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Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: February 23, 2003
Byline: Ross Doughty, Professor of History, Ursinus College, Collegeville

Letter: Slavery issue is part of nation's founding

In the letter headlined "Liberty Bell is wrong spot for slavery story" (Feb. 20), J.D. Higgins questions the relevance of the subject of slavery "in the context of the Liberty Bell." Actually, the issue of slavery was very relevant to the events surrounding the writing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the drafting of the Constitution in 1787. Close to half of the signers of both documents were slaveholders.

Thomas Jefferson, a slave-owner, included a condemnation of Britain's role in the slave trade and the British government's encouragement of slave revolts in an early draft of the Declaration of Independence - clauses that were stricken from the final draft so as not to deflect the document's emphasis on the "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness" of white Americans.

In the Constitution, not only was slavery condoned and protected, but also slaveholders were expressly permitted to count 60 percent of their slave populations toward their states' representation in Congress. Further debate on the slavery issue was then cut off, so as to assure Southern ratification of the document.

The Constitution was then vigorously defended in The Federalist Papers by James Madison, another slave-owner. And yes, some of George Washington's slaves were indeed quartered near Market Street.

Putting the issue of slavery back into the story of our nation's founding is a case of historical accuracy and moral necessity. The question of "who cooked George Washington's dinner" is as relevant as any matter pertaining to our Founding Fathers - and certainly it is more important than an inanimate chunk of metal in our nation's history.


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