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.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

5 thoughts on “Jefferson’s Declaration of “Merciless Indian Savages”

  1. Kwe’ Frank! Excellent article, but Adrian uses “she/her” pronouns ?
    If you ever look into what the BIA is like, to this day, you’ll find not much has changed. Hopefully 2020 remedies that. Won’t go into it now, busy fending off “well meaning” 4th of July messages that I asked people not to send me ✌️ (cause what’s 4th of July w/o colonists ignoring indigenous boundaries ?).

    Be well and wela’lin/thank you for being you

    • Thanks! I fixed it. A year or two ago, I switched to they/them for everyone. But that includes avoiding constructs that sound awkward. So in this case, I replace one of the pronouns with “she” and the other with “Jawort.”

      Good luck with the holiday. I’m already being bombarded with loud explosions, which I deal with about as well as most pets.

      Who created that amazing image on your website?!

  2. A pea brained fool like you can’t comprehend that the men and women who gave birth to the great blessings of this nation might be a little peeved that their relatives were not only killed, but regularly tortured and mutilated by the Indians for which you have so much understanding. But fools like you are still prone to the divisive propaganda still spewed out by the British Empire. I notice that you mention the Stockbridge Indians, but don’t mention the Stockbridge Indian massacre carried out by British forces lead by the notorious John Graves Simcoe, hero of Canada, and Bannister Tarleton, famous for Tarleton’s quarter, which meant no quarter at all. Brainwashed fools like you are quick to condemn your betters, but never see them in the context of their day. Having no foundation you are lead around by the latest fad in propaganda like an empty sack blowing in the wind.

  3. I don’t even know what to say. The number of other things I have found that have been erased from memory by way of “lies of omission” save a tiny fragment here or there- is truly astounding. Wikipedia is the worst culprit.. their narratives reveal shocking campaigns of deception. For instance, calling Winston Churchill an anti-fascist in their article by the same name. What did Churchill have to say about *the* prototype of all fascists?

    “What a man! I have lost my heart! … If I were Italian, I am sure I would have been with you entirely from the beginning of your victorious struggle against the bestial appetites and passion of Leninism. … Your movement has rendered a service to the whole world. The greatest fear that ever tormented every Democratic or Socialist leader was that of being outbid or surpassed by some other leader more extreme than himself. It has been said that a continual movement to the Left, a kind of fatal landslide toward the abyss, has been the character of all revolutions. Italy has shown that there is a way to combat subversive forces.”

    This is one paragraph on the article about Pope Greg IX:
    In the 1234 Decretals, he invested the doctrine of “perpetua servitus iudaeorum” – perpetual servitude of the Jews – with the force of canonical law. According to this, the followers of the Talmud would have to remain in a condition of political servitude until Judgment Day.

    First of all, there is no link there to find any details about this. However, if I just go to a latin translator service, I find the phrase actually doesn’t mention anything political. That was written specifically as a dig about Marxism, probably. The translation is “the perpetual slavery of the jews”. It isn’t notable enough to have an article written about it, apparently. However, there between 220 and 270 pages of articles written about Pope John Paul II… who, in his article, is described as defeating Communism in Poland and all of Europe by kissing the ground after getting off an airplane. Really. (They mention something like ‘it took 11 years for it to set in, though.)

    Then there is the hit job they did on John Toland, who is best known for a biography of Adolf Hitler and a Pulitzer Prize-winning history of World War II-era Japan, The Rising Sun. Also “Infamy”. Toland claims (and basically proves) that FDR had knowledge of Pearl Harbor in advance. Wikipedia editors spent 98,281 characters trying to refute his claims, without actually mentioning his claims. And they refer to him just once, as “Toland”, with no links to his bio, or his first name, or anything suggesting he won a Pulitzer for his history of WWII Japan. It would be extra suspicious if they didn’t have an article on him, so they do- but it is sparse, and all the links going to his media (which is available for free on are dead links. However, all the links going to criticism of his narratives are live, and include juicy bits about him being a Holocaust Denier, or Neo Nazi.

    Right. The guy who wrote the world’s most definitive biography of Hitler, which includes mention of all of his crimes, a “Holocaust denier”. I’m Jewish, and this shames me. (So does the wikipedia article on ‘the silent holocaust’, which was apparently written by actual Fascist right-wing Jews to cover up another article on the *actual* Silent Holocaust.. which was the extermination of the Mayan people by right-wing Christian militants in Guatemala. They thought they might get some Communists at the same time. Reagan thought it was great. So did many Israelis, who sold weapons and gave training to the murderers. But if you do a quick search, you will wind up thinking “the silent holocaust” is actually about “bad liberal Jews, watering down the pure Jewish bloodlines by marrying non-Jews.” Einstein would have called them Hitlerites, and he would know. He was Hitler’s Public Enemy #1. (source:

    The doctrine then found its way into the doctrine of servitus camerae imperialis, or servitude immediately subject to the Emperor’s authority, promulgated by Frederick II. The Jews were thus suppressed from having direct influence over the political process and the life of Christian states into the 19th century and the rise of liberalism.[9] In 1234, Gregory issued the papal bull Rachel suum videns calling for a new crusade to the Holy Land, leading to the Crusade of 1239.

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