenjamin Franklin

Slavery is such an atrocious debasement of human nature, that its very extirpation, if not performed with solicitous care, may sometimes open a source of serious evils. The unhappy man, who has long been treated as a brute animal, too frequently sinks beneath the common standard of the human species. The galling chains, that bind his body, do also fetter his intellectual faculties, and impair the social affections of his heart. Accustomed to move like a mere machine, by the will of a master, reflection is suspended; he has not the power of choice; and reason and conscience have but little influence over his conduct, because he is chiefly governed by the passion of fear. He is poor and friendless; perhaps worn out by extreme labor, age, and disease. Under such circumstances, freedom may often prove a misfortune to himself, and prejudicial to society.” – From “Making the Transition from Slavery to Freedom,” 1796

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Alexander Hamilton

“The contempt we have been taught to entertain for the blacks, makes us fancy many things that are founded neither in reason nor experience; and an unwillingness to part with property of so valuable a kind will furnish a thousand arguments to show the impracticability or pernicious tendency of a scheme which requires such a sacrifice…An essential part of the plan is to give them their freedom with their muskets. This will secure their fidelity, animate their courage, and I believe will have a good influence upon those who remain, by opening a door to their emancipation. This circumstance, I confess, has no small weight in inducing me to wish the success of the project.” – From “Letter to John Jay,” March 14, 1779

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Gouverneur Morris

"[Slavery] was a nefarious institution. It was the curse of Heaven on the States where it prevailed." – From “Debates in the Constitutional Convention,” August 8, 1787

 

 

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James Madison

"We have seen the mere distinction of colour made in the most enlightened period of time, a ground of the most oppressive dominion ever exercised by man over man."– From “Debates at the Constitutional Convention,” June 6, 1787

"The true state of the case is that [slaves] partake of both these qualities: being considered by our laws, in some respects, as persons, and in other respects as property. In being compelled to labor, not for himself, but for a master; in being vendible by one master to another master; and in being subject at all times to be restrained in his liberty and chastised in his body, by the capricious will of another—the slave may appear to be degraded from the human rank, and classed with those irrational animals which fall under the legal denomination of property. In being protected, on the other hand, in his life and in his limbs, against the violence of all others, even the master of his labor and his liberty; and in being punishable himself for all violence committed against others—the slave is no less evidently regarded by the law as a member of the society, not as a part of the irrational creation; as a moral person, not as a mere article of property." – From “Federalist 54,” February 12, 1788

http://web9r.durango.k12.co.us/grants/teachingamhistory/images/george_mason.jpg ([1]) John Hesselius

George Mason

"[Slavery] produce[s] the most pernicious effect on manners. Every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant. They bring the judgment of Heaven on a country. As nations cannot be rewarded or punished in the next world, they must be in this. By an inevitable chain of causes and effects, Providence punishes national sins by national calamities." – From "Debates on the Slave Trade Clause," August 21, 1787

 

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James Wilson

“But however great the variety and inequality of men may be with regard to virtue, talents, taste, and acquirements; there is still one aspect, in which all men in society, previous to civil government, are equal. With regard to all, there is an equality in rights and in obligations; there is that ‘jus aequum,’ that equal law, in which the Romans placed true freedom. The natural rights and duties of man belong equally to all. Each forms a part of that great system, whose greatest interest and happiness are intended by all the laws of God and nature.” – From Lectures on Law, 1791

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John Jay

"It is much to be wished that slavery may be abolished. The honour of the States, as well as justice and humanity, in my opinion, loudly call upon them to emancipate these unhappy people. To contend for our own liberty, and to deny that blessing to others, involves an inconsistency not to be excused." – From "Letter to R. Lushington," March 15, 1786

RealClear's American Civics project explores the principles and practices every patriotic citizen should know.

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