The Declaration of Independence — Except for ‘Indian Savages’

Adrian Jawort

The hypocrisy within the Declaration of Independence

The most sacred document wherein the U.S. celebrates its Fourth of July holiday, the Declaration of Independence, is known for having some of the most revolutionary words in history in regards to the equality of men who at the time had been forever accustomed to having caste-like systems whether it be Empires, noblemen and serfs, or a monarchy rule the American colonialists lived under.

After a brief introduction, the Declaration of Independence states in the eloquent prose of the Thomas Jefferson,“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.”

Powerful words, indeed, and ones we should hold dear no matter where we are from or live. But if one reads through the document completely – as it’s done annually and publicly in countless U.S. locations – it lists “repeated injuries and usurpations” and “tyranny” acts against the colonialists on behalf of King George III of Great Britain.The second paragraph concludes, “To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world,” before a list of 27 sentences listing various trangressions from tax complaints to forced military conscription.

The last of these complaints, however, is one that reads: 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 undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

Pause right there. Does the most famous document in American history really state “all Men are created equal,” then hypocritically proclaim right afterward its first inhabitants are “merciless Indian savages”?

Yes, it really does, and this founding document was more than just a document written in the context of a bitter conflict. Consider, although Jefferson is most credited for penning this famous document, it was written by a committee of 5 people – including Benjamin Franklin and John Adams – and ratified 86 times by the Continental Congress before becoming official and signed. So this was a carefully mulled over phrase in that Natives would forever be considered “savages” in regards to their future relations with the U.S.

Go figure, in Jefferson’s rough draft was a statement he was adamant in having “against King George III for creating and sustaining the slave trade, describing it as ‘a cruel war against human nature.’” He was eventually overruled.

So undoubtedly, the future of Natives and their potential role in the U.S. was discussed at length, and the sentiments of them being “Indian savages” not equal with Americans would immediately be put to use in the war’s aftermath. Tribes that had fought with the British were naturally assumed as having forfeited all rights of the newly formed country, but even those allied with the U.S. would ultimately receive the same fate in spite of their loyalty.

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 U.S.’s newly formed BIA 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 U.S.’s Manifest Destiny mindstate.

The Oneida Indian Nation in New York was the first proclaimed ally of the U.S., 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.

It’s tough to take the opinions of those deemed a lesser “merciless Indian savage” serious, apparently—much less honor their treaty rights. When the brutal history and unfair treatment of Natives is brought up in the Redskins controversy, it seemingly elevates patronizing attitudes toward American Indians’ arguments. “Just get over it,” is a dismissive phrase frequently said. But how can American Indians simply “get over it” when the primary founding document of the U.S. still condescendingly refers to them as a “savage” to this day?

This column was originally published on May 13, 2014.

Comments (8)
No. 1-5
Chris Turnblom
Chris Turnblom

Another way to interpret those words are the same way many of us use the words "Islamic terrorists". That is not to say that all Islamic people are terrorist, but rather to describe a certain type of terrorist as a terrorist who is Islamic. In the same way, I would offer up that the intent was more likely to be that of describing certain savages as "Indian". The white man's predominant custom was to spare the lives of those not involved or those who could not reasonably pose a threat or, otherwise, be assimilated into the culture. Being that this is still the predominant custom it is easy for me to see how anyone would describe someone who takes all human life innocent or not, as "savages" The same way that we describe those who today, burn people alive, cut off the heads of the living with a knife, eat the hearts of their enemy's and rape their women and children as savages.

Certainly there were many people with many motives just like today but this article seems to imply that all European peoples just plowed over the native people as though their right to exist was more important than that of the natives. First off, that would be a gross misrepresentation of the human condition. Secondly, a wise man once told me that only a fool judges a person outside of the historical context in which they lived. Do we not appose the majority of the wars our government has brought us into? How are the actions of greedy men today any different from back then? Men found land in Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, The Sudan etc. they wanted it, they took it. That is not to say that the "White man" is evil, only that men are. What would we say to people about our nation's actions all over the world to people living 200 years from now? Should they rightly look upon us as condoning a policy of genocide or, at the minimum, colonialism?

I have not learned much about the Native Americans that fought in the Revolutionary War but what I've learned of how the Black people who lived free at the time and the struggle over the three fith's compromise paints a very different picture than the one that seems to be overwhelmingly put fourth today. For instance, it was the North who demanded that Black populations would count for 3/5th of a representative and the south that argued that they should count for a full representative. Why would that be? Because the south would have representation for people who could not speak for themselves! This would have given the pro-slavery south much more power. Interesting how those words get twisted into allegedly meaning that Black people aren't fully people.

I have no doubt that there were ignorant people who looked at the native people in the way the article describes but I take issue with the idea that these enlightened men would sign a document with such hypocrisy in it. It takes a lot of study to understand the proper historical context and answer questions such as why Thomas Jefferson kept his slaves till he died while his pears set them free but I ask all who read this to withhold judgment until they have a very thorough understanding of that context.

Just a suggestion:
I think this is a good time to run this article again as it is to the point of all that's going on today.
Thanks , it's well written and stands on its own.


I read “Merciless Indian Savages” as Jefferson and the rest of the authors of the Declaration being somewhat frustrated and weary of “insurgences” brought forth by these so-called Savages. The indigenous people of that time were probably thought of as a “pushover opponent” or “easily vanquished”, but proved to be just the opposite. They gave the colonists AND the British all they wanted and then some. Had a few things happened differently or maybe a few lucky breaks been caught, the history books would have told a totally different story. They were afraid of the Natives and that’s why they drove us to the brink of extinction. But, yet, we are still here! We may only make up 1.5% or so of the US population, but those 1.5%ers are a damn proud bunch! I’d wear the label “Merciless Indian Savages“ with my head held high and my chest out! It is, in fact, their fault that we (Natives) are the way we are. They made us this way, now they get to reap it.


They felt it their duty to steal the lands & murder the Indians. My 9 year old granddaughter sees that. It was intentional. Makes me sick inside to be white. Fair skinned or whatever. There is no such thing as white. We all are Heinz 57. My prayer for the Natives is to receive restitution and I am talking. $... Well money also. They're were many massacres.

Roger Yaste
Roger Yaste

At that time all those not a member of your group were referred to as savages. Anyone not speaking English were called savages. Anyone not speaking French were called savages. And then we have the indigenous people of North America referring to tribes other than their own as savages.