On July 4 last, the New York Times featured an op-ed by a young historian named Robert G. Parkinson, headlined, "Did a Fear of Slave Revolts Drive American Independence?" While I don't know Prof. Parkinson and have nothing against him personally, his article is a fascinating example of the new orthodoxy in academia--and its appearance at this particular time and place shows how deeply that orthodoxy has now influenced our intellectual elite. Like so much of modern historical writing, it begins with a grain of truth and spins it into a falsehood: that the United States of America has always been a conspiracy of white males to exclude others from citizenship. Let's see how Parkinson does this.
Parkinson's article claims to provide the real explanation for the Declaration of Independence, but what it is really about is one aspect of British attempts to put down the rebellion. In November 1775--seven months after the outbreak of war, but another eight months before the Declaration of Independence--Lord Dunmore, the royal governor of Virginia, had been driven from his position and his colony and had taken shelter on a British warship. In order to avoid any accusation of doing what I am accusing Livingston of doing--slanting it--I'm going to quote it in full.
"Dunmore’s Proclamation, November 7, 1775
By His Excellency the Right Honorable JOHN Earl of DUNMORE, his Majesty's Lieutenant and
Governour-General of the Colony and Dominion of Virginia, and Vice-Admiral of the same:*
As I have ever entertained Hopes that an Accommodation might have taken Place between Great
Britain and this Colony, without being compelled, by my Duty, to this most disagreeable, but
now absolutely necessary Step, rendered so by a Body of armed Men, unlawfully assembled,
firing on his Majesty's Tenders, and the Formation of an Army, and that Army now on their
March to attack his Majesty's Troops, and destroy the well-disposed Subjects of this Colony: To
defeat such treasonable Purposes, and that all such Traitors, and their Abettors, may be brought
to Justice, and that the Peace and good Order of this Colony may be again restored, which the
ordinary Course of the civil Law is unable to effect, I have thought fit to issue this my
Proclamation, hereby declaring, that until the aforesaid good Purposes can be obtained, I do, in
Virtue of the Power and Authority to me given, by his Majesty, determine to execute martial
Law, and cause the same to be executed throughout this Colony; and to the End that Peace and
good Order may the sooner be restored, I do require every Person capable of bearing Arms to
resort to his Majesty's STANDARD, or be looked upon as Traitors to his Majesty's Crown and
Government, and thereby become liable to the Penalty the Law inflicts upon such Offences, such
as Forfeiture of Life, Confiscation of Lands, &c. &c. And I do hereby further declare all
indentured Servants, Negroes, or others, (appertaining to Rebels) free, that are able and willing to
bear Arms, they joining his Majesty's Troops, as soon as may be, for the more speedily reducing
this Colony to a proper Sense of their Duty, to his Majesty's Crown and Dignity. I do further
order, and require, all his Majesty's liege Subjects to retain their Quitrents, or any other Taxes
due, or that may become due, in their own Custody, till such Time as Peace may again be
restored to this at present most unhappy Country, or demanded of them for their former salutary
Purposes, by Officers properly authorised to receive the same.
GIVEN under my Hand, on board the ship WILLIAM, off Norfolk, the 7th Day of November, in
the 16th Year of his Majesty's Reign.
Recognizing that the free population of Virginia had rebelled against royal authority, Dunmore declared martial law, ordered every citizen to rally to the King, threatened those who failed to do so with forfeiture of life and property, ordered everyone to put aside the tax payments they owed, and invited any indentured servant or slave capable of bearing arms to secure their freedom by joining his Majesty's troops. Livingston actually refers to this as Dunmore's "Emancipation Proclamation," which it most certainly was not--even though he was using the same power, albeit in a much more limited fashion, that Lincoln called upon 87 years later to free slaves within the Confederacy. The colonists were at war, and thus liable to have their prooperty confiscated--including their slaves. But Dunmore, unlike Lincoln, hadn't freed all their slaves, he had only promised freedom to adult males who would fight for His Majesty. This was simply a tactical move to defeat the rebellion, not an attempt to abolish slavery in the colonies. So were the alliances the British formed with certain Indian tribes--most notably the Iroquois during the Saratoga campaign in 1777--to fight the colonists. Such alliances had been a regular feature of the wars with the French for well over a century.
By the time the Declaration of Independence was written, however, the idea that the British wanted to incite a slave rebellion and massacres by Indians had, not surprisingly, found its way into colonial propaganda--and it did find its way into the list of grievances against George III that Jefferson put into the Declaration of Independence. Once again I think it would be best for me to reproduce that entire list, which Parkinson kindly linked.
[King George] has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing
importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should
be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend
He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large
districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of
Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and
formidable to tyrants only.
He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual,
uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records,
for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his
He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.
He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause
others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of
Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise;
the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of
invasion from without, and convulsions within.
He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that
purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing
to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the
conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.
He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.
He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.
He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of
Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.
He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.
He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.
He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to
our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to
their Acts of pretended Legislation:
For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:
For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders
which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:
For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:
For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:
For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:
For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences
For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring
Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging
its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument
for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies:
For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:
For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.
He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.
He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to
compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with
circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most
barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.
He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas
to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their
friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.
He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured
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.
The list, of course, summarizes what the colonies were fighting against, and, implicitly, what they were fighting for. The King had rendered the colonies' own largely elected governments powerless and ineffective, and substituted arbitrary rule backed by military force, which by now included the Hessian units landing in the New York era. He had crippled both their economic and political life. Then, at the very end of the list, the Declaration refers implicitly to Dunmore's proclamation, claiming that it was an attempt to excite a "domestic insurrection," but leaning much more heavily on the King's planned alliances with Indian tribes.
This, incredibly, is how Parkinson ranks the items on the list. " The very last one — the ultimate deal-breaker — was the most important
for them, and it is for us: '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.' In
the context of the 18th century, 'domestic insurrections' refers to
rebellious slaves. 'Merciless Indian savages' doesn’t need much
I am dwelling on this at length because Parkinson's view is so characteristic of what passes for contemporary historical scholarship. For the last forty years, three generations of American historians--with few exceptions--have shown a contempt for the constitutional freedoms and liberties upon which our country was founded. Parkinson specifically denies that the colonists declared their independence because of the first 26 grievances--the "real deal-breaker" was the King's incitement to slave rebellions and massacres by Indians. He is half right when he says the 27th item was "the most important for them, as it is for us." It is the most important for "us"--for historians within today's academy--because it shows that, on racial issues, the views of the founding fathers were not those held by members of contemporary academic departments. That is the basis on which the whole history of the United States has been rewritten in recent decades. He is right--the members if the Continental Congress did not favor the immediate abolition of slavery, or, for that matter, of identured servitude, and they felt they had to resist attacks by Indian tribes upon their settlements. But the idea that this was the real reason for the whole Declaration is simply laughable. It was simply the colonists' response to royal attempts to enlist slave and Indian allies to pout down the colonies. To call this the critical provision of the Declaration is anachronistic and arbitrary.
What, in fact, was the impact of the Revolution on slavery in the colonies and the new nation? We take the achievements of the revolution so entirely for granted that we forget that it was fought against age-old distinctions of rank and special privileges that went far beyond slavery, and affected the mass of white people very deeply. The revolution was fought to end such distinctions, as in many ways it did, and that inevitably provoked further discussion of the morality of slavery and whether it should continue in the new republic. In fact, even before the Constitution was adopted, the new Confederation, when it organized the Northwest territories--the vast region north of the Ohio and east of the Mississippi--specifically banned slavery from the whole area. Most of the northern states abolished slavery, and many hoped to see it decline in the South as well. The Constitution, while tolerating and implicitly recognizing slavery where it existed, took great care never to mention it or endorse it by name, and provided for the abolition of the slave trade in 20 years. That abolition took place on schedule in 1807. It was the invention of the cotton gin and the rise of a new, postwar generation of southerners who regarding slavery as a positive good that halted the momentum away from slavery and made the civil war inevitable.
In language typical of today's historians, Parkinson says that because of the brief clause relating to insurrection and Indian war, "The Declaration could have been what we yearn for it to be, a statement
of universal rights, but it wasn’t. What became the official version was
one marked by division." That is the new orthodoxy: that because the rights claimed by the declaration were not extended to every human being within the colonies on the spot, its universal language was a sham, one that has continued (as Livingston says) from that day to this. What these historians seem to think is that their own guilt, which they feel they can impute to virtually every white American, can substitute for a genuine concept of equal rights, proclaimed and fought for by generations of Americans, as a guarantee of rights for minorities. It cannot. The universal principles of the Declaration are the only basis on which our society and government can continue to exist. Our failure ever completely to live up to them is no excuse for proclaiming them a snare and a delusion, or for repudiating the most important parts of our legacy.