Caveats to Celebration of the American Declaration of Independence

United_States_Declaration_of_IndependenceJuly 4, 1776, is a treasured date in American history with the Continental Congress’ adoption of the Declaration of Independence. It stirringly says, “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.”

The creation and adoption of this document deserves the annual celebration it receives in the United States of America and around the world.

There, however, should be caveats to that celebration.

First, as others have pointed out, the Declaration did not condemn slavery which is not surprising since there were many slaves in the colonies.

Moreover, as Robert G. Parkinson, Assistant Professor of History at Binghamton University, argues, the failure to condemn slavery was no accident.[1]

First, the draft of the Declaration by Thomas Jefferson, a slave owner himself, contained an attack on King George III for imposing slavery on the colonists, but those words were deleted in the final document by the Continental Congress.

Second, the Declaration’s lengthy bill of particulars against the King that justified the colonists’ declaration of independence ended with these words:

  • “He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored 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.” (Emphasis added.)

According to Parkinson, “in the context of the 18th century, ‘domestic insurrections’ refers to rebellious slaves.” This provision in the bill of particulars was inserted, says Parkinson, “because in the 15 months between the Battles of Lexington and Concord and independence, reports about the role African-Americans and Indians would play in the coming conflict was the most widely discussed news. And British officials all over North America did seek the aid of slaves and Indians to quell the rebellion.”[2]

Important in this “inciting” of “domestic insurrections” was the November 14, 1775, proclamation by the Royal Governor of the Colony of Virginia offering freedom to slaves who would leave their masters and join the British side. Although only an estimated 800 slaves immediately joined the British in Virginia as a result of this Proclamation, eventually as many as 30,000 slaves throughout the colonies did so and worked as soldiers, laborers, pilots, cooks, and musicians for the British.[3]

After the end of the American Revolutionary War in 1783, the British evacuated all of their personnel from Manhattan plus 3,000 former black slaves or Black Loyalists who were listed in “The Book of Negroes.”[4]

Parkinson’s fascinating article has created another project for me: reading his book, “The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution” (2016); re-reading Pauline Maier’s book, “American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence” (1997); and writing blog posts to summarize the results of this and other additional research.

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[1] Parkinson, Did a Fear of Slave Revolts Drive American Independence?, N.Y. Times (July 4, 2016).

[2] The Fate of Black British Loyalists in the American Revolutionary War, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 19, 2013).

[3] Ibid.

[4] The American Revolutionary War’s End in New York City, 1783, dwkcommentaries.com (Oct. 14, 2012); The Fate of Black British Loyalists in the American Revolutionary War, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 19, 2013). The historical “Book of Negroes” became an inspiration for a novel with the same name (in Canada (but “Someone Knows My Name” in the U.S.) by Canadian author, Lawrence Hill. (The Black British Loyalists Through the Eyes of Novelist Lawrence Hill, dwkcommentaries.com Feb. 21, 2013): Further Reflections on “The Book of Negroes” Novel, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 23, 2013).)

The American Revolutionary War’s Battle of Bunker Hill, June 17, 1775

The American Revolutionary War with Great Britain started on April 19, 1775, with fighting in Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts. Immediately thereafter, the colonists commenced a siege of the town of Boston, where the British troops were quartered. For nearly the first two months of the siege, there were only minor skirmishes between the two forces as the British soldiers were confined within Boston.

The British, however, wanted to break out of their confinement and to protect Boston against colonial attacks from the hills overlooking the town.[1]

On May 25th, the immediate events leading to the Battle of Bunker Hill commenced. On that date British generals began developing a plan to break out and protect Boston from attack from the adjacent hills. On June 12th they finalized a plan to take the Boston and Dorchester Necks (narrow strips of land separately connecting the town of Boston and Dorchester Heights to the mainland), fortify the Dorchester Heights to the southeast of the town and then attack the colonial forces stationed in Roxbury to the south of the town.

Boston map 1775
Map of Charleston & Breed’s & Bunker HIlls, 1775

Once the British southern flank had been secured, the British plan called for having troops cross the Harbor north of the town to take the two hills behind the town of Charlestown (Breed’s Hill, 62 feet above sea level, and Bunker Hill,110 feet above sea level). These hills overlooked both Boston and its harbor and thus were critical vantage points. Assuming these objectives were secured, the plan was then to attack the colonial forces in Cambridge. The British attack was set for June 18th.

On June 13th (the day after these plans were finalized), however, the colonial forces received intelligence about the plans. As a result, the colonials decided that additional defenses needed to be erected on the Charlestown Peninsula, specifically on Bunker Hill. After a prayer service led by Harvard College President Langdon, 1,200 colonial troops In the dark of the night on June 16th stealthily occupied Bunker Hill and the adjacent lower Breed’s Hill. They constructed an earthen redoubt or wall on Breed’s Hill (not Bunker Hill), probably because Breed’s Hill was closer to where the British ships were positioned allowing the colonists a better attacking position than at Bunker Hill. That night the colonists  also built lightly fortified lines across most of the Charlestown Peninsula.

At sunrise the next day (June 17) the British were surprised to discover the new colonial positions on the two hills, and some of the British ships in the Harbor started shelling those positions with little effect. Although Bunker Hill was the original objective of both British and colonial troops and is the name of the battle, most of the actual fighting later that day took place on the shorter hill closer to the Harbor (Breed’s Hill).

British 1st assault,  Breed’s Hill
British 1st assault,         Breed’s Hill (H. Pyle)

The initial British attack did not take place until after 3:00 that afternoon due to a shortage of boats to bring the British troops from Boston, poor navigational maps and tides. They landed east of the town of Charleston. When colonial snipers began firing, the British had the town set afire by cannon shots from their ships. The British continued their assault. The British just expected to march up the hill and scare the colonists away. The British troops advanced with bayonets fixed; many of their muskets were not even loaded. The British troops, wearing their bright red wool jackets and weighed down by heavy equipment, marched up hill over farm fields and low stone walls hidden in the tall grass.

As the colonists saw this massive red line approach slowly and steadily, they remained calm and did not open fire. Once the British came within range, the colonists began firing, and the British soldiers started to fall rapidly. This resistance and resulting casualties forced the British to retreat.

British 2nd assault, Breed’s Hill
British 3rd assault, Breed’s Hill

The British immediately regrouped and started a second assault. Again they suffered heavy casualties and retreated.

The third assault, however, was successful with the British taking control of both hills. The colonial troops were running out of ammunition and were forced to retreat to Cambridge, suffering their most significant losses on Bunker Hill.This assault and the Battle were over by approximately 6:00 p.m.

While the result was a victory for the British, they suffered heavy losses: 828 wounded and 226 killed (nearly a third of the deployed forces of 3,000), including a notably large number of officers. The battle is seen as an example of a Pyrrhic victory because the immediate gain (the capture of Bunker Hill) was modest and did not significantly change the state of the siege, while the cost was high. Meanwhile, colonial forces were able to retreat and regroup in good order, having suffered few casualties (115 wounded and 305 killed). Furthermore, the battle demonstrated that relatively inexperienced colonial forces were willing and able to stand up to regular army troops.

Perley Brown (my maternal fifth great-grandfather) and three of his brothers–John, Benjamin and William Brown–were members of the colonial forces at the Battle of Bunker Hill.[2]

Their regiment left their camp in Cambridge around noon that day and for unknown reasons halted about an hour at Lechmere Point (near the eastern edge of present-day Cambridge). When they arrived later at the northern base of Bunker Hill, they were met by a man who said that additional troops had been ordered to halt. But the regiment’s commander said those were “Tory orders” and instead ordered the men to follow him into combat. They actually arrived at the hostilities just before the colonial retreat was ordered at the end of the battle.

During the colonial retreat, John Brown was shot in the left thigh near the bone and in his right heel, rendering him unable to walk. The regiment’s captain took Brown under one arm and their two muskets under the other and moved Brown out of immediate danger. The captain then found Brown’s brother, Perley Brown (my maternal fifth great-grandfather), who carried John the rest of the way to safety.

John was unable to go to a hospital or home and remained at a nearby residence to recuperate. That October he finally was able to return home to Leicester, Massachusetts. In April 1777 the Massachusetts legislature granted him a pension of 20 shillings per month for his disability, and in 1786 the new nation awarded him a pension. He died in 1821 at the age of 87.

As I was researching for this post, I had three unanswered questions. First, why did the British not execute their plan to take control of the Dorchester Heights? Second, given the obvious strategic importance of Breed’s and Bunker Hills, why had the colonists not constructed fortifications before June 16th and why had they not stationed troops there? Third, given that same strategic importance, why did the British not maintain their victorious positions on the two hills? I would greatly appreciate comments with answers to these questions and any corrections to the above account of the Battle of Bunker Hill.


[1] E.g., T. Harry Williams, Richard N. Current & Frenk Freidel, A History of the United States [To 1876], at 150 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf 1959); Henry Steele Commager & Richard B. Morris, The Spirit of ‘Seventy-Six: The Story of the American Revolution as Told by Participants, Ch. Four (New York: Harper & Row, 1967) (collection of original documents).

[2] Carol Willits Brown, William Brown–English Immigrant of Hatfield and Leicester, Massachusetts, and His Descendants c. 1669-1994 at 6, 11-27, 31-41, 50 (Gateway Press; Baltimore, MD 1994); Emory Washburn, Topographical and historical sketches of the town of Leicesterin the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (1826); Emory Washburn, Historical sketches of the town of Leicester, Massachusetts, during the first century from its settlement (1860.