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Mark Charles, a speaker at last weekend’s Justice Conference, called the Declaration of Independence “systemically racist.” (The Justice Conference describes itself as an event “for Christ-followers to gather, engage with, and better understand how to address major justice issues.”) This prompted a reply from the Institute on Religion and Democracy’s Mark Tooley, who chastised Charles for “smugly denouncing the whole American project as a wicked sham.”

How should Christians think about the Declaration? It depends which part of the Declaration we mean. The most famous part of the Declaration, in which Thomas Jefferson proclaimed, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”? What about the details later on, which mention both “savage” Indians and slave insurrections? And what of Jefferson’s own background as a slave owner?

John Trumbull, “The Declaration of Independence,” U.S. Capitol, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

Regarding that best-known passage of the Declaration, there is much for Christians to celebrate. The greatest ideal animating the American experiment is here: the notion of equality by creation. In other words, whatever our social standing, we all stand equal before God as created beings. Earlier statements like the Virginia Declaration of Rights had spoken more vaguely of people as being “by nature” equal, but here Jefferson and his committee put a finer point on the action of God in creation, and in the endowment of rights. In spite of Jefferson’s well-known skepticism about Christian doctrine, he knew that our common standing before God was the most compelling basis on which to put equality.

Yet Jefferson’s standing as a slave owner immediately raises a question: If people are equal before God, then how can you justify slavery? Some African Americans like American soldier and evangelical pastor Lemuel Haynes asked this question within weeks of the promulgation of the Declaration. We’re not being revisionists by wondering about this issue, too.

Moreover, when you dig into the details of Jefferson’s list of grievances (the long section that few of us read) there are a couple of alarming passages. In one, Jefferson complains that the British had “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.” As Mark Tooley notes, Native American warfare against European settlers and against enemy Indians could be quite vicious. White colonists could be shockingly vicious toward Indians, too. (Colonial governments routinely put out scalp bounties against hostile tribes, for instance.) But since American civil religion often treats the Declaration like a kind of American Scripture, that note about “merciless Indian Savages” is jarring.

Another problematic passage in the Declaration immediately precedes this one, and it is really easy to miss. It says that the king had “excited domestic insurrections amongst us.” Scholars agree that this refers to the British offer in Virginia to grant freedom to slaves who ran away from their masters and enlisted to fight in the British army or navy. Jefferson and George Washington were among the many plantation owners who lost runaway slaves during the war. The British offer of freedom made many African Americans wonder which side cared more about freedom for all people. No wonder that, when given the choice, Africans in America tended to support the British side of the war.

As Tooley notes, great advocates for African American rights including Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King Jr., have cited the Declaration as the source of America’s greatest principles. Likewise, the brilliance of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was in its assertion that America had been “conceived in liberty” and that slavery ran contrary to its founding principles. So we can surely say that the Declaration has been used as one of the world’s best resources for articulating human rights and equality.

In its original framing and subsequent uses, then, the Declaration was not “systemically racist.” But we should never forget the troubling references to Indians and African Americans held within it, either. As inspiring as it is, the Declaration was a very human document, written in a very different historical context from ours.


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22 thoughts on “The Declaration of Independence: ‘Systemically Racist’?”

  1. Matěj Cepl says:

    Yet Jefferson’s standing as a slave owner immediately raises a question: if people are equal before God, then how can you justify slavery?

    The easy answer is of course, that we cannot (and Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings is clearly indefensible). However, I think exactly Christians should be able to deal very well with the tension between the clear ideal and muddy reality of sin. As far as I know, all Founding Fathers (including the slaveholding ones) theoretically opposed slavery, but either they were just pure hypocrites or they just honestly didn’t know they way from the reality to the ideal (and yes, of course, this not-knowing might be just another layer of subconscious hypocrisy).

  2. Michael says:

    I think it would be helpful if one knew Jefferson’s definition of “men.” Did he mean just men, or did that include women? Did me mean white, land-owning men? However, it is the next line that should actually give us pause.

    “they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”?”

    Really? Where exactly is that in the Bible that we have the right to life, liberty, or happiness. It’s not, but the Bible does give us a right: through repentance and faith, we have the right to become children of God (John 1:12). And through this right, we do then inherit eternal life, eternal freedom from sin, and eternal joy. It is the pursuit of God, not any document that gives us these rights. We have been deceived by these words and are reaping the consequences of believing them.

  3. kierkegaard71 says:

    Wonderful article. It points to a common problem we face with many documents from which we trace religious or philosophical lineage. It’s another “can of worms” but the Bible presents similar challenges, e.g. slavery. One can argue that there is an overarching trajectory of redemption and liberation in the Bible, but when one gets to the nitty-gritty of the text, one encounters issues. The Pentateuch celebrates the deliverance of Israel from bondage in Egypt, and the Levitical code bans the intra-national taking of slaves among the Israelites. However, at the same time, Leviticus allows Israelites to place both adults and children from the nations surrounding Israel in a state of perpetual slavery (Lev 25: 44-46), not granted the privilege of liberation under the Jubilee provisions. Challenges abound in how we view and interpret any historical document (even religious documents).

  4. Matt says:

    Americans weren’t the first people to cast off the rule of a king, nor the last. But for Christians, it’s worth pondering if a nation is conceived in declaring autonomy and independence from it’s government, what kind of child does it grow to be, what kind of adult? It’s worth asking: how connected are our beginning in autonomy and our current rejection of all authority except ourselves?

  5. Curt Day says:

    Was the Declaration systematically racist? With race not being a key issue, I think that the sparse comment about Native Americans and Blacks slaves indicates that it was a racist document. But more important than to question the Declaration is to question our Founding Fathers. For when we see how our founding documents were implemented, we have ample evidence that the nation they had created was not only racist, it was sexist and based on economic class.

    As for the Declaration being sexist, we should note that not only did Jefferson say that all men were created equal, a woman’s right to vote didn’t come until well over 100 years later. In fact, women still feel the sting of sexism in society.

    As for racism, we only need to note the emerging British attitudes on slave trading at the time and question whether the Founding Fathers thought that continued allegiance to Great Britain would threaten our nation’s use of slaves in the future. Perhaps this was a contributing factor to our declaring independence and the fighting of the Revolutionary War. We should also note that during that time, the predominant view was that Blacks were not viewed as being equal to Whites. That belief even carried through to some who opposed slavery during Lincoln’s time.

    We should also note that economic classism played a significant part in the founding of our nation. Though not apparent in documents like The Declaration Of Independence, we should note that The Constitution was written in response to widespread dissent and Shays Rebellion. It was written to give the Federal government power to put down such insurrections–the latter point is evident in The Constitution’s references to the militia. So while the Declaration of Independence was written in protest of the actions of British elites, The Constitution was written in order to maintain the status quo for the American elites who replaced them.

    We should also note the awareness of class distinctions discussed during the Constitutional Debates (see http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/yates.asp ) and we note how Charles Pinckney listed 3 economic classes of the time–Professional men, Commercial men, and the Landed Interest–and how the first two classes must forever depend on the last class while saying how these classes should not be able to infringe on the rights of the other classes. Here, research is needed to determine the definition of those classes especially since many people were not included in that list as evident from Federalist #10 (http://www.constitution.org/fed/federa10.htm ). Or perhaps we should quote James Madison while expressing his fears that Great Britain might open their elections to all classes of people (see http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/yates.asp ):


    In England, at this day, if elections were open to all classes of people, the property of the landed proprietors would be insecure. An agrarian law would soon take place. If these observations be jsut, our government ought to secure the permanent interests of the country against innovation. Landholders ought to have a share in the government, to support these invaluable interests, and to balance and check the other. They ought to be so constituted as to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.

    Here we should note that around 5% of Americans could vote when The Constitution was ratified and that was based on class. We should also note that what was called innovation were the demands of those from the lower economic classes.

    Despite the talk of equality by our Founding Fathers, it was never intended to apply to all whether that all was based on gender, race, or class. That we have started to approach equality for all is due to people demanding it; it is due to activism. And it is only with this understanding, rather than romantic views of both our Founding Fathers and Documents which would place both on pedestals, that we could properly interpret both and then go beyond what they said to accomplish what is just.

  6. Mosessister says:

    I attended this conference and heard Mark Charles’ talk. I think Mark Tooley (who was not present, and was apparently relying on secondhand accounts) missed the main point, which was the role that the Doctrine of Discovery played in the development of our Constitution and significant case law precedents since then. Thinking about our nation’s founding and legal system in that context is even more troubling. As an evangelical, it causes me discomfort personally; I appreciated Mark Charles’ exhortation for lament as the proper and efficacious response.

  7. Mosessister says:

    I’ll add that considering the context of the Doctrine of Discovery, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Declaration of Independence was systemically racist.

  8. Henry Thompson says:

    I enjoyed reading this article but I disagree with the conclusion, because the “all men are created equal” quotation in the Declaration of Independence did not originally include Native Americans or African Americans. From the very beginning of the United States Native American and African Americans were thought to be sub-human and the these ideas were reinforced through the systemic racism that was present in the USA when they garnered their independence from the British. This is why Native Americans and African Americans still deal with systemic racism in this country today. The founding document of this country did not include them.

  9. Bill Melone says:

    I like a lot of what you said but I think you need to dig into the meaning of systematic racism. You’ve analyzed it from a simple definition of racism (more personally/individually oriented) rather than the systematic perspective (more oriented to the maintenance of white privilege). I think there is a lot more to dig into with the systematic definition that isn’t as much on the surface like what you’ve presented here.

  10. Doug says:

    Author Joyce Appleby described the equality spoken of by Jefferson and others of his day as pertaining to men in groups, such as American vs. English. Individualism was not pervasive in the minds of men as it is in our day. When Jefferson declared “All men are created equal,” it was the equivalent of saying Americans and Brits are on a common plane. Racism was free to fly under the radar. That said, the pervasiveness of racism can be seen in the fact that even many of our Lord’s apostles fell into its trap. Thus, in Galatians 2 we read how Paul had to confront Peter and James “to their face.” He confronted them with the Gospel, not government intervention. The American tragedy is that up until this day, racism has been confronted primarily through political means. Therefore the positive changes we’ve seen have been primarily superficial, not the changed hearts of men convicted by God’s Word. If racism was “systemic” in our past, it was due to a “systemic” lack of confrontational preaching.

  11. Missy M says:

    Wow. We have gone so astray in our theology. Orthodoxy has been chucked for race-based special interest theology.

    What is rather ironic, when people speak about American Indians being treated as subgroups, is the fact that American Indians have practice tribal apartheid for hundreds of years yet no one who claims to reject apartheid has raised their voice.

    This racial narcissism that seems to be preoccupying the minds of so many is what is destroying the ability for racial groups to work together.

    The use of antagonistic and accusatory labels such as white privilege to describe the predominance of white European culture in America is nothing but a tool of manipulation which attempts to shame, dispossess and control those who may fall within the majority.

    There is nothing in Scripture which exists by which one would be able to confront social stratification. What the Bible rejects is the mistreatment of people, not social stratification, itself. And social stratification itself is not viewed as mistreatment unless it involves arrogance, condescension and unkindness which is precisely why the scriptures teach Masters, Christian Masters, must be kind to their slaves, they must treat them fairly.

    Martin Luther King Jr unlike Douglas was able to moralize his arguments while Frederick Douglass made purely constitutional arguments.

    Martin Luther King co-opted the Israel Hebrew slave narrative and errantly imposed it on the context of Black America. People have been swallowing that false narrative since that time. It has now made its way into the consciousness of the American people and the world because now social stratification is seen as sinful while the Bible says no such thing and in fact enforces it in some places.

    This is why Frederick Douglass was the better man because while Martin Luther King jr. Did have some constitutional arguments, the truth is, most of what he offered was a moralization of his position where he stole the Hebrew slave narrative and used it on behalf of Black America. This method while effective has had far-reaching damaging results within Evangelical theology.

    And so now the Orthodox conservative historical Evangelical Christian Church has swallowed this lie and incorporated it into their Doctrine which is how we come up with giving a platform to someone who would claim so ridiculously that the Declaration of Independence is an issue or a thing of systemic racism and is somehow wrong.

    I realized in this day and age of what are called Generation Snowflake – those who do not like to hear anything contrary to their own opinion and are easily offended, this may not get posted I get that. I hope for the sake of those who say they want a conversation this voice will be heard.

  12. Doug says:

    It probably would be helpful to define “racism.” I refer to it simply as a superiority complex, and all the actions that stem from it.

  13. Matthew says:

    Missy M. more should take note of your view.

    Whatever the consensus, what I do not understand is how the Delectation of Independence being systematically racist means anything at all? We do not disregard great things, flawed though they may be, for every great thing save scripture is flawed. The Declaration of Independence served a great purpose, and slavery has been outlawed and the tribes have been given rights and citizenship. What is left to do that is reasonable?

  14. Matt says:

    Missy M: You need to define “social stratification” before you claim Scripture does not address it.

  15. Doug says:

    Racism has not diminished in our nation. If anything it has simply shifted focus. In our early national period racism displayed itself intra-nationally. We now display racism inter-nationally in the form of “American Exceptionalism.” Interestingly, in an op-ed warning about this racism, Vladimir Putin referred to our Declaration:

    It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal. – Vladimir Putin

  16. Ken Abbott says:

    Doug: American Exceptionalism has nothing whatsoever to do with race or any descriptive human category per se. It defines an idea, that the American founding was unique in human history because of the ideas that generated it. Both Putin and Obama have misrepresented the concept in their public remarks, unknowingly or otherwise. See Charles Murray’s eloquent pamphlet on this.

  17. Curt Day says:

    Ken,
    Actually, Doug is correct depending on how one understands American Exceptionalism. The American Exceptionalism that grants us the privilege of attacking others with impunity both in terms of foriegn consequences and our national conscience is what Doug was referring to and was done when expanding what Washington called an ‘infant empire’ or when we expanded our control overseas with the vast majority of those paying the consequences for our interventions being nonWhites.

  18. Ken Abbott says:

    No, Curt. American Exceptionalism has a definite meaning. That some have misappropriated the phrase to describe some other concept is an abuse of language. Find some other term to describe “the privilege of attacking others with impunity.”

  19. Ken Abbott says:

    Honestly, some of y’all have a downright Humpty Dumpty way of thinking when it comes to words.

  20. Curt Day says:

    Ken,
    We can go back and forth on this. No, American Exceptioanlism can have more than one meaning. In fact, one meaning can feed the others. If they get around to moderating and posting my first comment, you will see that America was not all that exceptional in terms of its positive qualities. And we should note that claiming to be special or exceptional is normal. Other nations have made the same claim.

  21. Ken Abbott says:

    “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

    If you’re going to be like that, Curt, you need to define your terms so that everyone is aware of what you’re doing. Otherwise, we’re all just talking past one another.

  22. Curt Day says:

    Ken,
    I don’t make up the definition of the term ‘American Exceptionalism,’ I use the definition supplied by others. But what I also included applies to current definitions of American Exceptionalism employed today and I will repeat it here. Claiming to be special is normal. The Germans have done that as have the Swiss. The French have done it as well as the British. All have claimed to be the epitome of civiliztion and freedom. And we should note what comes with claiming to be special: It is the assumption of privileges denied to everyone else.

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ThomasSKidd

Thomas S. Kidd, PhD


Thomas S. Kidd is distinguished professor of history at Baylor University, and the author of many books, including Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father  (Yale, 2017); George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father (Yale, 2014) and Baptists in America: A History with Barry Hankins (Oxford, 2015). You can follow him on Twitter and subscribe to his weekly author newsletter.

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