On July 2, 1776, the Continental Congress decided it was time to become an independent nation and cast out the British in favor of a self-governing nation of loosely united states. These signers knew they were committing treason when the affixed their names to the Declaration of Independence upon its official signing the following month. Had the Americans lost the war, or had the signers been captured, it would have meant certain death for them. (5 were captured, tortured, and ultimately by British hands). 1 Source
However, I’m not writing today to analyze the reasons for signing. I want to look at for whom independence was declared. There has been much debate among historians and curriculum writers in the education system that the signers wanted slaved to be included. Revisionists like this theory and it tends to fit nicely into a kinder, gentler view of the signers.
To understand the slave issue it is probably best to look at Thomas Jefferson as he was the primary writer on the committee that consisted of Robert Sherman, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Robert Livingston. An original draft of the Declaration spoke of King George III allowing for the capturing and carrying of slaves on British ships. He also mentioned the negative affects of buying and selling of men. In addition, Jefferson wrote of how the King refused any law outlawing the practice. 2 Source After reading this, it does not appear Jefferson necessarily condemned the practice as an American. It appears he wanted the Americans held blameless. In the end, the Continental Congress rejected this portion of the Declaration of Independence and it was removed. In my mind, it says the signers did not want to deal with the slave issue because they knew it was controversial, but a necessary evil for many of them.
When the Declaration was signed in 1776, slavery was still legal in all 13 colonies. However it was still predominant in the southern colonies. Some of the most respected men in America detested slavery, but felt slaves were needed in order for their cash crops to be profitable. This group included names such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and later James Madison (although the latter did not sign the Declaration of Independence). 3 Source I theorize based upon common sense and knowledge of colonial economics and relations, the wealthy plantation owners in the south did not want to loose their slaves and the northerners did not want to push the issue because the support of the south was needed in order to fight a prolonged conflict with Great Britain. Both sides knew slavery was evil, but was needed to keep the southern economy afloat in order to keep the fledging colonies above water.
I want to move back to Jefferson. He is reported to have been against slavery. He favored a plan of gradual emancipation. In 1778, he proposed a Virginia law that would prohibit importation of slaves. 4 Source This ideas would later be incorporated into the Constitution as part of the 3/5 Compromise. These ideas sound good when thinking of Jefferson. Emancipating slaves was a phenomenal, but unpopular idea, despite the desire among many segments of the population to end the practice. Emancipating slaves also went against Jefferson’s actions. He was a slave owner. Jefferson owned them until the day he died and did not free them upon his death. 5 Source Also, Jefferson even stated he did not think Africans and Americans could live peacefully within the same nation. Do these sound like the words of a person who was against slavery? This runs counter to Jefferson’s actions as he may have fathered up to 6 children through his slave Sally Hemming. 6 Source
The question still stands, who was to be declared independent by the Declaration of Independence. Looking at the evidence makes me think Jefferson was against slavery as it being inhumane to own another human being, but was acceptable for the time, and acceptable to him. (This ties in with historiography. It is essential to study history from when the events took place and not place judgment by modern day standards). I also know from studying Jefferson he believed in the goodness of human beings and thought they would do the right thing. In my mind it was a social issue, fed by the social status of the day in that none of the slave owners really wanted to be the first to free all of their plantation slaves and therefore, Jefferson did not feel so inclined.
From also looking at the evidence, I do not think it was his intent, nor that of the Continental Congress, to free slaves. The Declaration of Independence is simply a list of grievances against the king of England and did not give any rights to Americans. The grievance being addressed was the transportation and trading of slaves. The Declaration was the official notice to King George III that the Americans had no desire to be part of the British Empire. Slaves at the time were viewed as property, and therefore a possession of the Americans. Thinking in this manner, slaves would be set free at the behest of well thinking Americans at a time more suitable than the beginning of the Revolution. Sadly, it would take almost 100 years, a bloody civil war, and a constitutional amendment to achieve what Jefferson had hoped would happen.
For Further Reading and examination of sources see the links below.