The Ins and Outs of American Identity in the Early Republic. A Review of Robert G. Parkinson’s “Did a Fear of Slave Revolts Drive American Independence?”

Historian Robert Parkinson recently published The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution (2016), where he argues that the Declaration of Independence was shaped by colonial fears of  Native Americans and slave insurrections. The “common” in Common Cause, excluded non-white people in the colonies and served the social, economic, and political construction of community. His work contributes to the growing literature on the interconnections between race, politics, and economics in American (U.S.) history.

For the fourth of July 2016, Parkinson published an article in the New York Times, summarizing thee argument of his book. “Did a Fear of Slave Revolts Drive American Independence,” claims, “we have been reading the Declaration of Independence wrong.”[1] Our contemporary views of the Declaration as a revolutionary document extolling the virtues of sovereignty and liberty, is the result of nineteenth and twentieth century interpretations. For eighteenth contemporaries, such as Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson, “the separation from Britain was as much, if not more, about racial fear and exclusion as it was about inalienable rights.”[2]

The Declaration committee, including Franklin and, of course, Jefferson listed twenty seven “facts” indicating that King George III was a tyranny, thereby forfeiting his right to govern the colonies. Parkinson draws readers’ attention to the last “fact”: He [King 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.” “Domestic insurrections,” according to Parkinson, often referred to slave uprisings. Jefferson’s originally draft accused the King of starting the slave trade and also claimed that the King “now exciting those very people [Africans] to rise in arms among us.”[3] This was not a call for universal rights; the colonists were specific about who the Declarations of Independence represented.

Months before the Declaration was printed, the “Continental Congress received a letter from an army commander that contained a shocking revelation” and confirmed colonial suspicions that the British “were utterly despicable” and the natives were a real threat to settlers and even “civilization” itself. The letter reported that “two British officials… had gathered a number of Indians and begged them to ‘feast on a Bostonian and drink his blood.'”[4] To conjure public support and provoke fear among colonies, “Congress ordered this letter printed in newspapers.”[5] It was rare for Americans not to read stories about “British officials ‘whispering’ to Indians or ‘tampering’ with slave plantations.”

After the Declaration was printed and signed supporters made an effigy of King George III and blew it up with gunpowder. However, before blowing up the effigy, they “blackened [its] face and stuffed its head with feathers before setting it on fire.”[6] Native Americans and Africans were viewed as ‘savages” and potential insurrectionists. Even if they supported the Revolution, colonists’ remained suspicious. Parkinson ends his article stating: “Like the people of Huntington, Americans since 1776 have operated time and time again on the assumption that blacks and Indians don’t belong in this republic. This notion comes from the very founders we revere… It haunts us still.”

–Todd Burst

[1]. Parkinson, Robert G. “Did a Fear of Slave Revolts Drive American Independence?” The New York Times, July 4, 2016.

[2]. Ibid.

[3]. “Jefferson’s ‘original Rough Draught’ of the Declaration of Independence – Declaring Independence: Drafting the Documents | Exhibitions – Library of Congress.” Web page, July 4, 1995.


[4]. Parkinson, Robert G. “Did a Fear of Slave Revolts Drive American Independence?” The New York Times, July 4, 2016.

[5]. Ibid.

[6]. Ibid.

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