Americans have spilled quite a lot of ink discussing the Declaration of Independence’s five words “all Men are created equal.” As with any historical text, their meaning in eighteenth century America is important to avoid drawing anachronistic conclusions. In particular, many would point out that many contemporaries commonly wouldn’t have regarded African Americans as commensurate with “all Men.” This underscores slavery’s denial of their status as human beings, a supposition that laid a moral foundation for treating them as mere property. It also explains why the founding generation could remain blind to the such apparent hypocrisy given the continued existence of slavery in the newly “liberated” United States.
But appreciating text within a historical context also does not necessarily absolve contemporaries from the ethical implications of their ignorance, nor does it suggest a universal interpretation of those words. This point is driven home in Timothy Pickering’s March 8, 1785 letter to Rufus King, a Massachusetts representative at the Confederation Congress. It is one of several, and the second that day, that Pickering wrote to King regarding the administration of the federal territories, highlighting many important issues as well as the shortcomings of existing legislation. (Congress would address most of Pickering’s issues in the culminating legislation of 1787, also known as the Northwest Ordinance.) In particular, Pickering’s March 8 letter skewers Congress for not banning slavery in the western territories. He begins by referencing the Declaration of Independence:
Congress once made this important declaration,— “all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; and these truths were held to be self-evident. These great truths were echoed thro’ the United States.
He then points out the missed opportunity “for preventing a violation of these truths” by outlawing slavery before facing the challenge of doing so after settlement. Pickering’s resolve is clear: “for the admission of [slavery] for a day or an hour ought to have been forbidden.” Acknowledging his passionate stance has perhaps “rendered him prolix,” Pickering brings his criticism to a resounding conclusion:
To suffer the continuance of slaves, till they can gradually be emancipated, in States already overrun with them, may be pardonable, because unavoidable [sic], without hazarding greater evils; but to introduce them into countries where none now exist — countries which have been talked of — which we have boasted of as asylums to the oppressed of the earth — can never be forgiven. For God’s sake, then, let one more effort be made to prevent so terrible a calamity. The fundamental constitutions for those States are yet liable to alterations, and this is probably the only time when the evil can certainly be prevented.
Although he takes a pragmatic view in suggesting gradual emancipation, Pickering lambastes the prospect of slavery’s unchecked westward expansion. But most importantly, he does so with those famous words as his backdrop. Pickering’s frankness makes the letter ideal as a historical document. Thus, in 1785, less than ten years after the Declaration and before the drafting of the Constitution, Pickering lays bare one of the enduring and troubling contradictions of American history while reminding us that there were Americans who recognized this from the nation’s very earliest days.