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Presented By: The College of Literature, Science, and the Arts

Professor Gregory Dowd, the Helen Hornbeck Tanner Collegiate Professorship in American Culture and History, Inaugural Lecture

“Fake News” at the Founding of America: How Deception and Ambiguity Shaped U.S. Independence, Denigrated Native Americans, and Serve as Weapons of War

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Two iconic documents mark the achievement of formal independence for the United States: The Declaration of Independence (1776), in which the thirteen colonies manifested their determination to be free of Great Britain, and the Treaty of Paris (1783), in which the British Crown finally recognized that freedom. This paper approaches the Declaration and the treaty negotiations from the standpoint of both rumor and Native American history. The Declaration defames Native Americans. The Treaty claims vast Native lands for the United States without indigenous consent. Among the forces that produced these outcomes were deliberate anti-indigenous—and anti-British—deceptions, or hoaxes, or what we might call today “fake news.” Benjamin Franklin, signer of The Declaration and a leading treaty negotiator, understood the workings of rumor and the power of misinformation; he lied actively in his war-time efforts for the United States. This paper examines two hoaxes, one the invention of settlers in the Smoky Mountains, the other the invention of Franklin, suggesting that "fake news" helped shape the two documents. What’s more, this fake news, and its circulation, though aimed largely at the Crown, profoundly reveals the deep colonial and imperial contempt for indigeneity.

Note: The lecture quotes anti-indigenous slurs. It references a Pennsylvania militia attack on an indigenous community, arguably the greatest atrocity of the Revolutionary War.


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April 13, 2021 (Tuesday) 4:00pm
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