John Trumbull’s Famous 1818 Painting Declaration of Independence Virtually Defaced to Show Which Founding Fathers Owned Slaves

Stat­ues of slave­hold­ers and their defend­ers are falling all over the U.S., and a lot of peo­ple are dis­traught. What’s next? Mount Rush­more? Well… maybe no one’s like­ly to blow it up, but some hon­esty about the “extreme­ly racist” his­to­ry of Mount Rush­more might make one think twice about using it as a lim­it case.

On the oth­er hand, a sand­blast­ing of the enor­mous Klan mon­u­ment in Stone Moun­tain, Geor­gia—cre­at­ed ear­li­er by Rush­more sculp­tor Gut­zon Borglum—seems long over­due.

We are learn­ing a lot about the his­to­ry of these mon­u­ments and the peo­ple they rep­re­sent, more than any of us Amer­i­cans learned in our ear­ly edu­ca­tion. But we still hear the usu­al defense that slave­hold­ers were only men of their time—many were good, pious, and gen­tle and knew no bet­ter (or they ago­nized over the ques­tion but, you know, every­one was doing it….) Peo­ple sub­ject­ed to the vio­lence and hor­ror of slav­ery most­ly tend­ed to dis­agree.

Before the Hait­ian Rev­o­lu­tion ter­ri­fied the slave­hold­ing South, many promi­nent slave­hold­ers, Jef­fer­son and Wash­ing­ton includ­ed, expressed intel­lec­tu­al and moral dis­gust with slav­ery. They could not con­sid­er abo­li­tion, how­ev­er (though Wash­ing­ton freed his slaves in his will). There was too much prof­it in the enter­prise. As Jef­fer­son him­self wrote, “It [would] nev­er do to destroy the goose.”

What we see when we look at the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary peri­od is the fatal irony of a repub­lic based on ideals of lib­er­ty, found­ed most­ly by men who kept mil­lions of peo­ple enslaved. The point is made vivid­ly above in a vir­tu­al deface­ment of Dec­la­ra­tion of Inde­pen­dence, John Trumbull’s famous 1818 paint­ing which hangs in the U.S. Capi­tol rotun­da. All of the founders’ faces blot­ted out by red dots were slave­own­ers. Only the few in yel­low in the cor­re­spond­ing image freed the the peo­ple they enslaved.

These images were not made in this cur­rent sum­mer of nation­al upris­ings but in August of 2019, “a bloody month that saw 53 peo­ple die in mass shoot­ings in the US,” notes Hyper­al­ler­gic. Their cre­ator, Arlen Parsa sought to make a dif­fer­ent point about the Sec­ond Amend­ment, but wrote force­ful­ly about the founders’ enslav­ing of oth­ers. “There were no gen­tle slave­hold­ers,” writes Parsa. “Count­less chil­dren were born into slav­ery and died after a rel­a­tive­ly short lifes­pan nev­er know­ing free­dom for even a minute.” Many of those chil­dren were fathered by their own­ers.

Some found­ing fathers paid lip ser­vice to the idea of slav­ery as a blight because it was obvi­ous that kid­nap­ping and enslav­ing peo­ple con­tra­dict­ed demo­c­ra­t­ic prin­ci­ples. Slav­ery hap­pened to be the pri­ma­ry metaphor used by Enlight­en­ment philoso­phers and their colo­nial read­ers to char­ac­ter­ize the tyran­ni­cal monar­chism they opposed. The philoso­pher John Locke wrote slav­ery into the con­sti­tu­tion of the Car­oli­na colony, and prof­it­ed from it through own­ing stock in the Roy­al African Com­pa­ny. Yet by his lat­er, huge­ly influ­en­tial Two Trea­tis­es, he had come to see hered­i­tary slav­ery as “so vile and mis­er­able an estate of man… that ‘tis hard­ly to be con­ceived” that any­one could uphold it.

There were, of course, slave­hold­ing founders who resist­ed such talk and felt no com­punc­tion about how they made their mon­ey. But lofty prin­ci­ples or no, the U.S. founders were often on the defen­sive against non-slave­hold­ing col­leagues, who scold­ed and attacked them, some­times with frank ref­er­ences to the rapes of enslaved women and girls. These crit­i­cisms were so com­mon that Thomas Paine could write the case for slav­ery had been “suf­fi­cient­ly dis­proved” when he pub­lished a 1775 tract denounc­ing it and call­ing for its imme­di­ate end:

The man­agers of [the slave trade] tes­ti­fy that many of these African nations inhab­it fer­tile coun­tries, are indus­tri­ous farm­ers, enjoy plen­ty and lived qui­et­ly, averse to war, before the Euro­peans debauched them with liquors… By such wicked and inhu­man ways, the Eng­lish are said to enslave towards 100,000 year­ly, of which 30,000 are sup­posed to die by bar­barous treat­ment in the first year…

So mon­strous is the mak­ing and keep­ing them slaves at all… and the many evils attend­ing the prac­tice, [such] as sell­ing hus­bands away from wives, chil­dren from par­ents and from each oth­er, in vio­la­tion of sacred and nat­ur­al ties; and open­ing the way for adul­ter­ies, inces­ts and many shock­ing con­se­quences, for all of which the guilty mas­ters must answer to the final judge…

The chief design of this paper is not to dis­prove [slav­ery], which many have suf­fi­cient­ly done, but to entreat Amer­i­cans to con­sid­er:

With that con­sis­ten­cy… they com­plain so loud­ly of attempts to enslave them, while they hold so many hun­dred thou­sands in slav­ery and annu­al­ly enslave many thou­sands more, with­out any pre­tence of author­i­ty or claim upon them.

Jef­fer­son squared his the­o­ry of lib­er­ty with his prac­tice of slav­ery by pick­ing up the fad of sci­en­tif­ic racism sweep­ing Europe at the time, in which philoso­phers who prof­it­ed, or whose patrons and nations prof­it­ed, from the slave trade began to coin­ci­den­tal­ly dis­cov­er evi­dence that enslav­ing Africans was only nat­ur­al. We should know by now what hap­pens when racism guides sci­ence.…

Maybe turn­ing those who will­ful­ly per­pet­u­at­ed the country’s most intractable, damn­ing crime against human­i­ty into civic saints no longer serves the U.S., if it ever did. Maybe ele­vat­ing the founders to the sta­tus of reli­gious fig­ures has pro­duced a wide­spread his­tor­i­cal igno­rance and a very spe­cif­ic kind of nation­al­ism that are no longer ten­able. Younger and future gen­er­a­tions will set­tle these ques­tions their own way, as they sort through the mess their elders have left them. As Locke also argued, in a para­phrase from Amer­i­can His­to­ry pro­fes­sor Hol­ly Brew­er, “peo­ple do not have to obey a gov­ern­ment that no longer pro­tects them, and the con­sent of an ances­tor does not bind the descen­dants: each gen­er­a­tion must con­sent for itself.”

via Hyper­al­ler­gic

Relat­ed Con­tent:

What the Text­books Don’t Tell Us About The Atlantic Slave Trade: An Ani­mat­ed Video Fills In His­tor­i­cal Gaps

The Names of 1.8 Mil­lion Eman­ci­pat­ed Slaves Are Now Search­able in the World’s Largest Genealog­i­cal Data­base, Help­ing African Amer­i­cans Find Lost Ances­tors

The Atlantic Slave Trade Visu­al­ized in Two Min­utes: 10 Mil­lion Lives, 20,000 Voy­ages, Over 315 Years

The “Slave Bible” Removed Key Bib­li­cal Pas­sages In Order to Legit­imize Slav­ery & Dis­cour­age a Slave Rebel­lion (1807)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (11)
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  • Josh Jones says:

    Updat­ed the text, thank you for point­ing out the error

  • Al says:

    Why are there no alt tags on your images?

  • CK says:

    Amer­i­can prin­ci­ples are like reli­gious prin­ci­ples. We all fall short of per­fec­tion. The ideals are to strive for, to keep work­ing toward. We can crit­i­cize oth­ers’ falling short while under­stand­ing that the future will per­ceive us as unevolved for our eth­i­cal short­com­ings we can­not yet see. The prop­er stan­dards by which to judge peo­ple are the best stan­dards that were avail­able to them at the time. To say these peo­ple knew slav­ery was an abom­i­na­tion and con­tin­ued to prac­tice it when it was ubiq­ui­tous is like say­ing we know that fac­to­ry farm­ing is wrong but we con­tin­ue to con­sume meat from ani­mals raised inhu­mane­ly or we know that tobac­co caus­es 480,000 deaths each years in the USA and alco­hol caus­es 88,000, yet we con­tin­ue to pur­vey both sub­stances. “Respect for the past, with its con­comi­tant humil­i­ty, curios­i­ty, and even wonder…enables us to see beyond our present-day con­cerns back­ward and for­ward at the same time. We are all caught up in the rip­ples of time, and we have no idea of where they are head­ed.”…/may-2002/a­gainst-pre­sen­tism

  • Kathy says:

    What are the num­bers?

    How many owned slaves?

    Did 8 peo­ple free their slaves?

    How many nev­er owned slaves?


  • Josh Jones says:

    Find a key to the paint­ing here with links to each per­son rep­re­sent­ed here:

  • Dennis says:

    Stick to music. Com­ing from a his­to­ry major, this writ­ing is garbage. Every coun­try in the world prac­ticed slav­ery, includ­ing indi­an nations, here in amer­i­ca. When they got togeth­er to declare our inde­pen­dence, they had 13 sep­a­rate colonies they had to make sure every­one stood togeth­er to defeat the king. Most of them did­nt want slav­ery, but could­n’t ban it right away, because it would have split the 13 colonies. So they did­n’t men­tion it, due to that. How­ev­er, if you noticed our dec­la­ra­tion of inde­pen­dence says… ALL MEN WERE CREATED EQUAL, was placed because they knew that slav­ery would be abol­ished some­day. All wealthy peo­ple owned slaves back then. And they did­nt kid­nap any­one. African tribes raid­ed oth­er African tribes and sold them to Euro­peans. If you ever wan­na learn some­thing, email me. But i doubt you care to have a mean­ing­ful con­ver­sa­tion.

  • Frank D Berry Jr says:

    Per­ish the thought we accept human cul­ture as it exist­ed at the time, and cel­e­brate the achieve­ment that cre­at­ed (over time) an entire­ly eth­i­cal par­a­digm.

  • OC says:


    Must be eas­i­er to sleep at night when you live in your white­washed real­i­ty.


  • EM says:

    Every human of every races have short­com­ings. if we just con­cen­trate on the short­com­ings were will that lead us? Unfor­tu­nate­ly we are about to find out.

  • Charles B Hall says:

    To be fair, some states did not allow man­u­mis­sion at that time. For exam­ple it was impos­si­ble in Vir­ginia until 1782. How­ev­er, Jef­fer­son did not take advan­tage of that change in the law and only freed a few of the peo­ple he owned in his will. Nor did very many oth­ers. George Wash­ing­ton’s will pro­vid­ed for free­dom for all of the peo­ple he owned.

    The two peo­ple stand­ing in the fore­ground who did not have red dots were John Adams and Roger Sher­man.

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