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The Declaration of Independence is a document that is widely regarded as the foundational text of American democracy. The well known line from near the beginning of this document is, "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."
However, there is troubling language later on in the text that brings up questions about whether the founding fathers really believed in freedom for all.
The Declaration of Independence lists a series of grievances against King George III. The 27th grievance reads as following:
"He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions."
This 27th grievance introduces two problems: a defense of slavery and a defense of war against Native Americans, who the document refers to as "merciless savages."
THE DEFENSE OF SLAVERY
"Domestic insurrections amongst us," refer to slave revolts. Some of those who sought independence aimed to protect the institution of slavery, in particular, from the 1775 Dunmore Proclamation.
At the time the Declaration of Independence was written, Virginia slave owners were very disturbed by a proclamation issued in November 1775 by Virginia Governor Lord Dunmore, which promised enslaved people held by revolutionaries freedom in exchange for joining the British army. Virginians and other southerners feared that it would provoke widespread slave revolts. George Washington called Dunmore “that arch-traitor to the rights of humanity.” (Revolution Trilogy)
THE DEHUMANIZATION OF NATIVE AMERICANS
In 1763, King George III issued a proclamation which recognized the indigenous ownership of lands west of the Appalachian mountains’ crest and prevented colonists from settling there. Fierce opposition to this proclamation came from colonial elites, especially in Virginia and Pennsylvania, who had invested in companies with claims to lands west of the proclamation's boundary. Unless those lands could be legally settled, land companies could not gain secure title to their claims. Investors would be left with nothing but the debts they had incurred to bet on getting rich.
When the Declaration of Independence indicts the king for unleashing Indians on the 'inhabitants of our frontiers,' the Declaration was not referring to a specific event but rather to the recent escalation of violence, which was caused by colonists invading Native lands west of the Appalachian Mountains. In response, a confederation of Senecas, Shawnees, Delawares, Ottawas, Cherokees, and other Native nations exercised a right of self-defense and attacked the colonist's new settlements. Although the Native nations had British support, they were acting on their own and not at the instigation of the Crown. Nonetheless, Thomas Jefferson, the Declaration’s primary drafter, hoped that by fanning the flames of settlers’ anti-Indian racism and implicating George III, he could ignite hostility against the British in the West. In this way, the 27th grievance helped lay the foundation for an American nationalism that would demonize the continent’s indigenous people, especially when they resisted American aggressions.
George Washington was a passionate land speculator himself. And he predicted the proclamation “must fall … in a few years.”
Colonists also found the 1774 Quebec Act (one of the Intolerable Acts) particularly onerous. The act extended Quebec’s boundary south to the Ohio River and blocked settlement in the Ohio Valley. At the First Continental Congress, Richard Lee, a delegate from Virginia, called the Quebec Act the “worst grievance” of them all. Two years later, when Virginia broke with Great Britain, its state constitution claimed lands west of the Mississippi River, thus nullifying the Proclamation of 1763 and the Quebec Act. (Also, the Quebec Act granted legal protection to Catholics, a religion the Protestants despised.)
The indigenous people of the time expressed fears that the colonists intended to exterminate them wholesale.
In the summer of 1776, an unnamed Shawnee (who was part of a delegation of Mohawks, Shawnees, Ottawas, and Delawares) urged Cherokees to join a confederation to resist the colonists. He warned that the 'Virginians,' as he referred to all colonists, possessed an 'intention to extirpate … the red people.' Similarly, after the Revolutionary War broke out, the Mohawk leader Joseph Brant declared that it was the intention of another group of colonists—the 'Bostonians'—to exterminate the Mohawks and other members of the Six Nations (Haudenosaunee) confederacy.
The fears that the natives had about the colonists eventually proved correct. From 1776 to 1783, U.S. troops and colonial militias destroyed more than 70 Cherokee towns, 50 Haudenosaunee towns, and at least 10 multiethnic towns in the Ohio Valley, killing several hundred people (including civilians) and subjecting refugees to starvation, disease, and death.
Even many of the natives who sided with the colonists were killed off or driven from their lands despite supporting the American Revolution. British American and Dartmouth Professor Colin G. Calloway describes their situation in his book, The American Revolution in Indian Country: Crisis and Diversity in Native American Communities. "In spite of most New England area tribes' sincerest efforts to aid Americans, Indian patriotism did not earn Indian people a place in the nation they helped create. For Native Americans, it seemed the American Revolution was truly a no-win situation...The Stockbridge and their Oneida friends who had adopted the patriot cause found that republican blessings were reserved for white Americans.” (ICT News, 9-12-18)
And in the decades to come after the American Revolution, U.S. presidents, Washington and Jefferson included, would call for the extermination of Native Americans who fought against dispossession. Several U.S. armies would try to do precisely that.
THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE
The Text of The Declaration of Independence (National Archives)
The Shameful Final Grievance of the Declaration of Independence (The Atlantic, 2-8-20)
The Declaration of Independence — Except for Native Americans (ICT, 9-12-18)
The American Revolution in Indian Country: Crisis and Diversity in Native American Communities (Studies in North American Indian History) (Amazon)
Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation, 1775 (Document Bank of Virginia)
Dunmore's Proclamation - The Promise, Significance & Impact (History.com)
RELATED WORLD FUTURE FUND REPORTS
The Founding Fathers and Racism (World Future Fund)
Jefferson and Racism (World Future Fund)
Life, Liberty and The Pursuit of Property (World Future Fund)
American Genocide (World Future Fund)
Native American Genocide (World Future Fund)