How could the Continental Congress approve the Declaration of Independence, a document of freedom, when so many of its members owned slaves?


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The Continental Congress approved the Declaration of Independence, a document of freedom, when so many of its members owned slaves because slave-owning delegates believed that the inspiring language of the Declaration only applied to white men like themselves.

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The Declaration of Independence is one of the great documents of American history. It sets out, in some detail, a long list of grievances which the American colonists had against the British government. It also puts forward what was at that time a radical philosophical statement of liberty based on the notion that all men are created equal.

Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the Declaration, wanted to include a passage condemning slavery as another great evil forced upon the American colonists by the Crown. This was despite the fact that Jefferson himself was a slave owner. However, the anti-slavery passage was excised from the final draft of the Declaration due to the firm opposition of those committed to maintaining the so-called peculiar institution, a euphemism for slavery. Without the passage condemning slavery, the Declaration and its inspiring words of liberty were subsequently construed by pro-slavery delegates at the Continental Congress as applying only to white men such as themselves.

Although some slave-owners shared Jefferson's distaste for the system of slavery, most regarded it as a perfectly natural institution. Drawing on the racial prejudice that was widespread at this time, they regarded people of color as inferior and therefore not deserving of the rights and liberties that they believed were the sole preserve of white men.

That being the case, most pro-slavery delegates at the Continental Congress saw no problem with affirming the liberty of “all men” while at the same time denying liberty to slaves.

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