Did Jefferson Try to Abolish Slavery in the Declaration of Independence?
Sometimes an article includes such a jarring historical claim that I find myself immediately questioning everything in the piece. That was precisely my reaction when I read a Commonweal piece today which claimed that Thomas Jefferson had originally included language in the Declaration of Independence abolishing slavery:
Jefferson realized that it made no sense to base a new nation on the principle of “liberty and equality for all” as long as some its people were enslaved by others, so the first draft of the Declaration also renounced slavery. Jefferson accused King George of waging a “cruel war against human 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.” Southern delegates representing the interests of slave-holders aligned with northern delegates representing the interests of slave-trading merchants, and together they succeeded in excluding Jefferson’s original language from the Declaration. Their motivation was obvious: eliminating slavery would diminish their wealth. They held up the vote for independence until they got their way.
But the phrase “all men are created equal” remained, and debate about its meaning has dominated American politics ever since.
The rest of the article is a piece of political hackery in which economics professor Charles Clark of St. John’s University goes on to lay out an interpretive framework for American history and the current political situation in which there is always a group of powerful elites which successfully dupes a portion of the ordinary people into supporting the elites’ interests above their own.
The claim that Jefferson (himself a slave holder who never freed his slaves) sought to “renounce” slavery in the Declaration of Independence struck me as wholly implausible, so I researched the question further. The phrase Prof. Clark quotes was indeed in Jefferson’s draft, but he leaves out the crucial second half of the quote:
[H]e is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he had deprived them, by murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.
So the argument that Jefferson drafted out here is essentially: First King George enslaved people and sold them in America, and now, having tricked us into owning slaves, he’s encouraging the slaves to rise up against us (their owners) by offering them freedom! How dare he?
Taken as a whole, the passage on the one hand condemns slavery as an evil, but on the other condemns the British offering freedom to slaves who rose up against their (rebel) masters. (Indeed, as the Revolutionary War went on, black freedmen fought on both sides, and both revolutionaries and tories offered freedom to slaves who ran away from owners belonging to the other side.) It most certainly does not unequivocally condemn slavery (otherwise, why the anger at slaves being offered freedom) and even had it been included in the Declaration, it would not have consisted of a renunciation of slavery by the fledgling United States.
One way to see Jefferson’s abandoned passage is as a somewhat incoherent attempt to blame King George both coming and going, but it does at least convey the ambivalent opinions which were common at the time of the American Revolution about slavery, even among slave holders. While many of the Founders were slave owners, the opinion of the time was generally that slavery was an evil and an outdated one at that, which was destined to die out on its own. George Washington freed his slaves in his will, and in the early days of the country the northern states passed laws ending slavery. However, economic and cultural forces began to change opinions of slavery during the first half of the 19th century. The invention of the cotton gin made American cotton a commercially viable product, and the nature of cotton cultivation was sufficiently manually intensive that slavery suddenly became far more economically attractive than it had been in the late 18th century. Combined with this, the rise of “scientific racism” led to the development of a host of rationalizations which by the decade before the Civil War had slavery apologists insisting at times that slavery was a positive good, needed to tame the wild nature of the African.
The distortion of meaning involved in quoting only the first half of the deleted section is so severe, I at first found myself wondering, how did Clark think he could get away with this? However, it’s possible the omission was made primarily through ignorance. Googling around on the passage, I noticed this NY times piece published this summer which also quotes only the first half of the passage:
The library’s copy of the Declaration of Independence, handwritten by Thomas Jefferson, includes a condemnation of slavery. King George III, Jefferson wrote, “has waged cruel war against human 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 hither.” To appease delegates from Georgia and South Carolina, the denunciation was excised.
Clark quotes almost exactly the same amount of the passage (omitting the first two words quoted by the Times) and the explanation he provides of the passage’s removal is fairly similar, though it adds a claim (which I have not been able to find made elsewhere) that northern representatives with the interest of slave traders at heart opposed the passage as well as southern representatives. So it’s possible that Clark read the NY Times piece, drew his own conclusions on it, but never actually consulted the full draft. Though if so, that’s rather sloppy work.
Professor Clark goes on to shoehorn the civil war into his dualistic view of American history:
Each time an elite, whose advantages often entail a disadvantage for someone else, promises to disrupt everything unless their interests are protected. This method of obstruction works only if the elite is able to persuade large numbers of the nonelite that their own well-being depends on preserving the elite’s privileges. So the small landed aristocracy in the South convinced thousands to fight and die to preserve “their way of life” in the Civil War.
This kind of thinking underscores the serious weakness of trying to interpret history through the lens of innocent proles duped by fiendish elites. Aside from the fact that it’s usually not hard to get people to join up in a war that they convince themselves is in protection of their homeland (the Civil War was, after all, though started by the South mostly fought on Southern territory), there was a sense in which the slave system was advantageous to all whites, even the majority who did not own slaves. Status means a lot to people, and so long as slavery and the whole system which saw blacks as clearly inferior remained in place, no white man could be truly at the bottom of society. Threats of social equality and especially of miscegenation were staples of anti-Union propaganda. Poor Confederate whites may look, to strictly economic eyes, as if they had nothing to lose in the abolition of slavery, but even laying aside the feelings of tribal and territorial pride that tied people to their states, the prospect of freeing the slaves, especially if true equality had actually resulted, was a major threat to the social standing of non-slave owners. After all, the rich landowners were likely to still be rich. But if being white no longer made one inherently superior, poor whites might suddenly find themselves with very few advantages over freedmen.
Clark goes on to show the weaknesses of this framework as he tries to apply it to modern politics as well, working from the certainty that conservatives can’t possibly actually mean what they believe (unless they’re rich).