The Declaration of Independence conveys two kinds of information. Upon its surface, Thomas Jefferson and his colleagues stated their grievances and their aspirations—information by inclusion. Below the surface, as if in the “hidden text” in a computer memory, there lies information by omission: the passages Jefferson sought to include but failed, and further material that others on the committee of draftsmen, such as Benjamin Franklin, might have sought to have included but was left out. The legislative history of the Declaration is rich in discourse about why their suggestions were omitted, stimulating us to imagine what was left unrecorded, or even unspoken.
At the request of his colleagues, Jefferson drafted a committee report delivered on June 28, 1776, to the Continental Congress. The final document approved on July the Fourth was never called by that Congress “the Declaration of Independence,” for independence had actually been declared two days earlier. The magnificent statement proposed by Jefferson was an explanation for that prior action, not the action itself. It is, therefore, especially important in seeking to understand how he and his colleagues wished to appeal to the “opinions of mankind” and whose opinions mattered to them.
The blacks, whites, and Indians inhabiting the “13 United States of America” at the time were separately mentioned in Jefferson's draft. The Native Americans appeared as “merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions.” The blacks and whites fell within the general category of “all men,” who were declared to be “created equal… endowed by their creator with inalienable rights… [including] life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” The best evidence that Jefferson and the other members of the committee meant to include people of African ancestry within the ranks of “all men” lies within the “lost language” condemning the slave trade as “cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty.” 1
Though this portion of the draft did not survive into the final version—for reasons to be discussed shortly—many people at the time took the Declaration