Speaking to schoolchildren, 2020 Democrat Mayor Pete Buttigieg insisted that the authors of the Constitution “did not understand that slavery was a bad thing.” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) demolished this claim with direct quotes from the Founders, who very much understood the evil of slavery but compromised on the issue in order to keep the early United States together.
Buttigieg addressed the amendment process, saying that the Founders “were wise enough to realize that they didn’t have all the answers and that some things would change. A good example of this is something like slavery or civil rights. It’s an embarrassing thing to admit but the people who wrote the Constitution did not understand that slavery was a bad thing.”
Mayor Pete was correct that the Founders instituted the amendment process in the Constitution partially because they were humble enough to realize things would change. In fact, the amendment process is the correct way for the government to recognize new rights, not Supreme Court interventions like Roe v. Wade (1973).
However, Buttigieg was entirely off base to suggest the Founders did not understand the evils of slavery. In fact, many of them acknowledged the evils of slavery, but they compromised in order to hold the new nation together. As Matt Spalding wrote for the Heritage Foundation, “Those who founded this nation chose to make practical compromises for the sake of establishing in principle a new nation dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
Ted Cruz rebuked Buttigieg by posting a string of direct quotes from the Founders.
“Slavery is an evil of Colossal magnitude & I am utterly averse to the admission of slavery into the Missouri Territories. It being among my first wishes to see some plan adopted by which slavery in this country may be abolished by law,” Cruz quoted from John Adams, a Founding Father and the second president.
“Freedom is not a gift bestowed upon us by other men, but a right that belongs to us by the laws of God and nature,” he quoted from Benjamin Franklin, who was a member of an abolitionist society. “Neither my tongue, nor my pen, nor purse shall be wanting to promote the abolition of what to me appears so inconsistent with humanity and Christianity.”
“Who talks most about freedom and equality? Is it not those who hold a bill of Rights in one hand and a whip for affrighted slaves in the other?” Cruz quoted from Alexander Hamilton, an abolitionist and the first secretary of the Treasury.
“It is much to be wished that slavery may be abolished,” John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, wrote. “The honor of the States as well as justice and humanity, in my opinion, loudly call upon them to emancipate these unhappy people. … To contend for our own liberty, and to deny that blessing to others, involves an inconsistency not to be excused.”
The Northwest Ordinance, one of the very first laws passed under both the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution, explicitly excluded slavery from the Northwest Territory, which would become the states of Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and part of Minnesota. This set the precedent that slavery would not be allowed to expand into federal territories, setting the stage for a debate that would escalate into the Civil War.
The Founders compromised on banning the slave trade, restricting Congress from doing so until 1808 — in order to appease the southern states. Yet Congress did indeed ban the slave trade as soon as possible.
Buttigieg should know these things — he majored in history and literature at Harvard. Yet the identity politics narrative simplifies the complex history of the Founders, painting them as evil rich old white oppressors. Perhaps Mayor Pete has allowed himself to get infected by a little too much “woke”ness.
Follow Tyler O’Neil, the author of this article, on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.