- If slavery was a neutral thing for most colonials and early Americans, the Founding Fathers are on record with a position. On the one end Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton were against it; in the middle Thomas Jefferson, while believing that enslaved blacks should be free, also believed they were inferior — and never found a way to divorce himself and his way of life from his Monticello plantation and his
little mountainof slavery.
There is a more nuanced middle inhabited by James Madison — slave-owner, political philosopher and practical repositioner,
three-fifths-er, and Father of the Constitution — who truly believed that Africans were equal to whites yet never found a way to let go of the
peculiar institutionenjoyed by the South. See Noah Feldman on James Madison’s Lessons in Racism (29-Oct-2017) for a look at Madison and his evolving political positions vs. his unchanging personal one.
Madison's Lessons in Racism
American artillery captain John Henry, the twenty-year-old son of Virginia governor Patrick Henry, had distinguished himself in battle [at Saratoga in 1777]. After the cataclysm died down, he wandered the field, staring at the faces, the blue lips, dead staring eyes and glistening teeth, of men he had known. The sight unhinged him. He broke his sword in half and went
raving mad. He disappeared for months and never fought again.