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The Founding of Our Nation

Updated: Aug 13

This post was written by a member of our Equity Committee, originally shared internally with staff in early July. It is part of our new ongoing series of sharing reflections from the Equity Team.


Having just added Juneteenth to our holiday schedule and then taken a long week-end to celebrate the 4th of July, I’ve been examining more deeply the conversations, debates and documents, including the Declaration of Independence, that were part of the founding of this nation. I encourage each of you to take the time to either read the Declaration of Independence, or listen to it being read aloud.  As you read or listen, ask yourself the question - whose independence are we celebrating and who is left out?


Below are some additional details regarding some of the foundational conversations and documents from the formation of the United States of America that are worth deeper examination given the current state of our nation.

Indigenous people – excerpt from The Dilemma of the Fourth of July by Mark Charles (Dine'):

The other day I was eating dinner with my wife in a restaurant located in Gallup New Mexico, a border town to the Navajo reservation. Gallup was recently named “Most Patriotic Small Town” in a nationwide contest. Soon after sitting down I noticed that we were seated at a table directly facing a framed poster of the Declaration of Independence.
The irony almost made me laugh.
When our server, who was also native, came to the table, I asked if I could show him something. I then stood up and pointed out that 30 lines below the famous quote “All men are created equal” the Declaration of Independence refers to Natives as “merciless Indian savages.”
The server was concerned that I might be upset so after our dinner the manager of the restaurant came to our table and asked if everything was OK. I showed her the quote and assured her that I was not trying to cause problems. After more than a decade of living on the Navajo Nation, I have become used to such offenses when I travel outside of our reservation. After the manager left, I noticed that another Native couple seated near us had taken interest in our conversation. So I invited them over and showed them the same offensive line hanging over our table. They were astounded that throughout their entire education they were never told the Declaration referred to Natives in such a way.
If the poster had labeled any other group of people as “savage,” or if the source of the words was anything else besides one of our country’s founding documents, the restaurant in question would have long ago been sued and the parties responsible for hanging the poster most likely disciplined. But because the targeted group was Natives, the source was the Declaration of Independence and the responsibility for hanging the poster belonged to the restaurant’s national corporate offices; not only is the poster still hanging today, but on July 4th the entire nation will celebrate the message of this poster and the signing of this Declaration. For we have declared it a national holiday complete with fireworks, parades and speeches.
This is the dilemma that Native ‘Americans’ face every day. The foundations of the United States of America are blatantly unjust. This land was stolen. Native peoples, Africans and many other minority communities have long been recipients of systemic racism. And the roots of it are right there for the entire world to see, printed in many of our founding documents; like the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and United States Supreme Court case rulings.
We announce it. We flaunt it. We celebrate it.
But the reality is that the United States of America exists because this land was colonized by Europeans who used a Doctrine of Discovery to dehumanize, steal from, enslave and even commit cultural genocide against indigenous peoples from both the “New World” and Africa.
On days like Columbus Day, Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July, the United States of America celebrates its history. But a majority of our citizens celebrate in ignorance. After traveling throughout the country and educating audiences on the Doctrine of Discovery and its influence on our nation, I would estimate that less than 3% of Americans know this history or understand its impact on the current-day situation of Native peoples.
As a nation, the United States of America does not share a common memory, and therefore struggles to have true community.
So this Fourth of July I invite every American to start their day by learning about the Doctrine of Discovery. Allowing the reality of the dehumanizing nature of this doctrine to temper your celebrations.
You can still light your fireworks and eat your BBQ as you celebrate a hard fought victory over the British. But at the end of the day, I humbly ask you to conclude your celebrations with the following prayer.
“May God have mercy on the United States of America and give us the courage necessary to create a common memory.”

Black people:

July 4 is an appropriate time to remember Frederick Douglass' famous 1852 speech, "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?" The speech is—for good reason—most famous for its powerful condemnation of slavery, racism, and American hypocrisy. But it also includes passages praising the American Revolution and the Founding Fathers.  Both are worth remembering. Here is, perhaps, the best-known part of the speech:

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.

And there is much more material of the same kind in the speech, ranging from a denunciation of the internal slave trade, to an attack on the then-recent Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. The key point is that slavery and racism made a mockery of America's professed ideals of liberty and equality. And, sadly, that legacy is far from fully overcome even today.


The Declaration of Independence claims that “all men are created equal” and nearly half of the 56 signers were enslaver, and it took another 90 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence to end slavery.

The Framing of the US Constitution, starts with the preamble that most of us can recite:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

It's helpful to examine the underlying questions and debates that occurred as this document was being written. One of the most important questions that arose in the Constitutional Convention was the question of representation – how would the states be represented in the new congress. The three largest states (Virginia, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts) wanted more representation than the smaller states (Rhode Island and Delaware). Virginia proposed proportional representation either on the basis of population or wealth, eventually focusing on population in the House, with equal representation in the Senate. Another critical question was apportionment of taxation among the states.

When states could not agree on how to count enslaved people, James Madison suggested that the slave population be counted at 60% for both representation and taxation, which resulted in what’s known as the “federal ratio:”

Federal ratio refers to a settlement set forth by congress to deal with the issue of counting slaves towards population in regards to representation in the House of Representatives. The U.S. constitution provides that the members of lower house of congress shall be proportioned to the free inhabitants of the state they represent, except that in each state, three-fifth of the slave population shall be for this purpose considered as free inhabitants. Thus, according to federal ratio, one slave will count for 3/5 of a free man when counting population for seats by state in the house.

This concept of “federal ratio” was then incorporated into Article I, Section 2 of the US Constitution:

Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons. 

During the debate about representation, Southerners wanted enslave individuals counted in the population, which would advantage them as heavy enslavers. Northerners took the position that enslaved people should not be counted because they were property, which would advantage the North and result in lower levels of representation for the Southerners.

When the debate turned to taxation, Southerners took the position that enslaved individuals should not be counted because they were property, which would result in the Southern states owing less tax. Now the Northerners states argue that enslaved people should be counted in the population, which would shift more tax off the northern states and onto the southern states. Each side argued the position that suited the economic interest of those in power (primarily white, property owning men) and not on the basis of humanity and the idea that “all men are created equal”. This resulted in the three-fifths clause of the Constitution, which remained in force until the post-Civil War 13th Amendment freed all enslaved people in the United States, the 14th amendment gave them full citizenship, and the 15th Amendment granted black men the right to vote.

Women:

Have you heard of the Declaration of Sentiments? The Declaration of Sentiments was written at the first women’s rights convention held in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. Organized by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, and other women’s rights and anti-slavery activists, the meeting attracted more than 300 participants including abolitionist Frederick Douglass.


The language in the Declaration of Sentiments was inspired by the Declaration of Independence. In proclaiming that, “we hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal,” the Declaration of Sentiments replaced colonists’ grievances against a tyrannical king with the injustices women endured. These included women’s inability to control property, stating “he has taken from her all right in property, even to the wages she earns,” as well as severely limited educational and professional opportunities and—most controversially—the right to vote.


The final copy was signed by 68 women and 32 men, many of whom were the husbands or family members of women present. Frederick Douglass, however, was not; the former slave and noted abolitionist was involved in the women’s rights movement until the movement nearly fell apart over questions about whether African-American men should have the right to vote.


It took 72 years to establish women’s rights by law—see the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920—and “even when women did gain the right to vote in 1920, women of color were largely precluded from voting by racist local laws until enforcement of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.” (source)

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