In 1776, on February 28, George Washington acknowledged a poem written in his honor and sent to him by Phillis Wheatley. “To His Excellency General Washington” was the title. This occurred before the Declaration of Independence was completed and accepted by the Continental Congress. Who was Phillis Wheatley? She had been captured in Senegal/Gambia at the age of seven or eight and sold in Boston to John and Susanna Wheatley. They treated her lovingly as a daughter and taught her to read and write; she even learned Latin. An accomplished poet, she was an admirer of the minister George Whitefield and a strong supporter of independence from Great Britain.
The Northwest Ordinance passed in 1787 by the Continental Congress was helpful as the new constitution was drafted. It specified the requirements of territories seeking statehood. The ordinance declared: “The fundamental principles of civil and religious liberty, which form the basis whereon these republics, their laws, and constitutions are erected; to fix and establish those principles as the basis of all laws, constitutions, and governments, which forever hereafter shall be formed in the said territory: to provide also for the establishment of States, and permanent government therein, and for their admission to a share in the federal councils on an equal footing with the original States, at as early periods as may be consistent with the general interest.”
Also known as the Freedom Ordinance, the Northwest Ordinance is a rock-solid example of the nonsectarian religious predicate embraced as constitutional law. When the Articles of Confederation was replaced by a new constitution, the Northwest Ordinance was passed again and became effective under the Constitution. George Washington signed the Northwest Ordinance back into law on August 7, 1789. The ordinance also prohibited slavery in any new state, and Article III specified that “Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education, shall forever be encouraged.”
“During this same period of time (July 17 to August 7, 1789), the same men who had implemented the Northwest Ordinance were writing the First Amendment to the Constitution [prohibiting government officials from interfering with religious freedom, printing press and education competition].”*
In 1792, James Madison, in his Essay, Who Are the Keepers of the People’s Liberties?, said, “Although all men are born free, and all nations might be so, yet too true it is, that slavery has been the general lot of the human race. Ignorant–they have been cheated; asleep–they have been surprised; divided–the yoke has been forced upon them. But what is the lesson? That because the people may betray themselves, they ought to give themselves up, blindfold, to those who have an interest in betraying them? Rather conclude that the people ought to be enlightened, to be awakened, to be united.” Madison served as the fourth president of the United States and is considered to be the principal author of the United States Constitution. In 1788, he wrote over a third of the Federalist Papers, still the most influential commentary on the Constitution. James Madison wrote the first ten amendments to the Constitution, also known as the Bill of Rights.
The Declaration of Independence condemned slavery, but it took a war to make it enforceable. On January 1, 1863, near the end of that war, Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation that reversed its momentum.
“The consequence is, that happiness of society is the first law of every government. The people have a right to insist that this rule be observed; and are entitled to demand a moral security that the legislature will observe it. If they have not the first right, they are slaves; if they have not the second right [moral security], they are, every moment, exposed to slavery” (U.S. Supreme Court Justice James Wilson, Lectures, 1790-91).
*David Barton, Education and the Founding Fathers (Aledo, Texas: Wallbuilder Press, 1993), 4.
~ David Norris