The Founders: Simply Men of Their Time?

Sometimes the founders' attitudes towards slavery are excused because they were just "men of their time." Well, this defense, if true, is not terrible: for instance, as far as my research turned up, nobody, including American women, was saying in 1800 that women should have the vote. (Yes, I imagine I could have missed someone, but the point stands: this view was exceedingly rare.) So if basically no one was on about this, well, I think we can excuse Washington and Jefferson and Madison for ignoring the issue.

But when Madison writes about slaves that they had a "natural and habitual repugnance to labour" (Madison and Jefferson, p. 533) is he just being a "man of his time"? Doesn't it occur to him, as a supposed defender of liberty, that this repugnance it quite natural when you are being forced to labor at no pay for your slave master's benefit?

And what about Edward Coles, who was a man of the exact same time? "Coles grew up identifying with the first families of Virginia and, like Jefferson, attended the College of William and Mary. This privileged young Virginian, as secretary to President Madison, felt comfortable sending to Jefferson a pressing appeal to help him bring an end to slavery in their home state. Coles planned to emancipate his slaves, bring them to Illinois, and give them land -- it would be 160 acres each when he succeeded in realizing his plan a decade later" (Madison and Jefferson, pp. 534-535).

Jefferson declined to help. Coles hadn't even bothered to write his boss, Madison, since he knew he would get no help from him. And Coles was far from the only abolitionist around at the time.


  1. Yeah. If everybody was a man (or woman) of their time, it would still be that time!

    The thing I like best about Christianity is actually the doctrine of Original Sin, which I take as having the secular meaning, none of us is good enough. Each of us is less good than we could and should be. The "man of his time" defense seems like epic complacency set against that standard.

  2. Slight correction on women voting (this is a small nitpick, but it is one of my areas of research): women did have the vote in New Jersey in 1800. They had to meet the same qualification as men, which was property ownership. And since few women owned property (mostly widows), voting by women was rare. But it is an interesting episode in the history of suffrage. See:

    1. Interesting, Jeremy. I had looked through a good deal of writing from the Founders and hadn't found anyone worried about this. I have read that Burr was somewhat of a proto-feminist, however.


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