One thing we cannot do is excuse the Founders according to the standards of their time. In the mid to late 18th century, there was plenty of compelling moral thinking on the issue of slavery.
In 1759, Quaker Anthony Benezet wrote “Observations on the Enslaving, Importing and Purchasing of Negroes,” which presented eyewitness accounts of the cruelties of the slave trade. Benezet called slavery “inconsistent with the gospel of Christ, contrary to natural justice and the common feelings of humanity, and productive of infinite calamities to many thousand families, nay to many nations, and consequently offensive to God the father of all mankind.”
America’s Founders stand accused by the best, most humane standards of their own time. When Jefferson wrote about natural rights on his mountaintop prison for black people, many of his contemporaries knew he was, on this issue, a total hypocrite.
America’s story is not one of initial purity and eventual decay. It is the story of a radical principle — the principle of human equality — introduced into a deeply unjust society. That principle was carried forward by oppressed people who understood it better than many of the nation’s Founders. Denied the blessings of liberty, African Americans became the instruments by which the promise of liberty was broadly achieved. The victims of America’s moral blindness became carriers of the American ideal.
This story is not simple to tell. But it is miraculous in its own way. And it is good reason to be proud of America.