I have a colleague who celebrates Independence Day by reading out loud the Declaration of Independence with her neighbors, friends and family. I asked her, “When you get to the part of this sacred document that says, “merciless Indian savages,” what do you do?” She replied, “We just sort of gloss over it.”
The 3 most racist words in the Declaration of Independence came from the lips of the most silver tongued member of our white Founding Fathers and benevolent slave holder Thomas Jefferson. He went on to be part of a prestigious group of Presidents from George Washington to Andrew Jackson who felt American Indians should be vanquished from the country they discovered.
Jefferson’s War Department in 1807 had explicit instructions that any Indian resistance should be met with “the hatchet.” Jefferson further opined, “And…if ever we are constrained to lift the hatchet against any tribe, we will never lay it down till that tribe is exterminated, or is driven beyond the Mississippi, we shall destroy all of them.”
What makes the phrase “merciless Indian savages” so difficult to swallow is its comparison to Jefferson’s earlier contribution to the most revolutionary words in our nation’s history: “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.” Maybe this sentence should be revised to include the caveat, “with exception of Indian savages.”
What amazes me is how a document created in the context of conflict, ratified 85 times by the Continental Congress, reviewed and revised multiple times would have kept in such a racist moniker against the original citizens without someone calling attention to it.
Lost in all the controversy of how the people who welcomed the ancestors of the writers of the Declaration of Independence to their shores, is how this document set the stage for an ongoing war against American Indian people despite the fact that the 5 Civilized Tribes, the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole, adopted the ways of Thomas Jefferson.
Despite these overtures, the Cherokees were forcibly removed from their homeland along the Trail of Tears while other tribes were simply wiped out by manifest destiny.
Lost on the associates of Thomas Jefferson is the fact that the Oneida Tribe during the Revolutionary War joined forces with patriots against the British occupation and oppression.
Why is this important to the federal government family? As public servants, we all took a pledge on our first day of work by holding up our right hand and promising to bear truth, faith and allegiance to the USA which was founded on the principles espoused by historical icons like Thomas Jefferson within the Declaration of Independence.
How about adding a new phrase to the Declaration of Independence? Do justice, love, kindness and walk humbly on the face of the earth. It is hard to gloss over that important lesson-a lasting contribution from the so-called merciless Indian savages.