“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
This, the second sentence of the Declaration of Independence, is one of the most far-reaching and best-known sentences in the English language, and it expresses who we are supposed to be as a nation. Though these words appear to be a statement about human rights, they are purposely ambiguous in order to protect the “right” of plantation owners to own slaves.
Though Thomas Jefferson said he was uncomfortable with the institution of American slavery, he used slaves to make his life quite comfortable. They were vital to Virginia’s—and to his own—political, social, and economic future. As a representative of the southern elite, his task was to protect slavery. An earlier draft of the declaration, written by fellow Virginian George Mason, presented a quandary for Jefferson. Mason’s phrase “All men are born equally free and independent” threatened the most fundamental imperative of American slavery: that the children of enslaved women were born to be the property of their masters. Enslavement was deemed hereditary
Mason’s words, which would immediately emancipate the slaves, ignited dissent among the delegates. If it remained in the declaration, the slave holding colonies would revolt, destroying the nation before it began. Jefferson’s objective was to produce a document confirming that America was united in its determination to be free. So when Jefferson replaced “born equally free and independent” with “created equal” the possibility of freedom and independence for slaves was only implied, placing the their fate in the hands of “their Creator.”