It is important to note the significant influence of John Locke on the words Thomas Jefferson used in the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson’s discussion of the laws of nature, natural rights, and the usurpation of power and tyranny that Jefferson ascribes to the King of England are all thoroughly Lockean in content. The language of the “pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness” is grounded in Locke’s thought about the natural rights of “men,” and more specifically, the natural rights of white men. The Lockean/Jefferson notion that “all men are created equal” meant “all white men” were created equal while women, people of color, and indigenous people were not included.
This Lockean influence on the Declaration of Independence is a well-known fact, and it is one of the reasons that Locke has often been given the title “the philosopher king of America.” What is less known is that Locke’s influence on Jefferson’s words codifies Locke’s racist justification for the genocide of indigenous people into this founding document of the United States.
For Locke, central to the pursuif of happiness is the pursuit of property, and Locke believed that property is acquired by “men” mixing their labor with nature and thereby infusing value into nature through labor. This increase in value that comes from labor gives the one who mixes their labor with nature the right of ownership or property rights. The bit of nature with which their labor has been mixed is now theirs because of the value they have brought to it.
This notion of property may seem harmless enough at first glance, but the pernicious part of this concept becomes painfully apparent when we see Locke justify the taking away of land of indigenous people on the premise that the indigenous people are wasting the land by not properly mixing their labor with it. Since Locke judges that the indigenous people are not mixing their labor with the land, he concludes that the land is therefore not their property and can justifiably be taken from them.
This view of indigenous people makes it way into the Declaration of Independence into two of the many grievances expressed in relation to the King of Great Britain that read:
“He 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.”
Two things become apparent here – 1) the Declaration expresses displeasure with the conditions being placed by Great Britain on the colonies concerning the taking away of more land from indigenous persons, and 2) the Declaration clearly does not include indigenous people as being created equal to white men.
The great tragedy of this is that the United States would prove to be much more ruthless and genocidal in its relation to indigenous people than even Great Britain was. The successful violent revolution against Great Britain by the United States removed what few constraints there were against the implementation of an all out genocide of indigenous persons, and when those constraints were removed, the United States did not delay in its murderous expansion westward through the literal hunting of indigenous persons by murderers for hire, forced removals, broken treaties, and cultural genocide.
When this fact is taken together with that fact that Great Britain ended its practice of enslaving persons in 1834 as compared to 1865 in the United States, the Declaration of Independence and the Revolutionary War perpetuated the slavery of millions of persons of color for decades longer than likely would have been the case under Great Britain, and it greatly accelerated the genocide of indigenous persons. From the point of view of human rights for persons of color and indigenous people, the events that followed the signing of the Declaration of Independence led to some of the most evil actions in the history of humankind and are not worthy of celebration, but rather call for a Declaration of Repentance.