“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.”
As with the 25th grievance in the Declaration of Independence, in the 27th grievance Thomas Jefferson carefully constructed a foundation of fear, based on no true account of events regarding enslaved people, and more folklore and myth concerning the native inhabitants of the land they coveted. He appealed to the base fear that lingered and would have been present even if American colonists were satisfied with the government under which they lived. Considering the inequities and injustice under which they suffered, it was a reasonable fear that enslaved people would at some time shake off their shackles and rise against their oppressors. It was further understood that “Indian Savages” had grievances for which they would seek satisfaction separate from any conflict that the colonists had with their government. Any anger and dissatisfaction on the part of enslaved people and Indians were localized and personal, not a conflict with a far-off government they knew little to nothing of.
The fear of domestic insurrections in the colonies gets glossed over in the discussion of the Declaration. These words were not expanded upon in the narrative of the grievance. This is likely due to the extensive argument and discussion given on the subject at the time, both by the Americans and the British. The founding fathers were not oblivious to the hypocrisy of their arguments for liberty and their treatment of their fellow man. Their consideration of the subject was measured in terms of pros and cons. The British approached the subject in much the same manner. Both sides considered the immediacy of the enslaveds’ contributions to the cause and, if given their freedom, the long-term impact that such freedom might cause. In the end, both sides employed the threat to their campaign of propaganda without any meaningful execution of plans to support one side or the other through freedom given for military service. Nor was either party inclined to chance the uncertainty that promoting such insurrection might cause.
Yet all things were considered. In 1775 the enslaved population was estimated to be over 500,000. Joseph Galloway would revise this estimate upwards to 600,000 in 1778. The British looked upon this as a potential weapon. John Adams recorded in his diary that if the British were to land 1,000 well-provisioned troops in the south, and proclaimed freedom for enslaved people that joined them, they might realize a force multiplier of “twenty thousand Negroes . . . in a fortnight.” In June 1775, Gov. Josiah Martin of North Carolina protested to his superiors in London a report being circulated that he had “formed a design of arming the Negroes and proclaiming freedom” for those who joined the fight against the rebellion. Despite those protests, just such an call for insurrection of enslaved people was made in Pitt County on July 8, 1775. This was quickly put down.
There was an underlying truth to the Declaration’s grievance. Yet it was the threat of such an insurrection, more likely to occur in the southern colonies where a greater enslaved population resided, that kindled the fires of fear and lent credence to the grievance. Propaganda, being the widespread dissemination of an idea or thought, was useful in inciting action on the part of the disaffected. The best and most effective application of propaganda is when it is based on some foundation of truth. And so we find throughout the war many examples where the 27th grievance could be supported, but only in retrospect rather than true, substantive historical significance at the time the declaration was conceived.
The combination of “excited” used as a word of action, and “domestic insurrections amongst us,” inspires much debate. One must conclude that those who read those words would take them at face value, believing that without one the other could not occur. Most importantly, both the enslaved, who were not specifically identified in the grievance, and Indian Savages, had their rightfully-held grievances which would not be solved by any actions the Americans intended to undertake. Further, the grievances these two categories of people had were not with the British but with the Americans themselves; given time the insurrection the Americans feared was bound to happen regardless of any participation by the British.
The raw fact is that the protagonists for independence were not in the majority. The patriot leaders were faced with the challenge of indirectly controlling the actions of the population by controlling their attitudes and playing on their base fears. Nowhere but in a democracy must leaders marshal opinions when their position on various matters is not commonly and widely held. The control that the patriots exercised over the population was weak. Therefore, the use of propaganda was a primary necessity. Historian Philip Davidson describes it as a prerequisite to demanding action. Josiah Quincy understood that emotion, not reason, determined action. The creators of the Declaration needed to focus on crowd psychology and stoke it into a mob rule.
While the English amongst them might have gradually and ultimately arrived at the conclusion that separation from England was wholly necessary, the steady influx of non-English people made things more difficult. Indifferent to British policy and certainly having no sense of loyalty to the Crown, these Europeans created a divergence in institutions, customs, language, and interests. The question of slavery was complicated by the fact that the Quakers in particular were opposed to such practice. Despite such protestations, all Europeans, it could be agreed, would be regarded by both enslaved and savages alike as equal and complicit in any real or perceived damages incurred. The Revolution was at best the work of an aggressive minority. Samuel Adams would harp, “All are not dead; and where there is a spark of patriotic fire, we will enkindle it.” Yet his cousin John Adams along with Josiah Quincy warned of the “fatal effects of the policy of standing armies.” They issued this warning at the annual commemoration of the Boston Massacre, and the trial in which John Adams and Quincy successfully defended the British soldiers that committed the atrocity. Here lies the problem with the Declaration of Independence. It serves to outline the several grievances of the Americans, yet introduces hypocrisy in its body and opens itself to challenge when filtered through logic and fact. Still, none of the grievances were without merit and at least some modicum of truth.
The deconstruction of the Declaration of Independence should require the reader to separate the grievances into two categories; those that addressed specific policy and governance, and those that manipulated and provoked the base fears and prejudices of the population. The 27th grievance falls into the latter category. Yet, as has been previously stated, enough truth lay in the charges for it to be considered with merit. The broadsides and papers of the time exacerbated and proclaimed all such instances to be representative examples of the behavior of the whole of the British army and its proxies.
The list of grievances contained within the declaration would constitute the proof Congress needed for separation from the British monarchy, and place it in universal terms that could be easily understood by an international audience. The use of language as a weapon was an art, useful in creating sympathy and support for the Patriot’s desire for a complete break with Great Britain and its King. It would conclude that “these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States.” Yet, the use of grievances as propaganda must be recognized for what it was and this acknowledgment requires further scrutiny. The declaration is fraught with hypocrisy and cannot be accepted blindly at face value lest it ignores atrocities carried out under the cover of several false or incomplete grievances contained within. Like the Hessians, the African slaves and the Native Indians were all pawns and victims in this revolution, and the words used in the grievances to identify them were nothing more than propaganda designed to capitalize on the personal fears of those who otherwise could not be bothered with the nuance and detail of taxes and representative government. They were more concerned about how any conflict with Britain might impact and impede their daily lives. In this respect, barbarous acts and fears of uprisings by those who were different than themselves were easier to understand as grievances and played their emotions rather than any ability to apply logic in such terms.
The Declaration of Independence did not strive to define and demand a new concept of liberty. Instead, it endeavored to achieve through the presentation of grievances, how promises of a previously defined and accepted concept of liberty had been diminished in the colonies. The vast majority of the grievances did not impact the population of the colonies equally. Jefferson initiated the understanding of a universal threat by warning readers and informing the King and Parliament, that George III had declare the American colonies out of his protection. And since the colonies were understood to be without his protection, and were actually under attack by large armies of foreigners to further infringe on their liberties, they called out the King as being unworthy. In doing so the founding fathers took the bold step of indicating their own superior claim to liberty over enslaved and native people and marking the British as the enemies of liberty. In the end, the 27th grievance against the King should be seen as part of the greater palette of propaganda offered to the colonists, the final threat demanding action. In essence, Jefferson ended the Declaration of Independence with a clarion call, easily understood and equally demanding as a call to action. The Americans were under attack from outside and potentially from within. Their position would be that for their liberties to be preserved, others must be denied. For that reason alone, these writings deserve further scrutiny and continued discussion.
Edmund C. Burnett, Letters of Members of the Constitutional Congress (Washington, DC: The Carnegie institution of Washington, 1921-1936), 2:57. See also John Adams to Moses Gill, June 10, 1775, founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/06-03-02-0014.
Samuel Adams to James Warren, December 9, 1772, in “Warren-Adams Letters, being chiefly a correspondence among John Adams, Samuel adams, and James Warren,” Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society (Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1917), 1:14.