“We hold these truths to be self evident.” Say these words, and many Americans will be able to recite what follows: “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.” The opening words of the Declaration of Independence—and easily its most remembered part—are widely celebrated as signifying the beginning of an exceptional American history, one characterized, despite setbacks, by a progressive expansion of rights.
The closing words of the Declaration are far less known. The last of a list of 27 grievances against King George III, they read as follows: “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.” These words call attention to hard truths about America’s founding that have often been brushed aside.
The 27th grievance raises two issues. The first, the king’s incitement of “domestic insurrections,” refers to slave revolts and reveals a hard truth recently brought to the public’s attention by The New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project: Some of those who sought independence aimed to protect the institution of slavery. This was particularly true for Virginia slave owners, who were deeply 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. Edward Rutledge, who later became the governor of South Carolina, declared that Dunmore’s proclamation would do more than any other effort to “work an eternal separation between Great Britain and the Colonies,” and George Washington called Dunmore “that arch-traitor to the rights of humanity.”