Pete Buttigieg’s remark that America’s Founding Fathers “did not understand that slavery was a bad thing” has stoked once more the argument over the relationship between the founding and slavery. This comes on the heels of the New York Times’s 1619 Project, which revived the old falsehood that the Constitution’s authors designed it to protect that awful practice forever—an argument thoroughly refuted by myself and others. But Buttigieg’s wording takes a more moderate position: The Founders may not have endorsed slavery, but they also didn’t oppose it. When they wrote in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal,” they didn’t mean it literally, and neither intended nor expected their words to be used by the generation that followed as a weapon of liberation.
This is less malicious than the Times’s position, but no less false. And while it would be unfair to focus specifically on Buttigieg’s words—he was speaking extemporaneously in 2014, about a different subject—the theory that the Founders did not actually mean “all men are created equal,” or that 19-century anti-slavery leaders like Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass were cleverly reinterpreting these words when they said so, is widely shared by historians and lawyers today.
Championed primarily by the late historian Pauline Maier, this theory holds that when the Founders wrote “all men,” they didn’t think their words would include black people. Maier argued that it was the subsequent generation—particularly Lincoln—who viewed the Declaration as “a living document” and “enlist[ed]” it “on behalf” on anti-slavery arguments. In something like a Platonic noble lie, they were adapting, for laudable anti-slavery purposes, words that were not written with that intention.
But the reality is that the authors of the Declaration and the Constitution were quite clear in their understanding that slavery was “a bad thing”—so much so that it would be tedious to quote examples to prove their virtual unanimity on that point. They also understood that it was irreconcilable with the Declaration’s self-evident truth of equality. They said so at the time—and if they had somehow overlooked it, they were soon informed of it by British opponents, such as Jeremy Bentham, who argued that the proposition must be false, because slavery is ubiquitous and dates to prehistoric times.