Photo courtesy Troy Thomas/Inertia Films
Tangled in the DNA of the United States are the diametrically opposed concepts of liberty and human bondage. When Thomas Jefferson drafted in 20 days the Declaration of Independence, he originally penned the aspiration of “life, liberty and property,” but substituted at Benjamin Franklin's suggestion the airy, idealistic “pursuit of happiness.” Whose happiness, exactly? And what did that mean?
Enter the documentary “Liberty & Slavery: The Paradox of America’s Founders” by Troy Thomas, who runs his own Atlanta-based Inertia Films. The film received a public screening at the Virginia Historical Society Feb. 16 as the kickoff to the fourth annual Created Equal Film Series in Honor of Grady W. Powell. The series, named for a longtime VHS board member and Petersburg minister, pertains to civil and human rights and social justice throughout American history. The screening of "Liberty and Slavery" was cosponsored with the St. John's Church Foundation.
Thomas was raised in Suffolk County, studied at Virginia Commonwealth University and became an entrepreneurial filmmaker who made an award-winning documentary about David Berkowitz, the "Son of Sam” killer, and the David Druckenmiller-produced true World War II story, “Papa Said, ‘We Should Never Forget.' ” As a working filmmaker he’s also shot episodes for a diverse range of reality and history-mystery television programs, from “Auction Kings” and “American Idol” to VH1’s “Where Are They Now?” and “Inside the NFL.”
Filmmaker Troy Thomas (left), and historian/author Edward J. Larson at last Thursday night’s post-screening discussion (Photo by Harry Kollatz Jr.)
Edward J. Larson is a historian, author and professor whose latest book is “The Return of George Washington.” He is also an interview subject in the film. Larson said during Thursday night’s post-screening question-and-answer session at the Virginia Historical Society, “[Thomas] didn’t have to make this film. He could’ve gone on, made another for the NFL or whoever, but this is something he felt he needed to do, and he did it well.”
Thomas isn’t a trained historian, but he possesses a restless curiosity, and the question of liberty and slavery preoccupied him. “So he went out and talked to people, and he talked to the right people,” says Larson, and was able throw a number of lights on a subject that is both buried deep in the national consciousness and as current as the news ticker at the bottom of the television screen.
Thomas says he wanted to examine the contradiction at the heart of the nation’s origins and how almost all of its primary founders who championed freedom were also slave owners. He didn’t want to produce a piece of agitprop and instead sought to reveal the facts and, Thomas hopes, speak to racial reconciliation. For the hour and 20-minute film, he interviewed 43 people, from historians to historic site directors, from religious leaders to a descendant of slaves who were forced to work the fields and in the rooms of Drayton Hall plantation.
Thomas puts his face in his hands. “This was insane. Most documentaries, at most, have five or six talking heads. I had hundreds of hours of film and all these people who had so many great things to say.” After spending many hours in the editing suite, a story began to emerge, and Thomas traveled his own emotional arc. “I went from thinking that the founders were great men, to thinking they were bad men, to thinking they were greatly flawed men who tried to do good things — like starting a country that wasn’t like anything else in history.” The film is receiving wide broadcast through PBS. It’s now airing, Thomas says, in 61 percent of the country, edited to an hour-long program.
Thomas went to more than one school where the framed unfinished Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington hung in the classroom. “But in history class, we never really looked at the slavery part of the lives of Washington, Jefferson and Patrick Henry.” In 2011, laid up and mending from herniated disc surgery, he began devouring books about the republic’s early days and the people who strode large through those tableaux.
A word from the director, Troy Thomas:
Servitude came to this country with the first settlers and was inherited from the European top-down organization of lords and peasants. At first, there were the indentured. But that situation was a contractual arrangement with an end point. With the progress of settlement in the New World, and the lack of a workforce, outright slavery evolved. Unlike indentured servitude, where those contracted could at the conclusion of their often difficult and physically demanding labors count on a plot of land and some form of reward, slavery had no end.
While slavery has formed a component of human civilization since its beginning, the racial aspect of it didn’t come into the fore until the beginning of the 17th-century Atlantic slave trade. The brutal European system of enslavement led to the capture and kidnapping of Africans — some as prisoners of war — by Western merchants. These stolen people were then forced into ships with names like “Good Intentions” and “Grace of God,” though the voyages were more hellish than can be imagined.
At the height of the slave trade, which spanned the early 17th through the late 19th centuries, of a total of perhaps 12.5 million people, 45 percent of the trade went to Brazil, 40 percent to the Caribbean, 10 to 15 percent to Cuba and Haiti, and just 4 percent to North America. Of that total, by the 18th century, some 40 percent came through Charleston, South Carolina. Richmond by the 19th century had grown into a primary center for the domestic distribution of slaves.
Slavery drove the national economy, and going without the system was as inconceivable to most people as living without petroleum would be today. Even if proportionally few people owned slaves (and those who did averaged perhaps less than five), slavery was accepted as normal. Even as a young man, Benjamin Franklin owned at least two slaves — though he freed them and founded the country’s first abolitionist society.
In the film, Richard Cooper, director of interpretation at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, observes that by the Civil War, 4 million people were enslaved in the United States in a business earning $80-90 billion dollars in today’s money. Thus, anti-slavers, the abolitionists, were for the most part in society’s margins: pacifist Quakers and anti-establishment Baptists. State laws made freeing slaves difficult. Individual exceptions occurred; such as James Madison’s personal secretary, diplomat and later Governor of Illinois, an ardent abolitionist, Edward Coles.
Not mentioned by Thomas and deserving of a documentary of his own — perhaps alongside Coles — is Westmoreland County's Robert Carter III of Nomini Hall.
Carter, of the illustrious Virginis family, inherited several plantations across Virginia with hundreds of slaves. In 1791, following influences by both the Baptists and the Swedish polymath and mystic Emmanuel Swedenborg, Carter began a phased process of manumission, not only freeing more than 500 slaves but allotting them a dispensation to get on their feet. Carter wrote that “The toleration of slavery indicates great depravity of mind.” His actions brought dissension in his large family and enmity from his neighbors. He moved, perhaps to avoid trouble, with his two youngest daughters to Baltimore, then the center of Swedenborgianism. Carter’s manumission, which continued into 1823, was the largest of its kind prior to the Civil War. His actions make those of his contemporaries — Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Henry — look like temporizing Hamlets on the battlements of their personal Elsinores of conscience. The Shakespeare play ends in a bloodbath.
The founders operated under a pair of paradoxes. They championed liberty while owning slaves; they knew it to be wrong but due to the political implications and the legalities, gave themselves an out, i.e., "Yes, the slaves should eventually be freed, but we can’t do that now and make a nation." And in the deeper South, the patriots there would think, “I am fighting for my liberty to own slaves.” England was phasing out its attachment to enslavement. Further, Larson explained, slavery is not a natural state; it is imposed. “If you brought a slave to England, as the Pinckneys of South Carolina did when they went to Oxford, slavery wasn’t recognized. Under English law, [those people] were free.” The thinking of slave owners then became, "We won’t accept laws if they are abhorrent to us."
A scene depicting slaves, from "Liberty & Slavery: The Paradox of America's Founding Fathers" (Image courtesy Troy Thomas/Inertia Films)
“The founders inherited slavery,” Thomas says. “They were brought up in it as a way of life. But once the Revolution occurs, and the Declaration and Constitution are written, this is where we can start questioning their intentions.”
Thomas’s examination covers a great deal of emotionally fraught territory that is part of who we are as a nation and a legacy with which we are as yet contending.
The cultural historian Carlton J.H. Hayes observed that a nationality is "the product of remembered or imagined factors from a people's past which together produce the conviction of being a superior and distinct part of mankind. The joke has been made that a nation is a people united by a common dislike of its neighbors and common mistake about its origin." The thing about our country, as Larson points out, is that the U.S. isn’t named for a single-majority ethnicity, as are other nations. “The United States is a geographic place,” he says.” And by the 14th Amendment, anybody born here is an American.”
Which means we’re all in this together. Thomas’s documentary raises the persistent and nagging questions about the extent to which slavery made us who we are, and what that means.
The next film in the Created Equal series, to be screened at the Virginia Historical Society on April 6 at 6:30, is the 68-minute “Resilience: The Biology of Stress and the Science of Hope," which delves into how stress resulting from Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), in particular among those living in poorer communities, is carried through their later lives.