John Kaminski on the rough draft of the Declaration of Independence
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Q: Thomas Jefferson early on, in early drafts of the Declaration, had included an indictment against the slave trade, and that it was taken out. What was the thinking behind that? Was it taken out by the other committee members who were writing the Declaration?
A: The provision on the slave trade was taken out not by the other committee members but by Congress itself, when Congress debated the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson had included as one of the indictments against the King that he exercised his veto over various colonial legislation that would have stopped the foreign slave trade, would have stopped slaves from being transported from Africa to America.
Now what happened, Jefferson said, was that the King, bowing to the interests of the Royal African Society, which didn't want to close off the African slave trade. It was quite profitable. And so the King vetoed one act of legislation after another passed by colonial legislatures. Therefore, that slave trade kept open and slaves continued to come into America.
What Jefferson also said was to add to this grievance, the British solicited help from these slaves to rise up, join the British forces, perhaps even murder their masters. Here it was the British that, in Jefferson's estimation, was responsible for the influx of slaves into colonial America, and now it was the British that were advocating that the slaves rise up against their masters. The fact of the matter is, Jefferson totally ignored American responsibility for the slave trade.
John P. Kaminski
Professor of History
University of Wisconsin Madison
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