The Deleted Anti-Slavery Clause In The Declaration Of Independence
A section of America’s founding document that condemned the enslavement of Black people was taken out because too many people were invested in slavery.
July 04, 2021 at 1:52 pm
Independence Day takes on special significance this year as it follows the declaration of Juneteenth as a federal holiday. Despite some conservatives freaking out over confusion between the two holidays, July 4 takes on added significance this year when coupled with Juneteenth, which recognized that it took -- and is still taking -- a lot longer for Black Americans to be truly independent.
Which is why it’s important to remember what actually happened on July 4, 1776, the day that the country will be celebrating this Sunday. This date is of course the day that the Continental Congress, made up of representatives of the 13 British colonies that had been rebelling against British rule since 1775, approved of the Declaration of Independence. Written primarily by future president Thomas Jefferson, the Declaration laid out the reasons why the Americans had formally broken away from Britain and were fighting for their right to be “free and independent.”
Though often forgotten, July 4 was also the day that America, at its very founding moment, decided to protect the institution of slavery. In finalizing the Declaration of Independence in the days leading up to its final adoption, the Continental Congress chose to remove a key portion of the text written by Jefferson that condemned slavery as an unjust institution imposed on the colonies by the British. This passage would have established a clear anti-slavery principle to the new United States. Instead, the fact that the anti-slavery clause was specifically removed before the nation's founders would approve the Declaration shows the extent to which slavery, and by extension anti-Black racism, was in fact present and deeply-seeded in America from the very beginning of the country's history.
To understand the missing clause and its significance, it’s important to closely examine the Declaration of Independence. If you’ve ever read the Declaration, the document is a lot like 2Pac’s famous All Eyez on Me album: the biggest hits are all in the first half of the release.
“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," one of the Declaration's most quoted lines, which is positioned at the start of the second paragraph, reads.
The second half of the Declaration drops the flowery languages and gets down to the nitty gritty: a list of things that King George III of Great Britain had done against the colonies that justified them rebelling against the monarch. In rapid fire fashion, Jefferson lays out how the King has repeatedly interfered with the colonies’ laws and ability to governor themselves, placed hostile troops in their territory, and generally acted like a “tyrant" while violating the Americans’ rights.
While Jefferson’s approach seems to be to throw every complaint and the kitchen sink against King George, one key condemnation was removed from the final document. Jefferson initially wrote this about King George and his enslavement of Black people:
"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," the founding father wrote. "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," Jefferson continued. "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."
Jefferson went in.
The future president, though a slave owner himself, acknowledges the “cruel” injustice of enslaving “a distant people who never offended [King George]." He also highlights the horrors of the Middle Passage, which killed 10-15% of the people taken from Africa. Jefferson even calls out “the Christian King of Great Britain,” for implementing this very un-Christian practice. Reading this, you’d almost think Jefferson was a pioneer in wokeness (in reality, though he was uncomfortable with the institution of slavery from which he profited, he was also quite racist, but that’s a topic for another day).
Jefferson also objects to the British tactic of trying to disrupt the ongoing American Revolution by offering freedom to any enslaved person who sided with the British – a deal that around 20,000 Black people took during the war. While the offer of freedom was obviously good news for these formerly enslaved people, Jefferson here points out the hypocrisy of this freedom being granted as a tactic by the very British government that had been administering the slave trade.
Overall, this passage would have been a major condemnation of slavery for the newly emerging United States, one that would have likely created pressure for the new country to take measures towards ending the practice. And, at the end of the day, that was too much of a threat for too many important people in the emerging government. Slavery was big business in America. Enslaved people made up 20% of the American population at the time – mostly in the South, but with many people enslaved in northern cities like New York and Boston as well. Most of the men who signed the Declaration were likely slaveholders at the time. Jefferson himself would own hundreds of slaves in his lifetime, including those he fathered by Sally Hemings, herself a slave in Jefferson’s property.
Jefferson himself later recalled that objections to the anti-slavery clause came from two sources. The first, unsurprisingly, was from representatives of southern colonies – specifically South Carolina and Georgia, where enslaved people made up significant shares of the population. The second set of objections came from northern slave traders who, as Jefferson over-tactfully puts it, “felt a little tender” about having their business criticized so harshly.
And so the Continental Congress, sometime between July 1 and July 3, voted to have the anti-slavery clause removed before approving the Declaration of Independence in its current form on July 4. For everyone arguing against the 1619 Project's assertion that racism is central to the history of the United States or denying the insights of critical race theory concerning racial bias in American law, think about what actually happened on July 4, 1776. The deletion of the anti-slavery clause of the Declaration meant that slavery endured in the newly independent United States of America, as the number of enslaved people in the South grew to the millions while the North gradually eliminated slavery but relied on slave-picked cotton for their industries.
This deletion meant that the Supreme Court, in its 1856 Dred Scot decision, could argue that “the language used in the Declaration of Independence” did not apply to Black people, and that neither free nor enslaved Black Americans “were then acknowledged as a part of the people, nor intended to be included in the general words used in that memorable instrument.”
Based on this reasoning, the Court concluded that Black people “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit.” Thus, it took a Civil War and a desperate Abraham Lincoln -- another president who hated slavery but also didn’t believe in Black equality -- to finally end the institution.
All of which could have been avoided if the Declaration of Independence had not been edited by the Founding Fathers who wanted freedom for themselves but chose not to advocate for that same freedom for the Black people who were being forced to actually build the new country. July 4 remains important in American history, but let’s not fool ourselves – it was never “Independence Day” for all of us.