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Background Essay: The Declaration of Independence, Natural Rights, and Slavery

What is natural rights theory and how is it at the foundation of the Declaration of Independence? How do natural rights theory and the Founding principles at the heart of the Declaration of Independence challenge slavery?

Essential Vocabulary

Axiom Accepted truth
Natural rights Rights that belong to us by nature and can only be justly abridged through due process. Examples are life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness.
Coerced Forced
Manumitted To privately free from slavery


Written by: The Bill of Rights Institute

The Declaration of Independence asserted revolutionary principles of natural rights, self-government, and human equality. Abolitionist Frederick Douglass thought that the principles contained in the document were “saving principles” in the nation’s destiny. President Abraham Lincoln stated those principles were the “definitions and axioms of free society.” Those ideals forced the Founding generation to confront the moral evil of the institution of slavery. One of the great questions was whether they would live up to those noble ideals and create a just political order for all.  

The Declaration of Independence claimed that all human beings were created equal as a self-evident truth. They were equally “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” At its core, the Declaration of Independence holds that all humans are equal in the possession of certain natural rights. These rights are embedded in human nature and cannot be violated by government or other individuals.  

The equality of human beings also meant that they had equal right to consent to the form of government, and that only government based on consent was legitimate. All authority derived from the sovereign people equally. The Declaration then explains that the purpose of that government was to protect the natural rights of the people. “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” The people had the right to overthrow a government that violated their rights after a long series of abuses. Therefore, the people had a right of resistance or revolution against an unjust government.  

The universal truths of the Declaration of Independence raised an immediate moral problem confronting Americans. The holding of enslaved persons contradicted the natural rights and republican principles animating Founding documents. Slavery was a system of unfree and coerced labor that violated the enslaved person’s natural rights of liberty and consent by stealing the fruits of their labor. Slavery was at its core a violent and brutal system that stripped away human dignity from the enslaved and violated the principles of equality by making one person subordinate to another. In other words, slavery was a great injustice, according to the foundational principles of the American republican government.

Writing the Declaration of Independence, 1776, Jean Leon Gerome Ferris' idealized 1900 depiction of (left to right) Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson of the Committee of Five working on the Declaration.

Thomas Jefferson (right) was the primary author of the Declaration of Independence. John Adams (center) and Benjamin Franklin (left)–who also contributed to the original draft–are depicted here alongside Jefferson.
Ferris, Jean Leon Gerome. Writing the Declaration of Independence, 1776. 1900. Painting. Wikipedia.

Many Americans at the time acknowledged that slavery contradicted the ideals they espoused. Many Americans — Founders, politicians, farmers, artisans, pamphleteers, and enslaved people — wrote eloquently about slavery violating the rights of humans. Their words are very important for understanding their highest aspirations and explaining their motivations. However, the most important measure of their beliefs is whether they acted.  

A lot of focus and scrutiny has been on important Founders themselves as political and moral leaders at the time and role models for centuries to come. The question of whether they lived up to the inspiring words they wrote, or whether they should just be judged as hypocrites, is an important one. Some, including the one that claimed to author the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, continued to hold well over 100 enslaved people, despite his public criticisms and actions against the institution. Others freed their slaves outright or at some point in their lives, such as George Washington who freed his enslaved people in his will and provided for their education and support. A broader perspective than a handful of Founders is important. Examining the lives and actions of a few key figures from the Founding can be instructive, but a wider examination of how the Founding generation dealt, or did not deal, with the institution of slavery is important. 

Americans acted in a variety of ways in the face of this core contradiction. Thousands of slaveholders continued to hold enslaved people and even to defend the institution on historical, biblical, or economic grounds. At the same time, hundreds of white Americans manumitted, or privately freed, their slaves. Some Founding statesmen and politicians took important steps against slavery at the state or national level immediately or over the next generation.  

African Americans responded to the rhetoric of natural rights and self-government in a variety of dynamic ways. Some were deeply influenced by the Declaration of Independence and state declarations of rights. They directly appealed to those free principles and petitioned legislatures or sued in courts for their natural rights. Thousands ran to the British during the Revolutionary War to escape enslavement for the promise of liberty. Thousands also joined the Continental Army and state militias to earn their freedom during the Revolutionary War. Approximately 100,000 enslaved people gained their freedom in the largest emancipation in world history at that time.  

Yet, tragically, slavery continued for more than 300,000 African Americans and endured for decades. Abraham Lincoln believed that the Founders saw slavery as a “necessary evil” and put it on the “course of ultimate extinction,” but they did not end it altogether. As a result, liberty and slavery, equality and inequality, democratic self-governance and oligarchy paradoxically continued to co-exist in the new American republic. Lincoln stated plainly, “When the white man governs himself that is self-government; but when he governs himself, and also governs another man [without his consent] — that is despotism.” By the time of the Civil War, the country was half-slave, half-free.

Abraham Lincoln, a portrait by Mathew Brady taken February 27, 1860, the day of Lincoln's Cooper Union speech

President Abraham Lincoln believed that slavery was a contradiction of the Founding ideals of equality and liberty. Slavery would not gradually fade away as many of the Founders hoped, and Lincoln needed to lead the country through a bloody war to finally end the unjust institution.
Brady, Matthew Benjamin. Abraham Lincoln. 1860. Photograph. Wikipedia.,_1860.png

The story is a central part of understanding U.S. history.  The country was built upon a set of ideals and aspirations that were not fully realized for all at the time of the American Founding. Asking difficult questions, examining evidence, and studying the history of the subject is not just an important job for historians but a responsibility of citizenship.

Comprehension and Analysis Questions

  1. What were the major assertions of the Declaration of Independence?
  2. How did slavery contradict the principles of the Declaration of Independence?
  3. How did Americans respond to the claims of natural rights in the Declaration of Independence?

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