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Opinion | The Enemies of Slavery Gave New Meaning to the Declaration of Independence

“The antislavery movement was not,” the historian Alexander Tsesis writes, “a creation of the Revolution.” Nevertheless, the ideology of the revolution was “inspirational enough to hearten Black petitioners, soldiers and litigants to protest against the resilience of hereditary bondage.” And in that movement, as well as those it spawned, the Declaration of Independence would stand, in the words of the historian David Brion Davis, as a “touchstone” and “sacred scripture” for opponents of slavery.

Examples of this use of the Declaration abound. As early as 1776, we have a pamphlet by Lemuel Haynes, a free Black Congregational minister in Vermont, titled “Liberty Further Extended: Or Free Thoughts on the Illegality of Slave-Keeping.” Haynes begins by quoting the Declaration of Independence and then, embracing the language of natural rights, goes on to assert that “an African” has an “undeniable right to his Liberty: Consequently, the practice of Slave-keeping, which so much abounds in this Land is illicit.”

Although he does not directly quote the Declaration, the author of “Sermon on the Present Situation of the Affairs of America and Great Britain” — who identified himself only as “A Black Whig” — seemed to echo the American independence document in 1781 when he wrote: “Next to life is liberty, and when oppression and tyranny are violent they cause the parties oppressed to make some resistance, let them be ever so feeble.” From here, he asked the American revolutionaries to follow their own fight for freedom with the emancipation of the slaves. “And now my virtuous fellow citizens, let me entreat you, that, after you have rid yourselves of the British yoke, that you will also emancipate those who have been all their life time subject to bondage.”

White abolitionists and other opponents of slavery also made use of the Declaration in their legal and rhetorical assaults on human bondage.

“It was repeatedly declared in Congress, as language and sentiment of all these States, and by other public bodies of men, ‘that we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,’” wrote the pseudonymous author Crito (after the ancient Athenian companion of Socrates) in 1787. “The Africans, and the blacks in servitude among us, were really as much included in these assertions as ourselves,” he continued. “And if we have not allowed them to enjoy these unalienable rights, we are guilty of a ridiculous, wicked contradiction and inconsistence.”

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