Pete Buttigieg speaking at 2019 Iowa Federation of Labor Convention at the Prairie Meadows Hotel in Altoona, Iowa on August 21, 2019.
Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore

The Twitter account, Resist Programming, on Sunday posted a clip of a children’s public television show from 2014 where Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Ind. said “the people who wrote the Constitution did not understand that slavery was a bad thing.”

“Similarly, the amendment process – they were wise enough to realize that they didn’t have all of the answers and that some things would change. A good example of this is something like slavery – or civil rights,” he said. “It’s an embarrassing thing to admit, but the people who wrote the Constitution did not understand that slavery was a bad thing and did not respect civil rights.”

Buttigieg majored in history and literature at Harvard University.

Buttigieg should have known better. When it comes to our founders’ collective view of slavery the appropriate answer should be, “it’s complicated.”

Yes, a number of the signers of the Constitution were slave owners.

It’s also true that many of our founders opposed slavery.

Our founders in several ways acted early in our nation’s history to restrict slavery and to ensure it would end though we had to fight a bloody civil war for that to be finally realized.

Some examples:

  • The Three-Fifths compromise: The Constitution originally stated that only three-fifths of non-free persons would count towards a state’s census that would determine how many representatives they would have in the U.S. House of Representatives. This is often misconstrued. This move by our founders limited how many representatives slave states would have. Pro-slavery advocates wanted all of their slaves to count so they would have more.
  • The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 banned slavery in the Northwest Territory.
  • “Slave” and “slavery” were never never mentioned in the Constitution to prevent it from being codified.
  • Prohibited Americans from participating in the slave trade in 1800 between two foreign nations.
  • In 1803 Congress provided new fines for people who brought newly imported slaves into states that banned the international slave trade.
  • Prohibited the African slave trade in 1807.
  • In 1819, Congress authorized the use of the military to interdict slave traders off the coast of the United States and Africa and to liberate slaves.
  • The Missouri Compromise of 1820 banned slavery in all of the Louisiana Purchase lands north of Missouri’s southern border. (Later repealed by the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 and ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in the Dred Scott Decision in 1857 which set-up the Civil War.)
  • Also, in 1820, Congress passed a law that designated any American caught engaged in the slave trade to be considered engaged in an act of piracy which was punishable by death.

Many of the founders expressed their desire to see the end of slavery.

“Every measure of prudence, therefore, ought to be assumed for the eventual total extirpation of slavery from the United States…. I have, throughout my whole life, held the practice of slavery in… abhorrence,” John Adams, Founding Father and second president of the United States, wrote in a letter dated June 8, 1819.

President George Washington, a slave owner, also expressed a desire for slaves to be emancipated.

“I wish from my soul that the legislature of this State could see a policy of a gradual Abolition of Slavery,” he wrote to Lawrence Lewis on August 4, 1797. Washington’s will provided for the emancipation of his slaves.

John Jay, founding father and first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, was an abolitionist.

“It is much to be wished that slavery may be abolished. The honor of the States, as we 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,” he wrote to R. Lushington on March 15, 1786.

“Ye men of sense and virtue – Ye advocates for American Liberty, rouse up and espouse the cause of humanity and general liberty. Bear a testimony against a vice which degrades human nature, and dissolves that universal tie of benevolence which should connect all children of men together in one great family – The plant of liberty is of so tender a nature, that it cannot thrive long in the neighborhood of slavery,” founding father Benjamin Rush said in 1773.

“Where slavery exists the republic theory becomes still more fallacious,” James Madison, author of the Constitution, wrote.

“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,” Ben Franklin wrote.

“If the Union must be dissolved, slavery is precisely the question upon which it ought to break,” John Quincy Adams, then U.S. Secretary of State, said of the Missouri Compromise in 1820.

“[Slavery] is the root of almost all the troubles of the present and the fears for the future,” then former President John Quincy Adams said to Alexis de Tocqueville.

I share this not to say our Founding Fathers were perfect men. They were not. They recognized that without finding some compromise at the time we would not have a union of several states.

Buttigieg’s 2014 statement is simply false.

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