George Washington once described slavery as his life’s “only unavoidable subject of regret.” Thomas Jefferson decried the practice as a “moral depravity” and a “hideous blot” and said that slavery presented the greatest threat to the future survival of America. And James Madison called it “the most oppressive dominion ever exercised by man over man.”
Though each of these men publicly deplored its existence, they never ended the practice of slavery in their personal lives.
Not every Founding Father who bemoaned the practice is guilty of hypocrisy, however. The following men — along with John Laurens, Samuel Adams, Robert Paine, and Oliver Ellsworth, among others — not only spoke out against the institution publicly, they refused to participate in the enterprise in their personal lives as well.
John Adams, for instance, disavowed slavery completely. Adams accomplished a great deal as the second president of the United States and as a Founding Father. He contributed significantly to America’s founding documents, championed independence from Great Britain, was an integral diplomat abroad who negotiated desperately needed loans from the Dutch to keep America afloat during the Revolutionary War, and kept the country out of war with France during his presidency.
Perhaps his most praiseworthy accomplishment though is his being one of only two of America’s first 12 presidents to never own a slave — his son, John Quincy Adams, being the other.
The senior Adams decried the institution as a “foul contagion in the human character” and as “an evil of colossal magnitude” and said the American Revolution would never be complete until all slaves were free. Despite being personally opposed to slavery, Adams did not support most attempts at abolitionism during America’s fragile infancy and said he preferred a more gradual approach. He did, however, offer encouragement to abolitionists who sought a more sudden end to the practice, writing: “(I) wish you success in your benevolent endeavors to relieve the distress of our fellow creatures, and shall always be ready to cooperate with you, as far as my means and opportunities can reasonably be expected to extend.”
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