While the Continental Congress made over 86 changes to Thomas Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration of Independence, one major change stands out. Jefferson enumerated 28 abuses and usurpations by King George and Parliament but the Congress kept only 27. They debated and ultimately deleted the following paragraph entirely:
“[He] waged cruel War against Nature itself, violating its 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 incur miserable Death, in their Transportation thither.”
Why would men who espoused the ideals of the reformation, who opened the Declaration of Independence with the phrase “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” object to laying the blame for slavery in America on the King? Well, its because ALL of the colonies were economically dependent on slavery. The delegates were convinced that acknowledging the contradiction between their ideals and their utter dependence on the institution of slavery would blunt the message of the Declaration of Independence and weaken their argument that the rebellion against the king was morally justified.
The purpose of the Declaration of Independence was not to communicate with Great Brittan. The King and Parliament were quire aware that Americans were rebelling. After all, Washington and Knox had expelled the British Army and the Royal Navy from Boston with artillery. We were de facto at war. The Declaration of Independence was written to justify this war with the American people and with our potential allies.
France and Spain were ruled by monarchs (the Netherlands was a republic) and both countries had colonies in the “New World.” In order for them support the American Revolution, an argument had to be made that this rebellion was not simply subjects rejecting their king, this rebellion was caused by the king failing to rule justly, effectively abdicating as king over these colonies. Similarly, the American Colonist generally considered themselves to be Englishmen so they needed to understand why their nearly two centuries of allegiance to the Crown should change. The Declaration of Independence was written to be that justification.
But the world was moving away from the slavery. It was largely seen, not so much in moral terms but economic terms, as unsustainable and destructive. An argument against slavery would salve the egos of these monarchs who already abandoned slavery, so why was this abuse singled out for deletion. Well, to be blunt no one in the Colonies intended to end slavery.
There is a common misconception that slavery was always Southern institution similar to the situation during the time of the Civil War. The fact is that while certain restrictions were beginning to develop, slavery was present in all thirteen of the mainland colonies of British North America. By the time of the American Revolution, slaves comprised about 60% of South Carolina’s total population and 40% of Virginia’s. Although the largest percentages of slaves were found in the South, slavery did exist in the middle and Northern colonies. In cities such as Boston and Newport, 20-25% percent of the population consisted of enslaved laborers. Not all enslaved people were agricultural workers, they were employed in a variety of other capacities: domestic servants, artisans, craftsmen, sailors, dock workers, laundresses, and coachmen. Particularly in urban areas, owners often hired out their skilled enslaved workers and collected their wages. Others were used as household servants and demonstrated high social status. Whatever the case, slaves were considered property that could be bought and sold. Slaves thus constituted a portion of the owners’ overall wealth. Although Southern slaveholders had a deeper investment in slaves than Northerners, many Northerners, too, had significant portions of their wealth tied up in their ownership of enslaved people.
Once colonists started protesting against the Crown, it was hard to deny the fundamental contradiction that slavery established. While many individuals in both the North and the South took their revolutionary ideals seriously and concluded that slavery was unjust. Most had a deep economic investment in slavery. Despite their ideals, the financial results of manumitting their slaves would leave them destitute.
Good politics is always about compromise the Continental Congress chose to compromise on the ideals of the revolution in order to win the war of opinions with the American people. Had they kept Jefferson’s words; many would have seen the new nation formed by rebelling against England as just as abusive as the Crown. The Congress chose not to force people to choose between losing their fortunes to taxes or to freedom. Congress hoped to address the issue of slavery in the future. Unfortunately, that future would not come for another “four score and seven years.”