By William M. S. Rasmussen
Lead Curator and Lora M. Robins Curator
Virginia Historical Society
The best-known words in American history are found in Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence: “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.” For centuries those words have inspired people and nations worldwide. They have fueled reform movements in America that, albeit slowly, extended the idea of equality to African Americans and women—a consequence never anticipated by Jefferson or anyone else at the time. “All men” in 1776 meant “white men.” Yet in this same document—in its first draft—Jefferson added a paragraph condemning slavery.
The Continental Congress assigned the drafting of the Declaration to a committee made up of Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Livingston, and Roger Sherman. The actual writing was given to Jefferson.
Adams and Franklin inserted “self-evident truths” in place of Jefferson’s “sacred & undeniable truths.” The entire Congress cut 1/4 of Jefferson’s text—perhaps because certain passages seemed either incendiary to them or less than convincing. Jefferson retained copies of his original draft. One of those copies, along with a copy of the committee’s draft, are displayed in The Private Jefferson: From the Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, the special exhibition on display at the Virginia Historical Society from October 15, 2016, through January 15, 2017.
One cut passage raised the issue of slavery. There Jefferson tried to pass blame back to the English who brought the slaves to America: “The CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain [is] determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, . . . suppressing every legislative attempt [by the American colonists] to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce.” Jefferson offered this passage as evidence that the king vetoed good laws while he approved the bad laws that parliament had passed since 1765 to the detriment of the colonists.
How could Jefferson condemn slavery and yet remain a slaveholder? Obviously, his financial well-being depended upon the monetary value and efforts of “those [200 slaves] who labor for my happiness.” But the matter was not simple. Jefferson’s relationship with slavery was torturous as he wrestled with this evil for all of his adult life. In Congress, he wrote the Ordinance of 1784 that would have required the end of slavery in newly created states by 1800—but his effort lost by one vote. In his Notes on the State of Virginia (1785) he moved toward the cutting edge of the antislavery movement: “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep forever. . . . The Almighty has no attribute which can take sides with us in such a contest.” Eventually Jefferson concluded that he could not solve the dilemma. He feared that blacks and whites could not live together peacefully, in part because blacks had been too much abused. Jefferson concluded, “We have the wolf by the ears”— meaning that we can’t hold on to slavery forever, nor can we safely end it.
Learn more about Thomas Jefferson at Virginia Historical Society’s upcoming exhibit, The Private Jefferson
Dr. Rasmussen is the Lead Curator and Lora M. Robins Curator at Virginia Historical Society. His publications include co-authorship of eight books with Robert S. Tilton that have served as exhibition catalogues. He is a graduate of Washington and Lee University, and holds M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Delaware.
1776 is on stage now through October 23 at the Sara Belle and Neil November Theatre.