- 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
But Adams did not just read books. He battled them. The casual presumption that there is some kind of rough correlation between the books in the library of any prominent historical figure and the person’s cast of mind would encounter catastrophe with Adams, because he tended to buy and read book with which he profoundly disagreed. Then, as he read, he recorded in the margins and at the bottom of the pages his usually hostile opinions of the arguments and authors.... [T]he Adams marginalia constitute evidence more revealing of his convictions about political theory than any of his official publications.