Thomas Jefferson produced this famous statement in the Declaration of Independence.
“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.”
When he wrote it, and the other of our leaders approved it, it meant something totally different than it does when read today. All countries must make decisions about who is to be included as “equal” citizens. Are people of different ethnicity, race, religion, and gender, to be afforded the same rights and protections as the presumed “equal” citizens? Modern nations continue to struggle with these issues today—perhaps none more than the United States.
When Jefferson wrote, the “men” who were created equal included only white Anglo-Saxon males. Slavery for black Africans and their descendents and the wholesale slaughter of Native Americans were acceptable policies for peoples deemed “non-equal.” Those decisions, made then, continue to haunt our nation to this day.
Several books have appeared recently that provide new insight into why we have struggled so long with issues of race. They cover the period from Revolutionary times through the current era. Let’s start at the beginning.
Annette Gordon-Reed produced an article for The New York Review of Books titled The Captive Aliens Who Remain Our Shame. Her piece is a commentary on the issues raised in a book by Robert Parkinson: The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution. She provides these comments as an introduction.
“….for decades now, much of the historiography of the founding has presented a complex story, exploring the many ways in which the Revolution, and the people who made it, fell far short of sharing with all people the Spirit of 1776’s indictment of tyranny and calls for liberty and equality. A good number of the most famous revolutionaries enslaved people, and the ones who did not own slaves chose not to work actively against the institution—even when they recognized that slavery was a great injustice. Some of those same men, eager for westward expansion, talked of removal of Indians whose land would then be taken by white settlers.”
“People who may have been frustrated reading histories that failed to acknowledge how the past had worked upon their ancestors—or avoided reading them at all—feel part of a searching conversation. That inquiry almost invariably touches on the extent to which the past influences the present on matters of race, for there is every reason to believe that the basic contours of the country’s treacherous racial landscape were fashioned early on in our history.”
Everyone is familiar with the formalization of slavery as the law of the land in the Constitution of the United States and the many generations of slavery and suppression that followed. What Parkinson has done is go back to an even earlier time to illuminate decisions and actions taken by our leaders that fomented fear and loathing of Africans slaves and Native Americans in order to make political gains.
“Parkinson writes with authority on military, political, social, and cultural history, reconstructing the story of this critical period as it actually unfolded, with everything happening at once. Instead of picking representative samples, he addresses what was happening across the breadth of the colonies. This makes for a long book, but scholars and readers interested in race and the Revolution will be grateful for all the detail. The Common Cause lays bare the patriots’ activities with such precision that it will be impossible to think seriously about the American Revolutionary War—or the revolutionaries—without reference to this book’s prodigious research, wholly unsentimental perspective, and bracing analysis.”
The problem that the leaders faced was thirteen separate colonies with thirteen different goals, priorities and plans. How could one provide a means by which all could be convinced to work together? These quotes are taken from Parkinson.
“Jealousies, rivalries, and even violent controversies alienated the colonies in the early 1770s. Border conflicts, religious disputes, and concerns about slavery drove them apart. The colonies were just as poised to attack one another as to join together on the eve of war. The near impossibility of getting the colonies to agree to oppose Great Britain with one voice meant compromises on the most divisive issues on the one hand, and creative storytelling on the other….”
“The leaders of that movement had to craft an appeal that simultaneously overcame some of those inherent fault lines and jealousies, neutralized their opponents’ claims, and made them the only true protectors of freedom. They needed to make what they called ‘the cause’ common.”
Our leaders realized that fear and loathing of “the other” has always been a good motivator to encourage men to work together. Parkinson describes what they concluded was necessary.
“….to demonstrate that the British were strangers. Suspicious foreigners. To accomplish this vital, difficult task they embraced the most powerful weapons in the colonial arsenal: stereotypes, prejudices, expectations, and fears about violent Indians and Africans.”
Parkinson presents us with the conscious effort of our revered revolutionary leaders to create a myth that would assign a role for African blacks and Native Americans counter to revolutionary goals. These peoples, along with Hessian mercenaries, were described as “proxies” for the English king who would be willing to fight with the British and kill for them.
“’Men like Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, and Washington,’ Parkinson writes, ‘developed a myth about who was and was not a part of the Revolutionary movement; about who had an interest and who did not.’ Other esteemed advocates of the Revolution, such as Thomas Paine and the Marquis de Lafayette, joined the effort. According to Parkinson, these men chose to prosecute the American war for independence in a way that put race at the heart of the matter. They used—actually helped foment—racial prejudice as the principal means of creating unity across the thirteen colonies in order to prepare Americans to do battle with Great Britain. The base sentiments they promoted for ‘political expediency’ survived the fighting, and the ‘narrative’ that dismissed blacks and Native peoples as alien to America—and conflated ‘white’ and ‘citizen’ ‘lived at the heart of the republic it helped create for decades to come’.”
At the time this myth was created and propagated, there were numerous blacks and Native Americans living within “white” communities. A number joined the war effort on the side of the colonists, but this participation was not to be recorded because it was counter to the necessary narrative. From Parkinson:
“Unless Americans watched the army march by, they had scarcely any idea that there were hundreds of African Americans and Indian soldiers serving under Washington’s command. Even though the Continental Army would be the most integrated army the United States would field until the Vietnam War, most Americans had little knowledge of their service in fighting for the common cause.”
The word was spread through newspapers that African blacks and Native Americans were the tools of the British and a threat to white lives.
“By ‘the summer of 1775,’ the ‘majority’ of the stories on the inside of colonial newspapers were about ‘the role African Americans and Indians might play in the burgeoning war.’ While historians have focused much attention on George Washington’s going to Cambridge to head the Continental Army, the real story of 1775, Parkinson says, was the ‘hundreds of smaller messages’ that were pushed through colonial newspapers about the threat that blacks and Indians, allegedly under the total control of the British, posed to patriot lives. These messages continued throughout the war.”
Revered leaders were not above blatant racial slandering.
“[Benjamin] Franklin made up stories about groups being used by the British—proxies—and worked with Lafayette to prepare a book (never published) with illustrations for ‘children and Posterity’ detailing British abuses of Americans. Of the twenty-six proposed illustrations—we have Franklin’s suggested twenty and Lafayette’s six in their own hands—many revolve around proxies. Lafayette suggested an illustration showing ‘prisoners being “Roasted for a great festival where the Canadian Indians are eating American flesh.”’ He also proposed a scene depicting ‘British officers’ taking the ‘opportunity of corrupting Negroes and Engaging them to desert from the house, to Robb, and even to Murder they [sic] Masters.’ Britain’s military mercenaries, the Hessians, were not depicted.”
The “otherness” of the white Hessians was insufficient to generate the fear and hatred that were required.
“Items about blacks acting as soldiers in the British army and of Indian massacres (often in retaliation for massacres committed by whites) were regularly reported, and some of the stories about the Indians’ depredations were hoaxes.”
“There was no sorting of African-Americans and Indians into ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ Members of those groups could never be ‘good’ no matter what they did, because they could never be white. Things were different for the Hessian mercenaries, also hated as ‘proxies.’ Feared and reviled in the newspapers as ‘men monsters’ when they arrived in America, the tune about the Hessians changed during the war. After Washington soundly defeated them at the Battle of Trenton, these white men were gradually transformed into sympathetic victims of the British. Eventually they were offered permanent places—land—in the new country they had tried to prevent from coming into being. There would be no redemption for their fellow ‘proxies.’ Nor could the patriots undo what they had done in marking blacks and Indians ‘as alien’ and ‘unfit to fully belong as members of the new republic’.”
The racial history of the United States is more complex than most would suspect. It is difficult to imagine an increase in racial reconciliation without greater understanding of how we arrived where we now reside.
Gordon-Reed provides this thought as a fitting end to this discussion.
“Americans today often speak of racial prejudice as a thing that simply exists—like air—with no nod to the actual work it takes to create and maintain systems based upon prejudice. Parkinson homes in on that work: what it took in the 1770s to stoke racial hostility and keep it in place.”