Declaring Independence From the Declaration of Independence

John Trumbull’s painting, Declaration of Independence – Public Domain

July 4, 2026 will mark the 250th anniversary of the revolt against British rule by some of the settlers situated in the thirteen colonies clustered along the Atlantic Ocean.  It’s not a minute too soon to start preparing for the orgy of self-congratulation and remythologizing that is about to befall us.  Replete of course with gallons of there-is-still-a-lot-of-work-to-be-doneism.

Better still, as the rate of decline into chaos and confusion accelerates, it’s a perfect time to consider what can get us out of this mess.  By mess I mean what 1776 hath wrought.

A good place to begin that appraisal is with the document the Founders created to justify the project in the first place.  The Declaration of Independence has been misconstrued for a very long time. It’s taken me decades to penetrate the fog and I still have lots to learn.

The Declaration is a manifesto. Its purpose was to explain and justify violent opposition to British “occupation.”  By 1776 gendered and racialized violence was already deeply ingrained within the white settlers.  It was the product of what it took from 1619/20 forward to seize and hold territory, to enslave and keep enslaved at least 500,000 Black people and to control deviant white settlers. (For context as to the latter, the Salem Witch trials were in 1692/93.)

Accordingly, picking a fight with the British Army did not require creating a violent or militarized culture from scratch.  For that matter, since at least the battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775, violent conflict with British troops was already well underway.

In the first paragraph of this essay, I used the word project. I find it a useful lens or frame to view the arc of U.S. history.  By way of illustration, I thought the movie Oppenheimer did an excellent job at depicting the creation, testing, deployment and afterlife of the atomic bomb as a big project.  Putting a man on the moon was another big, fast USA national undertaking.

The 1960s partial dismantling of the Jim Crow system in the South can also be viewed as a project—an especially important and difficult one.  There are plenty of other examples, but within the U.S. all are subprojects of the gigantic, relentlessly violent work of creating and maintaining the modern nation state known as the United States of America.

Territorial conquest for natural resources and/or land for settlement is at the core of colonialism and thus also at the core of the very being of the USA.  What makes understanding the Declaration so useful is what it reveals about why some of the settlers took matters into their own hands.

That it was only some of the settlers is relevant because had there been a referendum on the matter, most would have voted to remain a British colony.  (Similarly, there was never a majority for ending slavery either.)  Those who had a different idea were a quite small group of white, male property owners with a vision.  And how comfortable they were using violence to achieve it.

For a long time, I accepted the canard that we are a nation of laws.  We aren’t.  Since Day One we have remained first and foremost a nation characterized and defined by violence.  The veneer of law comes separately.  Usually after the fact but sometimes before or concurrently.  The Declaration is itself a good example.  THE BLOODSHED WAS ALREADY UNDEDRWAY when it was adopted.

As a sidenote, most accept the myth that the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution ended racialized chattel slavery.  No.  Seven hundred thousand people killing each other came first.  Or to put it another way, had the laws been capable of resolving the conflict over slavery there wouldn’t have been a Civil War in the first place.

Where does the Declaration fit in the organic evolution of the whole arrangement?  Even though newspapers have run July 4 full page ads of the whole dang thing for years, going as far back when people still read newspapers, most U.S. Americans think the Preamble is the Declaration in its entirety.  It’s where the frequently quoted “…all men are created equal” occur.  Those words, however, are also profoundly misunderstood.

Ex post facto they are invoked to imply an aspiration among the Founders to equality among all humans or at least male humans. Strategically understandable perhaps.  It’s as though we want to believe the Drafters and Signers were just hypocrites.  They weren’t.  They genuinely did not consider Indians or Black people to be human.

When they said all men were created equal, they meant themselves, the British and other Europeans. Or, to put it another way, they were asserting that they were equal to their colonial masters.  White supremacy was already deeply implanted in their worldview. (Doesn’t matter, some may say, they let the “created equal” genie out of the bottle even if they did so by accident.  We’ll come back to that later.)

Transactional Democracy

Most of the Declaration isn’t the preamble. It’s a long list of grievances.  There are 27 in all.  Taken together they present a recipe for what I would call transactional democracy.  Meaning that the British were making decisions contrary to the wishes of the Founders.  It wasn’t that the British were making the decisions per se.  Rather it was that British decisions were at odds with what the white, property-owning men wanted to do.

This idea is so far from the idealized myth we have been taught it’s not easy to grasp.  So, I’ll say it again another way.  The Independence being sought was NOT for the purpose or reason of overcoming opposition to visionary and previously unimagined ideas of freedom and democracy.

Here’s how Britannica addresses this in their backgrounder on the Declaration.  “It can be said, as Adams did, that the declaration contained nothing really novel in its political philosophy, which was derived from John Locke, Algernon Sidney, and other English theorists.”  So, some old governing ideas were put into new bottles partly to seek support from a population mostly inclined to go along with British rule, not overthrow it.

What did the white, property-owning men really, really want to do? Several things one of which was territorial expansion on their terms.  It’s as though the Declaration is its own Doctrine of Discovery, its own license to kill, conquer and steal.  Its essence was to justify replacing British colonialism with U.S. based settler colonialism.

Two clauses from the Declaration:

He [referring to the King] 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 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.

Sure enough, the very first legislation passed after the revolution succeeded was the Northwest Ordinance.  (Thanks to Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz’s essential AN INDIGENOUS PEOPLE’S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES, for first making me aware of this timeline.)

Following the principles outlined by Thomas Jefferson in the Ordinance of 1784, the authors of the Northwest Ordinance (probably Nathan Dane and Rufus King) spelled out a plan that was subsequently used as the country expanded to the Pacific. (Northwest Ordinance of 1787 at

Here’s Smithsonian Magazine in its July/August 2024 edition.

Decades earlier, Thomas Jefferson had formed a vision for new territory west of the Appalachian Mountains: It would fuel the creation of an “empire for liberty.” He first used a version of this phrase during the Revolutionary War, in a 1780 letter that urged George Rogers Clark, a surveyor turned soldier, to head north to wrest more land from the British. The frontiersman proved unable to muster sufficient recruits for an expedition, but Jefferson never dropped the idea.

After the Treaty of Paris, which ended the Revolutionary War in 1783, Britain ceded more territory that doubled the size of the U.S. Along with the original 13 colonies, the new country now included territory that stretched all the way to the Mississippi River, to the western edges of what would become Wisconsin, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee and the northern part of Mississippi.

Anticolonial?  Not in the least.

Since 1776 has the allegedly “anticolonial” USA ever supported the struggle of any other nation or peoples against colonial power?  No. Never.

One of the more dramatic examples was the response to a plea from Ho Chi Minh in 1948.  (The same year Israel became a nation-state.) As Viet Nam sought independence from decades of French colonial rule, Ho Chi Minh appealed to then President Truman for support.  It wasn’t as unreasonable as might appear given the U.S. and Viet Nam had worked closely together against the Japanese in WWII.  Truman never responded. And as we know the U.S. went on to support French efforts to retain control, even to the point of offering them nuclear weapons to use against Viet Nam.

Fast forward to the present.  Further evidence that the transactional purpose of the rebellion against the King of England was to change the form of colonialism, not the content is on full display right this minute.  That would be demonstrated by the U.S. backing of the settler colony Israel’s genocide against Palestinians.  [Note: A photo of Nicki Haley autographing U.S. made bombs to be dropped on Gaza could go here.]

Does the Declaration mention slavery? 

Never.  However, just because it references “Indian Savages,” and not Blacks doesn’t mean slavery and anti-Black racial caste aren’t in there.  The absence of any such language speaks volumes.

The great Gerald Horne, Nicole Hannah Jones and others have done excellent work in exposing how the fear that British colonial masters would abolish slavery was a powerful motivator of the drive for independence.  (A good place to learn more is with Professor Horne’s THE COUNTEREVOLUTION OF 1776.)

Deep differences among the Founders over how best to manage slavery prevented explicit discussion on the topic in the final version of the Declaration.  Among other things, some slave-owners wanted to favor the domestic slave trade by restricting the Atlantic slave trade. Others didn’t.  Which doesn’t change the fact that racialized enslavement was fundamental to what Professor Horne has correctly identified as the world’s first-ever apartheid Nation-State.

How this is who we were then and who we still are. 

The assumptions made in the Declaration in 1776 are now even more deeply embedded.  Not only have they been passed from one generation to the next. They have become baked into the structure of well, everything.  How that happened is relatively simple.  Lots of practice.

Of all the things I’ve ever written, a line published for the first time in 1969 is the most frequently quoted to this day, “The reason the U.S. is in Viet Nam is because the U.S. is in California.”  Meaning that territorial expansion and control is the US. way of life.

In expanding from sea to shining sea and beyond, that project has created many intersecting subsystems.  Those systems include the lens through which we are all taught to view the world and the place of the U.S. in that world. The colonialization of our minds as Frantz Fanon, James Baldwin and others have described it.  I call it the white way of thinking.

For our purposes here, three examples are illustrative. Militarism, immigration and the never-ending thirst for racialized control of who can do what where.


As to militarism, I have written here about the Culture of Violence in which we swim.  It’s impossible to overstate how much the military is embedded in our economy, politics and culture.  So, I won’t. I’ll just ask that instead of ignoring it please be on the lookout for how it shows up.

Where to start? Here are a few prompts.  Sporting events, advertising, the resumes of political candidates, most of the national holidays, parking and other special privileges for veterans, the military budget, parades of all kinds, obituaries…pretty much everywhere.  Other societies are not like this.


In 2016 Trump came down the escalator to talk about immigration. Not just any immigration.  A surge from the South.  He did not propose building a wall at the Canadian border.

In Mexico, there is a joke that Mexico will willingly build a border wall AND pay for it.  Under one condition.  That it’s built at the border in place prior to the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe.  Which would necessitate the return of California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, most of Arizona and Colorado, and parts of Oklahoma, Kansas, and Wyoming to Mexican sovereignty.

Taking land and people away from Mexico by force was considered a great national achievement.  An essential building block in the sea-to-shining-sea project.  But when refugees from Mexico or other Southern hemisphere nations enter the U.S. in large numbers of their own volition?  That’s a crisis.

Why? Because it’s one of several factors contributing to white people having a panic over the loss of white people’s habitat.  That’s a topic for discussion in its own right.  For now, suffice to say Empire of Borders: The Expansion of the U.S. Border Around the World by Todd Miller and NOT A Nation of Immigrants by Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz are indispensable reading.

The Sundown Town way of thinking

I live in a Sundown Town.  It’s an overwhelmingly white suburb of Detroit.  In truth, most white people live in Sundown Towns, whether it was ever formalized as such or not.  For those unfamiliar with the term, it refers to cities that by legislation and/or practice limit the movement of people of color, most often Black people after 6PM.

At its core white hierarchy is about control over space and place.  You can go to this school, not that one. Or no school at all.  It’s up to us not you.

You can sit in the back of the bus, not the front.   You can walk or drive or jog on this street if we say so.  If we say no, your life and liberty are at risk.  You can hold this position in our company but not a higher one.  You can buy a house in this city but not these suburbs.  You could get a mortgage if you live in this zip code but alas, not the one you actually live in.

If the Declaration of Independence wasn’t about the control of space and place, then just what was it about?  Read it. Not just the preamble, the whole thing.  I think you’ll see what I’m talking about.

OK, so this is who are.  Is it who we must be forever?

Of those readers who have made it this far, many are probably thinking, but you left out all the good things.  This isn’t who we are—or not all of it anyway.  What about all the progress?  Women can vote now.  Barack Obama was President for two terms.  Millions have enjoyed good incomes, homeownership, college for their children, vacations and other nice things.  Our diversity has given us food options better than any other nation on earth.  We have lots of sports teams and other forms of entertainment. Surely the glass is more than half full.

Oh, and what about all the other nation states that are worse than the U.S. you ask.  Shouldn’t we take comfort in that?  (What those might be is its own conversation.)

Further there is no denying that support for various versions of the status quo is deep and broad. Also strong is the belief that Another World is definitely NOT possible.  Most U.S. Americans believe that There Is No Alternative. I get it.

Part Two will examine whether and how to get past all of that. 

Frank Joyce is a lifelong Detroit based activist and writer. He is a former Communications Director of the UAW. He and Karin Aguilar-San Juan co-edited, The People Make the Peace: Lessons from the Vietnam Anti-War Movement.