The Declaration of Independence: Officially Framing Native Americans and Black Americans

Soon after the French and Indian wars ended in the 1760s, numerous colonial political and business leaders decided to revolt against Britain and issued a famous Declaration of Independence. Much has been written about this document, but its highly racialized sections have received much less public attention than they deserve, especially the one directed at Native Americans. Two passages in the working draft indicate the racist framing of Thomas Jefferson, the Declaration’s primary writer, and also of the many influential white men who signed it. Jefferson sought to include the following passage about the African slave trade in the document, but it was vetoed by fellow slaveholders:

He [the British king] 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.... Determined to keep open a market where men should be bought and sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce. And that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people on whom he also obtruded them.6

In this long passage in the draft of the Declaration, Jefferson hypocritically blamed King George for the Atlantic slave trade, one in which he and his slaveholding peers had played a major role.

In this white framing of enslaved black Americans, Jefferson expressed fears that the British were inciting them to rebel. Indeed, uprisings by enslaved black workers were a recurring concern for these white slaveholders, which is one reason they framed enslaved black men as dangerous. Even as these white men cried out for their freedom, they could not bring themselves to add this passage recognizing that “crimes” were “committed against the liberties” of another people and thus to condemn the slave trade. That trade was just too central to their prosperity and racialized social world.

Numerous analysts have paid attention to this deleted passage, but few have analyzed the importance of another racialized passage that remained in the Declaration of Independence:

He [the British king] has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured 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.

The Declaration’s statement on Native Americans proclaims the emotionladen racist framing of Jefferson and his colleagues in all the colonies: (1) Native Americans are not really “adults” but are easily manipulated by the British king; and (2) they are viewed collectively and negatively as “merciless Indian Savages” who make war immorally on women and children.7

Implicit here too is a strong framing of whites as virtuous people. These two racially framed commentaries for a document supposedly about liberty and equality signal to all that the new country was to be only a white republic where African and Native Americans would not be remotely equal to whites.

Over the next decades Jefferson’s views of Native Americans did become more complex. In 1785 he published his major book, Notes on the State of Virginia, the first by a secular American intellectual and one whose racist commentaries were cited by white politicians and media commentators over the next century—indeed, by white supremacists on online websites to the present day. Jefferson’s comments about Native Americans there are often paternalistic and romanticized. They are said to be noble but lesser human beings: “We shall probably find that they are formed in mind as well as in body” much like whites.8 Like George Washington and other founders, Jefferson envisions a future blending of white-assimilated Indians and whites into one society, a reality he could not envision for enslaved African Americans if they were ever freed.9

In 1813 Jefferson sent a letter to Baron Alexander von Humboldt describing his view of the U.S. treatment of Native Americans. He begins in a paternalistic tone, again suggesting the possibility of the incorporation of Indians into white society:

You know, my friend, the benevolent plan we were pursuing here for the happiness of the aboriginal inhabitants in our vicinities. We spared nothing to keep them at peace with one another. To teach them agriculture and the rudiments of the most necessary arts, and to encourage industry by establishing among them separate property.... They would have mixed their blood with ours, and been amalgamated and identified with us within no distant period of time.

But then he shifts back to describing Indians as “unfortunate” people collaborating unwisely with the British enemy in the War of 1812:

On the commencement of our present war, we pressed on them the observance of peace and neutrality, but the interested and unprincipled policy of England has defeated all our labors for the salvation of these unfortunate people. They have seduced the greater part of the tribes within our neighborhood, to take up the hatchet against us, and the cruel massacres they have committed on the women and children of our frontiers taken by surprise, will oblige us now to pursue them to extermination, or drive them to new seats beyond our reach.10

In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson’s statement on the “savage Indian” implied a rationalization of their extermination, and here he continues with that argument. In spite of his periodically paternalistic views, Jefferson asserts the necessity of government policies aimed at exterminating or fully subordinating the Native American “race.” By this time in history Jefferson thought he could see that they were vanishing—that is, were being killed off or forced westward as whites expanded across the continent. This enabled him and later whites to speak sometimes of the “noble Indian,” which framing became part of complex white imagery of Native Americans that has lasted to the present.

White paternalism toward Native Americans is evident in court decisions handed down during Jefferson’s era. Shortly after 1800 a prominent judge, St. George Tucker of the Virginia Court of Appeals, issued a decision arguing that the Virginia Bill of Rights did not apply to “a black or mulatto man or woman with a flat nose and woolly head” who had challenged “false imprisonment” in slavery. Tucker did rule that the Virginia Bill of Rights applied to a “coppor coloured person with long jetty black, straight hair,” by which he meant a Native American, and to “one with a fair complexion, brown hair, not woolly or inclining thereto, with a prominent Roman nose,” by which he meant a white person.11 Tucker’s important ruling reveals that the relatively few surviving Native Americans in that state had some legal rights, at least officially, while African Americans had none. It shows too how extensive the white frame was, with its accents on an array of physical characteristics.

More Racist Framing of Native Americans

From Jefferson’s day to the end of the nineteenth century, whites moved westward from eastern states and engaged in one displacing or genocidal attack on Native American societies after another, until many were killed off or died from white diseases. Most of the rest were forced onto white-controlled “reservations.” This bloody oppression was rationalized with antiIndian images. Take the example of Colonel Lewis Cass, who led troops against several Native American nations and served as Secretary of War under the slaveholding President Andrew Jackson. (Jackson was infamous as a bloodthirsty “Indian-killer” and creator of the “Trail of Tears” march that forced surviving eastern Native American groups at gunpoint into western areas.) Colonel Cass wrote an article about Native Americans in 1827 in which he asserted that all people should value riches, honor, and power, but that there

was little of all this in the constitution of our savages. Like the bear, and deer, and buffalo of his own forests, an Indian lives as his father lived.... He never attempts to imitate the arts of his civilized neighbors. His life passes away in a succession of listless indolence, and vigorous exertion to provide for his animal wants, or to gratify his baleful passions.12

Again we note a member of the white elite articulating with intense emotion the old white-framed stereotypes of animal-like, lazy, oversexed, and uncivilized Indians. For Cass and most other whites of the nineteenth century, to be civilized one had to be saturated in Western cultural values.

Later in that century, in a paper on “the significance of the frontier in American history,” the historian Frederick Jackson Turner accented a similar theme and helped subsequent generations of whites to rationalize what they interpreted as the advance of “civilization” (western culture) against “savagery” (Native American cultures) and “primitive Indian life.” In Turner’s racist framing, there was once a western frontier that was a place of “hostile Indians and stubborn wilderness.” Indigenous peoples appear in his analysis as natural objects, like mountains, peoples that whites had reason to replace with their supposedly superior society.13

About 300 years of white wars with Native Americans generated a racial framing that mostly hid the obvious truth about Native American humanity and hardened European Americans to their own brutally oppressive actions. This omnipresent racial frame served to legitimate the othering process, the theft of lands, and the killing, which got worse as that frame became more entrenched.14 To the present day, such framing of Native Americans has continued to cloud whites’ understandings of the reality of the genocidal conquests whites long engaged in—and of their many contemporary consequences.

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