Magazine | October 15, 2012, Issue

Letters

Obama and the Founders

In “Obama’s Truth” (October 1), Charles R. Kesler does a remarkable job of sorting through some of the muddled thinking in Barack Obama’s The Audacity of Hope. But Mr. Kesler is too hard on our president’s attempts to reconcile the seemingly inclusive language in our founding documents with the existence of slavery.

He seems to believe that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution have always been understood to apply to black Americans. For example, he writes that the Founders only “allegedly exclud[ed] black Americans from constitutional protections as equal human beings and citizens” (emphasis added).

It seems obvious to me, however, that the founding generation of the South would not have signed on to the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution if these documents were understood to protect the rights of blacks. Further, the Constitution explicitly, albeit temporarily, protected the international slave trade. And many of the individuals who signed our founding documents owned slaves themselves.

One need not drink the Howard Zinn Kool-Aid to believe that when the Founders wrote “We the People,” they meant some people more than others.

Bob Tuvgen

Seattle, Wash.

Charles R. Kesler replies: I thank Mr. Tuvgen for his letter, but I don’t think his conclusion follows from his facts. As the distinguished historian Bernard Bailyn pointed out, the Declaration of Independence did not solve the problem of slavery in America; it created the problem. Or to paraphrase Harry V. Jaffa’s trenchant statement of the same point, the wonder was not that a nation with lots of slaveowners did not immediately free its slaves. The wonder was that a nation of slaveowners declared that “all men are created equal,” thus making emancipation a moral and eventually a political necessity.

Many signers of the Declaration or the Constitution were slaveholding southerners, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson prominently among them. Yet neither man doubted that slavery was wrong, a violation of natural right — that is, of black men and women’s humanity. This conviction was so widespread that, for example, both houses of the first Congress under the Constitution acted unanimously to exclude slavery from spreading into the Northwest Territory, the only territory then owned by the United States. “We the People,” North and South, understood the wrong of slavery. How and when to right that wrong was, of course, a matter of controversy.

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