With one outstanding exception, presidential candidate Michele Bachmann was wrong in her statement that our Founding Fathers did everything they could to end slavery. The revolutionary generation, with all of their extraordinary talent, could “neither solve nor face the issue of slavery.” They not only wrote slavery into our Constitution, but they also added a provision protecting the future value of existing slaves by barring Congress from even considering the possible barring of the importation of new African slaves for 20 years, until 1808. The one outstanding exception was arguably our greatest Founding Father, the aging Benjamin Franklin. In his youth, Franklin owned slaves, however, in his last years he became president of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society and championed freedom and equal rights for slaves.
In 1790, several Quakers petitioned Congress to end slavery and the African slave trade. A Congressional hearing was held on the most deep-rooted problem facing the new nation. The delegates from New England and several Middle states argued that slavery should end. Southern delegates expressed outrage that the forbidden subject, the African slave trade, was raised prior to 1808, and, “No responsible statesman in the revolutionary era, including Thomas Jefferson, had ever contemplated a biracial American society.” Georgia and South Carolina threatened to secede from the Union because “we cannot do without our slaves.” No member of Congress stepped forward to call their bluff, although it is hard to imagine those two small states defending themselves against foreign interests. To heighten the drama, a petition to end slavery arrived from the aging Franklin, who gave his last advice to the nation shortly before his death, pleading that slavery be ended and a plan for emancipation be adopted.
James Madison, financially dependent on slaves and regarded as the Father of the Constitution, stepped forward and gave meaning to the intentions of the Founding Fathers in their “compromise compact” and rejected any Constitutional right by the Federal government to end slavery. Following Madison, the final report passed by Congress “placed any and all debate over slavery as it existed in the South out of bounds forever.”