The second paragraph in the Unites States Declaration of Independence states:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

Since this is the case, how was slavery legal?
What I mean by this is how did lawyers and law makers convince the legislative branch to legalize owning / selling other people?

NOTE: Follow site rules and don't use this post as a platform to offend others, thanks.

  • I'll post a fuller answer when I get time, but I believe it all stemmed from (1)the 3/5ths compromise and (2) the lack of plaintiffs bringing cases Commented Feb 7, 2017 at 16:14
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    Wrong question, slavery was legal before the Declaration of Independence. It was mostly "justified" in racist theories (black people got "civilization" and Christianism in exchange of their work, they were unable to take care of themselves, etc.) and economics (those who profited from slavery were usually rich people) did the rest. Anyway, I think it is better suited for History.SE.
    – SJuan76
    Commented Feb 7, 2017 at 16:18
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because this is about history not political processes or policies Commented Feb 7, 2017 at 16:19
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    @DavidGrinberg the 3/5th compromise had nothing to do with the legal basis of slavery, which was an institution that extents to prehistory. We're looking at this all retroactively. For the time, the quoted sentence does not contradict indenturement whatsoever. Commented Feb 7, 2017 at 16:28
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    @DavidGrinberg Where was it used as justification? Commented Feb 7, 2017 at 19:14

1 Answer 1


It should be noted that slavery as an institution existed throughout the world long before the American Revolution. As a result, those states whose laws did not ban slavery had the legality "grandfathered" in.

While there were those who wanted to ban slavery, the slave holding states refused to accept the constitution unless it were left legal.

The Constitution and Slavery

Many colonists, even slave holders, hated slavery. Jefferson called it a “hideous blot” on America. George Washington, who owned hundreds of slaves, denounced it as “repugnant.” James Mason, a Virginia slave owner, condemned it as “evil.”

But even though many of them decried it, Southern colonists relied on slavery. The Southern colonies were among the richest in America. Their cash crops of tobacco, indigo, and rice depended on slave labor. They weren’t going to give it up.

The Northern states wanted slaves to not count in the determination of how many Representatives a state could have in Congress and to ban the import of new slaves from outside the country. They expected that the slave trade would die off by itself (since they did not anticipate the invention of the cotton gin).

Only the Southern states had large numbers of slaves. Counting them as part of the population would greatly increase the South’s political power, but it would also mean paying higher taxes. This was a price the Southern states were willing to pay. They argued in favor of counting slaves. Northern states disagreed. The delegates compromised. Each slave would count as three-fifths of a person.

Following this compromise, another controversy erupted: What should be done about the slave trade, the importing of new slaves into the United States? Ten states had already outlawed it. Many delegates heatedly denounced it. But the three states that allowed it — Georgia and the two Carolinas — threatened to leave the convention if the trade were banned. A special committee worked out another compromise: Congress would have the power to ban the slave trade, but not until 1800. The convention voted to extend the date to 1808.

This caused the inclusion of Article I Section 9

The first clause in this section prevents Congress from passing any law that would restrict the importation of slaves into the United States prior to 1808. Congress could however, levy a per capita duty of up to ten dollars for each slave imported into the country. This clause was further entrenched into the Constitution by Article V, where it is explicitly shielded from constitutional amendment prior to 1808. On March 2, 1807, Congress approved legislation prohibiting the importation of slaves into the United States, which went into effect January 1, 1808, the first day permitted by the Constitution.

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    This answer is totally right that slavery has been the norm throughout a lot of history; however, it is a bit misleading about the position of the founders on the issue of slavery. First of all, slavery was widespread throughout the country. Although most slaves were in the South, there were plenty of slaves in the North, and they remained legal into the 19th century. Second, Jefferson did not hate slavery. He may have had some bad words for it, but he was a vicious slave owner who exploited his slaves mercilessly and campaigned against manumission, for example.
    – rougon
    Commented Mar 6, 2017 at 13:07
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    One thing to keep in mind is that the founders did not think that black Americans were people in the same way they were people, or, more directly, that they were fully human. Here is Jefferson about slaves, summing up mainstream views of "science" at his time: web.archive.org/web/20110221131356/http://….
    – rougon
    Commented Mar 6, 2017 at 13:08

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