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Regional Interests

Examining A Racist Passage In The Declaration Of Independence

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The Declaration of Independence includes language that reminds us of this country's highest ideals - that all men are created equal. It also reminds us how far this country has fallen short of those ideals. Many of the men who wrote the document enslaved other people. As we approach this Fourth of July, we're going to look specifically at one passage in the declaration called Grievance 27. It includes an offensive racial slur to describe Native Americans, and we'll hear those words in a moment.

To discuss how this piece of the declaration fits into our nation's history and the story of the country's founding, we're joined by historian Donald Grinde Jr. He's a professor at the University at Buffalo and a member of the Yamasee Nation. Welcome.

DONALD GRINDE JR: Glad to be here.

SHAPIRO: How do you look at the Declaration of Independence as a document given its flaws and given its foundational role in the country that we live in today?

GRINDE: Well, obviously, the rhetoric in clause 27 about the merciless savages is derogatory and not a good thing. But there's a paradox here - that during this debate in June - May and June of 1776, the members of the Continental Congress invite 21 Iroquois chiefs to Independence Hall, and they are there during the debate over the Declaration of Independence. And this has been obscured and not talked about.

SHAPIRO: So you're saying that even as the country's founders were writing language into this document that disparaged Native Americans, they were also learning from Native Americans and building the foundations of government based on inspiration from the Iroquois.

GRINDE: Right. That's correct.

SHAPIRO: Can you tell us what it was about the Iroquois nation system of governments that specifically translated to the American democracy we have today?

GRINDE: The Iroquois had been advising people about creating a government across a great geographic expanse. Many people don't realize that England is the size of Pennsylvania, and you now have the 13 colonies stretching from New Hampshire to Georgia. And how do you do that? And they were looking at Indian confederations that did that.

SHAPIRO: And yet despite this relationship of learning and inspiration, there is this racist, offensive language - Grievance 27. And I think it would be helpful to provide listeners some context for where NPR is coming from here, which is that for more than 30 years, Morning Edition has aired the Declaration of Independence in its entirety. Reporters and hosts recite different sections. And years ago I was asked to read this part of the declaration, which for many years aired without context or acknowledgement that this is a racial slur. And, you know, with an understanding that this language is offensive but that it's also part of our country's founding, I think it would be helpful for listeners to hear exactly what it says, which is, (reading) 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.

Can you talk about how that language at the time was used to perpetuate genocide, stealing of land and other crimes against Indigenous people?

GRINDE: Yeah. This is part of the political rhetoric to justify, you know, wars along the frontier and take land. And so this is part of the politics that's going on at the time.

SHAPIRO: You've made a point that I found really interesting, which is that the 13 colonies were very fractious and disagreed on all kinds of things, and racism was a powerful way to unite them.

GRINDE: Yeah. Yeah, this is a way of placating, you know, the people that live on the frontier and are fighting Indians.

SHAPIRO: So as Americans today who are trying to understand our history with its warts and all, how do you think we should reflect on the fact that these words are a part of the foundation the country was built on?

GRINDE: I teach American history, obviously. And I, you know, jokingly talk about the original intent of the Founding Fathers was that Blacks would be slaves and three-fifths of a person, women can't vote, and Native Americans are merciless savages. But America and the democracy is evolved, that over time with the Civil War, slavery was done away with. There were still problems, but through civil rights and even now today, we're still working all that out. And the same thing is true with Native Americans - you know, that after the Civil War, there were - people were forced into boarding schools. And then in the 1930s, Roosevelt began to dissolve the boarding schools.

And people mistakenly talk about the democracy as if these brilliant Founding Fathers created this perfect union, and I teach it as that this was very imperfect. And it's been evolving, and it will continue to evolve and probably go on because I can't imagine what my grandchildren will be dealing with in terms of political issues.

SHAPIRO: That's professor Donald Grinde Jr., a member of the Yamasee Nation and historian at the University at Buffalo. Thank you very much.

GRINDE: Yes. Well, thank you, Ari. I enjoyed it and hope it was helpful.

(SOUNDBITE OF A MOUNTAIN OF ONE SONG, "RIDE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.