Wednesday, April 10, 2013 – Essay #38 – Draft of the Declaration of Independence by Thomas Jefferson – Guest Essayist: Brian J. Pawlowski, former Claremont Institute Lincoln Fellow

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:

Brian J. Pawlowski is a former Claremont Institute Lincoln Fellow.  He currently works for the Department of Defense and is Marine Corps reservist.  

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6 Responses to “Wednesday, April 10, 2013 – Essay #38 – Draft of the Declaration of Independence by Thomas Jefferson – Guest Essayist: Brian J. Pawlowski, former Claremont Institute Lincoln Fellow”

  1. Ron says:

    When using this deleted paragraph to counter progressive arguments that the founders wanted to eliminate slavery to be consistent with the Declaration’s preamble that “all men are created equal,” the typical response I get is “then why didn’t Jefferson free his slaves.” Although I understand generally that doing so might have been worse for the slaves than keeping them because of a myriad of VA laws and other social and political complications of those days, I struggle for a simple reply to the progressives’ question about Jefferson’s lack of action. Anyone have a reply that’s been effective??

    • yguy says:

      progressive arguments that the founders wanted to eliminate slavery to be consistent with the Declaration’s preamble that “all men are created equal,”

      I can’t feature a progressive making such an argument, so I presume this is a misstatement. As for reconciling the DoI with slavery, it can’t be done. On a national level, it appears that under duress, those Founders who were against slavery “looked the other way” just as some present day professing conservatives do the same WRT abortion and homosexuality. Whether the actual level of duress was sufficient to justify the compromise I suppose no one will ever know; but had the free states been able to survive without the slave states, surely the moral authority of the former to pursue an “elective war” against the latter would have been far less open to question than it was in 1860, when the slave states had only to point to the fugitive slave clause to justify the claim that their states’ rights were being threatened.

      • Ron says:

        Thanks yguy, indeed my sentence structure was incorrect. You picked up my true meaning and I appreciate your comments on the issue. Also, thanks Ralph; your explanation is exactly what I was looking for; I’ve always enjoyed reading your comments over the years of study on Constituting America.

    • Ralph Howarth says:

      Because he was in debt. And if he declared bankruptcy, then his creditors would take his slaves as property. To free them, he had to put up earnest money for their subsistence as he was not allowed to throw them out on the street only to be picked up by the public tab to support unskilled laborers. The only way he could release a slave was in an escape clause of bequeething his estate as an inheritance where his legates could choose to set the slave free.

      Giving the black man his freedom could only come about by two, slow-going supports: 1) Education in putting slave children in home schooling for reading and writing skills. 2) Set aside the day of Saturday the labor a slave does then can be taught to take his fruits to market and keep his own proceeds, and learn how to save and bank. Those two initiatives would have brought the black man out of slavery and open up opportunity.

      But not only did laws and social pressures subvert such noble intents, the southern banking industry was hitched to the international commonwealth trade with England. The banking operated in the domain of commodities and lent easy money with a short term call for at the end of harvest. This made plantation ownership lucrative but with a pressure to pay off the short-term debt fast. Money was more expensive for buying land for industry with high interest rates and making it difficult to garner a return on investment fast enough to start paying off a capital loan. England benefited for getting surplus commodities such as cotton or tobacco cheap at the artificially reduced prices from the banking scheme. The North benefited by getting discounted tooling manufactures from England on the balance of trade for England textiles held at artificially lower prices from the trade triangle. That in turn made industrialization cheaper in the North; but in the South, industrialization capital was hindered by the commodities banks that bid labor and capital away from industry and into the plantation economy. It is estimated that the wealth the North accumulated from this arrangement was enough to buy every slave his freedom in reimbursing the slave owner’s the fare they paid and a living stipend. But politics sure did not see it that way. If it were not for the economic banking slavery, then the real slavery would have been less profitable as industry desperately needed to have more shoe makers, glass blowers, carpenters, and all other sorts of trades that the black man could have made a gainful living. The appendages of the banking industry persisted even up to the 1950s after WWII economic reassignment and recovery brought more of a true free market that leveled the playing field of industry with the North. Until then, the black man, though free, was often stuck working the same plantations as share croppers for that was their only skill and he had no capital. Often family members in industrial cities up North had sent back word of jobs, hence the great migration.

    • Ralph Howarth says:

      In the imagination of the big picture: the slave did indeed get a return from his labor two-fold. First from the industrial complex of the North that gave a production advantage against the war on the South. International politics moved the North to make an official emancipation platform to free the slaves to stave off England’s motions to support the South in the war. So the sweat of the brow of the slave indirectly supported his freedom by the industrial wealth accumulation the North enjoyed at the expense of the slave. Secondly, the industrial cities of the North that boomed at the slaves expense in turn made semi-skilled job opportunities for the freed slaves that did not require much of an education. In a round about way, the slave did earn his way out of slavery; but certainly not in any civil or humane manner.

      The contemporary of Jefferson as the person of Colonel Mason said that “every slave holder is born a petty tyrant.” The operative word is “born” and not “become” a tyrant. Though some slaves did not comprehend or view their masters as a tyrant for someone who provided them a living, food and shelter, but the reality is that Jefferson did not wake up one day and become a tyrant. It was the economic system that he was born into that made it that way. And even when the slave trade was banned in Virginia, the British Merchants kept on the “inferno trade” of sending slaves into Virginia ports for sale. Back then the complaint of the Virginian was: “Stop shipping in slaves! You make the value of my slaves cheaper!!!” And immigrants despised slaves because they were viewed as competition for meaningful jobs. As the price of slaves plummeted then Jefferson could not so readily free some slaves in bankruptcy liquidation because the slaves were not worth enough to overcome the debt he owed.

  2. Barb Zack says:

    WOW. I did not know about the early draft of the Declaration and betting MANY more did not either. Startling to say the least. That the portion of the original Declaration regarding slavery was taken out, shows perhaps that creating the Union of States (the United STates) was of paramount importance, and perhaps anticipating that as time went on, the Union would recognize that one could not make these declarations and create this Republic with recognizing that slavery was a perfect contradiction to all else. Once realized, the United States would abolish slavery because it was the right thing to do in a Nation that valued freedom and liberty for all above all else. Unfortunately, it took a War among the States to abolish slavery for good.

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