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Guest Opinion. “Rockin’ and a rollin’, splishin’ and a splashin’, over the horizon, what can it be – a free country.” This was the little tune I learned from Schoolhouse Rock when I was a kid watching Saturday morning TV. Embedded in that three-minute cartoon was an expression that gave the reason for the colonists’ revolt: taxation without representation. 

Thus, it was a revelation when I read Ned Blackhawk’s The Rediscovery of America, winner of the 2023 National Book Award. Blackhawk (Western Shoshone) asserts that one of the most significant drivers of the American Revolution had nothing to do with taxes – which only the wealthiest paid – but was about the desire for Native land. According to Blackhawk, “interior land concerns as well as the crown’s conciliatory relations with Indians upset settlers just as much if not more than policies of taxation.” 

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Academic historians largely support this notion. Yet, it’s certainly not what I was taught in school, nor ever heard anywhere. A simple query online, or even a question to ChatGBT about the causes of the American Revolution, struggle to find mention of it. 

As a Native, I’m well aware that the Declaration of Independence includes the expression “merciless Indian savages.” Many Indigenous people proudly wear t-shirts reappropriating the phrase. But I never realized the full context of the expression reveals a darker side of the American Revolution. 

The entire sentence is part of a list of 26 grievances against the king of England, explaining the reasons for the colonists’ anger. The final item is this: “[The King] 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 also accuses the king of “raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands,” meaning that American pioneers were prohibited from colonizing new lands without permission.

There is some backstory. Just thirteen years earlier, England – with American colonists – defeated the French in the Midwest and Canada. (This was part of the French and Indian War, or the Seven Years’ War.) This gave the English exclusive access to trade with Natives in the Ohio River Valley. To appease the tribes after the war, the king established the Proclamation Line of 1763; no trader or settler could cross the Alleghenies or the Appalachians without royal permission. 

That is what infuriated the American colonists; they wanted land and were ready to take it by force. The “freedom” they wanted was the ability to ethnically cleanse it without a permit. University of Minnesota historian Nick Estes (Lower Brule) points out the obvious irony, that the so-called “free country” in Schoolhouse Rock was “intrinsically tied to the dispossession of Indigenous people.”

Within a year, in late 1764, the Paxton Boys, a white militia led by a pastor, emerged near Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Hundreds of miles from the actual frontier, they found soft targets nearby. They slaughtered the people of Conestoga Town, a Susquehannock community who had lived in peace for generations. The militia then coalesced into a political movement and marched on Philadelphia. 

Benjamin Franklin challenged their terrorism in the press, calling the militia (in all caps) “CHRISTIAN WHITE SAVAGES.” Other leaders called the pioneers “lawless banditti,” “already almost out of the Reach of Law and Government,” and “by far more vicious & wicked” than the Natives they sought to displace.

Efforts to bring the Paxton Boys to justice came to nothing. No one would testify against them. Within months, another private militia, a mix of Scotch-Irish and German settlers self-described as “White People,” overcame differences in language and culture to rally around their fear of Indians. Because they painted their faces black and red and wore Native attire, they were called the Black Boys. 

Their target was not Natives, however, but their own government. They intercepted a British army pack train of 81 horses from Philadelphia. It was bound for Fort Pitt, filled with trade goods and diplomatic gifts for Native nations. The Black Boys burnt it all. 

Franklin linked the attack to the earlier massacre, saying, “Impunity for former Riots has emboldened them.” An election in Pennsylvania drew record turnout, costing Franklin his position. The newly elected government embraced the use of vigilante violence, offering bounties for Native scalps. Two months later, the Black Boys were shooting at British forts. A pioneer uprising was underway, eventually gaining expression in the Declaration of Independence. 

They found common ground with wealthy planters (a euphemism for slave plantation owners), such as George Washington, who wanted more land to expand their operations or simply for real estate speculation. 

We all know the ending. Their revolt against England was successful and the United States was founded as a white male ethnostate. Racial and gender criteria were explicit in the Constitution as well as in the Declaration of Independence. By 1790, the US Congress passed the Naturalization Act, limiting citizenship to white male landowners. Racial criteria for immigrants were not fully removed until 1952. 

Modern parallels to the Revolution period are obvious – the normalization of racism, vigilante white terrorism (legally sanctioned at times), a business class allied with angry rural settlers, calls for restrictions on immigrants from “shithole countries,” and courts that have no problem with racial exclusion – unless it’s whites who are being excluded. As for white vigilante violence, what was Conestoga Town is now a church in Charleston, a synagogue in Pittsburgh, a restaurant in Nashville, a shopping mall in El Paso, and a grocery store in Buffalo. As Americans celebrate the Fourth of July this year, the 248th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, many wonder if it will make it to 250. 

Given the diverse nation we have today, how should we consider this past? Using Isabel Wilkerson’s metaphor from her book, Caste, we find ourselves living in a house built by earlier generations. It has structural problems and needs renovations. We can blame people in the past, but, regardless, our primary goal now must be to fix the house. 

What do we make of the fact that this part of our past has been erased from the national story? Drawing on “truth and reconciliation” processes regarding apartheid in South Africa and boarding schools in Canada, simply acknowledging the past is the first step to repairing the house, to preventing its problems from festering. 

The first step of this process is to identify and acknowledge the structure’s rocky foundations, to un-erase history. To quote Native writer Tommy Orange from a recent interview with Indian Country Today, “About the beginning of truth and reconciliation – the truth piece is really important. Attention on what actually happened and educating the country on what actually happened will bring about healing just alone, just by doing that.” 

After acknowledging that the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and recent Supreme Court rulings were designed to facilitate minority rule, we need new structures to honor and respect everyone.

Stephen Carr Hampton is an enrolled citizen of Cherokee Nation. He lives in Port Townsend, Washington, where he is an active member of the Cherokee Community of Puget Sound. He is the author of the Memories of the People blog, dedicated to un-erasing history.

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