All men are created equal

The Declaration of Independence of the United States was drafted by Thomas Jefferson. His original draft was, however, reviewed and edited by the Second Continental Congress before it was approved, printed and signed. What changed between the final draft by Jefferson and the approved version provide a fascinating insight in to American society and politics at the time of the War of Independence.

As a rousing text, Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence has few equals. The second paragraph features the famous introduction:

“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.”

Signing of the Declaration of Independence by John Trumbull [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

They are fine words which continue to reverberate down the centuries. But its universal application was somewhat limited – it was drafted by a slave-owner and adopted by many Congressmen who also owned slaves. The irony, if not hypocrisy, of this unambiguous statement set against the realty for hundreds of thousands of slaves in the America of the 1770s, was not missed. Samuel Johnson pithily observed in 1775:

“How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?”

On 11 June 1776, the Second Continental Congress appointed a five person sub-committee to draft a declaration of independence. The ‘Committee of Five’ consisted of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Robert R. Livingstone and Roger Sherman, but the force behind the draft was Jefferson. The Committee tabled their draft on 28 June 1776 and a resolution declaring independence was agreed on 2 July 1776.

Congress now turned its attentions to the text of the draft Declaration and, over the course of the next two days, Congress would review, debate, edit and delete Jefferson’s original text. What is important for the purposes of this blog is the text that was deleted – especially the provisions Jefferson had drafted arguing against slavery.

Reproduction of the 1805 Rembrandt Peale painting of Thomas Jefferson New York Historical Society

One of the many tyrannical behaviours that Jefferson’s draft accused King George III of was the creation of and support for the slave trade. Jefferson’s draft blasted that:

“He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & 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 text, highly controversial at the time, was opposed by many Congressmen and especially the delegation from South Carolina and Georgia – two southern states whose economies depended heavily on plantation farming and slavery. For the sake of unity and in the interests of issuing the Declaration of Independence, even those such as John Adams who were opposed to slavery agreed to the revisions.

Despite being a slave owner, Jefferson complained bitterly about Congress ‘mangling’ his draft and remained upset about the removal of the condemnation of slavery.