J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, July 05, 2013

The Declaration of Independence: The Deleted Scenes of Horror

Declaration of Independence.  ... Digital ID: psnypl_mss_1228. New York Public LibraryThis is a passage from Thomas Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence that the Continental Congress cut before issuing the document in its collective name. It’s part of the litany of horrible things the Declaration blames on George III:

he has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it’s 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 hemispere, or to incure miserable death in their transportation hither. this piratical warfare, the opprobium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian king of Great Britain. determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought and sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to 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 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.
Jefferson, a little miffed at being edited, made private copies of his draft for friends and posterity. (Those drafts differ slightly one from another, so some transcripts might read a little differently. Note Jefferson’s characteristic omission of capital letters at the start of sentences and possessive “it’s.”)

Sometimes people interpret this passage as a condemnation of slavery, but really it condemns the slave trade: the removal of people from Africa to the Americas. Some colonial legislatures, including Virginia and Massachusetts, had passed laws prohibiting the import of more Africans, and the Crown had vetoed them (i.e., “he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce”).

No North American colony had moved to end slavery itself, however. Jefferson, while complaining about the unnatural cruelty of slavery and blaming George III for somehow forcing slavery on him and other colonists, never campaigned to end slaveholding within America.

The Congress deleted this passage for two big reasons: many delegates supported the slave trade, and the complaint didn’t pass the laugh test. Already supporters of the royal government were pointing out how many American shouting for “liberty” were also slaveholders.

The only oblique reference to slavery to survive in the Declaration was the line “He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us…”


John L Smith Jr said...

J.L.! Great stuff! In Paris, hearing that the Constitution was being constructed while he was gone, TJ wondered if THAT document would "be as compromised as our declaration of Independency"!

Byron DeLear said...

Great post! The passage reads like an internal and very personal debate within Jefferson -- also, should the trade have been abolished or inhibited in any significant manner, Jefferson's "property" would have grown in value.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, when imports of anything are cut off, the people who control the domestic supply (in this case, the largest slaveholders) benefit. I’ve never seen any evidence that Jefferson or other slaveholders supporting anti-slave-trade bills thought in those terms, though. He was definitely wrestling with a moral question here. Unfortunately, the moral question didn’t pin him down to following his ideals.

John L Smith Jr said...

He couldn't AFFORD to follow his ideals!

J. L. Bell said...

Not without cramping his lifestyle.

Pacificus said...

Murray Rothbard, in his history of the colonies and states up to the Constitution, called "Conceived in Liberty," had some interesting discoveries on early proposals/calls to end the slave trade and end slave holding as well, particularly among the Quakers among the colonies. Some of these guys came as early as the 1690s. And many Quakers more or less voluntarily freed their slaves and swore off slavery, both importation and slave holding itself, even though they couldn't achieve abolition through the assemblies. Check chapter 31 under Volume 2, "The Quakers and The Abolition of Slavery," which can be read for free at the following link, if you haven't already read it. Great book.


J. L. Bell said...

Yes, the Quakers were the leaders in white society in ending slavery. Enslaved Africans often did their best to free themselves, of course, and some Native nations offered refuge to fleeing slaves. But those three groups were really the only organized opposition to slavery in British North America until after the Revolution began.

Around 1700 Judge Samuel Sewall of Boston published a pamphlet called The Selling of Joseph which condemned slavery and the slave trade as contrary to (Puritan) Christian mores. It had little effect (one of Cotton Mather's sons complained to him about it), and I recently read that a few years later Sewall himself was back selling slaves.

Emancipation was thus in the “marketplace of ideas” in America throughout the eighteenth-century. But the price was too high for most slaveholders and society at large. The Revolutionary rhetoric of liberty finally forced whites to measure up to their own ideals, first in Vermont (where there were few slaves), then in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire.

Pacificus said...

"Emancipation was thus in the “marketplace of ideas” in America throughout the eighteenth-century. But the price was too high for most slaveholders and society at large."

Yeah, sadly, but as Thomas Paine once said "time makes more converts that reason."