Those who find the United States Constitution too confining, or too burdensome are turning, as a first step, their attacks on the Founding Fathers who wrote that Constitution. One critic writes: "The Founding Fathers of this nation were all privileged white men who intended this country to be created by white people--or more specifically, by white men--for white people, with white men in control." (Susan K. Smith.) Such people point to the fact that most of the Founding Fathers were slave owners.
To properly understand slavery one must understand the background; and as is often the case (for example as in global warming) we need to go back many, many years to obtain the correct perspective The first recorded slavery was 4 to 5,000 years ago. But it existed way before that. Some have even suggested 10,000 years ago, but records have not survived. The book of Exodus in the Old Testament documents the slavery of the Jewish people in Egypt about 3,500 years ago.
Down through history conquering armies have often taken their opponents as slaves. Superior forces subdued the inferior. Prominent captives could be ransomed. Others would be sold as slaves. All races and religions have been involved. It was considered the "norm" in most societies of the world.
In the time of the Roman Empire slaves constituted 30-40% of the average population. The slaves were obtained in one of four ways: conquered by armies; pirate raids on other vessels or coastal towns; births to other slaves; or by individuals who were unable to pay their debts any other way.
Some ancient Greek cities had about 30% slaves. In the Ottoman Empire the city of Constantinople (now Istanbul) had 20% slaves. These European slaves all had fair skins. In the Middle Ages the Vikings raided the coastal towns of the British Isles, and sold their captives as slaves in Islamic markets. Muslims themselves slayed many white Christian men and sold their wives as sex slaves to North African harems. Christians themselves were not angels--they also took Muslims as slaves.
In Africa the same procedures were followed. African tribes captured their enemies (not their neighbors), and sold them as slaves to Europeans and Asians. In early colonial times slave traders bought the slaves from local Africans by barter. There was a triangular trade. Goods were shipped to Africa from England, Holland, or Portugal. Those goods were payment for the slaves, who were then loaded in crowded conditions on these ships and sent to the West Indies or America. The slaves were then sold in local slave markets. (Savanah, Georgia has a surviving historical market.) Then the vessels returned to their home base filled with sugar, rum, cotton, or other commodities, and the triangular trade was repeated.
In the 1600s slavery was permitted in the American colonies. There is a notable case in 1654 when Virginia sanctioned "the right of Negroes to own their own slaves." In America and elsewhere slaves were considered property. You owned a slave just as you would own a table or a hammer. The "property" could be passed down to the next generation. This continued unchallenged until the late 18th Century.
In 1772 England became the first country in the world to outlaw the slave trade within its borders, and in 1807 they made international slave trade illegal, as did America one year later. In the 1850s the newly formed Republican party opposed slavery, and in 1863 Lincoln made the Emancipation Proclamation.
But we turn back to the Founding Fathers. George Washington had slaves, as did all landowners of his time. He inherited them from his father. He also gained many more from his marriage to Martha Curtis. But when he died in 1799 he emancipated all the slaves he owned. Another Founding Father--Thomas Jefferson--had slaves at Monticello, but he came to say: "The abolition of domestic slavery is the great object of desire in those colonies." He thoughtfully reasoned--if slaves were immediately freed where would they go? What would they do? He proposed that the Federal government should buy them and then train them to do meaningful work. He helped two of his household slaves to "escape," and freed two others.
So instead of criticizing the Founding Fathers for their slave ownership, we should applaud them for the transition they instigated after many thousands of years of the practice of this oppressive activity. They carefully crafted the United States Constitution that has guided this democracy for over two hundred years.
Peter Gilderson, Madison, 601-853-4632