[In honor of the 4th of July, a series highlighting various historical and cultural contexts for this uniquely American holiday. Leading up to a special weekend post on patriotism in 2022!]
On important historical contexts for a frustrating founding text, and why the frustrations remain nonetheless.
In this July 4th, 2015 piece for Talking Points Memo, my second most-viewed piece in my year and a half of contributing bi-monthly columns to TPM, I highlighted and analyzed the cut paragraph on slavery and King George from Thomas Jefferson’s draft version of the Declaration of Independence. Rather than repeat what I said there, I’d ask you to take a look at that piece (or at least the opening half of it, as the second half focuses on other histories and figures) and then come back here for a couple important follow-ups.
Welcome back! As a couple commenters on that post noted (and as I tried to discuss further in my responses to their good comments), I didn’t engage in the piece with a definitely relevant historical context: that the English Royal Governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, had in November 1775 issued (from on board a warship anchored just off the Virginia coast) a prominent Proclamation both condemning Virginian and American revolutionaries, declaring martial law in the colony, and offering the prospect of freedom to any African American enslaved people who left their owners and joined the English forces opposing them. A number of enslaved people apparently took Dunmore up on the offer, and so when Jefferson writes that “he [King George] is now exciting these very people to rise in arms among us,” he might have been attributing the idea to the wrong Englishman but was generally accurate about those English efforts. Yet of course Jefferson’s misattribution is no small error, as it turns a wartime decision by one English leader (and a somewhat unofficial one at that, as it’s not at all clear to me that Dunmore had the authority to make such an offer nor that the Crown would necessarily or consistently have upheld it) into a defining feature of the relationship between England and the colonies.
There are significantly bigger problems with Jefferson’s paragraph than that misattribution, however. And to my mind, by far the biggest is his definition of African American enslaved people as a foreign, “distant people,” not simply in their African origins (and of course many late 18th century enslaved people had been born in the colonies) but in their continued identity here in America. Moreover, Jefferson describes this distant people as having been “obtruded” upon the colonists, an obscure word that means “to impose or force on someone in an intrusive way.” And moreover moreover, Jefferson then directly contrasts the enslaved people’s desire for liberty with the colonists’ Revolutionary efforts (and thus their desire for liberty), a philosophical opposition that excludes these Americans from the moment and its histories just as fully as his definitions and descriptions exclude them from the developing American community. As I’ve highlighted in many different pieces over the years, a number of prominent enslaved people—from Crispus Attucks and Phillis Wheatley to Elizabeth Freeman and Quock Walker—had already proved and would continue to prove Jefferson quite wrong. But for as smart and thoughtful a person as TJ, it shouldn’t have required such individuals to help him see how much African American enslaved people were an integral, inclusive part of Revolutionary Virginia and America.
Next July 4th context tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other 4th of July histories or contexts you’d highlight?