Madison's Lessons in Racism

  • 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 mountain of 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 institution enjoyed 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.

JDN | 1-Nov-2017

The Revolutionary leaders never intended to create an original and peculiar indigenous culture. Despite all their talk of American exceptionalism and American virtue in contrast with European corruption, they were seeking not to cut themselves off from Europe’s cultural heritage but to embrace it and in fact to fulfill it. It is a mistake to view America’s post-Revolutionary emulation of Europe as a legacy of helpless dependence passed on from colonial days. Americans imitated European styles and forms not because in their naïveté they could nothing else but because they wanted to.... Their revolution was very much an international affair, an attempt to fulfill the cosmopolitan dreams of the Enlightenment.

Gordon S. Wood
Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789–1815 (2009)