With its rising rhetoric on all men “created equal”, the Declaration of Independence gave a powerful voice to the values behind the American Revolution. Critics, however, saw a glaring contradiction: Many settlers who sought to break free from British tyranny bought and sold humans themselves. By supporting the nascent US economy through the brutal institution of the slavery of movable property, they have deprived about one-fifth of the population of their own “inalienable” right to liberty.
What is not widely known, however, is that the founding father Thomas Jefferson, in an early version of the Declaration, wrote a 168-word passage which condemned slavery as one of the many evils imposed on colonies by the British crown. The passage was cut from the final wording.
Thus, while Jefferson is credited with having infused the Declaration with the ideals of freedom and equality derived from the Enlightenment, the founding document of the nation – its declaration of moral mission – would remain forever silent on the question of slavery . This omission would create a legacy of exclusion for people of African descent that has spawned centuries of struggle for basic human and civil rights.
READ MORE: 9 Things You Might Not Know About The Declaration Of Independence
What the deleted passage said
In his initial project, Jefferson blamed British King George for his role in creating and perpetuating the transatlantic slave trade – which he describes, in so many words, as a crime against humanity.
He waged a cruel war against human nature itself, violating his most sacred rights of life and liberty among people of a distant people who never offended him, captivating them and enslaving them in a another hemisphere or incurring a miserable death in their transport.
Jefferson then called the institution of slavery “pirated war”, “execrable trade” and “assembly of horrors”. He then criticized the crown for
“By exciting these same people to raise their arms among us and buy the freedom he deprived them of, by murdering the people on whom he also embarrassed them: thus paying for the former crimes committed against the freedoms with one people, with crimes that he exhorts them to commit themselves against the lives of others. ”
This passage refers to a proclamation of 1775 by the British lord Dunmore, which offered freedom to anyone enslaved in the American colonies who volunteered to serve in the British army against the revolt of the patriots. The proclamation inspired thousands of enslaved people to seek freedom behind British lines during the Revolutionary War.
READ MORE: Ex-slaves who fought with the British
Why was the anti-slavery passage from the Declaration deleted?
The exact circumstances of the removal of the passage may never be known; the historical file does not include the details of the debates undertaken by the second Continental Congress. What we do know is that Jefferson, 33, who composed the Declaration between June 11 and June 28, 1776, sent a draft to members of a preselected committee, including John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, for modifications before its presentation to Congress. Between July 1 and July 3, convention delegates debated the document for three days, during which time they excised Jefferson’s anti-slavery clause.
The kidnapping was mainly fueled by political and economic expedients. While the 13 colonies were already deeply divided on the issue of slavery, the South as well as the North had financial stakes to perpetuate it. The southern plantations, a key driver of the colonial economy, needed free labor to produce tobacco, cotton and other cash crops for export to Europe. Merchants from the North, who also played a role in this economy, remained dependent on the triangular trade between Europe, Africa and the Americas, which included the slave trade in Africa.
READ MORE: How slavery became the economic engine of the South
Decades later, in his autobiography, Jefferson mainly blamed two southern states for the removal of the clause, while also recognizing the role of the north.
“The clause … condemning the subjugation of the inhabitants of Africa, was removed in accordance with South Carolina and Georgia, which had never tried to restrict the importation of slaves, and which on the contrary Our brothers from the North still want to continue it. I also believe that I felt a little tender under these censures, because their people have very few slaves themselves, but they had been carriers considerable enough for the others.
Many in Congress had a vested interest
Calling slavery a “cruel war against human nature itself” may have accurately reflected the values of many founders, but it also underscored the paradox between what they said and what they did. After all, Jefferson had been commissioned to draft a document reflecting the interests of an assemblage of slave-owning colonies with a deep commercial interest in preserving the human trade. A third of the signatories to the Declaration were personally slavers and even in the North, where abolition was more widely favored, states have passed “progressive emancipation” laws designed to phase out this practice.
Jefferson himself had a complicated relationship with “the particular institution”. Despite his philosophical horror of slavery and his ongoing legislative efforts to abolish this practice, Jefferson has enslaved more than 600 people during his lifetime, including his own children with his enslaved concubine Sally Hemings. When he died in 1822, Jefferson, who was in debt for a long time, chose not to release any of the human beings he claimed as property.
READ MORE: How Sally Hemings and others enslaved got precious pockets of freedom
Such conflicts have not gone unnoticed. How was it possible, wrote the British essayist Samuel Johnson at the start of the war, “that we heard the loudest cries for freedom among the drivers of blacks?” American loyalist and former Massachusetts governor Thomas Hutchinson echoed these sentiments in his “Strictures Upon the Declaration of the Congress at Philadelphia”:
“I might wish to ask the Delegates of Maryland, Virginia and the Carolinas, how their constituents justify the deprivation of more than 100,000 Africans of their rights to liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and to some extent in their lives , if these rights are absolutely inalienable… ”
The legacy of a fundamental omission
The signatories eventually replaced the deleted clause with a passage emphasizing King George’s incitement to “domestic uprisings among us” for having started a war between the settlers and the native tribes – leaving the original passage a footnote on what could have been.
Indeed, the removal of Jefferson’s conviction for slavery would be the most important removal of the Declaration of Independence. The founders’ inability to directly address the issue of slavery revealed the void of the words “all men created equal”. However, the underlying ideals of freedom and equality expressed in the document have inspired generations of Americans to fight for their inalienable rights.