Each year millions of Americans walk through the Charters of Freedom at the National Archives building in Washington D.C. The Archives house our nation’s founding documents — the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights. The combination of architectural beauty, august ambiance, and history is incredibly powerful. There is something, however, that is not housed in the Charters of Freedom, something most Americans know nothing about: a deleted portion of the Declaration of Independence. This part constituted the lengthiest section of Thomas Jefferson’s draft, was the most controversial, and was arguably the most vicious charge against the King of Great Britain. The passage was about slavery. Jefferson wrote: “He 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 & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian King of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where Men should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or restrain this execrable commerce. And that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people on whom he has obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed again the Liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.” These words assign blame for the introduction of American slavery and the perpetuation of the slave trade to the King of Great Britain. Some scholars have argued that this charge was dubious at best and suggest that is why it was ultimately deleted. Of course, Americans were not without blame and were complicit in the tragedy of slavery, but there were attempts to end the trade in the colonies. Great Britain blocked all such attempts lending credibility to Jefferson’s charge. Furthermore, the political history of the time suggests the founders and other politically interested parties continually made the charge a centerpiece of their argument in favor of ending the slave trade. Early abolitionists as well as Whigs had long sought abolition and indicted slavery in moral terms similar to Jefferson’s. They utilized natural rights to emphasize the negatives of slavery and its inconsistency with Christian values. For these reasons the notion that the charge was simply too obtuse to be sustained does not fully explain its deletion. More important than the obvious charge and more central to its deletion is how much further Jefferson’s passage took the argument. Waging “cruel war against human nature itself” and “violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty” go far beyond assigning blame. Far from being solely aimed at the King, Jefferson’s passage implicitly denounced slavery itself. This was far more objectionable to the southern colonies and those in the north with economic interests in the trade. Jefferson eventually blamed South Carolina and Georgia as well as “our Northern brethren” who “also felt a little tender” due to their longstanding subsistence of the slave trade. South Carolina and Georgia imported the majority of slaves while northern ship makers supplied the means to transport them. Blaming the King was one thing, charging that slavery was a moral wrong and perpetual evil was quite another. Whereas arguments against the King would simply add another charge to the list of reasons for revolution arguments against slavery as such would mean absolute change in culture and economic realities for the South as well as portions of the North. Jefferson no doubt had all this history in mind when he wrote the opening phrase of the Declaration. There was no more poignant contrast between the promise of American liberty where “all men are created equal” and the “assemblage of horrors” that was slavery. To support the latter would be to implicitly reject the former. For this reason the passage was deleted. The bottom line is that without deletion of the slavery clause there very likely would have been no revolution, no independence, no United States of America. The cracking of the colonial alliance would have instantly undermined the unity of effort necessary to the American cause. Jefferson and the Founders accepted the stain of slavery for the perpetuation of the union. Arguably, Jefferson saw this as the quintessential necessary evil. But the founders saw America, the American idea, as a project. In Jefferson’s famous letter to Roger Weightman he wrote that “all eyes are opened or opening to the rights of man” and the “palpable truth that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately” clearly articulating that the truth of the declaration hadn’t yet been fully realized. Later, Abraham Lincoln, in a letter written roughly one year before he would fight a Civil War to uphold the union Jefferson had created wrote “All honor to Jefferson — to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all and all times, and so to embalm it there, that today, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression”. The deleted portion of the Declaration was an early attempt to uphold that abstract truth but for the sake of union was forsaken.
Read the Draft of the Declaration of Independence by Thomas Jefferson here: https://constitutingamerica.org/?p=3984
Brian J. Pawlowski is a former Claremont Institute Lincoln Fellow. He currently works for the Department of Defense and is Marine Corps reservist.
April 10, 2013 – Essay #38