Artist calls out 'Declaration of Independence' painting, notes most men in the piece owned slaves

By putting red dots over the faces of the slave-owning signers, Arlen Parsa, a Chicago-based documentary filmmaker, decolonized John Trumbull’s painting “Declaration of Independence,” which hangs in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol.

“The founders had some great ideas like the First Amendment. But they also argued constantly, some of them hated each other, and they even had some deeply flawed ideas that we later fixed,” he told Fox News about the point of his art. “I think we need to see our founders as humans, not mythological figures. The truth is, if the founders were alive today, many of them would be viewed as the most racist people in the country. Imagine believing slavery was compatible with freedom! It’s ironic that many of the men who proudly declared their freedom from King George III did not see a problem with the fact that they held men, women, and children in chains for their own profit.”

He wanted his art to tell the truth about the story of America: “Thomas Jefferson held as many as 600 or 700 enslaved people. He freed less than a dozen, giving the rest to family members as their inheritance. It’s easy to question the founders’ wisdom on slavery because it’s clear many of them were deeply wrong.”

Putting red dots over the faces of the slave-owning signers, Arlen Parsa, a Chicago-based documentary filmmaker, decolonized John Trumbull’s painting “Declaration of Independence,” which hangs in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol.

Putting red dots over the faces of the slave-owning signers, Arlen Parsa, a Chicago-based documentary filmmaker, decolonized John Trumbull’s painting “Declaration of Independence,” which hangs in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol.

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A total of 34 of the 47 men in the painting, most of whom were signers, owned slaves.

According to the Politifact, the 34 men who were found to be slaveholders were: Josiah Bartlett, Charles Carroll, Samuel Chase, Abraham Clark, George Clinton, John Dickinson, William Floyd, Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, Benjamin Harrison, Joseph Hewes, Thomas Heyward Jr., William Hooper, Stephen Hopkins, Francis Hopkinson, Thomas Jefferson, Richard Henry Lee, Francis Lewis, Philip Livingston, Robert R. Livingston, Thomas Lynch, Arthur Middleton, Lewis Morris, Robert Morris, William Paca, George Read, Benjamin Rush, Edward Rutledge, Richard Stockton, William Whipple, Thomas Willing, John Witherspoon, Oliver Wolcott and George Wythe.

The men who did not own slaves were: John Adams, Samuel Adams, George Clymer, William Ellery, Elbridge Gerry, Samuel Huntington, Thomas McKean, Robert Treat Paine, Roger Sherman, Charles Thomson, George Walton, William Williams and James Willson.

"As the men who drafted and signed the Declaration were mostly gentlemen of standing and property, it's not at all surprising that this would be the case," Princeton University history professor Sean Wilentz has noted.

Putting red dots over the faces of the slave-owning signers, Arlen Parsa, a Chicago-based documentary filmmaker, decolonized John Trumbull’s painting “Declaration of Independence,” which hangs in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. Courtesy ARLEN PARSA

Putting red dots over the faces of the slave-owning signers, Arlen Parsa, a Chicago-based documentary filmmaker, decolonized John Trumbull’s painting “Declaration of Independence,” which hangs in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. Courtesy ARLEN PARSA

Parsa, 33, told Fox News about his journey led him to make this artwork. “I grew up in a small town in New Hampshire, one of America’s original 13 colonies. In school we learned quite a bit about early American history, but I’ve come to realize that the history of slavery was definitely a blind spot. We simply didn’t learn much about it, or its place in early American history, apart from the Civil War briefly.”

He said that his curiosity outside of school helped him to see truth beyond myth.

“I studied some history in college. But much of what I’ve learned about slavery in particular has come long after my formal education ended, reading books and articles as an adult. It’s incredible the type of details that are sometimes left out of the classroom, but I’m hopeful that teachers today are reflecting on how they can teach American history in a more thoughtful, complete way. In my work as a documentary filmmaker, I’ve had to learn how to do deep research and examine subjects with a critical eye, regardless of my first impressions or what I thought I knew beforehand,” he told Fox News. “After I published the painting online, I’ve gotten emails from educators all over the place thanking me for producing a visual guide that they’re now using in their classrooms. That’s really heartening to hear, and I hope that it kickstarts some important conversations as young people today learn to view our nation’s founders as complex humans, rather than simply mythological figures.”

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He told Fox News that the future of America should be decided by communities at present, open to all parties involved.

“There is a lot of talk these days about erasing people from history, and I can’t get behind that. Instead I think we as Americans should learn more about our own history, not less," he said. "To move forward together positively in the future, I think we need to have a shared understanding of our past. And our past is certainly worth taking the time to try and understand in a complete way.”