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Reevaluating America’s Founders: Challenging Historical Excuses on Slavery

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In the ongoing discourse about America’s founders and their legacy, a familiar refrain emerges: should we judge them by the moral standards of today? Often, defenders argue that historical figures lived in a different time, with different societal norms. This perspective seeks to contextualize actions such as slave ownership and dismiss them as products of their era. However, is this argument truly valid, or were there voices from the past advocating for more modern ethical standards?

The narratives surrounding America’s founders often downplay their morally questionable actions, such as Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with a younger enslaved woman or George Washington’s ownership of hundreds of enslaved individuals. Excusing their behavior by attributing it to the norms of the time has become a common defense. Yet, when we examine figures like James Otis, a leader in the Patriot movement during the 1760s, a different narrative emerges. Otis, hailed by John Adams as the most important American of his time, was already challenging the prevailing ethical standards of his era, asserting that all colonists, regardless of race, were freeborn by the law of nature.

Even among the signatories of the Declaration of Independence, such as Benjamin Rush, a founding father, there were voices advocating for a departure from the dehumanizing practice of slavery. Rush vehemently argued against the enslavement of Black people, emphasizing its corrosive impact on both moral and intellectual faculties. His lifelong dedication to promoting the equality of all races stands in stark contrast to the prevalent views of his time.

While many of America’s early presidents, including James Madison, James Monroe, and Andrew Jackson, were slave owners, it is crucial to recognize that not all voices from that era adhered to the prevailing ethical norms. James Otis and Benjamin Rush, among others, were already challenging the accepted standards, advocating for a more inclusive and just society. As we revisit history, it becomes evident that ethical perspectives were diverse even in the past, reminding us that the struggle for justice and equality is not a recent phenomenon but a persistent and evolving journey.

Written by
Derek Chan – Editor

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