The 1776 Declaration of Independence is noted as being the document that “…projected a new era of liberty, equality, and popular self-government.” In the context of the American Revolution, it represented a clear victory for the Patriots fighting for freedom from British colonial power. Yet it can be argued that these notions of liberty and equality were not in fact intended for ‘all men,’ which in itself is hypocritical, but a selective minority of the American population. Recognition will be given to the fact that slight, if not almost invisible, changes did occur in people relations when comparing them during and after the Revolution.
However, it will become prominent that these changes were rather out of necessity than correlated with the idea of expanding basic rights to all. This essay looks to thematically discuss those groups excluded from attaining such prominent American values, with the ultimate aim of fully uncovering the myth of the Declaration of Independence and it as being representative of all peoples.
The most prominent group excluded from the Declaration is undoubtedly slaves. As a deeply installed infrastructure since the beginnings of the New World, with more than ten million arriving with the British colonizers, it may have seemed impossible to immediately abolish such an institution, despite the 1776 spirit of equality. However, as Edmund S. Morgan states, “…slavery was something more than an exception, that one fifth of the American population at the time of the Revolution is too many people to be treated as an exception.” Yet an exception is exactly what it was. It is no coincidence that the drafter of the document, Thomas Jefferson, was a slaveholder and continued to be, along with over half of the other men who signed it too. Morgan’s article capitalises on this paradox of slavery and freedom, yet fails to articulate a certain reason why this persisted. Jefferson’s rough draft of the Declaration offers some assistance:
The usefulness of this source is somewhat limited, given that it is intended for the masses and aims to communicate a certain agenda. Therefore, it should be read with caution. Undivided attention should be given to the instance in which Jefferson references slavery. The language and tone used indicates towards the sheer hypocrisy behind King George III as a Christian monarch, with the dramatisation of the words ‘men’ and ‘christian’ drawing the reader directly to it. By using such divine references as ‘sacred’ rights and ‘human nature,’ he is deliberately pitting the king against his religious values to imply a falseness in character.
The ultimate aim of Jefferson in this instance is to bestow blame for his own immoral acts on to his adversaries, publically. He takes it back to the aforementioned beginnings of America to direct awareness towards those who started it, and not those presently participating in it. It is this misplacing of guilt in the early American consciousness that prevented the inclusion of slaves in to such values of liberty. In accord with Paul Finkelman, the slaveholder, in his first draft of the Declaration, only further consolidates his attitude towards slaves as “…mere objects, in this case to be used in the propaganda war against the king.”
This notion of slaves being mere objects is extended further when considering their role during the Revolution. It is possible to view the experiences of the enslaved in the war as a form of liberation. Notably, slaves made up four militia groups at the opening Battle of Lexington in 1775, and Lord Dunmore’s promise of freedom that same year saw African Americans flock in numbers to the colonist casuse, eventually forming the Ethiopian Regiment. This indefinitely exposes the sheer desperation of slaves to freed, increased by the sentiment of liberation that permeated due to the Declaration of Independence. Whilst it is arguable that slaves, to some degree, did achieve freedom, it is important to locate the cause of such offered liberty.
Whether the patriots or the colonist’s, slavery was stopped for their own ends, to achieve their intake for war, and thus not to endow the black slave with his ‘inalienable rights.’ Gary Kornblith argues that “…slavery appeared to be an essential prerequisite for the American commitment to freedom and equality.” It is true that gradual abolition was a revolutionary outcome after the war, and that a self conscious awareness of the moral and political implications of slavery began to fester. However, there was not a commitment to freedom and equality, as Kornblith puts it. This comes down to the fact that the abolition of slavery was gradual, and not in fact made law until 1865, some 90 years after the Declaration of Independence. As a result, it is feasible to argue that slaves were excluded from the equality of 1776, and the changes that took place during and after the war were to appease the white man’s conscious or to be a mere necessity to them.
Native Americans too were excluded from obtaining such values. Klaus Lubbers asserts that “From 1777 to 1876, the Native Americans, whenever mentioned, were usually associated with the past, but the colonial past rather than the revolutionary past.” This comes down to their perceived reputation of backing colonists, and thus tyranny in the eyes of patriots. In fact, this view of the Indians extends into The Declaration of Independence itself, which condemns them as “…merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.” Their association with European powers, who had been dependent on Indian support in imperialist wars, inevitably tarnished their relations to the emerging America and allowed for such interpretations to prevail. However, Indians did also back the patriots in some instances, to the point were the Iroquois Confederacy was divided amongst itself.
To be precise, Colin Calloway draws upon the Stockbridge community who provided consistent support for patriots in diplomatic missions. Whilst the American Revolution was essentially a war for liberty, for the Native Americans it was a war for the liberty of their lands. It makes sense that the natives would be more in favour of the colonists, given the British Proclamation Act of 1763 which had afforded Indian lands a measure of protection against expansion beyond the Appalachian Mountains. Yet the American patriots fighting for Independence could not possibly take this into account.
The natives dominantly fought against their birth, and for that “…hardly ever were they allowed to appear in connection with the imagined national future.” The Treaty of Paris largely ignored the Indian cause, and settlements stripped them off their lands regardless or not, all to achieve further westward expansion. Therefore, Native Americans were excluded, or rather forgotten, people from the Declaration, who fought for a war that was to be to their detriment.
Perhaps a group with a slight more favourable outcome by comparison, was women. During war, women were called upon to take political interest and engage in public affairs. Thomas Paine’s ‘An Occasional Letter to the Female Sex’ in 1775 called on women to defend the cause of their sex, and stated that “…women more than share all our miseries, and are besides subjected to ills which are peculiarly their own.” This letter clearly has an objective of trying to infiltrate women with a sense of purpose enough to motivate them, and therefore one could argue that it is very exagerative in its attempt to achieve this. However, this in itself is useful in indicating the extent to which men relied on women during the war.
Women certainly did heed to this call to defend their public interests. As Peter Messer articulates, women went from being “…passive actors who were almost entirely devoid of any independent agency,” to expressing “…their new-found ability to take on the masculine characteristics of a republican citizen.” This alone can be seen as constituting a form of equality for women, as it offers a sense of unity through hardship and as republican citizens. However, the freedom of women was short-lived, and this comes down to their failure to overcome stereotypes in gender relations. John Adams’s letter to wife, Abigail Adams, responding to her call for him to “… remember the ladies” when it comes to fighting for Independence, offers assistance in showing the unchanged heart and mind of the traditional middle-class gentlemen:
“We have been told that our Struggle has loosened the bands of Government every where. That Children and Apprentices were disobedient — that schools and Colledges were grown turbulent — that Indians slighted their Guardians and Negroes grew insolent to their Masters. But your Letter was the first Intimation that another Tribe more numerous and powerfull than all the rest were grown discontented.”
The point of this extract is to stress the dynamics that John Adams likens his wives’ outspokenness to. She is a disobedient child to her apprentice, an Indian and a Negro. Her husband affiliates her with those people that the Declaration of Independence excludes. The overarching tone is one of superiority, to which his wife is clearly considered inferior to. This source is comparatively more useful than the previous given that it is intended for privacy, and therefore not wielding to public opinion. Given this, it considerably more accurate in representing men’s attitudes towards women, as well as referenced slaves and Indians..
The exclusion of women stretches further, via the gendered language of document, in stating that ‘all men’ are created equal. As well, women by this stage were not equipped with certain ‘unalienable rights’ which we might presume of. This includes the right to vote or the right to an easy divorce. Women too then, although having lighter experiences, failed to achieve the equivalent status of men, and therefore the liberties that the Declaration represents.
It seems that the white male was the only one that attained values of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. However, even this assumption can be disputed. The shift to slavery did encourage the wealthy and the poor white man to identify with each other. Nonetheless, the war exposed divisions that ultimately excluded the poor from the same equal status of the wealthy. As Michael McDonnell argues, “The way patriot leaders organised for war and reacted to the demands of those they expected to fight, depicts a conservative, anxious, sometimes fearful group clinging to traditional notions of hierarchy, defence and public virtue.” This is resembled in how the 1777 draft looked only to recruit those “… ‘who can best be spared’, or in other words, men of limited means who could be conscripted without further provoking middle-class Virginians” Given this, it was largely the men without a stake in society who went on to bare the brunt of war of indifference to themselves.
In addition, the Declaration of Independence sought largely to exclude those men fighting for the loyalist cause. A rough quantity of how many men this excluded can be derived from the petition against the Declaration , which over 700 men signed. This being 12 times the amount of those who signed the Declaration, it becomes representative of the fact that the document’s contained values were for the minority, and not the majority.
This essay set out to reveal the myth of the Declaration of Independence, by establishing those groups that it excluded, despite minimal changes after the war. By systematically looking at the experiences of the enslaved, the natives, women, the lower class men and loyalists, the assumption can be made that the statement definitively derived itself from the upper class white man, and was intended to include such. The implications of this is that the view the American conscience is, in fact, representative of these men only. It is only when the gentlemen contemplates the immorality of human bondage, of excessive land consumption, and of the exclusion of rights from women and fellow men, that the Declaration of Independence starts to become relevant to all. It was many years after the Declaration that such changes begin to come into fruition, and therefore can’t be directly correlated as a by-product of it.