“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.”
A second hard truth exposed by the 27th grievance—and its racist depiction of Native Americans as “merciless Indian savages”—has generated much less public discussion. In indicting 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 new colonial 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 a general conflagration 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.
Although the reference to the “merciless Indian savages” appealed to the “inhabitants of our frontiers,” Jefferson and others who signed the Declaration had their own reasons for detesting British policies relating to Native Americans and their lands. More than a decade earlier, in order to end a costly war to suppress an indigenous resistance movement led by the Ottawa war leader Pontiac, the king issued the Proclamation of 1763, which recognized indigenous ownership of lands west of the Appalachian mountains’ crest and prevented colonists from settling there. At first glance, ordinary settlers might be expected to have been the proclamation’s major opponents. Some settlers did object, but the most potent source of opposition came from colonial elites, especially in Virginia and Pennsylvania, who had invested in companies with claims to lands west of the boundary set by the proclamation. 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.
In 1767, George Washington, one of the era’s most passionate land speculators, predicted that the proclamation “must fall … in a few years.” British imperial officials made some adjustments to the 1763 boundary, but despite Washington’s hopes, and those of other speculators such as Thomas Jefferson, British policy continued to restrict colonists’ perceived liberty to obtain indigenous lands. Colonists found the 1774 Quebec Act—one of the Intolerable Acts—particularly odious. Not only did the Quebec Act grant legal protection to Catholicism, a religion Protestants despised, but it 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.
Even as colonists declared their independence from Britain, indigenous people were preparing to defend their own freedom. Long experience had led Native Americans to believe that colonists intended not only to take their lands, but to kill them all. In the summer of 1776, an unnamed Shawnee, part of a delegation of Mohawks, Shawnees, Ottawas, and Delawares, urged Cherokees to join a confederation to resist the colonists, warning 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 term genocide did not yet exist, but their words conveyed the same idea. Native people were terrified that unshackled colonists would kill them wholesale.
This indigenous perspective returns us to the 27th grievance. Jefferson’s denigration of “merciless Indian savages” signaled that the war for independence from Great Britain would also be a brutal war to seize indigenous lands. 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. In the decades to come, 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 1619 Project has made an enormous contribution to public understanding of slavery, often referred to as America’s “original sin.” Although critics of the 1619 Project have tried to minimize slavery’s importance, its centrality to the creation of America—and its disturbing legacies—is well established in the scholarly literature and becoming clear to the public. Even so, the 27th grievance reveals that the original sin at America’s founding was twofold. America was built by the labor of enslaved people. It was also built on stolen lands and the genocide of indigenous peoples. To understand where this country is now and to imagine a truly just future, America needs to reckon with both of these hard truths.