Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 4, 2015

Jefferson, the Declaration of Independence, and the American Indian

Filed under: bourgeois revolutions,indigenous — louisproyect @ 8:33 pm

An excerpt from:

“We hold this truth to be self-evident, that God created all men equal, and one of the most prominent features in the Declaration of Independence and in that glorious fabric of collected wisdom, our noble constitution. This idea embraces the Indian and the European, the Savage and the Saint, the Peruvian and the Laplander, the white man and the African.” So spoke Philadel phia’s prosperous black sailmaker, James Forten, thirty-seven years after the declaration first received printer’s ink.7 Was Forten mistaken that white Americans of the revolutionary generation subscribed to the notion that inalienable rights were universal, not limited just to white European males? Many historians believe that men such as Forten were wrong, that the founders really meant all white men are created equal, that only they were entitled to the fabled “unalienable rights.” Conventional wisdom has it that white revolutionary leaders believed Africans–even those who were free—were not endowed with fully human attributes and therefore were not considered to be among “all men” claimed in the declaration to have been created equal.8

To be sure, many white Americans did not intend to include African-Americans and others (such as women) under the canopy guaranteeing inalienable rights and equality as a birthright. But many did. Forten did not misremember the days of his early service in the Revolution; nor did he invent the climate of opinion in his hometown of Philadelphia. Hardly any writer who attacked slavery in the 1760s and 1770s imagined that Africans were not part of the human race. James Otis made this explicit in his Rights of the British Colonists in 1764, and a decade later the Massachusetts Genera Court debated a bill premised on this principle. Abigail Adams expressed the same view in 1774, insisting that black Americans had “as good a right to freedom as we have.” In the same year, Tom Paine insisted that “the slave, who is the proper owner of his freedom, has a right to reclaim it.”9 Samuel Hopkins, writing in 1776 from Newport, Rhode Island, the center of New England slave trading, made it his business to keep the matter squarely before the Second Continental Congress. The enslaved Africans, he exhorted, “behold the sons of liberty oppressing and tyrannizing over many thousands of poor blacks who have as good a claim to liberty as themselves, [and] are shocked with the glaring inconsistence.” Hopkins warned that if the leaders of the nation struggling for independence did not erase this “national sin,” the American people would never survive God’s wrath. Almost simultaneously, the New York legislature stated that slavery was “utterly inconsistent with the avowed principles in which this and other states have carried on their struggle for liberty.”

In southern as well as northern colonies important leaders acknowledged the universality of rights proclaimed by the declaration. As early as 1767, Virginia’s Arthur Lee stated baldly that “Freedom is unquestionably the birthright of all mankind, of Africans as well as Europeans.” Two years later, Jefferson argued before Virginia’s highest court, in a case involving a mulatto consigned to thirty years of labor, that “under the law of nature, all men are born free, every one comes into the world with a right to his own: person, which includes the liberty of moving and using it at his own will.” Nearly all Virginia leaders admitted as much as they began drafting a constitution for the state in 1776. George Mason’s draft, in the very first article of the Declaration ration of Rights, stated “that all men are born equally free and independent, and have certain inherent natural rights, of which they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; among which are, the enjoyment of life and liberty.” Objections immediately arose for fear that the first clause would “have the effect of abolishing” slavery or might be “the forerunner of … civil convulsion.” The language had to be manipulated “[so] as not to involve the necessity of emancipating the slaves.”12

Edmund Pendleton, a shrewd lawyer and expert wordsmith, rescued the Virginia leaders from the problem of making the essential claim of natural inborn rights while not giving slaves an opening. The accepted revision averred that “All men are by nature equally free and independent,” but acquired rights only when they enter into a state of society.” The last clause solved the problem because it could be said that slaves were not in a state of society. Such sophistry would do for the moment, though many Virginians were already on record saying that Africans were part of humanity and therefore as possessed of natural rights as Europeans, Asians, or anyone else. Though Jefferson would use many of the key words in the natural-rights proposition in the preamble of the Declaration of Independence, he knew better than to slip in the weaselly clause about “when they enter into a state of society.

Virginia’s crafty circumlocution later proved useful in legal matters, but it did not change the minds of many southern leaders that Africans were born with natural rights, including the essential right to freedom. John Laurens, the son of South Carolina’s largest slave trader and one of the colony’s la slave owners, believed the half-million slaves in North America were justly deprived of the rights of mankind.”13 The young Laurens, infected by study in the Enlightenment hub of Geneva, Switzerland, made this statement in 1778. But most white southerners held negative views of Africans’ attributes, and some, like Jefferson, speculated that such negative qualities were innate. But even in disparaging descriptions of African moral and in intellectual capacities, and even in arguments that abolishing slavery was impractical, the claim was rarely made that Africans—or any other caste or clan people—were born without unalterable rights. The revolutionary generation’s problem was not in its conception of universal rights, as expressed in declaration, but rather its inability to honor them.

British writers, fellow inheritors of the Enlightenment, agreed. “How that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?” inquired England’s Samuel Johnson, a former schoolteacher and creator of the Dictionary of the English Language, the masterpiece that today still commands such encomiums as “a portrait of the language of the day in all its majestic beauty, and marvelous confusion.” Johnson asked this question in 1775 in the context of his disapproval of American pretensions to independence, a position he spelled out piquantly in his Taxation No Tyranny, where he flummoxed American colonists by calling them selfish, ungrateful children—”these lords of themselves, these kings of Me, these demigods of independence.” Lind, a British government writer equally eager to unmask American hypocrisy, put it as strongly: “It is their boast that they have taken up arms in support of these their own self-evident truths—that all men are created that all men are endowed with the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.” If so, why were they complaining to the world “of the offer of freedom held out to these wretched beings [by the British], of the offer of reinstating them in that equality which, in this very paper, is declared to be the gift of God to all; in those unalienable rights with which, in this paper, God is declared to have endowed all mankind?”15

If Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence blithely absolved American colonists from complicity in the slave trade, he was equally dishonest in his blanket indictment of Native Americans. The charge that Jefferson buried in the declaration among the long list of grievances against king and Parliament must have astounded Joseph Brant, Attakullakulla, Logan, Daniel Nimham, or any other Indian leader whose stories we have followed. They would surely have agreed with the charge that “the king had blocked new appropriation of lands,” since they knew full well that Parliament had issued the Proclamation Act of 1763 and the Quebec Act of 1774 to create a buffer between the land-hungry colonists and the interior Indian nations. But they must have been deeply offended at the assertion that the king had “endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers the merciless Indian sayages, whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions.” These pungent words from Jefferson’s hand, “submitted to a candid world” and borrowed exactly from his preamble to he Virginia constitution, were left untouched by drafting committee members Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Robert R. Livingston of New York, and Roger Sherman of Connecticut, and by the Continental Congress sitting it as committee of the whole.16 The silence of historians on this disingenuous charge is deafening in the most notable studies of the Declaration of Independence spanning more than eighty years. In Carl Becker’s The Declaration of Independence (1922), in Garry Wills’s Inventing America (1978), and in Pauline Maier’s American Scripture (1997), not a word appears on this vicious caricature of the American Indians, who had been trading partners, military allies, and marital consorts as often as enemies for two centuries.

Jefferson, like most signers of the declaration, knew that this inflammatory charge was duplicitous. The first part of it—that the king had incited Indians against white settlers—had been charged in grievances expressed by several colonies and in Congress’s “Declaration on Taking Up Arms” in 1775. Rut the second part of the loaded sentence—that the known rule of destruction followed by Indian “savages,” where no woman, child, or person of any condition was spared, was Jefferson’s own formulation. To write this, Jefferson had to bury recent memory. Fourteen years before, finishing up his study at the College of William and Mary, the nineteen-year-old Jefferson had been spellbound by Chief Outacite, one of the Cherokee leaders who passed through Williamsburg on their way to take ship to London, where he hoped to find justice for his people. After spending two days in Virginia’s capital,Outacite gave a farewell speech that Jefferson remembered so vividly that he described it in detail, even to the phase of the moon, fifty years later in a letter to John Adams. “I knew much the the great Outacite, the warrior and orator of the Cherokees,” Jefferson told Adams. “He was always the guest of my father on his journeys to and from Williamsburg. I was in his camp when he made his great farewell oration to his people the evening before his departure for England.” It was a moment burned into Jefferson’s psyche, though he buried it while writing the Declaration of Independence. “The moon was in full splendor, and to her he seemed to address himself in his prayers safety on the voyage, and that of his people during his absence, his sounding voice, distinct articulation, animated actions, and the solemn silence of his people at their several fires, filled me with awe and veneration, though I did not understand a word he uttered.”17

What had happened to this awe and veneration when Jefferson drafted the declaration, sitting in a rented room looking down on bustling Market Street in Philadelphia? Of course, it was no time for Jefferson to sentimental. In drafting the declaration, he was all too aware that he was writing a propaganda missive, a legal brief to justify American independence from his own experiences in Virginia’s piedmont region that attributing a genocidal urge against “all ages, sexes, and conditions” to Indian more appropriately described the “rule of warfare” practiced by Virginia’s frontiersmen. We can never know how his sleep at night might disturbed by his suppression of the recent atrocities against peaceable Americans, for example the massacre led by the Paxton Boys in 1763 and the slaughter of Logan’s family in 1774. Jefferson knew of these heinous attacks in all their gory details, but in the flush of finding stirring rhetoric to voice the sentiments of an aroused colonial people, Jefferson ignored his deep respect for native people. A few years after penning the Declaration of Independence, he returned to his remembrance of Outacite’s stirring oratory and noble composure. In summing up his drama-filled years during the Revolution, he decided that nobody could find in the “whole orations Demosthenes and Cicero and indeed in all of European oratory” a “single passage superior to the speech of Logan.”18

Jefferson’s reduction of half a million Native Americans east of the Mississippi River to “merciless savages” had propagandistic value, but many who read the toxic words in the declaration at the time knew that most of the troubles with Indian nations began with white land hunger, unscrupulous trading, and arrogance. The judgment of Thomas Pownall, the governor of Massachusetts only a few years before, was well known and uncontested: that “the frauds, abuses, and deceits that these poor people have been treated with and suffered under have had no bounds.” Nor were Jefferson members of the Continental Congress unaware of the much circulated report of 1755 that proposed a plan for biracial comity. Edmond Atkin, the trader of South Carolina who had years of intimate contact with southern Indian nations, wrote that “In their public treaties, no people on earth are more open, explicit, and direct. Nor are they excelled by any in the observance of them…. With respect to … all ruptures of consequence between the Indians and the white people, and the massacres that ensued … the latter were the first aggressors, the Indians being driven thereto under oppressions and abuses, and to vindicate their natural rights”.19

Many colonists agreed, admiring the Indian traits of morality, generosity, bravery, and the spirit of mutual caring. Indians seemed to embody these Christian virtues almost without effort while colonizing Europeans, attempting to build a society with similar characteristics, were pulled in the opposite direction by the natural abundance around them—toward individualism, disputatiousness, aggrandizement of wealth, and the exploitation of other humans. “As a nation,” wrote John Brickell of the Delawares, with whom, he lived for more than four years, they may be considered fit examples for many of us Christians to follow. They certainly follow what they are taught to believe more closely, and I might say more honestly, in general, than we Christians do the divine precepts of our Redeemer.”20

Whether members of the Continental Congress who pored over Jefferson’s draft of the declaration considered the effect the insulting language used to describe Native Americans might have on the Indians themselves is not clear. But as historian Daniel Richter points out, they knew that England, as the war clouds loomed in 1774-75, had neither attempted to make formal military alliances with Native Americans nor encouraged them to descend on iIlicit frontier settlements. To be sure, English ministers were discussing how to mobilize Indian support if the undeclared war mushroomed into a full-scale fight. So was the Continental Congress. In fact, Congress had already enlisted the support of the Christianized Mahicans, Wappingers, and Housatonic Indians living in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, in 1775. Seventeen Stockbridge warriors fought with the Americans at Breed’s Hill in June of that year.21 A few months later, commissioners of the Continental Congress met at Pittsburgh with the Shawnee, Wyandot, Seneca, and Delaware to secure their pledge of neutrality. Once again, just as Congress was declaring independence, American commissioners at Fort Pitt received a renewed Six Nation pledge of neutrality. Creating a generic, colonist-hating Indian might be useful in kindling ears of a British-Indian conspiracy, but how could it serve to woo Indians to the American side or even convince them to remain neutral? The Ame seizure of Sir John Johnson, son of William Johnson (who was beloved by Mohawks), and the imprisonment of his wife and confiscation of his pro gave the Iroquois further reason to distrust the Americans.

1 Comment »

  1. Louis, This is a great book. I read it a few years ago and use it in my class. Nash gets into the nitty gritty, describing the facts banished from official history. How fitting to post this today! Our job is to create the climate for a peoples’ revolution in this totalitarian culture. Have a great 4th!

    Comment by Brian McKenna — July 4, 2015 @ 9:58 pm


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