6. The Enslaved
If there be an object truly ridiculous in nature, it is an American patriot signing resolutions of independence with the one hand, and with the other brandishing a whip over his affrighted slaves.
Thomas Day, English abolitionist, 17761
Throughout the revolutionary era, Americans chanted "SLAVERY" as a rallying call to oppose Britain's autocratic rule. To be taxed unfairly was SLAVERY. To have British troops police them in their cities was SLAVERY. To be threatened with trial without jury was SLAVERY. To fail to defend one's God-given natural rights of freedom was succumbing to SLAVERY. The irony of white men who owned or tolerated the enslavement of black Africans while stridently demanding their "natural rights" as men did not escape commentators at the time. Some directly called it hypocrisy and challenged Americans to live up to their ideals as stated in the Declaration of Independence. "Can it be believed," questioned a clergyman in 1778, "that a people contending for liberty should, at the same time, be promoting and supporting slavery?"2 In this section we read various responses to this question from blacks and whites, and from Americans and Englishmen.
Appeals for abolition, 1773-1783, excerpts. The six documents excerpted in this collection span the decade 1773 to 1783 and include black and white, secular and religious, and American and English voices. Each speaker assails the hypocrisy of slaveholding by people who demand their God-given "natural rights of man" and assert that "all men are created equal." From these texts you can infer the major arguments against equating the colonists' struggle for liberty with slaves' petitions for freedom. In what colony do most of these documents originate? Why? (5 pp.)
Petition to end slavery in Massachusetts, 1777. Submitted soon after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, this brief petition from seven free black men to abolish slavery in Massachusetts refers seven times to the colonists' "glorious struggle for Liberty," often using language directly from the Declaration of Independence and previous declarations of rights issued by the colonies. In a bold assertion for its time, the petitioners cite the colonists' "inconsistancey of acting themselves the part which they condemn and oppose in others." Although the assembly drafted a bill to ban slavery, the bill died in committee.3 (2 pp., from History Matters)
The anti-slavery clause in Jefferson's draft of the Declaration of Independence, 1776. In June 1776, the United States and Britain had been at war for over a year, and the Second Continental Congress was nearing agreement to issue a formal declaration of independence. A committee of five delegates—John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston—was formed to create the declaration, and the task of writing a first draft was given to Jefferson. Much of Jefferson's draft was ultimately adopted by the full Congress, but it removed his clause on the king's culpability in promoting the slave trade in America and in encouraging slaves to rise up in insurrection against their slaveholders. John Adams supported Jefferson's stand and decades later wondered if the failure to publish the draft had been due to its "vehement philippic against Negro slavery."4 What can you learn about Jefferson's motives from his handwritten manuscript that would not be apparent in a transcription? Why was the clause omitted from the final declaration? (1 p.)
- How do these documents use the Declaration of Independence (and earlier declarations and petitions) to argue that slavery is unjust? unequal? ungodly?
- What specific phrases in the Declaration are used to buttress the indictment of slavery?
- How do the writers present the inconsistency of slaveholding by colonists who accuse the mother country of enslaving them?
- Which writers go a step further and accuse the colonists of hypocrisy? Why is a charge of hypocrisy more condemning than a charge of inconsistency?
- How do the documents differ by speaker: black and white, secular and religious, American and English?
- From these documents, what opposing arguments can you infer, i.e., arguments against equating the colonists' struggle for liberty with slaves' petitions for freedom?
- What arguments are given for postponing the discussion of abolition until after the war?
- In Jefferson's draft of the Declaration of Independence, what specific condemnations does he make of slavery as an institution? of the king in promoting the slave trade in America?
- How does his tone in the clause differ from that in the rest of the declaration?
- What can you learn about Jefferson's motives from his handwritten manuscript that would not be apparent in a transcription?
- Why was Jefferson's anti-slavery clause omitted from the final Declaration?
- What rebellions and "civil wars" occurred within the colonies as war approached in the mid 1770s?
- How did colonists express and debate their differing opinions?
- How did they deal with political opponents?
- What caused the moderate voice to fade from the political arena?
- What led Americans to support or oppose the ultimate goal of independence?
Calls for abolition in the revolutionary period
Black men's petition to end slavery
Anti-slavery clause in Jefferson's draft of the Declaration
1Thomas Day, Fragment of an Original Letter on the Slavery of the Negroes, Written in the Year 1776, broadside, Philadelphia, 1784. Early American Imprints, Doc. 18437, courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society with NewsBank/ReadEx.
2Rev. Jacob Green, A Sermon Delivered at Hanover (in New Jersey), April 22nd, 1778, Being the Day of Public Fasting and Prayer throughout the United States of America, 1779; Early American Imprints, Doc. 16296, courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society with NewsBank/ReadEx.
3John P. Kaminski, ed., A Necessary Evil?: Slavery and the Debate Over the Constitution (Madison, Wisconsin: Madison House Publishers, for the Center for the Study of the American Constitution, 1995), p. 12.
4John Adams, letter to Thomas Pickering, 6 August 1822.
– Jefferson's manuscript draft of the Declaration of Independence, June 1776, p. 3 (detail); courtesy of the Library of Congress, Manuscript Division.
– Joshua Fry, A Map of the Most Inhabited Part of Virginia . . . , 1755, detail of cartouche; courtesy of the Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division, G3880 1755 .F72 Vault.
Banner image: Original Declaration of Independence, parchment, 1776 (detail); on exhibit in the Rotunda of the National Archives, Washington, DC. Courtesy of the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.
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