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Part 1: 1450-1750
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Part 3: 1791-1831
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Modern Voices
David Blight on the Declaration of Independence and morality
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Q: What was the significance of a document like the Declaration of Independence in challenging the morality of slavery?
David Blight

A: Before the Declaration of Independence, in many ways, there hadn't been an official challenge to slavery in America. Now it's questionable whether the drafters of the Declaration of Independence intended it to be an official challenge to slavery. After all, Jefferson was himself a slaveholder.

But what the Declaration of Independence comes to mean, really from its very inception, but especially in the wake of the Revolution, to blacks, is that it means its first principles. It means not only that it was some founding document of a revolution, a founding document of a new budding republic, but what blacks will always look to, as have people all over the world and people ever since in this document, are those four first principles in the preamble: , the right of revolution, the doctrine of equality, the doctrine of consent, and the doctrine of popular sovereignty.

It's almost as if the first principles of the Declaration of Independence were not only natural rights, but they were like natural resources, they were like precious ore, they were like clean air you could breathe. And now they were written up in a formal document that said, "these belong to all men, that they're inalienable; they belong to everybody." Did the drafters of that document intend to include black people explicitly in the document? Probably not. But that doesn't mean that blacks weren't going to insist that they did. If inalienable rights really exist, then slavery cannot ultimately co-exist next to it, or you have to give up those principles.
David W. Blight
Professor of History and Black Studies
Amherst College




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