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.”