I’m surprised there hasn’t been more media discourse (Right and Left) about a highly controversial opinion piece published in the July 4th NY Times, headlined: “A Declaration of Fear.”
In the piece, Robert G. Parkinson, an assistant professor of history at Binghamton University and author of: “The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution,” posits the view that the Declaration of Independence was not the document we believe it is. Rather, he says it was “…more about racial fear and exclusion as it was about inalienable rights.”
Parkinson says historians have judged the historic document on its famous preamble rather than the 27 accusations against Britain’s King George that follow it.
He says the 27th, and final, accusation is the most salient to his discussion. It reads: “He (George III) 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.”
Parkinson says, “In the context of the 18th century, ‘domestic insurrections’ refers to rebellious slaves.”
In fact, Jefferson fully intended to include an extended attack in the Declaration against King George for forcing slavery on unwitting colonists. Alas, other members of the Continental Congress cut out all references to slavery as “piratical warfare” and an “assemblage of horrors” and left only the sentiment that King George was “now exciting those very people to rise in arms against us.”
Had Jefferson’s original words stood, says Parkinson, “The Declaration could have been what we yearn for it to be, a statement of universal rights, but it wasn’t.”
That 27th argument in the document was critical because, says Parkinson, in the first 15 months of the revolution, reports about the role African-Americans and Native-Americans would play in the coming conflict were THE most widely discussed news (my emphasis, not his). And, British officials did use armed African-Americans and Native-Americans to quell the revolution.
Rather than advocating for equal rights for all men, Parkinson says Adams, Franklin and Jefferson used every incident to promote their views, and whip up a very real frenzy of fear that armed African-Americans and Native-Americans would become heavily involved in fighting the Colonists.
As a result, the framers of the declaration wrote the words that clearly stated “…some people belong as proper Americans and other do not.” Those words have marked American history ever since, he says.
In closing his argument, Parkinson said that the many African-Americans and Indians who DID support the revolution were no match against the idea that they were all merciless savages and domestic insurrectionists.
So, he says, Americans have operated from the very beginning on the assumption that blacks and Indians don’t belong in this republic.
Talk about revisionist history (as well as timely commentary on what we’re reading, hearing and seeing every day)! It occurs to me that Parkinson’s words strike at the very heart of our continuing seismic divides.
That said, I never would have guessed the Declaration of Independence laid the framework for the very real hate and fear that permeates America today.
In fact, I don’t think I’ll ever again view the image and reputation of the Declaration of Independence quite the same.
How about you?
Thanks, Sienna. You make some powerful points to be sure. As for the good professor providing remedies to change our hate-filled society, he may very well do so in his new book. I haven’t had a chance to read it, so really couldn’t comment one way or the other.
Thanks for sharing! I love learning new perspectives.
However, I think this is modern media’s attempt at blaming its agenda on the past. If every word Parkinson wrote is true (I’m not doubting him) it would explain how the racial divide perpetuated at that time, but not why it has lasted 240 years.
I learned that the Declaration IS a statement of universal rights and I choose to keep believing that because that is where our country is/should be today. I was raised to value diversity. I was also raised to fear any man walking toward me at night, regardless of his skin color. I believe the news media, Hollywood and certain aspects of popular culture are to blame for perpetuating real hate and fear in America today.
The more we talk about violence, fear, hate, seismic divides and “us” vs. “them” (whatever that means), the larger the divide becomes. People fear uncertainty, what is different and what they don’t understand. The only time in our history that we made any progress on the race issue is when we focused on our similarities, what we had in common and what we could achieve together.
We don’t talk about that anymore; it’s not good for ratings, it doesn’t sell papers. So while I am incredibly appreciative to have learned this perspective, I believe Parkinson wasted good ink and prime real estate. I believe he missed an opportunity to discuss how we can come together in the next 240 years, because dwelling on the past hasn’t been working for us lately.