Founding Brothers

Founding Brothers Summary and Analysis of Chapter Three: The Silence


In Chapter Three, Ellis discusses the long-standing silence that the government observed over the slavery question.

Shortly after Jefferson’s dinner party was held on February 11, 1790, some Quaker delegations from Philadelphia and New York presented petitions to the House of Representatives. These petitions called for an end to the African slave trade. Members of the House were dismayed to be presented with such concerns, and Southern representatives were adamant that the question be ignored. They described the Quakers as cowardly pacifists who refused to fight for independence, and insisted that the Constitution specifically prohibited Congress from passing laws “that abolished or restricted the slave trade until 1808” (82). Unfortunately for these representatives, the matter was soon removed from their control altogether.

Benjamin Franklin, by this point considered the Revolution's aged grandfather, had signed his name to a different petition calling for the end of slavery, this one written by the Pennsylvania Abolition Society. The House of Representatives could not so easily ignore Benjamin Franklin, who in the pantheon of American mythology was considered as below only George Washington. This petition claimed that slavery and the slave trade were immoral, and that the Constitution “empowered Congress to take whatever action it deemed ‘necessary and proper’ to eliminate the stigma of traffic in human beings" (83). The House of Representatives, under James Madison's tactical leadership, quickly formed committees to debate their next course of action. This move quickly inspired a breakdown of decorum in the House, where representatives openly and passionately confronted the question and each other.

Ellis gives a brief history of how slavery had been addressed during the country's founding. All talk of slavery during the Continental Congress had occurred behind closed doors. In crafting the Constitution, the founders forewent any mention of slavery in order to appease the Southern states. Ultimately, though the Constitution did forbid any new laws concerning slavery until at least 1808, it did not prohibit further discussion of the issue. It was because of this second fact that the House was legally able to debate the question following the petition which Franklin signed.

Thomas Scott, a representative from Pennsylvania, argued that the institution of slavery was not explicitly protected by the Constitution. Therefore, Scott suggested that Congress use the Declaration rather than the Constitution as a guide; the former declared that "all men were created equal." On the other hand, James Jackson of Georgia supported slavery through both Biblical references and insistence that the Deep South was economically dependent on it. Many representatives were troubled by the debate, from fear that slave uprisings could erupt because of it.

Ellis proposes that the question of slavery divided the United States so intensely that it grew more irreconcilable every time the decision was postponed. Its divisive nature would continue to intensify until the Civil War. The separation was not merely ideological, but also geographic. Abolishment in certain areas - particularly in the South - would mean a complete economic and cultural upheaval. Some of the northern states, such as Vermont and New Hampshire, had already made slavery illegal, where others in the region, such as New York and New Jersey, continued with the practice. Generally, the question in the North was not if, but when slavery would be abolished.

Thomas Jefferson’s ideology concerning slavery was based on the spirit of ‘76. The idea of freedom for all men was as appealing to him in 1790 as it had been at the start of the Revolutionary War. He had suggested in his only published work, Notes on the State of Virginia, that all slaves born after 1800 should be set free. He also believed that slavery should not be allowed to expand into the Western territories. His idealism manifested in his home state, as evidenced by 1782 Virginia legislation which allowed all slave owners to free their slaves at their own discretion.

However, most were less idealistic. For instance, Madison, whom Ellis says “talked North but thought South,” preached a type of cautious inaction. He referenced the problem as immoral, but refused to push for a federal law. Instead, he believed that slavery should be dealt with at the state level.

With the acknowledged benefit of hindsight, Ellis suggests that both sides believed their arguments self-evident. Without knowing how the Civil War would decide the issue, both pro- and anti-slavery delegates believed history would prove them correct. These equally passionate justifications explain why it was so difficult for the House report to finally be read publicly. Southern delegates forced an eight-day delay, during which time they offered every pro-slavery argument they could, from economic to moral to reactionary. They used the 1790 census - which revealed how many more slaves lived in the South than in the North - to argue that slavery would not simply die out, as Jefferson believed. They insisted that Northern delegates had no right to dictate behavior to the South, whose slavery situation was so distinct from their own. Arguments grew so heated that South Carolina and Georgia threatened to secede.

“One person stepped forward to answer the challenge, unquestionably the oldest, probably the wisest, member of the revolutionary generation” (108). Benjamin Franklin finally appeared in the flesh to insist that the House abolish slavery. Further, under the pseudonym “Historicus,” Franklin had published a parody of James Jackson’s proslavery speech. Franklin's now-direct involvement shamed the Southern delegates and enlivened the Northern delegates, but it would prove to be his final protest. He died three weeks later, without having forced a strong decision.

No other Founding Father showed an equal desire to be involved. Madison therefore used his political rhetoric to keep the House unsettled over the question, so that secession could be avoided. He made certain that no Constitutional abolition was passed, and that the committee's final recommendation kept slavery out of federal control. Ultimately, the committee passed three resolutions, most central of which was the insistence that Congress lacked authority to abolish slavery. The resolutions passed by a count of 29 to 25, and the question of slavery remained off the Congressional docket for 20 years.

Ellis concludes that neither Madison nor Franklin’s interference deterred the course of history. The slavery debate eventually moved from Congress and into the churches and community halls, where it festered for decades until its national purging occurring Civil War.


Slavery, an underlining theme throughout most of Founding Brothers, takes center stage in this chapter. Ellis utilizes the lenses of both foresight and hindsight to examine the failure of Congress to suitably address this issue. Ultimately, he presents Congress as unable to act in any notable way. Congress was being tested at both the private and public levels, and it utterly failed the populace by refusing to either broker a compromise or acknowledge the extent of that compromise's impossibility.

Compromise, another prominent theme in the book, was absent during the 1790 debate. It marked the first time in American history that a debate within the House of Representatives resulted in such heated public discussion. Private friendships and alliances were put to the test as the delegates of the North and South aired their grievances. What sits at the center of both this incident - and the Civil War that would ultimately answer the issue - is the fear of dissent that the Founding Fathers feared most. Madison might have engendered a situation that maintained his beloved state control, but he also acted in a way that would limit serious conflict. The other Founding Fathers, Franklin excluded, ignored the issue not because they lacked strong feelings, but because they knew that their authority could tip a balance into conflict. History would ultimately prove their fears correct, since the question slavery was not decided until the war.

Madison is quite an intriguing character in this chapter. While his ultimate goal was to limit federal control, he was hardly a pure Southern defender. Not only were his own moral feelings in conflict with those of many Southern delegates, but he was also appalled at their insistence of airing the arguments publicly. His goal was to make the question a non-issue, to keep it discussed behind closed doors. However, delegates like James Jackson forced their arguments into the House, where they were open to scrutiny and mockery. Madison was pragmatic enough to know that Biblical references would only go so far, and in fact could hurt his cause.

Benjamin Franklin is also introduced here, as an almost mythic figure. Ellis suggests that if photographers had been present in the late 18th century, Franklin would appear in most of the important photos of the Revolutionary period. In discussing Franklin, Ellis evokes the idea of the Greek pantheon, which seated the twelve primary deities of Greek mythology. He suggests the existence of an American pantheon, upon which George Washington was first, followed by Franklin. The power of this position is reflected in the way that Franklin's word so severely shook the House of Representatives into an action it otherwise would not have taken. His death, which happened so soon after his declaration that the legacy of slavery would tarnish the new county's reputation, has an almost poetic meaning, since history would prove him correct.

Another element that Ellis introduces through his consideration of this issue is the way that the country's divisions were becoming more apparent. This debate could not be confined to secret meetings; instead, personalities and party loyalties had grown so that animosity became the order of American politics. Post Revolutionary America was forever at conflict with itself: Federalists vs. Republicans; Hamilton vs. Jefferson; and the growing faction of the North vs. the South. As a very basic sense of separation, Ellis considers two models of American identity: the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution. The former was based in ideology and independence; the latter was based in pragmatic compromise that presupposed the importance of unity. In simpler terms, the former suggested local and state control, whereas the latter insisted upon federal control. This division becomes useful in Ellis's later chapters.

Finally, however, the Chapter's title speaks to the legacy of this incident. What mattered was what Madison wanted - "silence." By ensuring that the question of slavery could not be addressed at the federal level, Madison secured both silence and states rights, but he complicated the issue that so it would not be corrected until Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation in 1862.