Red dots cover the faces of all the men who enslaved people in John Trumbull’s painting “Declaration of Independence” (1818) (collage by Arlen Parsa)

John Trumbull’s painting “Declaration of Independence,” which hangs in the rotunda of the US Capitol, commemorates the document that freed the United States, formerly the 13 British colonies, from European rule in 1776. The concept of freedom, though, was severely limited: slavery was only abolished nearly a century later, and its reverberations of racist violence and mass incarceration subjugate Black people to this day.

In a poignant illustration of this hypocrisy, Arlen Parsa, a Chicago-based documentary filmmaker, covered the faces of every enslaver in the painting with a red circle: a 34 out of the 47 men pictured, most of whom were signers of the Declaration. (The fact-checking website PolitiFact has corroborated Parsa’s count.)

“There’s a fundamental irony that these men were triumphantly declaring themselves free from what they viewed as the tyranny of King George III — without so much as a thought toward the people who they themselves held in chains much more brutal than 18th-century British taxes,” Parsa told Hyperallergic.

He was inspired to create the image in August 2019, a bloody month that saw 53 people die in mass shootings in the US. Seeking to challenge arguments by gun rights advocates, who continue to invoke the Second Amendment and the unswerving authority of the Constitution, he decided to “portray the Founders in a light that made it easier to question their judgment.”

Out of the five-man committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence, depicted in Trumbull’s painting handing John Hancock an early copy, only two — John Adams and Roger Sherman — did not own enslaved people. Robert Livingston, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin were all enslavers (as was Hancock).

“There were no gentle slaveholders,” says Parsa. “Countless children were born into slavery and died after a relatively short lifespan never knowing freedom for even a minute. Jefferson, a man instrumental in creating the Declaration of Independence, held over 600 men, women, and children, in chains for his own profit. He freed less than 10, passing the rest on to his daughter as inheritance. Every telling of his story that sidelines or excuses the brutality for profit at Monticello dishonors the people who lived and died as Jefferson’s prisoners.”

Parsa later created another collage of the painting, marking the men who later freed the people they enslaved with yellow dots. Does highlighting the figures who were not enslavers put them on an undeserved pedestal, given their likely participation in many other racist practices? Parsa believes that we can focus on one without losing sight of the other.

“When I read about Declaration signers like John Adams who lawyered on behalf of enslaved people trying to free them in court, it’s a reminder that many white people at the time absolutely did view slavery as loathsome. That puts a lie to the notion that ‘nobody knew any better back then,’” he said, citing a common argument made by defenders of historical slavery.

“If we’re looking for historical figures with which to replace statues that are coming down these days, we should certainly consider people like Adams,” Parsa believes. “For that matter, have you ever seen a statue of an enslaved person? I haven’t, and that feels like a problem. But it’s a fixable one.”

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Valentina Di Liscia

Valentina Di Liscia is Co-Editor of News at Hyperallergic. Originally from Argentina, she studied at the University of Chicago and is currently working on her MA at Hunter College, where she received the...

8 replies on “Historical Painting Is Altered to Show Most Declaration of Independence Signatories Were Enslavers”

  1. It’s an interesting and telling image. Sometimes forgotten that a lot of people in Britain didn’t like George III very much either, and supported the American cause. But as Samuel Johnson, the famous London writer and dictionary compiler observed in the 1770s, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from among the drivers of the negroes?”

    1. Yes and if you have seen early versions of the Declaration of Independence, you know that the original draft indeed forbade slavery. That section was cut. Worst revision ever made. It kills me that we were so close.

  2. I applaud Parsa for turning the painting into a thought provoking infographic. I also agree it’s long past time we view our history through clearer eyes. A slave memorial is needed, for sure.

  3. The more you look into the slave trade, the more you realize not only are these white men culpable, but so were white men in Europe, and especially the Vatican. What is amazing to me is that the signers of The Declaration Of Independence created a form of government that could CHANGE for the better, albeit agonizingly slow. I hope everyone reading this VOTES this November. No excuses.

    1. This points out the moral failings of individuals. It does denigrate the collective accomplishment. I think your feeling some White frailty.

  4. Systems of servitude and slavery were common in parts of Africa in ancient times, as they were in much of the rest of the ancient world. When the Arab slave trade (which started in the 7th century) and Atlantic slave trade (which started in the 16th century) began, many of the pre-existing local African slave systems began supplying captives for slave markets outside Africa.

    Slavery in historical Africa was practiced in many different forms: Debt slavery, enslavement of war captives, military slavery, slavery for prostitution, and criminal slavery were all practiced in various parts of Africa. Slavery for domestic and court purposes was widespread throughout Africa. Plantation slavery also occurred, primarily on the eastern coast of Africa and in parts of West Africa.

    from Wikipedia “Slavery in Africa”

    The word “Slavery” is from “Slav”. the oldest written history of the Slavs can be shortly summarized – myriads of slave hunts and the enthrallment of entire peoples. The Slav was the most prized of human goods. With increased strength outside his marshy land of origin, hardened to the utmost against all privation, industrious, content with little, good-humored, and cheerful he filled the slave markets of Europe, Asia, and Africa.

    from online Etymology Dictionary

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