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The Shameful Final Grievance of the Declaration of Independence

The revolution wasn’t only an effort to establish independence from the British—it was also a push to preserve slavery and suppress Native American resistance.

The closing words of the Declaration are far less known. The last of a list of 27 grievances against King George III, they read as follows: “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.” These words call attention to hard truths about America’s founding that have often been brushed aside.

The 27th grievance raises two issues. The first, the king’s incitement of “domestic insurrections,” refers to slave revolts and reveals a hard truth recently brought to the public’s attention by The New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project: Some of those who sought independence aimed to protect the institution of slavery. This was particularly true for Virginia slave owners, who were deeply disturbed by a proclamation issued in November 1775 by Virginia Governor Lord Dunmore, which promised enslaved people held by revolutionaries freedom in exchange for joining the British army. Virginians and other southerners feared that it would provoke widespread slave revolts. Edward Rutledge, who later became the governor of South Carolina, declared that Dunmore’s proclamation would do more than any other effort to “work an eternal separation between Great Britain and the Colonies,” and George Washington called Dunmore “that arch-traitor to the rights of humanity.”

A second hard truth exposed by the 27th grievance—and its racist depiction of Native Americans as “merciless Indian savages”—has generated much less public discussion. In indicting the king for unleashing Indians on the “inhabitants of our frontiers,” the Declaration was not referring to a specific event but rather to the recent escalation of violence, which was caused by colonists invading Native lands west of the Appalachian Mountains. In response, a confederation of Senecas, Shawnees, Delawares, Ottawas, Cherokees, and other Native nations exercised a right of self-defense and attacked new colonial settlements. Although the Native nations had British support, they were acting on their own and not at the instigation of the Crown. Nonetheless, Thomas Jefferson, the Declaration’s primary drafter, hoped that by fanning the flames of settlers’ anti-Indian racism and implicating George III, he could ignite a general conflagration against the British in the West. In this way, the 27th grievance helped lay the foundation for an American nationalism that would demonize the continent’s indigenous people, especially when they resisted American aggressions.

Although the reference to the “merciless Indian savages” appealed to the “inhabitants of our frontiers,” Jefferson and others who signed the Declaration had their own reasons for detesting British policies relating to Native Americans and their lands. More than a decade earlier, in order to end a costly war to suppress an indigenous resistance movement led by the Ottawa war leader Pontiac, the king issued the Proclamation of 1763, which recognized indigenous ownership of lands west of the Appalachian mountains’ crest and prevented colonists from settling there. At first glance, ordinary settlers might be expected to have been the proclamation’s major opponents. Some settlers did object, but the most potent source of opposition came from colonial elites, especially in Virginia and Pennsylvania, who had invested in companies with claims to lands west of the boundary set by the proclamation. Unless those lands could be legally settled, land companies could not gain secure title to their claims. Investors would be left with nothing but the debts they had incurred to bet on getting rich.