Jefferson’s Declaration of “Merciless Indian Savages”

Thomas Jefferson Nickel

On 4 July of this year, I wrote one of my typical “holiday destroying” stories, American Independence Was Limited. The article was about how the Declaration of Independence wasn’t an important document at the time and how it didn’t apply to most of the people in America.

It didn’t apply to blacks. It didn’t apply to women. And most of all, it didn’t apply to the native peoples who we were forcing west and would soon have an entire official genocide waged against. That was a genocide that was very much supported by the author of the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson.

But you don’t have guess. I was reminded today by Noam Chomsky via Digby that the Declaration of Independence includes very explicit language about this. We have fully accepted all that stuff about slavery and three-fifths of a human being as a mistake in the Constitution. (How people can say it was divinely inspired I’m not sure. Of course the Bible has the same problem.) Anyway, the Declaration has easily as offensive language about Native Americans as the Constitution has about African Americans.

The Declaration on Native Peoples

The Declaration of Independence is structured in three parts: the introduction, the complaints, and the conclusion. The complaints (or “indictments” if you prefer) take the form of 13 “He has…”; 9 “For…”; and another 5 “He has…” And it is the last “He has…” that concerns us. Because it is a doozy:

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.

Pretty awesome, huh? Do you feel proud? Do you remember in the show stopping number in the musical 1776, “Merciless Indian Savages Killed My Daughter”? No?! It must be because not only is the number not in the film, the whole issue is avoided because any reasonable person (such as screenwriter Peter Stone) is horrified and ashamed of this passage.

Racism in Context

Consider this. You live in a place where your ancestors have lived since before anyone can remember. And one day, a bunch of people with better weapons than you come in and force you out of your ancestral land. You object, but you lose the fight. So you move on, but soon enough, more of the same people come and push you out. You object, but you lose the fight.

And then these same people claim that you are the merciless savage! This is what we in cliche business call, literally adding insult to injury.

Native Americans Fighting Terrorism Since 1492

Conservative Apologias

But just because many people now look back on this with horror and shame does not mean that everyone does. The typical conservative response to this is apologia, of course.

For example, the Claremont Institute simply claims, “The British had encouraged slave and Indian revolts against the colonists.” There is no discussion of the term “merciless Indian Savages.” There is no discussion of the claim that the native population broke the western rules of war by killing women, children, and the infirm.

And then it goes on to talk about something entirely unrelated: the fact that Jefferson’s original draft then went on to talk about how terrible slavery was. In other words, “He wasn’t such a bad guy after all!” (Also, slavery was only sporadically and theoretically terrible for Jefferson.)

More of the Same

I’ve read other conservative discussions of this part of the Declaration and they are all pretty much the same. I did run into one that I won’t bother to find again that argued that the text is actually a compliment to the native population because they were practicing the kind of war that would make war less common.

This is interesting, because I was just discussing in the comments how this same logic was used to justify World War I. But regardless, there is no reason to think that this is what Jefferson meant. And I think the “merciless Indian Savages” kind of gives away the game.

Modern Native American Responses

The only place online that I’ve found any serious discussion of this passage is on Native American blogs and news sources. Even the Wikipedia page on the Declaration doesn’t deal with the issue.

About the best I’ve found is Adrian Jawort at Indian Country Today, The Declaration of Independence—Except for “Indian Savages.” She makes an excellent point: the part about slavery was thoroughly discussed and jettisoned. That means that everyone in the congress was fine with the passage about the “merciless Indian Savages.”

But Jawort goes on to give some historical context about how the native peoples tried to get along with the colonists:

The Stockbridge Natives of Massachusetts and other New England tribes like the Oneida spoke the same language of rights and freedom as the colonialists on the onset of the war and bled the same red blood for the cause. Stockbridge Sachem (Chief) Solomon Unhaunawwaunnett said, “If we are conquered our Lands go with yours, but if we are victorious we hope you will offer us our just Rights.”

All eastern tribes were leery of being caught in the middle of another white man’s war after the horrific atrocities committed during the French and Indian War (1754-1763) that had concluded just a dozen years prior to the onset of Revolutionary War. But they knew this war would affect them again nonetheless, and placed loyalties based on which side they thought would be fairest and able to garner them the most lands lost back.

In spite of most New England area tribes’ sincerest efforts to aid Americans, “Indian patriotism did not earn Indian people a place in the nation they helped create,” writes British American and Dartmouth Professor Colin G Calloway in his book, The American Revolution in Indian Country: Crisis and Diversity in Native American Communities. “For Native Americans, it seemed the American Revolution was truly a no-win situation.”

He continued, “…The Stockbridge and their Oneida friends who had adopted the patriot cause found that republican blessings were reserved for white Americans.”

Before and after the war most Stockbridge Natives sincerely tried to adopt the white man’s ways—including adopting Christianity. They were allowed to be assemblymen in their namesake Stockbridge town, but as soon as the war concluded the representative Stockbridge Native “selectmen” numbers declined rapidly until whites took over all aspects of the land and government. Most of the Stockbridge Natives were finally forced out to Wisconsin—along with many Oneida—in 1822.

Thereafter in 1824 all Natives were to be considered wards of the state under the US’s newly formed BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs] operating under the Department of War. And war would continue to be as even peaceful tribes like the Cherokee who also adopted the white ways would be forcibly removed from their homelands, while others were simply eradicated under the cloud of the US’s Manifest Destiny mindstate.

The Oneida Indian Nation in New York was the first proclaimed ally of the US, fighting in various pivotal battles while selflessly providing corn to George Washington’s starving troops at Valley Forge. Current Oneida Nation Representative Ray Halbritter (whose tribe also owns has actively been involved in the fight for garnering respect for his and other tribes via getting rid of the Washington Redskins mascot that’s deemed a racial epithet.

Our Vague Wrongdoing

This country’s treatment of the native peoples is arguably our greatest shame. Its inclusion in one of our two most important founding documents in such explicitly offensive language shows that it runs to the very heart of our nation. And I think we still haven’t dealt with it.

As bad as the history of slavery, segregation, lynchings, and so much more, at least we as a country talk about what we’ve done to our African American citizens. But when it comes to Native Americans, I think even very liberal people have only vague notions of what we have done.

And we don’t talk about it, as though ignoring it will make the legacy of racism and genocide go away.


In 2000, the Bureau of Indian Affairs did publish a formal apology. Here is part of it:

We must first reconcile ourselves to the fact that the works of this agency have at various times profoundly harmed the communities it was meant to serve. From the very beginning, the Office of Indian Affairs was an instrument by which the United States enforced its ambition against the Indian nations and Indian people who stood in its path. And so, the first mission of this institution was to execute the removal of the southeastern tribal nations. By threat, deceit, and force, these great tribal nations were made to march 1,000 miles to the west, leaving thousands of their old, their young and their infirm in hasty graves along the Trail of Tears.

As the nation looked to the West for more land, this agency participated in the ethnic cleansing that befell the western tribes. War necessarily begets tragedy; the war for the West was no exception. Yet in these more enlightened times, it must be acknowledged that the deliberate spread of disease, the decimation of the mighty bison herds, the use of the poison alcohol to destroy mind and body, and the cowardly killing of women and children made for tragedy on a scale so ghastly that it cannot be dismissed as merely the inevitable consequence of the clash of competing ways of life. This agency and the good people in it failed in the mission to prevent the devastation. And so great nations of patriot warriors fell. We will never push aside the memory of unnecessary and violent death at places such as Sand Creek, the banks of the Washita River, and Wounded Knee.

Nor did the consequences of war have to include the futile and destructive efforts to annihilate Indian cultures. After the devastation of tribal economies and the deliberate creation of tribal dependence on the services provided by this agency, this agency set out to destroy all things Indian.

This agency forbade the speaking of Indian languages, prohibited the conduct of traditional religious activities, outlawed traditional government, and made Indian people ashamed of who they were. Worst of all, the Bureau of Indian Affairs committed these acts against the children entrusted to its boarding schools, brutalizing them emotionally, psychologically, physically, and spiritually. Even in this era of self-determination, when the Bureau of Indian Affairs is at long last serving as an advocate for Indian people in an atmosphere of mutual respect, the legacy of these misdeeds haunts us. The trauma of shame, fear and anger has passed from one generation to the next, and manifests itself in the rampant alcoholism, drug abuse, and domestic violence that plague Indian country. Many of our people live lives of unrelenting tragedy as Indian families suffer the ruin of lives by alcoholism, suicides made of shame and despair, and violent death at the hands of one another. So many of the maladies suffered today in Indian country result from the failures of this agency. Poverty, ignorance, and disease have been the product of this agency’s work.

As a country, we are very bad at admitting our mistakes. So I’m glad about this. But for a country that still can’t admit to its recent torture program, it doesn’t make me all that hopeful.

Thanks to The Bones of Muddy Banks for correction.

Obama’s Hope Is There’ll Be No Change

Obama NopeDo you remember that kid when you were young who would always rat out your childhood nefarious schemes to the teacher or parents? That was Barack Obama. I don’t mean when he was that old. I kind of think when he was six that he was a little devil. And I understand that he went through his radical period in college, because he’s written about it. But now. He’s the kid who is so dependent on the approval of authority that he is no fun.

You may remember that last week we found out that the CIA searched Senate computers for information on their investigation into the CIA’s torture program. This resulted in calls for the resignation of CIA Director John Brennan. Frankly, I don’t see why he hasn’t already resigned. This sounds like Watergate kind of stuff, but coming out of the CIA and not the White House. It is outrageous.

But at a Friday press conference we learned, Obama Backs CIA Chief Apologizing to Senators Over Search. He said, “I have full confidence in John Brennan.” Well, you know what: this has been perhaps the biggest problem with Obama from the beginning. He has had full confidence in Goldman Sachs cronies. He’s had full confidence in insurance lobbyists. And most of all, he’s had full confidence in the Republican Party. He’s looking for approval in all the wrong places.

But Jonathan Bernstein sees it a bit differently, Why Obama Is Backing His CIA Chief. After tossing aside two unlikely reasons, he says:

Obama is concerned—in my view, overly so—with demonstrating to the intelligence bureaucracy, the broader national security bureaucracy, and the bureaucracy in general, that he is on their side. The basic impulse to stand up for the people he appointed isn’t a bad one; nor is the impulse to demonstrate to the intelligence community that he is no wild-eyed peacenik softie who opposes the work they do. For one thing, he’s more likely to effect change in national security areas if experts in the government believe he’s at least sympathetic to them as individuals and to their basic goals, even if he questions some of the George W Bush-era (or earlier) methods.

I think he might be right about Obama not wanting to be seen as a “wild-eyed peacenik softie.” But it’s deeper than that. The whole reason he—an African American man—is president is because he is committed to the idea everything is just fine here in America. He has completely suppressed any idea that he will make any waves because if he did that, he might seem like (Gasp!) Jesse Jackson or some other “angry black man.”

Remember all that “hope and change” that he talked about while campaigning in 2008. He didn’t betray that idea. His idea of “hope and change” was that he would come into office and reach across the isle. He’d offer the Republicans 50% of what they wanted. After negotiation, they’d get 75% of what they wanted. Given that he was always a lot more conservative than his rhetoric would indicate, that would be fine with him. And the Democrats and the Republicans would all get along and the national institutions would continue on as they had been. That didn’t work, but Obama did manage to squander the greatest liberal opportunity since the Great Depression to allow the same old system to stumble forward.

So just like Obama has pushed forward with Bush’s drone program and Bush’s surveillance program and Bush’s anti-leaker program (And greatly extended them!), Obama is just fine with the CIA spying on the Senate. What’s the big deal? The CIA has powers. They are supposed to spy. So they are spying on the people’s elected officials? What’s the big deal?! The main thing is that we be moderate about this all. I’m sure we can depend upon John Brennan who was in charge when this happened to make sure that it never happens again. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water. Do you understand? Let’s not disrupt anything, because our current President doesn’t believe in disrupting anything that is powerful. If he did, they might not approve of him. And that just isn’t the Obama way.


Trevor Timm at The Guardian writes of John Brennan, “Private apologies are not enough for a defender of torture, the architect of America’s drone program and the most talented liar in Washington. The nation’s top spy needs to go.” That’s right.

Wall St Complaints Don’t Indicate Success

Wall StreetIf you read Paul Krugman’s blog, you can pretty well guess what his columns will be about. He even says that he uses his blog to work out his thinking. And for the last week, he has been going on a bit about the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. His argument is that it is the Rodney Dangerfield of Obama successes: it don’t get no respect. And as he shows in his column today, Obama’s Other Success, it actually is working.

He highlights two aspects of the law that are good: the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) and the government’s explicit ability to temporarily take control of “too big to fail” banks if they need to be bailed out. Krugman spent more time talking about CFPB in the column. There was a better discussion of the “too big to fail” part in a blog post last week, Good News on Financial Reform. I basically agree with him. But Dodd-Frank is still like everything from Obama: policies that Republicans would have been fine with had they come under a Republican President.

I think that Krugman made one big mistake in his column, however. He noted:

Wall Street and its allies wouldn’t be screaming so loudly, and spending so much money in an effort to gut the law, if it weren’t an important step in the right direction.

Not really. It doesn’t say much of anything about the law that Wall Street fought it tooth and nail and continues to snipe at it. Long before the Republican Party learned to “work the refs” by claiming that the center-right policies of Bill Clinton were “Socialism! Socialism I tell you!” the business community had perfected this. That’s why they would claim that a one cent tax on every billion dollars of profit would be the end of freedom in America.

I often get this idea from the Koch brothers’ attacks on Obamacare that they are pleased as punch that they are getting to call this free market healthcare law “socialism” and not actually having to fight an actual socialistic law. It’s like they know they’ve won and they are just going through the motions of outrage as a hedge against anyone getting comfortable enough with the law that they might actually decide to do something that is going to cost the rich some real money. And let’s not forget just how much welfare the Walton family gets via subsidies their employees get because they are paid so poorly. The rich understand they have it very good in America; they just pretend otherwise.

So the fact that Wall Street continues to vilify Dodd-Frank does not indicate that it is that big a deal to them. I suspect it is more to protect against more liberal policies like a financial transactions tax. And that is more what this is about than any real concern about the law. So Dodd-Frank is doing some good and I’m happy about that. But the opposition of the business community to anything is meaningless.

A Question for “Libertarian” Republicans

Anarchy for Rich PeopleI have a question for conservatives. I don’t mean the social conservatives, because I think they actually get pretty good value from the Republican Party. I mean the ones who think of themselves as leaning libertarian. These are the ones who think of themselves as caring about concepts like “freedom.” My question is simple: why do you continue to vote Republican when the party doesn’t actually increase your freedom?

When it comes to economics, the Republican Party is not at all concerned about your freedom. They are only concerned in a kind of freedom that is theoretical for all but the richest people. Every time the Republicans have lowered taxes, they’ve focused almost exclusively on the taxes of the rich. As I wrote earlier this year, Reagan’s Legacy: Tax Cuts for Rich, Tax Hikes for the Rest. That isn’t theoretical. The middle class ended up paying a higher percentage of their income to the federal government when Reagan left office than when he came in.

So sure: if you are rich, you should vote Republican! But if you aren’t, what is it you think you’re doing? All the “tough on crime” legislation over the past three decades: it’s mostly been a Republican push. But it hasn’t made you safer. It has however, militarized our police departments. It has made abusive police practices more common. It has given prosecutors almost dictatorial powers in our courts. All of this is very much the opposite of freedom. And this is all pushed primarily by Republicans with Democrats following along, because, well, you know Democrats.

So sure: if you are a cop or a prosecutor, you should vote Republican! But if you aren’t, what is it you think you’re doing? And when it comes to social issues, well, it just gets ridiculous. Stopping same sex couples from marrying doesn’t make different sex couples any more free; but it sure keeps same sex couples from being more free. And only crazy people think the birth control pill kills a citizen. So the push (and it is major and it will continue) to make birth control pills illegal makes everyone—men and women—less free.

So sure: if you are some religious fanatic who gets their science from some preacher, you should vote Republican! But we’ve already established that you aren’t a religious fanatic, because if you were, “freedom” wouldn’t be your top priority. If you are rich, I don’t know why you’d be reading this blog. And the chances are really good that you aren’t a cop or prosecutor. So why is it that you are voting Republican? I don’t get it. From a freedom standpoint, the two parties are at best a tossup. But as far as I’m concerned, when it comes to real, practical freedoms for the middle and lower classes, the Democrats are better. Or you could just vote for the Libertarian Party. (Although it has many of the same problems as the Republican Party: vote “libertarian”; get “conservative.”)

But why would you vote Republican? It makes no sense to me.


I fear that you vote Republican because of their rhetoric. But you really need to get beyond that. I like the sound of Republican rhetoric too—at least the stuff about freedom. But their policies show the lie to their rhetoric.

Mary Shelley’s Radical Husband

Percy Bysshe ShelleyOn this day in 1792, the great Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley was born. And he is quite good. His lyrical poetry is about as good as one will find. But I’m not that interested in it. The whole of Romantic poetry has become a cliche, and it is hard to read it without its historical baggage. As early as 1811, Jane Austen in Sense and Sensibility lampooned the Romantic sensibility as affected and silly with the characters Marianne Dashwood and John Willoughby. None of this is to say that Shelley was affected and silly.

In fact, the Romantics tended to be political radicals, and Shelley was no exception. To give you some idea, I remember the conservative writer Paul Johnson going after Shelley with his usual glee in Intellectuals. The chapter on Shelley was titled, “Shelley, or the Heartlessness of Ideas.” I think that is a little play on the full title of Frankenstein. But having read much of Johnson over the years, I’ve come to think of him as one of the most intellectually dishonest historians of the 20th century. He has a political ax to grind, and boy does he grind it. It reminds me, sadly, of some of my own early writing. But in my defense, no one ever mistook my books for history. In Modern Times (and elsewhere), Johnson misrepresents and diminishes imperialism. Like most of what he wrote, it was pure apologia masquerading as history. So the fact that Johnson took the time in his snark-fest (the chapter on Tolstoy is “God’s Elder Brother”), indicates that Shelley was liberal enough to warrant Johnson’s concern that modern readers might like him.

And what were Shelley’s offenses? (Not what Johnson wrote about; he was only interested in Shelley’s personal life; Johnson is a typical conservative Christian in his intense interest in other people’s sex lives.) Shelley’s longest work of prose was, A Philosophical View of Reform. And in it he argues for the elimination of a standing army; religious equality; and judicial reform. For conservative Americans who deify the founding fathers, Shelley’s ideas should be very appealing. He was also for a balanced budget, but that was a big concern at that time among liberals. See Mark Blyth’s excellent Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea for more on that. (My discussion of the book: History of Austerity.)

But Johnson isn’t the only one who has had a problem with Shelley. In general, later generations tried to neuter him and turn him into that nice young man who wrote about the joys of nature and died young by drowning. This is one reason why Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein is probably the best single example of what the Romantics were up to. They were very interested in serious ideas that even most people today don’t think about. (In the defense of modern people: they are mostly too busy working three part-time jobs.) But lest I be accused of completely slighting Shelley’s excellent poetry, here are eight lines that condense the scores of books Proust would eventually write:

Music, when soft voices die,
Vibrates in the memory;
Odors, when sweet violets sicken,
Live within the sense they quicken.

Rose leaves, when the rose is dead,
Are heaped for the beloved’s bed;
And so thy thoughts, when thou art gone,
Love itself shall slumber on.

Happy birthday Percy Bysshe Shelley!