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The Lost Clause: Reinterpreting the Declaration’s Silence on the Atlantic Slave Trade

Jefferson’s first draft of the Declaration of Independence condemned King George III for maintaining the international slave trade. The clause denounced the “execrable trade” for violating enslaved people’s “rights of life & liberty,” thus alienating slave-trading congressional delegates, who forced Jefferson to cut the clause. Generations of scholars have mourned this deletion. This essay offers an alternate reading of the clause. In drafting the clause, Jefferson reframed colonial legislatures’ slave importation bans—intended to control and promote the domestic slave trade—as a statement of antislavery principle. Specifically, Virginia’s colonial legislature had proposed protectionist tariffs to decrease the supply of enslaved people, lowering the likelihood of slave revolt while increasing the value of enslaved people remaining within the colony. Jefferson drafted several of these nonimportation resolutions, from which later he drew the Declaration’s clause, reframing the economic concern as a moral one. The resulting clause sandwiched a protectionist nonimportation argument, largely neglected by scholars, in the more famous language of antislavery moral appeal. By comparing the clause to other colonial nonimportation resolutions, the essay shows how this deleted section of the Declaration affirmed the interests of slaveholders.