List of Founding Fathers who owned slaves


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"There is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it. But there is only one proper and effectual mode by which it can be accomplished, and that is by Legislative authority: and this, as far as my suffrage will go, shall never be wanting."

—George Washington, letter to Robert Morris, 1786

As we stroll down the hallowed halls of America's history, the air bristles with contradiction and paradox, the faded echoes of a struggle between high ideals and grim realities.

Beneath the grand narratives of democracy and liberty laid down by our Founding Fathers, there lurks a darker, more complex truth—that many of these paragons of freedom were also slave owners.

Unraveling the intricate threads of their lives, one must wonder: how could the very architects of a nation built on the principle of 'all men are created equal' perpetuate such a profound inequality themselves?


portrait of the founder George Washington who owned slaves
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On the idyllic banks of the Potomac River, Mount Vernon stands as an enduring monument to George Washington—the first president of the United States, the general who shepherded a scrappy, underfunded army to victory against the British, and—most jarringly, the master of over a hundred slaves.

The sprawling plantation, the economic lifeblood of Washington's livelihood, operated on the forced labor of these men, women, and children, challenging the polished narrative of the man often regarded as the Father of His Country.

The Moral Quandary

Yet, as the nation he fathered grew and took shape, Washington found himself confronted with a profound moral dilemma.

The ideals he had championed—liberty, justice, the pursuit of happiness—were in stark contrast with the reality of his own estate, the gears of which turned on the axis of human bondage.

How could he reconcile these warring values within himself?

The answer, like the man, was complex and fraught with contradiction.

The Journey Towards Liberation

In his twilight years, Washington grappled with the dissonance between his beliefs and his practice.

His will, penned with the hand of a man who had weathered the storms of a revolution and the birth of a nation, contained a directive that surprised many: the emancipation of all his slaves upon the death of his wife, Martha.

It was a decision that had far-reaching implications, not least of which was to shine a light on the very contradiction that had haunted him—a land of liberty tethered to the institution of slavery.


portrait of Thomas Jefferson
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No figure epitomizes the dual nature of the American spirit more than Thomas Jefferson, the philosophical firebrand behind the Declaration of Independence and a slaveholder of monumental scale.

While his lofty prose about unalienable rights and the equality of man set the course for a new nation, his personal life and plantation, Monticello, told a story that ran counter to the ideals he espoused.

It's a tale spun from the fabric of around 600 lives he owned, and perhaps none more poignant than that of Sally Hemings.

An Intellectual at Odds

Jefferson's writings reflect the mind of a man in a constant intellectual tussle with the question of slavery.

His 'Notes on the State of Virginia' oscillated between condemning the institution as a moral depravity and justifying it as a necessary evil for economic prosperity.

This cognitive dissonance mirrored the national debate of his time, making Jefferson an embodiment of America's struggle with slavery.

A Controversial Relationship

Even as he penned the words that would birth a nation, Jefferson's personal life wove its own tangled narrative.

Central to this is Sally Hemings, a woman enslaved by Jefferson and the half-sister of his late wife.

Their relationship, spanning decades and resulting in several children, is an uncomfortable truth, one that has sparked endless controversy and discourse.

The issue is more than a mere footnote in Jefferson's storied life—it's a window into the contradictions of a man who could write "all men are created equal" while maintaining an intimate relationship with a woman he legally owned.

It's a tension that reflects the broader struggle of a nascent nation grappling with the ideals of liberty and the realities of a deeply entrenched system of bondage.


portrait of James Madison
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Among the pantheon of America's Founding Fathers, James Madison has a distinct place—the 'Father of the Constitution,' the architect of the U.S. Bill of Rights, and the master of a plantation kept afloat by over a hundred enslaved individuals.

But unlike his contemporaries Washington and Jefferson, Madison's stance on slavery remains shrouded in the shadows of his public silence and inaction.

A Puzzling Silence

Madison's silence on the question of slavery is as intriguing as it is revealing.

His public discourses and writings, while prolific, skirt around the painful issue of slavery, the lifeblood of his Montpelier plantation.

This calculated silence speaks volumes, offering a glimpse into the psyche of a man who preferred to maintain the status quo than engage with a problem too enormous and fraught with complexities.

The Chains Remain

Throughout his life, Madison never emancipated his slaves.

Their freedom, a right he fought for in the chambers of Congress, remained elusive in the fields of Montpelier.

This poignant irony, a man championing liberty while denying it to others, encapsulates the moral paradox at the heart of Madison's—and indeed America's—legacy.


portrait of James Monroe
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In the annals of America's early history, James Monroe holds a unique position—a figure at once both adherent and opponent of the institution of slavery.

As a slave owner himself and yet a proponent of a radical solution to the 'problem' of free blacks, Monroe straddled a line between complicity and ambition.

The Paradoxical Master

Monroe, the last of the Revolutionary War generation to ascend to the Presidency, owned dozens of slaves who worked his plantations.

His participation in the institution was not unlike many of his contemporaries.

Yet, as his understanding of the burgeoning nation evolved, so did a complex vision—one that attempted to reconcile his ownership of slaves with a lofty ideal of a racially segregated freedom.

An African Homecoming

Monroe's vision led him to support the American Colonization Society, an organization that sought to repatriate freed slaves to Africa.

This radical initiative resulted in the creation of Liberia, a country seen as a beacon of hope for many freed African-Americans, yet also a reminder of the vexed relationship America had with its black population.

The capital of this new nation, Monrovia, was named in Monroe's honor, forever linking him to this grand, controversial experiment in social engineering.


portrait of Benjamin Franklin
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Within the mosaic of America's formative years, Benjamin Franklin stands as a man of constant transformation.

Known for his inventions, his wit, and his diplomatic prowess, Franklin was also a slave owner.

Yet, unlike many of his contemporaries, his story arcs towards a profound moral awakening.

From Ownership to Opposition

In his earlier years, Franklin was very much a man of his time.

Slavery was as much a part of the fabric of colonial society as the printing presses that churned out his Pennsylvania Gazette, often even advertising the sale of slaves.

Yet, as the years turned, so did Franklin's perspective.

The man who once owned slaves underwent a metamorphosis, emerging as one of the era's most vocal critics of the institution of slavery.

Championing the Cause

Franklin's evolution culminated in his presidency of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery.

In the twilight of his life, the same hands that once held the chains now penned fiery arguments against the "peculiar institution".

From lobbying for education for African American children to challenging discriminatory laws, Franklin leveraged his influence and intellect in the service of emancipation, transforming from a tacit participant in the institution to an active warrior against it.


Benjamin Franklin and his slaves
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As we stand in the long shadow cast by the United States' Founding Fathers, it's impossible to overlook the complex, often unsettling, contradictions etched into the bedrock of our nation's history.

Yes, these were the men who shaped the nation's dawn, who wove high ideals of liberty and justice into the fabric of a fledgling republic.

Yet, these were also men who owned other human beings, a stark reminder of the inherent paradoxes and moral ambiguities that marked their era.

This discord, like an uneasy ghost, continues to stir debate and introspection, prodding us to reckon with our past as we navigate our present and shape our future.