The Declaration of Independence
Slavery: The Horrifying Institution
- What were the reasons why the representatives to the Second Continental Congress did not include language opposing slavery in their statement of ideals extending the truth “that all men are created equal” to slaves?
Although the Declaration of Independence contains the words: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness" there was a contradiction to those words at the time they were first written. The existence of American slavery at that time is well known to all of us, yet the Founding Fathers did not acknowledge it in the published document. In fact, Jefferson's first draft of the Declaration did recognize the issue of slavery. In it, he stated that King George had "waged cruel War against Nature itself, violating its most sacred Rights of Life and Liberty in the Persons of a distant People who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into Slavery in another Hemisphere, or to incur miserable Death, in their Transportation thither." Why were this and subsequent passages on slavery removed?
The founders were not ignorant of the problem.
At the time of the Second Continental Congress, the issue of slavery was widely discussed among many philosophers and leaders in America and abroad. Some of the Founders and other citizens in the colonies argued for emancipation. Although he was a slaveholder, Thomas Jefferson, along with James Madison and Patrick Henry, had tried to have the Virginia Assembly figure out how to stop the importation of slaves in 1772, but King George III stopped the Assembly from taking action.
The decision to remove references to slavery was political necessity.
In Jefferson's words:
The pusillanimous idea that we had friends in England worth keeping terms with, still haunted the minds of many. For this reason those passages which conveyed censure on the people of England were struck out, lest they should give them offense. The clause too, reprobating the enslaving the inhabitants of Africa, was struck out in compliance to South Carolina and Georgia, who had never attempted to restrain the importation of slaves, and who on the contrary still wished to continue it. Our Northern brethren also I believe felt a little tender under these censures; for tho' their people have very few slaves themselves yet they had been pretty considerable carriers of them to others.
— Notes of Proceedings in the Continental Congress, July 2, 1776
Those who drafted the Declaration believed that it was better to remove the section dealing with slavery than risk a long debate over the issue of slavery. They needed the support for independence from the southern states. The clause itself was stricken out at the request of delegates from South Carolina, and Georgia, but with the agreement of New England states. The delegates recognized that the Declaration was going to result in war with England and that if the colonies were not united, they would not prevail. It was too big an issue for thirteen separate and independent colonies to tackle before they had even formed a country or won independence from England.
On many occasions, some Founders spoke and wrote statements showing they wanted slavery abolished gradually. That way, they could keep the new country intact while doing so. Yet, not doing anything about slavery was postponing a day of reckoning. The Founders knew that not taking any action would ultimately put the country in grave danger.
Thomas Jefferson, who enslaved over 600 people, twice tried to bring emancipation, yet he also held slaves until his death.
Through it all, in creating the language that all men are created equal, Jefferson created the ideals and goals that have driven a nation and instilled a concept of what is the American mind for over 200 years.
In a sense we have come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
— from Martin Luther King Jr's I have a Dream speech, August 28, 1963
It was not until the end of the American Civil War and the passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution that these principles became more universal and included African American males. Learn more at: catto.ushistory.org.
Do you agree with the decision to not include any reference to slavery in the Declaration of Independence?