Of course, I know that Europeans targeted the native peoples of this continent and that the United States, like all countries, exists on land that was largely stolen or taken through force. But I went to bed unsettled, perhaps irrationally, to find these fighting words against American Indians framed in this founding document of America.
I woke up and read the text. This aggressive phrase appears in the litany of grievances against "the present King of Great Britain" for his "history of repeated injuries and usurpations". In this long rant we find the following complaint against the king:
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 undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.
England certainly had turned Indians against the American rebels, but the context was frontier warfare, where everyone more or less constantly played everybody against everybody else, in an ever-shifting scrum of allegiances and aggressions. This document of legal advocacy on behalf of the American revolution was not the place to be fair to the king - or to the Indian people caught in the crossfire. And, if you are trying to make the king look bad for turning the Indians against you, then the worse the Indians look, the worse the king looks for turning them against you.
I was left thinking about the Indian's side of the story. I wrote a book in the early '90s that features a Mohawk Indian ironworker I met in Cheyenne, Wyoming. To flesh out what little I learned about this man in our brief time together, I did bookwork on the Mohawk. That was when I encountered the tradition among the Iroquois, a confederacy that included the Mohawk, describing George Washington as the "Town Destroyer".
Washington didn't write The Declaration of Independence, of course. He didn't even sign it, though he had it read to his troups in New York on July 9, 1776 to rile up the men and recruit more militants. It's safe to say Washington concurred with this brutal depiction of Indians, accepting it either as true or as effective rhetoric, given the revolutionary situation at hand - it was time to make people mad enough to pick up the gun and go.
Did Washington deserve the moniker of "Town Destroyer," any more than the Native peoples deserved Jefferson's characterization of them as "merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare, is undistinguished destruction"?
Actually, what we have here is a description of frontier guerilla warfare, according to a history book I pulled from my library shelf this morning, The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca by Anthony F.C. Wallace. According to Wallace, everyone on the frontier knew the brutal rules of this scorched-earth game and was capable of playing by those rules when it suited the military objective at hand (or the degree of abject anger and desperation).
Washington earned his reputation as "Town Destroyer" largely by proxy, in the depradations in Indian country wrought by General John Sullivan and his troups in their expedition against the Tories and Iroquois. But Sullivan and his men were only acting under orders - orders issues unmistakably by Washington on May 31, 1779:
The Expedition you are appointed to command is to be directed against the hostile tribes of the Six Nations of Indians, with their associates and adherents. The immediate objects are the total destruction and devastation of their settlements, and the capture of as many prisoners of every age and sex as possible. It will be essential to ruin their crops now in the ground and prevent their planting more.
I would recommend, that some post in the center of the Indian Country, should be occupied with all expedition, with a sufficient quantity of provisions whence parties should be detached to lay waste all the settlements around, with instructions to do it in the most effectual manner, that the country may not be merely overrun, but destroyed.
But you will not by any means listen to any overture of peace before the total ruinment of their settlements is effected. Our future security will be in their inability to injure us and in the terror with which the severity of the chastisement they receive will inspire them
The language all but quotes Jefferson's description of "merciless savages" in The Declaration, but in this case Washington is directing American rebel troups to conduct themselves in this way.
It is particularly important to note that final strategic direction regarding "the terror" such a brutal campaign would strike in the hearts of the adversaries. The United States of 2009 is rational to safeguard and target terrorist tactics directed against the nation state, but the revolutionaries of 1779 created the United States itself through desperate acts of terrorism.
Charles Willson Peale's portrait of Washington in the field ca. 1779 from The Metropolitan Museum of Art.