Originally published July 4, 2016 on RawStory
The original draft of the Declaration of Independence indicted the institution of slavery. Spoiler alert: it didn’t make it into the final version.
On June 11, 1776, the Continental Congress appointed a committee of five men—Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman and Robert Livingston—to write a document declaring the independence of the colonies. The gang of five tasked Jefferson with taking the first crack, which he did, writing a draft, which included a litany of grievances against the King, the last of which read:
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 hemisphere, or to incure miserable death in their transportation hither. 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 and sold,] he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce [determining to keep open a market where MEN should be bought and sold]: 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.
The paragraph starts out great, condemning, as it does, the evils of slavery. It turns into a cop-out towards the end. Jefferson, absolves his fellow slave owners by blaming the King for bringing slavery and selling enslaved people to the colonies. Even worse, he criticizes him for offering freedom to the slaves who managed to escape, in exchange for their fighting with the British. Both the sides of the War used the promise of freedom to entice slaves to fight for the opposing side.
But even this self-exonerating and hypocritical critique of slavery was too much.
The Committee of Five didn’t mind it paragraph. John Adams was particularly enthusiastic and would write in a letter decades later, “I was delighted with its high tone and the flights of oratory with which it abounded, especially that concerning Negro slavery.”
When the document was presented to the Congress on June 28, certain delegates were less than supportive. As Adams explained, Jefferson’s “Southern brethren would never suffer to pass in Congress… They obliterated some of the best of it… I have long wondered that the original draft had not been published.” In the next sentence Adams declared that the “the reason is the vehement philippic against Negro slavery.” (Well, there you go, John). To be fair delegates from Northern States, whose merchant economies benefited from the slave trade, also objected. By the time the document was signed, on July 4, the criticism of slavery had been dropped.
While we don’t know what exactly the delegates said to make their case, I imagine it was something along the lines of….
Tom. John Adams* is right: you’re a really good writer. Not sure you’re ten times better than he is. That seems unnecessarily self-critical on John’s part. But, great rhetorical flourishes. And don’t pay attention to John’s criticism about tone**. It’s perfect. Not too critical, not too passionate. That’s his issue. Not yours.
There’s a lot of good stuff in here and we know some of this is just spit-balling so, the following tweaks shouldn’t be too much of a hold up. It’s no big deal, but we’d love you to cut a part of the document. Of course, it’s totally up to you. But if you want us to pass this thing, the whole slavery-is-against-nature graph is going to have to go. It’s a nice sentiment. It may be true. But the slave trade is kind of our thing. Besides, the “all men are created equal” is a nice enough gesture. And getting rid of the paragraph will make you feel less awkward about your whole slave-owning situation.
We don’t have to resolve this issue now. We can table it. For a century or so.
Good work! Keep it up and you’ll really go places!
*In the same letter Adams recalled telling Jefferson, “you can write ten times better than I can.”
** Adams also confided that there were “expressions which I would not have inserted if I had drawn it up, particularly that which called the King tyrant. I thought this too personal, for I never believed George to be a tyrant in disposition and in nature; I always believed him to be deceived by his courtiers on both sides of the Atlantic, and in his official capacity, only, cruel. I thought the expression too passionate, and too much like scolding, for so grave and solemn a document…”