The Sowell Digest

History the Left Erased: The Founding Fathers Helped Obliterate Slavery


Few figures in conservatism are more revered than Thomas Sowell. A free-market economist, social theorist and philosopher, Sowell’s work has spanned decades and influenced generations.

Sowell wrote a nationally syndicated column, authored dozens of books and dazzled television audiences time and time again with his common sense, anti-intellectual approach to political and cultural issues.

The following story is part of The Western Journal’s exclusive series “The Sowell Digest.” Each issue will break down and summarize one of Sowell’s many influential works.

Four years ago, The New York Times called into question the motives of the country’s founders when it launched its controversial, inaccurate and wildly celebrated “1619 Project.”

The series ultimately argued that the United States was founded on the institution of slavery and that the country’s founders were so willing to preserve that institution that they fought a years-long war that just so happened to birth the greatest nation in world history.

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The Times offered a platform for the idea that America was founded the moment slaves first arrived in what Europeans then called “The New World.”

In March 2020, Leslie M. Harris, a professor of history at Northwestern University, fact-checked the Times and reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones’s introductory “1619” essay.

“[T]he paper’s characterizations of slavery in early America reflected laws and practices more common in the antebellum era than in Colonial times, and did not accurately illustrate the varied experiences of the first generation of enslaved people that arrived in Virginia in 1619,” wrote Harris.

The Times forged ahead with the project.

Months later, George Floyd died in the custody of the Minneapolis Police Department and a full-on culture war began. An assault on the country’s institutions and history was soon led largely by the neo-Marxist Black Lives Matter movement.

Statues and monuments of Confederate Civil War generals fell first. Then, the mobs came for George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and even Abraham Lincoln.

Black Lives Matter has since lost much of its credibility with the American people, while the Times has had to dial back much of its “1619” rhetoric.

But those who attempted to rewrite the country’s history for their own benefit did significant damage to it.

Not only did forces on the radical left question the motives of the architects of the republic, but they also cast them and those who proudly enjoy the promise of America each day as vile racists.

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In the aftermath of civil unrest and a targeted campaign against the country’s roots, some classroom curriculum has been corrupted, while conventional knowledge of the country’s founding is challenged daily.

But the issues at hand were already tackled by Thomas Sowell in “Black Rednecks & White Liberals.” If anyone at The New York Times, CNN, MSNBC or the rest of the media had bothered to read it, perhaps a few misconceptions about America’s Founding Fathers could have ended a revolt against historical accuracy before it ever began.

The facts about America, as laid out by Sowell, have always been indisputable, even if for a time its symbolism was under attack.

For example, the left often criticizes the founders by minimizing their contributions to the world and labeling them as racist white men who were each motivated by a desire to oppress others.

Sowell, who is black, had already challenged false narratives about the country’s founders before 2020. He accurately noted they were not only opposed to slavery, but that they actually initiated its downfall.

Sowell’s perspective provides a compelling counterpoint to the notion that the country’s creators designed a nation solely to protect free labor and human rights abuses.

Sowell emphasized that slavery was not a simple moral question when Washington and Jefferson were alive, but an institution that had endured throughout human history.

Given that slavery was common in the 18th century, Sowell argued that understanding the complexities and challenges faced by our founders required a deeper understanding of history.

According to Sowell, the founders’ position on slavery was not as straightforward as a simple “yes” or “no.”

He wrote, “Today, slavery is too often discussed as an abstract question with an easy answer, leading to sweeping condemnations of those who did not reach that easy answer in their own time.”

Of course, not everyone was on board.

Sowell pointed out that, had a clause that even mentioned ending slavery been included in our founding documents, the southern colonies surely would have rejected them outright.

That could have potentially jeopardized the success of the Revolutionary War itself and prolonged the enslavement of people for much longer than the nine decades in which it existed in the South following the defeat of the British.

As Sowell noted, “Even to have made slavery a public issue at the time would have accomplished nothing except to jeopardize the survival of a fragile coalition of newly independent states.”

In essence, many of the men who authored our founding documents had to strike a delicate balance between their abhorrence of slavery and the practical realities of their time.

Sowell made another interesting observation by pointing out that Jefferson — a common enemy of the left — was personally concerned by the prospect of freeing slaves during his time.

That was not because he wanted to lose free labor, but because he feared they likely faced immeasurable hardships. A man who would become the country’s third president was so concerned that he wrote about it.

“Jefferson likewise regarded emancipation, all by itself, as being more like abandonment than liberation for people ‘whose habits have been formed in slavery,’” Sowell noted.

Sowell also pointed out that founders such as Washington were often constrained not only by the legalities of their time, but also by societal and familial traditions.

For example, Washington inherited slaves from his family, but freed them in his last will and testament. The battlefield genius and later first president went to great lengths to ensure that the human beings he inherited were given freedom and proper care by his estate after his death.

“Many other slaveowners of course saw their slaves as simply a source of wealth and were therefore determined to hold on to them for that reason,” Sowell wrote, adding:

“However, even those slaveholders with aversions to slavery in principle were constrained by a strong tradition of stewardship, in which the family inheritance was not theirs to dispose of in their own lifetime, but to pass on to others as it had been passed on to them. George Washington was one of those who had inherited slaves and, dying childless, freed his slaves in his will, effective on the death of his wife.”

Washington actually demanded the children of his family’s slaves be educated and those children were cared for decades after his death — as his will was carried out in accordance with his final wishes.

Washington did not free his slaves while he was alive, as that would have broken a longstanding tradition that our generation cannot fathom.

But with no heirs, their freedom in his passing was fair game.

Sowell also brought attention to Lincoln’s emancipation efforts during the Civil War.

While Lincoln is often criticized for not acting sooner than he did to issue a proclamation that changed the world, Sowell argued that the political risks he faced — the absence of a groundswell of public opinion for freeing slaves, and the need to maintain a fragile nation during a devastating conflict — each played significant roles in shaping the timing and manner of emancipation.

“Even those Western leaders who sought to end slavery are condemned by critics today for not having done it sooner or faster,” Sowell wrote. “The dangers and constraints of their times have too often been either ignored or brushed aside as mere excuses, as if elected leaders operating under constitutional law could simply decree whatever they felt was right.”

One of the key points made by Sowell is the tremendous challenge faced by newly-freed individuals after the Civil War.

In Sowell’s exploration of history, he concluded by cautioning against hasty judgments of the actions of people who lived in a different era.

That is an examination of the facts that every child raised in this country could benefit from emulating.

Applying modern standards to historical figures and the times in which they lived ignores what shaped their decisions.

As Sowell wrote:

“Today, slavery is too often discussed as an abstract question with an easy answer, leading to sweeping condemnations of those who did not reach that easy answer in their own time. In nineteenth-century America, especially, there was no alternative that was not traumatic, including both the continuation of slavery and the ending of it in the manner in which it was in fact ended by the Civil War — at a cost of one life for every six slaves freed.”

Sowell ultimately emphasized the importance of context and quoted Adam Smith’s “The Theory of Moral Sentiments.”

In 1759, Smith wrote, “Many problems can be made simple, but only by leaving out the complications which those in the midst of these problems cannot so easily escape with a turn of a phrase, as those who look back on them in later centuries can.”

Sowell’s analysis was published in 2009 and has aged remarkably well, given how dramatically the country’s social attitudes have deteriorated throughout the last 14 years.

But there is perhaps no single passage that stands out as much as this one:

“Some historic figures — Winston Churchill for example — are renowned for both their words and their deeds. But a historic figure such as George Washington contributed little to the anthologies while making landmark contributions to the creation of a new kind of nation and, by example, to the development of free societies in the modern world. The issue, however, is not simply one of assigning the proper stature to individuals. More fundamentally, the task is to assess causation.”

While Sowell’s nuanced review of America’s complicated history might be something viewed as taboo in today’s political climate, the facts laid out by the economist and philosopher are indisputable. That review might be inconvenient for those it does not serve, but that does not make Sowell’s assessment any less potent.

By examining their struggles, limitations, and complicated circumstances, Sowell made the case that the founders were, by and large, never proponents of slavery.

They laid the groundwork for ending it in the only way they could, which was by creating a country with a promise of freedom for all.

Just as they intended, that promise lives on.

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Johnathan Jones has worked as a reporter, an editor, and producer in radio, television and digital media.
Johnathan "Kipp" Jones has worked as an editor and producer in radio and television. He is a proud husband and father.