A bit ago I posted the article “The Birthday of Free Government?” in which I briefly summarized how the Declaration of Independence helped popularize the ideas of democracy, constitutional restraint, and limited government. Indeed, these ideas of freedom have spread globally. However – that freedom has not been, and still is not, implemented equally even in my own country. I referenced this in the previous article, and I want to unpack that more. I had suspected that I glossed over the deeply problematic references to slavery and indigenous people, and feedback from a friend as well as consultation of a couple articles confirmed this. So let me unpack this.

The Declaration of Independence proclaims that “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.” Yet, further on, it lists one of the colonies’ grievances against the Crown to be that “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 undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”
I’ll address the second part first, the “merciless Indian savages” section. Yes, colonial warfare was brutal, and often entire villages were destroyed with indiscriminate killing. This includes Anglo-American colonists, who massacred and destroyed entire villages. By condemning indigenous people as merciless savages, the Declaration would doubly condemn the British colonists who destroyed settlements, massacred populations, and steadily encroached more and more on indigenous lands. And more to the point – the Declaration was not seeking to detail the brutality of colonial warfare in a fair and critical manner. It instead sought to demonize entire peoples. Colonists lived side-by-side with indigenous peoples, indeed they often fought side-by-side. Indeed, the very ideals of constitutional constraint, confederations of states that restricted the powers of the federal government, and liberty, equality, and the right to participate in government were indigenous ideas. For example, the confederacy of the Haudenosaunee (often called the Iroquois) practiced such governance probably by c. 1450, at the latest by the early 17th century, and possibly as early as 1142 A.D. The ideal of freedom proclaimed in the Declaration, and the right to rebel against an oppressive government, was largely an ideal believed by the supposed “merciless savages.” In fact, nearly every Enlightenment thinker referenced indigenous peoples as an inspiration. Yet the only mention of indigenous people in the Declaration is as violent enemies of the colonists.

Now for the first part, the “domestic insurrections.” This is a reference to slave rebellions. In the first draft of the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson wrote that King George III “has waged cruel War against human Nature itself, violating its most sacred Rights of Life and Liberty in the Persons of a distant People who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into Slavery in another Hemisphere, or to incur miserable Death, in their Transportation thither.” Compare that to the final version where he has incited “domestic insurrections.” The argument completely reversed. Instead of grieving that the colonies practiced slavery because of George III, it declares that it is rebelling against the King because he incites the slaves to rebel. The same document that proclaims “that all Men are created equal” declares that it will rebel from the King so that it can practice inequality.

So, what is my point? My point is not that we throw out the idea of liberty because the Declaration is hypocritical. Rather, we should acknowledge that indeed the Declaration is hypocritical, and therefore seek to be consistent where it is not. To believe and practice that ALL people (men and women) are equal, and not just some. And remember that when we see inequality, that should not surprise us, since the Declaration itself did not consistently follow through on what it claimed.

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