This passage was deleted from the Declaration of Independence — here's what it reveals about motivation for the American Revolution
United States founding father Thomas Jefferson (Rembrandt Peale/New York Historical Society)

With the publication of its 1619 Project, a sweeping review of the role slavery played in the formation of the United States’ politics, economy, and society, the New York Time Magazine has struck a powerful chord and triggered a fierce debate. Many conservative and right-wing figures, in particular, have been aggrieved by the project’s apparent aim: a deconstruction and revaluation of American founding myths.

In particular, writer Nikole Hannah-Jones provoked controversy when she asserted:

She noted that “10 of this nation’s first 12 presidents were enslavers,” undermining claims that the country was founded as a democracy. She also pointed out that the founders were themselves actively conflicted about the contradiction of slavery persisting in a country supposedly founded on freedom. Thomas Jefferson, she said, even included a passage in a draft of the Declaration of Independence that tried to claim that the institution “wasn’t the colonists’ fault,” instead placing the blame on King George.

This excised passage has been preserved by historians, and it remains convoluted, perplexing, and revelatory:

He has waged cruel War against human Nature itself, violating its most sacred Rights of Life and Liberty in the Persons of a distant People who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into Slavery in another Hemisphere, or to incur miserable Death, in their Transportation thither. This piratical Warfare, the opprobrium of infidel Powers, is the Warfare of the Christian King of Great Britain.

He has prostituted his Negative for Suppressing every legislative Attempt to prohibit or to restrain an execrable Commerce, determined to keep open a Markett where Men should be bought and sold, and that this assemblage of Horrors might want no Fact of distinguished Die

He is now exciting those very People to rise in Arms among us, and to purchase their Liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the People upon whom he also obtruded them: thus paying off, former Crimes committed against the Liberties of one People, with Crimes which he urges them to commit against the Lives of another. [emphasis mine]

Hannah-Jones explained that eventually “neither Jefferson nor most of the founders intended to abolish slavery, and in the end, they struck the passage.” Slavery isn’t mentioned in the Declaration of Independence, though it was effectively preserved in the original Constitution.

But as some historians have argued, the excised passage from Jefferson’s draft declaration does more than show his clumsy attempts to avoid blame for slavery. In the portion I’ve made bold, Jefferson in fact cites as a justification for revolution the fact that the British were seeking to stoke slave uprisings. The colonists, particularly slave-owning colonists like Jefferson, feared the British would lead to slave revolts —and suppressing those revolts and preserving slavery were thus a justification for fighting the War of Independence.

The passage also reveals a pernicious bit of cognitive dissonance that seems to have helped the founders cope with their reliance on the brutal and unjust institution of slavery. They distinguished the slave trade itself, blaming it on the British, from the keeping of slaves, which Jefferson seems to have convinced himself was the only appropriate course forward given the presence of slaves in America. Had he not believed this, he’d have had nothing to fear from slave revolts, because he could have just freed his slaves.

Eric Herschthal, a historian at Ohio State University, has written about the events that led up to the drafting of the deleted passage.

“Throughout 1775, tensions had been rising between Virginian patriots and their royalist governor, Lord Dunmore,” Hershthal wrote in Slate in 2013. “The War of Independence had broken out earlier that year, in Lexington, Mass., but not a single shot had been fired in the South. Virginia’s patriots managed to uphold a boycott against British goods, but it was far from clear that most Virginians would join the patriots’ side. Many remained neutral, wary of casting their lot with a ragtag militia that dared to fight one of the mightiest militaries in the world.”

He continued:

Then, on Oct. 26, 1775, the war crossed the Mason-Dixon line. The two sides exchanged fire at Hampton, Va., after patriots burned a beached British ship, the Liberty, to a charred-out shell. The Battle of Hampton lasted less than a day, with both sides retreating. But it set in motion a sequence of events that led many neutral southerners to support a war they had at first embraced only tepidly. Critical to those events was Dunmore’s formal proclamation, in early November, granting freedom to slaves who fought for his army. Though not as well-known as early battles in the North, like Bunker Hill, the Battle of Hampton was a pivotal moment in the nascent conflict, bringing the war to the South by preying upon southerners’ worst fear: a full-blown slave revolt.

Like Jefferson, other white Southerners feared the possibility of a slave revolt, according to Herschthal and other historians. That helped overcome their reticence and motivated them to join the push for independence.

Herschthal added:

Virginians reacted furiously to Dunmore’s Proclamation; in their written records, Virginians unite behind the patriots’ cause because of the proclamation. “The Inhabitants of this Colony are deeply alarmed at this infernal Scheme,” Philip Fithian, who was traveling through Virginia when Dunmore made his proclamation.* “It seems to quicken all in Revolution to overpower him at any Risk.” Richard Henry Lee added that “Lord Dunmore’s unparalleled conduct in Virginia has … united every man in that large colony.” Archibold Cary perhaps put it most piquantly, writing that “The Proclamation from Lord D[unmore], has had a most extensive good consequence. … Men of all ranks resent the pointing of a dagger to their Throats, through the hands of their slaves.”

Even though Dunmore’s Proclamation was intended only for Virginia’s slaves, it set off a flurry of rumors throughout America’s slave colonies. Many slaves believed the British were coming to free them, while others simply used the chaos of war to escape, hoping that the British would have mercy. From Georgia to South Carolina, hundreds of slaves began fleeing their plantations looking for refuge among the British. When 200 slaves deserted a South Carolina plantation in March 1776, patriot officer Col. Stephen Bull gave strict orders to his men: “It is far better for the public and the owners, if the deserted negroes … be shot, if they cannot be taken.”

Others have concurred with Herschthal’s claims, noting the decisive role preserving slavery played for many revolutionaries.

Historian Simon Schama, author of the book “Rough Crossings: The Slaves, the British, and the American Revolution,” has similarly argued that the Dunmore strategy crystallized Southern opposition to the British Empire.

“However intoxicating the heady rhetoric of ‘rights’ and ‘liberty’ emanating from Patriot orators and journalists, for the majority of farmers, merchants and townsmen in Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia (the vast majority of whom owned between one and five negroes), all-out war and separation now turned from an ideological flourish to a social necessity,” Schama wrote. “Theirs was a revolution, first and foremost, to protect slavery. Edward Rutledge, one of the leading South Carolina Patriots, was right when he described the British strategy of arming free slaves as tending ‘more effectively to work an eternal separation between Great Britain and the colonies than any other expedient could possibly be thought of.’”