As a tribute to the great events that occurred 241 years ago, I wanted to recognize the importance of the unity of purpose behind supporting liberty in all of its forms. While an unequivocal statement of natural rights and the virtues of liberty, the Declaration of Independence also came close to bringing another vital aspect of liberty to the forefront of public attention. As has been addressed in multiple fascinating podcasts (Joe Janes, Robert Olwell), a censure of slavery and George III’s connection to the slave trade was in the first draft of the Declaration.
Thomas Jefferson, a man who has been criticized as a man of inherent contradiction between his high morals and his active participation in slavery, was a major contributor to the popularizing of classical liberal principles. Many have pointed to his hypocrisy in that he owned over 180 slaves, fathered children on them, and did not free them in his will (because of his debts). Even given his personal slaves, Jefferson made his moral stance on slavery quite clear through his famous efforts toward ending the transatlantic slave trade, which exemplify early steps in securing the abolition of the repugnant act of chattel slavery in America and applying classically liberal principles toward all humans. However, this very practice may have been enacted far sooner, avoiding decades of appalling misery and its long-reaching effects, if his (hypocritical but principled) position had been adopted from the day of the USA’s first taste of political freedom.
This is the text of the deleted Declaration of Independence clause:
“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 and 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 and 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 against the Liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another..”
The second Continental Congress, based on hardline votes of South Carolina and the desire to avoid alienating potential sympathizers in England, slaveholding patriots, and the harbor cities of the North that were complicit in the slave trade, dropped this vital statement of principle
The removal of the anti-slavery clause of the declaration was not the only time Jefferson’s efforts might have led to the premature end of the “peculiar institution.” Economist and cultural historian Thomas Sowell notes that Jefferson’s 1784 anti-slavery bill, which had the votes to pass but did not because of a single ill legislator’s absence from the floor, would have ended the expansion of slavery to any newly admitted states to the Union years before the Constitution’s infamous three-fifths compromise. One wonders if America would have seen a secessionist movement or Civil War, and how the economies of states from Alabama and Florida to Texas would have developed without slave labor, which in some states and counties constituted the majority.
These ideas form a core moral principle for most Americans today, but they are not hypothetical or irrelevant to modern debates about liberty. Though America and the broader Western World have brought the slavery debate to an end, the larger world has not; though countries have officially made enslavement a crime (true only since 2007), many within the highest levels of government aid and abet the practice. 30 million individuals around the world suffer under the same types of chattel slavery seen millennia ago, including in nominal US allies in the Middle East. The debates between the pursuit of non-intervention as a form of freedom and the defense of the liberty of others as a form of freedom have been consistently important since the 1800’s (or arguably earlier), and I think it is vital that these discussions continue in the public forum. I hope that this 4th of July reminds us that liberty is not just a distant concept, but a set of values that requires constant support, intellectual nurturing, and pursuit.
For more underrecognized history surrounding the founding of America, see my Before the Fourth series!