Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Slavery and the Declaration of Independence

In the spirit of our seminar on the Declaration of Independence, and our reading of the book Friends of Liberty, I decided to run an activity in my classroom about the absence of slavery in the Declaration of Independence. I would begin with a simple question:

What did Jefferson really mean by “All men are created equal?” How was he able to write this while simultaneously owning slaves?

Student opinions will vary, but the class discussion should center around the idea that even if some people supported freedom from slavery, they did not support equal opportunity for all people. In fact, Jefferson privately thought that the Africans may need to be sent back to Africa. Next I would present the paragraph about slavery that Jefferson had actually written into the Declaration of Independence.

He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it's 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 hemispere, or to incure miserable death in their transportation hither. this piratical warfare, the opprobium 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 to restrain this execrable commerce [determining to keep open a market where MEN should be bought and sold]: 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 had deprived them, by murdering the people upon whom he also 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.”

I would have the class break up into small groups to generate answers to the following questions.

1. How does Jefferson blame slavery on the King?

2. Why would he think it was politically advantageous to do so?

3. Why was this section removed from the published Declaration?

4. Why would Northern delegates who had no love for slavery allow the Southern states to remove this section?

The class would wrap up by striking an important chord: Slavery was put on the back burner because Independence was considered the more important of the two issues. This became a trend in US History, with future failures to address slavery in the name of compromise. I would end class by stating that although Jefferson did not truly mean “All men are created equal,” his word did leave the door open for future generations to gain the long lost sense of equality.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Andy, thanks for this interesting and very useful post! This is a great topic for students as it focuses on eternal issues of fairness and equality at the same time trying to figure out the inherent contradictions between founding a country based both on liberty and slavery. With our recent discussions of Friends of Liberty, I am interested in learning more about Thomas Jefferson's character and hope to soon read Joseph Ellis' American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson.