I wrote a piece a couple of weeks ago about the long history of slavery around the world, since the “1619 Project” pointedly ignored this history.
My argument was that, no matter how horrific slavery was on these shores, it’s a mistake to say that we were exceptional because of slavery.
I was struck by a tweet in response by Nikole Hannah-Jones, the lead essayist of the 1619 edition of the New York Times magazine, who first said I had conceded that America wasn’t exceptional:
Then, in literally the next tweet in her thread, she said those other societies didn’t have our ideals. One would think that would make those ideals, rather than slavery, rather obviously a key source of our exceptionalism. But she concludes the opposite:
With these tweets, she covers all her bases: What we had in common with other societies, namely, slavery, means we weren’t exceptional. And what made us distinct from other societies, namely our ideals, was about slavery, too.
As in the old story about the turtle holding the world on its back, it is slavery all the way down.
There are all sorts of things you can reasonably say about the juxtaposition of our ideals and slavery — that our founders were conflicted and hypocritical; that our ideals were incompletely realized and would remain so for a very long time, stretching deep into the 20th century; that our compromise with slavery significantly vitiated the force of our founding principles.
But to portray the American experiment as all about slavery is perverse. The influence of this twisted view appears in the distortions, both subtle and blatant, in the 1619 essay by Hannah-Jones.
It’s worth delving into these in some detail. They reveal what makes the 1619 project not just an an effort to shine a light on a terrible part of our past but a much more ambitious, ideologically driven attempt to redefine our history.
There is much truth in the Hannah-Jones essay, and much to learn from it. One of her central points, that African Americans have been great American freedom fighters and are more American in this sense — and in their tenure in America — than many European Americans, is profoundly true, and movingly expressed.
Yet if you are advancing what purports to be a more accurate history, you shouldn’t distort the record and elide inconvenient facts.
Obviously, nothing in what follows is meant to diminish the evil of slavery or our national sin in defending and tolerating it for so long. It’s important, though, to know how the signature essay in the Times venture seeks to hide the ball.
Leaving Out Unwelcome Facts about Slavery
Hannah-Jones’s account of American slavery is justly excoriating but is careful to leave out anything that might even slightly complicate her story or might prove discomfiting to the Left.
“They were,” Hannah-Jones writes of the first slaves brought to colonial America, “among the 12.5 million Africans who would be kidnapped from their homes and brought in chains across the Atlantic Ocean.” She doesn’t say who kidnapped them. She refers later to “people stolen from western and central Africa.” Again, she doesn’t say who first stole these people so they could be sent across the Atlantic in chains.
Why not? Like it or not, it was Africans who captured other Africans, and marched them to the coast to be sold to European slavers. African slavery existed before Europeans showed up, and it persisted after they left. This, of course, doesn’t make the Middle Passage, so excruciatingly awful it’s difficult to even read about, any better. But it cuts against the impression that she wants to leave that slavery was a uniquely European, and especially American, phenomenon.
Indeed, you might get the idea from reading her essay that colonial Americans were the ones who came up with the idea of racialized slavery. Sadly, it had a long history before Thomas Jefferson showed up on the scene.
As far back as the mid-15th century, papal bulls granted Portugal the right to enslave sub-Saharan Africans — infidels in West Africa could be reduced to “perpetual slavery.” “Taken together,” James Sweet writes in a paper on the topic, these papal bulls “signaled to the rest of Christian Europe that the enslavement of sub-Saharan Africans was acceptable and encouraged.” Across the Iberian Peninsula, he notes, the word “Negro” basically came to mean “slave,” and this term and meaning were picked up by northern Europeans.
Of course, this doesn’t make racialized slavery any less heinous, but it does provide a sense of how, when it comes to slavery, colonial America was hardly an island unto itself.
Hannah-Jones says that at the time of the American Revolution, “one-fifth of the population within the 13 colonies struggled under a brutal system of slavery unlike anything that had existed in the world before.”
Perhaps she means implicitly to include the rest of the Americas in this condemnation, because everywhere else in the Americas — Brazil, Cuba, the West Indies, etc. — had a broadly similar system of slavery. Of course, if she wanted to be clear about this, she could have simply said it.
Peter Kolchin makes the point in his history, American Slavery, 1619–1877: “The Southern United States represented the northernmost outpost of this plantation system, which reached its apogee of organizational development on the large sugar estates of Jamaica, Saint Domingue (later called Haiti), Cuba, and other Caribbean colonies.”
It’s not to deny the brutality of slavery in colonial America to note what would seem to most observers the even more hideously inhumane nature of slavery in, say, Brazil and the Caribbean islands, where slaves were literally worked to death and had to be constantly replenished by new imports.
“Brazil and the Caribbean,” Kolchin notes, “were graveyards for Africans and their descendants; Jamaica, for example, imported a total of more than three-quarters of a million Africans, but at the time of emancipation in 1834, its slave population stood at only 311,000.”
Hannah-Jones would probably say to all of this, “There you go denying American exceptionalism, again.” No, the point is, counter to her and other critics of the American Founding, that it wasn’t slavery that set us apart. Both Brazil and the United States had slavery; only one of them had the Constitution and Declaration of Independence.
Smearing the Revolution
According to Hannah-Jones, “conveniently left out of our founding mythology is the fact that one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery.”
This is preposterous. It isn’t left out of our “founding mythology” because it’s inconvenient, but because it’s untrue.
The reference here presumably is to the colonial upset over the 1773 Somerset decision in England. As historian Alan Taylor explains in his recent book American Revolutions, an American slaveowner took his slave to England and then tried to send him on to Jamaica. The slave, James Somerset, petitioned for his freedom. A British court rule that slavery wasn’t supported under the “natural law” and required an enactment of “positive law”; with no such law existing in Britain, Somerset was a free man. The colonists feared the consequence, but there is nothing in the writings of the revolutionaries to suggest that this episode ranked anywhere close in importance to their other discontents.
Moreover, the turbulence around the Somerset decision was complicated. “The ruling,” Taylor writes, “coincided with an imperial veto of Virginia’s latest attempt to discourage further slave imports.” It was the combination of Somerset and this veto that exercised Virginians. “The empire seemed implicitly,” Taylor continues, “to stir up slave discontent while preventing colonies from restricting the threatening growth of their numbers.”
The point is worth emphasizing, by the way, that it was royal policy at this time to oppose any colonial efforts to crimp the slave trade. King George III urged the royal governor of Virginia, “upon pain of the highest displeasure, to assent to no law by which the importation of slaves should be in any respect prohibited or obstructed.”
As it happens, the logic of the Somerset decision — in the absence of a positive enactment, the natural state is freedom — eventually proved enormously useful to abolitionists. “In the United States,” James Oakes writes in Freedom National, “Somerset became a benchmark for all subsequent efforts to end slavery by political means.”
If Hannah-Jones had delved into Somerset at all, she almost certainly would have avoided any of this material on grounds that it’s not damning enough to colonial America.
Distorting the Constitution
Understandably, Hannah-Jones spends a lot of time on the compromises related to slavery at the Constitutional Convention. “The Constitution,” she writes, “protected the ‘property’ of those who enslaved black people.”
This is shamefully dishonest. With the quote marks around “property,” she effaces, 250 years later, the work of the Founders who specifically insisted on excluding that word in any reference to slavery.
The Constitution refers to slaves not as property, but as “persons held in service,” a subtle distinction although one with profound implications.
As James Oakes recounts, during the deliberations, Roger Sherman opposed a tax on slave imports “because it implied that they were property.” James Madison took Sherman’s side, elaborating in his notes from the convention, that he believed it “wrong to admit in the Constitution the idea that there could be property in men.” He added, “Slaves are not like merchandise, consumed, &c.”
Sean Wilentz explains in his appropriately titled book, No Property in Men, that “the convention took care to ensure that while the Constitution would accept slavery where it already existed, it would not validate slavery in national law; that is, the Constitution would tolerate slavery without authorizing it.”
“After 1815,” he continues, “as antislavery agitation became much more formidable, the distinction — and, specifically, the framers’ exclusion of property in man — became the constitutional basis for the politics that in time led to slavery’s destruction.”
Consider a passage in the argument of John Quincy Adams before the Supreme Court in the famous Amistad case in 1841:
The Constitution of the United States recognizes the slaves, held within some of the States of the Union, only in their capacity of persons — persons held to labor or service in a State under the laws thereof — persons constituting elements of representation in the popular branch of the National Legislature — persons, the migration or importation of whom should not be prohibited by Congress prior to the year 1808. The Constitution no where recognizes them as property. The words slave and slavery are studiously excluded from the Constitution. Circumlocutions are the fig-leaves under which these parts of the body politic are decently concealed. Slaves, therefore, in the Constitution of the United States are recognized only as persons, enjoying rights and held to the performance of duties.
Hannah-Jones, in effect, implies a counterfactual history in which the Constitution explicitly recognized “property” in men.
Misrepresenting the Founding Era
In her rendering, Hannah-Jones skips from America’s independence to the “hardening of the racial caste system.” She thus excises the liberalization of the slave regime that attended the Revolution, because it, too, is inconvenient to her narrative.
This liberalization wasn’t a minor phenomenon. It was a key element of the revolutionary period, driven by the obvious tension between the Founders’ ringing calls for liberty — and their worry that the British wanted to reduce them to “slaves” — and the slave system itself.
The Revolutionary era witnessed the first major challenge to American slavery. Almost overnight, it seemed, an institution that had long been taken for granted came under intense scrutiny and debate: critics questioned its efficacy and morality, proponents rushed to its defense, and thousands of slaves took advantage of wartime turmoil to flee their bondage. Tangible results of this challenge included the abolition of slavery in the North, a sharp increase in the number of free blacks in the upper South, and the ending of the African slave trade.
Vermont began a gradual abolition in 1777, with Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey following suit between 1780 and 1804. How can any remotely honest account of America and slavery leave these acts out, and not even mention them in a clause or parenthetically? Sean Wilentz calls it, “to that point, the largest emancipation in modern history and the crucial departure from which all later antislavery activity would follow.”
If you think this is a crucial part of the story of the Revolution and American slavery, you clearly aren’t suited to write for or edit the New York Times’ 1619 project.
Kolchin recounts other elements of this liberalizing tendency: In 1776, the second Continental Congress passed a resolution opposing slave imports, and around this time several states banned them; Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware loosened restrictions on manumission; and Congress in 1784 came within one vote of prohibiting slavery in the Western territories. “It appeared for a while,” Kolchin writes, “as if the very survival of slavery in the new nation was threatened.”
Of course, it wouldn’t be. There was backsliding in the South that grew worse over time. In the antebellum period, a more aggressive, positive defense of slavery arose and an accompanying tightening of slave laws, both of which foreshadowed the Civil War.
The secession of the South spoke, indeed, of a distinctly American element in the story of modern slavery, as Kolchin notes:
Nowhere else did the defense of slavery turn into a veritable pro-slavery crusade, as it did in the United States; nowhere else did slave owners refuse to accept emancipation and go to war to preserve their interests. In their hour of crisis, masters elsewhere grumbled, groused and dragged their heels, but ultimately they reluctantly went along with decisions taken by central governments to convert to free labor. In the Southern United States, slaveholders determined that they would rather fight than switch.
This proved the ultimate undoing of slavery, exactly because an anti-slavery North, the predicates of which Hannah-Jones elides or distorts, was prepared to resist.
Which brings us to Abraham Lincoln.
Hannah-Jones treats at some length Lincoln’s notorious August 1862 meeting with prominent free blacks in the White House. In keeping with his longtime support for colonization, the president lectured them on the need for blacks to remove themselves from the country. “Your race suffer very greatly, many of them, by living among us, while ours suffer from your presence,” he said. “In a word, we suffer on each side.” He noted that Congress had appropriated funding to transport blacks to a colony.
All true enough, but consider, once again, what Hannah-Jones leaves out. She mentions that Lincoln was considering issuing the Emancipation Proclamation at this time, but she ignores the plausible interpretation of various Lincoln scholars that the meeting was a public-relations feint, meant to soften political opposition in the Union to Emancipation.
As Oakes relates, Lincoln was high-handed and uninterested in the views of his guests, a contrast to his respectful treatment of other black leaders; he put a heavy emphasis in the meeting on the gap between the races when, usually, he belittled racial differences; he invited a reporter to record the proceedings, a departure from his usual practice, to ensure that his comments appeared instantly in the newspapers.
Colonization was a common way for opponents of slavery to try to make their views more palatable to prejudiced public opinion. It would have been better, of course, if this hadn’t been necessary. But abolitionists and other opponents of slavery were trying to make gains in 19th-century America as it existed. Lincoln continued to pursue colonization until a small experiment failed miserably. Sometime in 1864, he dropped the idea and by the end of the war he was talking about limited black suffrage.
As for his dealings with black leaders, it does him a profound disservice to neglect his relationship with Frederick Douglass.
In August 1864, in their second meeting together at the White House, Lincoln worried that he might lose his reelection and that Democrats would negotiate a peace that kept blacks enslaved in the South. Convinced that blacks, once freed, couldn’t be re-enslaved, he asked Douglass to find a way to further spread the word of Emancipation in the South and get as many slaves to Union lines as possible.
After Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, Douglass joined the procession to visit the president at a reception at the White House, even though a black man had never been part of such a gathering. Detained at the gate, he asked an acquaintance to tell Lincoln he was there. Swiftly admitted, Lincoln told the crowd, “Here comes my friend Douglass” and insisted on hearing Douglass’s opinion of his speech: “Mr. Lincoln, that was a sacred effort.”
In a eulogy of Lincoln that Douglass delivered at the Cooper Institute, he described Lincoln as “emphatically the black man’s President. He was the first of the long line to show any respect to the rights of the black man, or to acknowledge that he had any rights the white man ought to respect.”
There was agreement on this, by the way, from the other side of the divide in the North. A Copperhead attack on Lincoln the year before had put it in almost exactly the same terms:
When did we ever have a President that made so much of the negro, or was ever willing to take him into his private and social circles as Abraham Lincoln does?—Mr. Lincoln is emphatically the black man’s President and the white man’s curse. What act has the President ever done in his official capacity, trace it out to its legitimate ends, that has been beneficial to the country, or to the white man? Not one, and we defy contradiction!
Hannah-Jones, apparently, begs to differ.
* * *
To reiterate, none of this is to deny America’s considerable sins. The reality of our shortcomings is bad enough that no one focusing on slavery or racial discrimination should feel compelled to distort the record. The lines of Samuel Huntington are apt: “Critics say that America is a lie because its reality falls so short of its ideals. They are wrong. America is not a lie; it is a disappointment. But it can be a disappointment only because it is also a hope.”
This gets at the crux of the matter. The American past has had its share of both hypocrisy and nobility. Truthfulness demands that we acknowledge both. Americans were hypocrites in extolling liberty and grounding our national identity to a significant extent in it, while at the same tolerating or even embracing slavery. But, over time, the principles and rhetoric of freedom proved powerful tools against slavery.
The stakes in getting this right are large. If they succeed in making America only about the hypocrisy, the architects of the 1619 Project will deny the country’s nobility to the rising generation. They will have made America, in Huntington’s terms, a lie pure and simple, and enshrined their own hostile, mythologized account of our history.