American Aristides and Abolitionist
The Economist magazine has waded into the controversy, born as a dispute between ABC's George Stephanopolous and presidential candidate Michele Bachmann, over the extent to which the American Founders worked to end slavery. As many know, Stephanopolous argued that the Founders did not work to end slavery, while Congresswoman Bachmann claimed they did, citing only John Quincy Adams, a young boy at the time of the Revolution, as an example.
In a piece entitled "John Jay Saves the Day," The Economist has offered some support for Congresswoman Bachmann's assertion, contending that: "[p]lenty of founders did fight hard to end slavery." At the same time, the essay asserts that "the really good guys on slavery were not" Washington, Jefferson and Madison, but instead "less venerated big government Yankee founders who sped the abolition of slavery in the North." As examples, the essay cites Alexander Hamilton and John Jay of New York and Gouverneur Morris of New Jersey. The piece praises Jay, himself a slave owner, for purchasing slaves and then granting them freedom after what Jay deemed a reasonable period of time. The piece also praises Jay for signing a 1799 New York "Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery." The Act provided that, beginning on July 4 of that year, all children born to slave parents in New York would be free. The Act also prohibited the export of slaves from New York.
The Economist is certainly right to praise Jay, Hamilton, and Morris for their opposition to slavery and their efforts to combat it. Hopefully Congresswoman Bachmann and George Stephanopolous will "stand corrected" and give these gentlemen their due. However, the Economist errs when it suggests that only northern Founders fought to end slavery, failing, as it does to mention George Wythe of Virginia, a prominent Founder and Abolitionist.
Wythe is perhaps best known as the first Professor of Law and Police ("policy") at the William and Mary Law School, founded as the nation's first law school in 1779. (Wythe served in this capacity until he resigned in 1789.) Less well-known is his role in the American Independence Movement and adoption of the U.S. Constitution. He drafted the Virginia Legislature's Resolution in Remonstrance, protesting the Stamp Act, in 1764. Elected to the Continental Congress in 1775, Wythe voted for the Resolution of Independence, moved by fellow Virginian Richard Henry Lee, and signed the Declaration of Independence drafted by Jefferson. He then served as Speaker of Virginia's House of Delegates from 1777-78. He was a member of the Virginia Court of Chancery for more than two decades. In the so-called "Case of the Prisoners" (Commonwealth v. Caton, 1782) Wythe issued an opinion claiming the power to invalidate unconstitutional statutes, thereby presaging the doctrine of judicial review articulated by his student, John Marshall, in Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. 137 (1803).
Wythe also attended the Philadelphia Convention that drafted and proposed the U.S. Constitution. George Washington, who presided, appointed Wythe, along with Hamilton and Charles Pickney, to a committee charged with developing procedures to govern the Convention. However, he left the convention early and did not sign the document. He did, however, participate as an elected member of the Virginia Convention that voted to ratify the proposed Constitution.
Like the northern Founders extolled by the Economist, Wythe was an abolitionist. He freed his own slaves and provided for their support, teaching Ancient Greek to one former slave who continued to live with Wythe in Richmond. Moreover, as a Judge in the District Court of Chancery in Richmond, Wythe ruled that the Virginia Declaration of Rights created a presumption that all men were free, regardless of their race. (Unfortunately, an appellate court reversed this portion of Wythe's opinion.) No doubt Wythe's example helped inspire the other Virginians who freed their slaves in the post-Revolutionary period. Perhaps Wythe's example also inspired his successor at William and Mary, St. George Tucker, to craft his "Plan for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery" published in the mid-1790s.
It is little wonder that Wythe's biographer called him the "American Aristides," a reference to the Athenian leader whose moderate assessment of tribute owed by members of the Delian League helped earn him the title of "the Just."
Hopefully the Economist, George Stephanopolous and Congresswoman Bachmann will "correct the record" and recognize Wythe's role in helping eradicate human slavery in the United States. July 4th would be a perfect day to start!