Declaration of Independence adopted
Jefferson's rough draft
of Declaration (copy)
On this date in 1776, the Declaration of Independence was adopted. This document affected blacks in two significant ways distinct from other U.S. citizens:
First, was the role slavery played in drafting the document; second, the Declaration contains an apparent promise of liberty and equality that was unfulfilled for African-Americans before the Civil War and only partially fulfilled after. In his original draft of the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson condemned King George II of England for supporting the slave trade and imposing it on Virginians. This provision has led to the myth that he attempted to attack slavery in the Declaration. Rather, Jefferson’s attack focused on the slave trade.
In his draft, he complained that the King had “waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty” by continuing the African slave trade. Jefferson also condemned the King for encouraging slaves to enlist in the British army, “exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people on whom he also obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed against the LIBERTIES of one people, with crimes which he urges to commit against the LIVES of another.” This was in reference to Lord Dunmore, the royal governor of Virginia. Congress deleted this section written by Thomas Jefferson.
It is a fair assumption that Jefferson, the primary author of the Declaration never intended “equality” to extend to Blacks. Though writing the document, he owned more than 175 slaves. Many Englishmen read the Declaration and wondered, as did Samuel Johnson, “How is it the we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?” In 1863, the promise of liberty remained unfulfilled.
In 1964, Congress passed and President Johnson signed legislation that outlawed segregation in schools, public places, and employment. President Johnson signed the bill and then allegedly put down his pen and said, "We have lost the South for a generation."
The promise of liberty remained unfulfilled for decades, and, despite significant progress, many would argue that for most African-American it still is unfulfilled in the 21st century.
The African American Desk Reference
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
Copyright 1999 The Stonesong Press Inc. and
The New York Public Library, John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Pub.
Today in American History