Culture War

The Fight Over the 1619 Project

Slavery was America’s original sin. The 1619 Project’s attempt to recast it as America’s foundation rests on bad history and misrepresented facts.
February 9, 2020
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The Washington Monument is seen in the background as construction continues on the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture August 30, 2016 in Washington, DC. / AFP / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)

In our hectic age, when controversies typically start getting old on Day Two, the arguments about the “1619 Project”—a package of New York Times Magazine articles and other multimedia content exploring the role of slavery in American history, timed for the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first black laborers on these shores—have had remarkable staying power. They have now carried on for more than five months, since the project was first published in August of last year, and show no signs of abating. The Atlantic ran two long essays on the subject on its website in January, by journalist Conor Friedersdorf and historian Sean Wilentz, while Boston Review has published a counter-polemic by fellow historian David Waldstreicher. These debates have combined thoughtful discussion and acrimonious sniping, as well as detours into the bizarre—such as the Wall Street Journal praising materials from the World Socialist Web Site, an obscure Trotskyite outfit. But the central question still stands: Is the 1619 Project about reclaiming history or rewriting it? Is in a reckoning with the sins of the past, or a trashing of American history and the American project itself?

I come to this issue from the perspective of a Russian Jewish immigrant who arrived in the United States as a teenager in 1980. (I don’t remember a single thing I learned about American history in Soviet school, but I was a voracious reader and got my knowledge of America’s race problem from books like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, To Kill a Mockingbird, In the Heat of the Night, and stories by Richard Wright and James Baldwin.) Thirty-five years later, as the debate about Confederate monuments reached a fever pitch, I wrote about the parallels between our culture wars about the legacy of slavery and the Confederacy and Russia’s culture wars about the legacy of communism and Stalinism. For all the vast differences, both involved a ferocious dispute over whether a part of the country’s past—a past that a sizable portion of the population associated with its forebears’ honor—should be condemned as irredeemably evil, and whether such condemnation “erases history” or gets history right. To me, the answer was clear: Both communist and Confederate figures should be remembered as people who fought for the evil cause of human enslavement.

At the time, a friend—a woman with no sympathy for the Confederacy and with ancestors who fought for the Union—told me that while she agreed with me in principle, the crusade against Confederate monuments made her uneasy because of the growing zealotry and militancy she saw on the left. “What happens,” she asked, “when they come after Washington and Jefferson?” Not likely, I assured her: Obviously, allowing slavery to continue—and practicing it themselves—was a terrible blot on their record, but it wasn’t what they were fighting for in the Revolution or in the early years of the republic; surely their legacies would be judged in a balanced way. My friend was unconvinced.

Today, there are (as yet) no plans to remove or rename the Washington Monument and the Jefferson Memorial. But the 1619 Project certainly does come after the Founding Fathers, and more: It argues that black slavery was not just America’s original sin but its original base, the cornerstone of the republic and the institution that shaped virtually every aspect of its society and culture. What’s more, it suggests that in some sense the Founders were indeed, just like the Confederates, fighting to preserve slavery.

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As a commemoration of black history in America—a telling of the American story with a focus on the African-American experience—the 1619 Project is a very worthy endeavor. It includes some indisputably excellent material, such as “A Brief History of Slavery That You Didn’t Learn in School,” a chronological series of short pieces by Mary Elliott, curator for American slavery at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, and New York Times writer and editor Jazmine Hughes. (Highlights include the story of “Mum Bett,” a.k.a. Elizabeth Freeman, who helped end slavery in Massachusetts by successfully suing for her freedom in 1781, and a remarkable speech given to a mixed-race audience by the Rev. Peter Williams Jr., a free black man, on the occasion of the international slave trade ban in 1808.)

Even the controversial introductory essay by award-winning journalist and MacArthur fellow Nikole Hannah-Jones on African-Americans and American democracy is, in large part, a moving tribute to the fundamental Americanness of America’s black population. It opens with the story of Hannah-Jones’s father, a veteran and an American patriot despite a lifetime of second-class citizenship, and ends with Hannah-Jones looking back at a school exercise in which students had to write about their “ancestral land” and reflecting that she should have chosen the United States as hers. Hannah-Jones’s claim that blacks almost singlehandedly forced America to strive to fulfill its promises of freedom and equality for all may be hyperbolic, but there is no question that the black struggle for full citizenship is a key part of the story of American liberty.

And yet in the process of, in modern progressive parlance, “centering” this perspective, Hannah-Jones makes several claims that radically disparage the rest of the American narrative. She asserts, for instance, that “for the most part, black Americans fought back alone,” a casual erasure of decades of abolitionist activism. The problem isn’t that white people aren’t getting enough credit; it’s that Hannah-Jones’s assertion is simply not true (“for the most part” is doing some very heavy work in that sentence) and that it strips the history of black America of its legacy of interracial solidarity. Dismissing it in one throwaway sentence is both inaccurate and unconstructive.

However, an even bigger problem is Hannah-Jones’s presentation of the American Founding. She goes far beyond the familiar, justified criticism of men who championed liberty yet owned other human beings as slaves, and who opposed slavery in theory yet acquiesced in a Constitution that protected it. Nothing in the 1619 Project has ignited as much polemical furor as this sentence:

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.

Hannah-Jones goes on to assert that by 1776, “Britain had grown deeply conflicted over its role in the barbaric institution that had reshaped the Western Hemisphere” and faced “growing calls to abolish the slave trade.” This, she suggests, made colonists fearful that the mother country would abolish the institution that fueled their wealth.

This extraordinary claim is worth examining in detail.


In his December 20 response to historians critical of the 1619 Project, New York Times Magazine editor-in-chief Jake Silverstein cites Waldstreicher, a history professor at the CUNY Graduate Center, as well as law professors Alfred and Ruth Blumrosen as being scholars whose work “supports the contention that uneasiness among slaveholders in the colonies about growing antislavery sentiment in Britain and increasing imperial regulation helped motivate the Revolution.” As a key moment in these developments, he points to “the landmark 1772 decision of the British high court in Somerset v. Stewart,” in which James Somerset, a slave brought to England from America by his master, was granted freedom on the grounds that English common law did not sanction slavery. Silverstein asserts that while the ruling did not apply to the colonies, it still “caused a sensation,” and “numerous colonial newspapers covered it and warned of the tyranny it represented.”

Yet even the historians Silverstein cites tell a far more complex story—though in many cases, they also tell it tendentiously.

For instance, in his book Slavery’s Constitution (2009), Waldstreicher concedes that most colonial critics of British rule were also critical of slavery and especially of the slave trade, which they decried as an imperial imposition. (Thus, he mentions Jefferson’s “desire to link slavery and the oppression of the colonies, and begin the end of both at one fell swoop” in his 1774 pamphlet, A Summary View of the Rights of British America.) George William Van Cleve’s A Slaveholders’ Union (2010), another revisionist work that treats the American Founding as essentially pro-slavery, nonetheless notes that “some states had attempted strenuously to discourage the growth of slavery even before the Revolution, but had been prevented from doing so by British policy.”

Waldstreicher suggests that the colonial patriots’ position shifted after Somerset: They still abhorred slavery, at least in theory, but they loathed British “judicial activism” even more and were particularly appalled by Chief Justice Lord Mansfield’s suggestion that Parliament should take up the legality of slavery in the colonies. “To Americans like Jefferson and Franklin,” writes Waldstreicher, “the horror of it lay in the powers it removed from them as colonists.”

Yet this strong statement seems to be based on pure conjecture: There is no record of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, or any other Founder expressing such concerns either publicly or in private correspondence (a lacuna that cannot satisfactorily be explained away by Waldstreicher’s recent argument in Boston Review that they were simply “embarrassed” to defend slavery in public). Indeed, in his book Waldstreicher acknowledges that post-Somerset, Jefferson and Franklin continued to argue “in print that the refusal to let the colonies free themselves from slavery was yet another proof of the administration’s tendency to enslave the colonists.” He also mentions that Franklin was “encouraged by the signs of antislavery sentiment as far south as Virginia.”

And there is an actual public comment from Franklin on the Somerset case, in a short piece in the London Chronicle (June 18-20, 1772). He praised the freeing of Somerset, expressed the hope that “the same humanity” should extend to the American colonies—at least insofar as abolishing the slave trade and emancipating all children born to current slaves—and castigated England as “pharisaical” for “setting free a single Slave” while encouraging a commerce that enslaved “hundreds of thousands.” Waldstreicher reveals that Franklin also provided “consultation” to Granville Sharp, the British abolitionist lawyer who went to court on Somerset’s behalf.

It’s worth taking a moment to step back and look at Somerset v. Stewart. It’s a fascinating chapter in the anti-slavery struggle, and one told well by Steven Wise in his 2006 book Though the Heavens May Fall, which also chronicles earlier efforts in England to challenge slavery in court. Somerset was bought in Virginia by a Scotsman named Charles Stewart and brought to England, where he escaped and was recaptured; due for transport to Jamaica, he sought a writ of habeas corpus with help from Sharp and other abolitionists. It was indeed a landmark case: Chief Justice Mansfield not only ordered that “the black must be discharged” but held that slavery was so odious it could not be supported under common law unless permitted by explicit statute. A conservative jurist who had tried hard to avoid rendering an anti-slavery opinion, Mansfield stressed that his ruling should be narrowly construed to prohibit a slave’s forced removal from England, not to ban all slavery on British soil (where at that time there were some 15,000 enslaved blacks), let alone throughout the British Empire. Nonetheless, in the following years, a number of British courts cited Somerset as precedent for finding slavery illegal.

How did Somerset resonate in the American colonies? In a fascinating paper presented last July at the annual meeting of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic, Brigham Young University historian Matthew Mason—a young scholar who shares the revisionists’ view that slavery is central to early American history—concludes that the answer is, not much at all. For one, while the Somerset case certainly sparked some discussion in America, it was generally not treated as particularly big news. (A 1985 analysis of colonial press coverage of Somerset notes that vastly more space was given to a sex-and-politics court scandal in Denmark involving King George’s sister, Queen Caroline; plus ça change.)

Along with neutral and positive reports, several newspapers did run articles critical of the Somerset decision—though I could find no explicit references to “tyranny” per se. One short item that appeared in New York and Massachusetts newspapers (and is quoted by both Mason and Van Cleve) speculated that the decision would “occasion a greater ferment in America . . . than the Stamp Act itself” because of the threat of ruinous litigation over slaves’ freedom; however, even this correspondent thought these consequences would matter “particularly in the islands”—that is, in the Caribbean—rather than the mainland. A couple of newspapers also ran ads about fugitive slaves believed to be trying to make their way to England, hoping to win their freedom based on Somerset.

None of this, however, amounts to a strong colonial backlash against the ruling. Revisionist claims of such a backlash rely heavily either on apparent speculation—the Blumrosens’ 2005 book, Slave Nation, is particularly egregious in this respect, discussing at some length how “slave owners and their lawyers react[ed]” without citing a single source—or on disturbingly out-of-context citations.

Thus, Van Cleve points to the journal of Henry Marchant, then attorney general of Rhode Island (and later a federal judge), who was in London during the Somerset trial and attended some sessions. Analyzing Marchant’s journal, Van Cleve writes that “Marchant concluded that the arguments made by Somerset’s attorneys for his freedom would apply just as well in the colonies as in England, a conclusion that would have been very threatening to any colonial slaveholder. . . . He saw the abolitionist argument in Somerset as a mere ‘plausible pretence’ to ‘cheat an honest American of his slave.’”

And yet a closer look at Marchant’s journal reveals a strikingly different picture. As historians Sally Hadden and Patricia Hagler Minter laid out in a 2011 article in Law and History Review, Marchant not only thought Somerset should be freed but harshly condemned slavery: “I could wish Americans had never fallen into so disagreeable and baneful a trade as that of buying and selling a part of the human race, as much entitled to the enjoyment of freedom as themselves.” Van Cleve depicts Marchant as worried that the Somerset ruling would be extended to America; Hadden and Minter show that Marchant’s issue with the arguments in Somerset was precisely that they were not being extended to the colonies, since (he thought) logic dictated they should be. Marchant saw hypocrisy in claiming that slavery was so repugnant it could not exist on British soil while permitting colonial slavery and the slave trade: England, he wrote, should either “be constant [i.e. consistent] and discourage Slavery entirely” or share in its shame, rather than “under a plausible Pretence to more noble Ideas of Liberty than their Neighbors . . . that British Soil and British Air differs essentially from the Soil and Air of America’s [sic] cheat an honest American of his slave.”

It’s difficult to say to what extent that last comment was sarcastic. Marchant himself owned two slaves; at the time, he was also assiduously helping a client re-enslave a woman and her children whose manumission in their previous owner’s will had been challenged on a technicality, so there was plenty of hypocrisy to go around. At any rate, it seems unlikely that the Somerset decision particularly troubled him: He skipped the end of the closing arguments for an evening of dinner and theater, did not attend Mansfield’s announcement of the ruling despite still being in London, and did not comment on the case again.

Van Cleve also mentions an September 1774 “South Carolina pamphlet [that] attacked Somerset as a dangerous inroad on South Carolina laws and customs” and warned that its application to the colonies would “complete the Ruin of many American Provinces.” In fact, the pamphlet is not a commentary on Somerset—which had been decided two years earlier—but a rejoinder to a pamphlet of the previous month, pseudonymously signed “Freeman,” that had denounced British “despotism.” The response pamphlet, pseudonymously signed “A Back Settler,” did not attack the Somerset ruling as such; rather, it invoked England’s perceived ban on slavery as an argument against “Freeman’s” demand that all British liberties to be extended to colonials, as that would mean “a general Manumission of Negroes” and certain ruin. If anything, this suggests that American slaveholders did not see the post-Somerset status quo as a threat.

Notably, as Mason points out, one group did vocally object to the Somerset ruling as an encroachment on their rights: plantation owners in the Caribbean. (The longest and most vehement anti-Somerset polemic to appear in any American newspaper, “Considerations on the Negro Cause,” was penned by Samuel Estwick, a wealthy planter and official in Barbados.) Yet, as Le Moyne College historian Douglas Egerton notes in his superb 2009 book, Death or Liberty, for all their loud objections to the British court’s encroachments on slavers’ property rights, the Caribbean colonists sought closer ties with Britain—and asked for more British troops as protection from slave revolts—at the same time that American colonists began to seek independence.

If Somerset caused a “sensation” in the mainland American colonies, the evidence suggests it was primarily among abolitionists—who, as both Van Cleve and Waldstreicher acknowledge, used the case in anti-slavery advocacy, legislative efforts, and local lawsuits to help slaves win their freedom. Among other things, Somerset inspired an impassioned 1773 abolitionist pamphlet by Dr. Benjamin Rush, printed in Philadelphia and then in Boston and New York. This discussion was part of a surge in abolitionist fervor that accompanied the rise of revolutionary agitation. It is no accident that the Revolution’s most popular pamphlet, Common Sense (1776), was the work of Thomas Paine, a passionate abolitionist who had previously published a harsh attack on slavery as editor of the Pennsylvania Magazine.

In her Project 1619 essay, Hannah-Jones indicts the “duplicity” of colonial slaveholders who used the claim that they were being enslaved by Britain as one of their “favorite rhetorical devices.” And yet in many documented cases, this rhetoric did help sway the hearts and minds of white Americans against actual black slavery. In the 2018 book Slave Law and the Politics of Resistance in the Early Atlantic World (winner of the World History Association Bentley Book Prize), Yale historian Edward Rugemer writes:

When radical Whig pamphleteers invoked the inhumanity of enslavement to dramatize their own protests against imperial taxation, the deeper indignity of racial slavery emerged as a political question in its own right. Black people seized on this moment when the terms of liberty appeared uncertain, and they found white allies, men and women shaped by the rise of antislavery beliefs. . . . The Somerset case did not contribute to the causes of the American Revolution. If it had, North Americans would have written a lot more than they did. But Somerset did endow antislavery ideas with rich political salience, and as the imperial crisis deepened, antislavery calls rang louder.

The Somerset decision, as Syracuse University law and history professor William Wiecek documented in The Sources of Anti-Slavery Constitutionalism in America, “took on a life of its own and entered the mainstream of American constitutional discourse”—especially as part of efforts in Northern states to have slavery declared illegal under state constitutions. A decade after Somerset, this effort led to the monumental ruling by the Massachusetts Supreme Court in the Quock Walker cases. Reiterating the familiar theme that black slavery was a practice originating from Europe and sustained by the British government, Chief Justice William Cushing asserted that it should have no place “with the people of America, more favorable to the natural rights of Mankind, & to that natural innate desire of Liberty, with which Heaven (witht. regard to Colors, complexion or Shape of noses/features) has inspired all the human race.”

As we know, this emancipatory impulse stopped far and tragically short of wiping out slavery in the American republic. But to leave it out of the story of the Revolution altogether, as the 1619 Project does, is certainly not getting history right.


The 1619 Project’s revisionist take on the American Revolution has another curious and revealing footnote. One source not mentioned in Silverstein’s rebuttal to critics is probably the Internet’s single most-cited authority in support of the project: University of Houston history professor Gerald Horne, author of the 2014 book The Counterrevolution of 1776. In a Twitter exchange late last year, Hannah-Jones accused me of having “made up that Gerald Horne was the primary influence for the 1619 Project.” (In fact, I had said that Horne’s work was “most commonly cited” as the basis for the project’s claims about slavery and the American Revolution.) Yet only three weeks later, Hannah-Jones herself cited “Gerald Horne’s Counter Revolution of 1776,” in addition to the authors listed in the Times response, as “helpful” sources of factual evidence for her version of revolutionary history.

 

More recently, another 1619 Project contributor, Times columnist Jamelle Bouie, also mentioned Horne’s book on Twitter as one of two “reputable, scholarly books” backing the project’s claim about slavery and the Revolution. (The other is the 1999 book Forced Founders, by University of South Carolina historian Woody Holton, more on which anon.) Waldstreicher’s defense of the 1619 Project in Boston Review also mentions Horne among the historians whose work supports the project’s claims.

What’s so special about Horne? Well, it’s the fact that he is, to put it bluntly, a tankie with a professorship. (A tankie, if you’re not up on your political slang, is a hardline communist and Stalinism apologist—a term that apparently originated on the British left in the 1980s.) And no, Horne is not a “Communist” in the word’s loose usage as a slur for someone far left; he’s the real deal. He was a regular contributor and editorial board member for Political Affairs, an actual house organ of the Communist Party USA, until that distinguished periodical folded into the People’s World website four years ago. In 2007, he delivered a glowing panegyric to the CPUSA and to the Soviet Union at an event marking the transfer of CPUSA archives to New York University’s Tamiment Library, predicting that the view of the USSR as an “Evil Empire” would someday go the way of romanticized notions of “‘happy Negroes’ during the slave era.”

One may also suspect Horne of bringing a dubious agenda to his study of the Revolution given that, ten years ago, a Chronicle of Higher Education piece lamenting the revival of Joseph Stalin worship in Russia moved him to pen a letter to the editor which ran under the title, “Stalin Was No Worse Than the Founding Fathers.”

(Yes, this means that between Horne and the World Socialist Web Site folks, the 1619 Project debate is now a battleground between Stalinists and Trotskyites—a fittingly surreal twist.)

All of which is to say, chances are that Horne is a “historian” in roughly the same sense that someone teaching biology at Young Earth Creationist College is a “biologist.” His influence in the field is so minimal that Mason’s paper on narratives depicting Somerset as a factor in the American Revolution doesn’t even mention him. “It would be strong to call Horne’s book totally fringe, but it is certainly not essential so I didn’t even think to refer to it for my own research,” Mason told me in an email.

Nonetheless, I thought I’d give The Counterrevolution of 1776 a try, especially since it received praise from Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly, the American Historical Review, and the New England Quarterly for, among other things, its supposedly meticulous research.

How meticulous? I offer three random fact-checks:

  • Remember the 1774 “Back Settler” pamphlet mentioned above—a loyalist text, responding to an earlier pamphlet by “Freeman,” which predicted “the Ruin of many American Provinces” if the colonies were granted full British liberties including the supposed post-Somerset ban on slavery? Not only does Horne take that line out of context, reducing it to an attack on Somerset, he also misattributes the “Back Settler” pamphlet to South Carolina revolutionary William Henry Drayton. In fact, Drayton had written the “Freeman” pamphlet that “Back Settler” was rebuking. (Typically for Horne, his footnoted source here is another recent book, but that one gets the attribution and context right.)
  • Ben Franklin is said by Horne to have “struck back vigorously” at Granville Sharp’s criticism of American slaveholders while the Somerset case dragged on and anti-slavery sentiment grew in London. It’s true that Franklin responded to an anti-slavery pamphlet by Sharp with a piece that, albeit condemning slavery, lapsed into distasteful apologetics, whataboutism (but you oppress coal miners!), and even racist stereotyping of the sort Franklin himself had already come to disavow elsewhere. But that was in January 1770, and the earliest Somerset court proceedings weren’t until late 1771. By 1772, Sharp and Franklin were allies; Waldstreicher reports that, partly on Franklin’s advice, Sharp agreed to criticize the colonists less and British policies more. (Characteristically, Horne does not say a word about Franklin’s remarkably forward-looking abolitionism or advocacy of black education; then again, American abolitionism in the revolutionary era barely rates a mention in his book at all.)
  • A 1775 rebuttal to Samuel Johnson’s anti-American philippic, “Taxation No Tyranny” (which features the famous line about “yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes”), is said by Horne to include “a denunciation of Lord Mansfield . . . for good pro-slavery measure.” In fact, the pamphlet attacked Mansfield for two things entirely unrelated to Somerset: trampling on juries and jailing the printer of a radical newspaper without trial for over two years. (Incidentally, Mansfield was unpopular in the colonies long before Somerset: It was he who had ruled in 1765 that taxation without representation did not abridge the colonists’ rights.)

How did Horne’s error-riddled work get all those rave reviews? The most charitable explanation would be that the reviewers did not study the book with care. Perhaps a more realistic explanation, though, is that, in the cultural climate of 2014, there was boundless eagerness to credit and praise any supposedly progressive narrative purporting to expose America as racist to the core.


Of course, Somerset’s influence on the Revolution is only one historical issue raised by the 1619 Project. The New York Times is on firmer ground in asserting that the November 1775 proclamation by the royal governor of Virginia, the Earl of Dunmore, promising freedom to “all indented [i.e., indentured] Servants, Negroes, or others, (appertaining to Rebels)” willing to fight on the British side was, in fact, a very big deal for the colonists—though it wasn’t necessarily the prospect of slave emancipation that terrified them so much as the prospect of slave revolt. Mason argues in his paper (and reiterated this belief in our phone interview) that the Dunmore proclamation, rather than Somerset, was a key moment of political awakening for slaveholders—not necessarily in the sense of driving them away from the British, but in the sense of making them realize they needed the power of the state to defend their collective interests.

The extent to which the Dunmore proclamation spurred white support for the Revolution is difficult to gauge. In some cases, it undoubtedly pushed Loyalists or moderates to switch sides—though one of Woody Holton’s two examples in Forced Founders is unconvincing. Holton writes that, after the Dunmore proclamation, Robert “Councillor” Carter—a member of the governor’s council—switched from the Loyalist to the Patriot camp. The story of Carter’s shift toward the Patriot cause is interesting and complicated, but, contra Holton, it doesn’t seem to have been instigated by the Dunmore proclamation. Moreover, Carter became an ardent proponent of emancipation who actually practiced what he preached, helped start a mixed-race Baptist church in 1778, and eventually manumitted all of his slaves (some 500 in number).

It is worth noting that the Dunmore proclamation came when the war was already in full swing. Historian Jill Lepore’s assertion that the proclamation “tipped the scales,” repeated by Silverstein, is a bit of a stretch; Lepore’s (and Silverstein’s) evidence for that conclusion is, as Wilentz notes in his Atlantic essay, one selectively quoted comment from one Revolutionary-era figure, Continental Congress delegate Edward Rutledge. However, the proclamation is invoked as one reason for a break with Britain—along with other acts of war by the Crown—in some state and local “declarations of independence.” For example, the Halifax Resolves, by which North Carolina instructed its delegates to the Continental Congress in 1776 to support American independence, refers to governors who “have declared Protection to Slaves who should imbrue their Hands in the Blood of their Masters.”

The national Declaration of Independence, too, briefly and obliquely alludes to the Dunmore proclamation—but Woody Holton dramatically oversells the case in a passage in Forced Founders (circulated on Twitter by Hannah-Jones):

Thomas Jefferson spoke for other white Americans when he stated, in the largest and angriest complaint in the Declaration of Independence, that Dunmore’s emancipation proclamation was a major cause of the American Revolution. (Although Jefferson’s colleagues in Congress shortened the statement, they left it at the end of Jefferson’s list of complaints—a case of saving the best for last.)

This is a blatantly misleading summary. The bulk of the “largest and angriest complaint” in Jefferson’s original draft is a forceful denunciation of slavery. It accuses King George of “violating [human nature’s] most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him” in order to “keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold” and of thwarting colonial attempts to end or curtail this “execrable commerce.” The final third of the text charges the king with compounding those crimes by “exciting those very people to rise in arms among us”—which is, yes, an allusion to the Dunmore proclamation. Essentially, Jefferson’s argument is that England enslaved the Africans, foisted slavery on the American colonists, and then, in a diabolical twist, invited the enslaved to buy their freedom by killing the colonists. In the Declaration’s final version, all this fiery rhetoric got edited down to the bland “he has excited domestic insurrections amongst us.”

Jefferson’s original passage is, of course, more than a bit disingenuous in treating the slaveholders as victims of slavery. But misrepresenting it as a lengthy rant only against “Dunmore’s emancipation proclamation” is yet another disturbing example of the revisionist school’s often-cavalier attitude toward facts. (Waldstreicher also offers a rather skewed reading of this deleted paragraph in his Boston Review essay, reducing it to an attack on “the liberation of slaves by the British,” misquoting its anti-slavery part as blaming “African corsairs”—likely a conflation with another Jefferson text—and suggesting that it is currently “often mocked”; in fact, every recent reference I could find treats it as a genuine though failed attack on slavery.)

None of this, of course, changes the fact that in the early years of the Republic the Revolution’s promise of liberty was a cruel mockery to most of America’s black population. There was no “counterrevolution of 1776,” but in Death or Liberty Egerton makes a compelling case that there was a “counterrevolution of the 1780s,” and beyond, with regard to black Americans. Waldstreicher’s conclusion in his Boston Review essay that the American republic was “built on slavery as well as on antislavery” and was “filled with idealism, but also with selfish motives” sounds about right.

The Constitution created extensive protections for slavery (even if, as Wilentz argues in his most recent book, No Property in Man, James Madison secured a meaningful victory by ensuring that the document did not explicitly recognize or sanction the ownership of humans). Efforts to launch national initiatives to encourage emancipation stalled. Even in states that ended slavery, blacks—including black Patriots who had served in the Revolution—were almost universally reduced to second-class citizenship. Many states passed laws expressly designed to discourage residency by free blacks; others, including my home state of New Jersey, stripped them of the voting rights they had previously had. The country whose founding documents affirmed that “all men are created equal” was developing a racial caste system that would last long beyond slavery itself.

In a way, Jefferson’s career is emblematic of that paradox. “If he had died in 1784, at the age of forty-one, it could be said without further qualification that he was one of the first statesmen in any part of the world to advocate concrete measures for restricting and eradicating Negro slavery,” the late David Brion Davis wrote about the third president in The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution (1975). But Jefferson lived for 42 more years, during which he maintained an absolute public silence on the issue, apparently feeling that to take a side would be too divisive—even after he had retired from political life. When fellow Virginian Edward Coles, then President James Madison’s private secretary, wrote to Jefferson in 1814 urging him to embark on a pro-emancipation campaign, 71-year-old Jefferson sent him a cordial reply expressing sympathy for the cause but declining on the grounds of both age and political futility. (He even tried to talk Coles out of his plans to manumit the slaves he had inherited; undaunted, Coles went on to free them and provide them with land and work in Illinois, where he later became governor.)

One may debate to what extent Jefferson’s “immense silence” on slavery (to quote Davis) in his later years was the result of self-interest as a slaveholder, or even—as Henry Wiencek argued in a controversial 2012 biography of Jefferson—of the realization that breeding captive humans was profitable. Whatever the motive, it was, without a doubt, a moral abdication that casts a shadow over Jefferson’s legacy.

And yet the Jeffersonian affirmation that “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence almost certainly played a major role in undoing slavery. It inspired abolitionist activism across the Atlantic, including anti-slavery societies Jefferson himself later declined to join. It scared American slaveholders, whose foremost ideologue, George Fitzhugh, branded Jefferson “the architect of ruin.” Indeed, the so-called “Cornerstone Speech” given by Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens in March 1861 explicitly repudiated Jefferson and the other founders as believers in “the equality of races” and the immorality of slavery.

Two things can be true at the same time: (1) The American Revolution created, for the first time anywhere in the world, a political order based on the principle of inalienable human rights. (2) After the Revolution, the human rights of black Americans were effectively sacrificed to national unification—just as, less than a century later, they would be effectively sacrificed to post-Civil War national reconciliation.

And yes, it is also true that traditional narratives of slavery and the Revolution, which tended to stress some Founders’ personal opposition to slavery, have often glossed over some ugly realities—even in relatively recent times. Just a decade ago, an NPR program discussing a new biography of Patrick Henry noted that he “opposed slavery, which he considered a ‘lamentable evil,’ but was himself a slave owner.” Yet it’s actually far worse than that: Thirteen years after his famous “liberty or death” speech, Henry opposed the ratification of the U.S. Constitution primarily, and quite explicitly, because he feared that Congress would use its powers to pursue abolition of slavery and that such a move would be “dreadful and ruinous” for Virginia. (In a mind-boggling twist, Henry argued that federal action to free the slaves, perhaps under the Constitution’s “general welfare” provision, was virtually inevitable precisely because slavery was such a great and obvious evil.)

If the 1619 Project were intended to correct such blind spots and expand our understanding of black perspectives on American history—a task brilliantly accomplished, for instance, in Death or Liberty, which features the personal stories of numerous black men and women from the revolutionary era—it would have been an entirely admirable enterprise. Instead, it provides a fundamentally distorted narrative whose effect is to radically discredit the Founding—the same Founding that both Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, Jr. treated as a promissory note of freedom and justice to African-Americans.

Here, another Soviet analogy may be appropriate. When Mikhail Gorbachev’s experiment with glasnost—a new openness—began in the mid-1980s, the reexamination of the past focused primarily on Stalin-era crimes against humanity. The barbaric record of the Bolshevik revolution, and of Soviet “founding father” Vladimir Lenin, remained off-limits; Stalinism could be presented as a deviation from “true” communism. But eventually, that changed. Once it was open season on Lenin and the revolution, it was not long before the inevitable conclusion that the entire system was rotten and should be scrapped.

Most of us who aren’t Gerald Horne would agree. Most of us, I hope, would not say the same of American liberal democracy.

Can a liberal democracy function when it starts teaching its children that its founding was not simply flawed but made up as a cynical excuse for white men to hold on to their slaves?


No, I’m not suggesting that the creators of the 1619 Project want the United States to collapse as the USSR did. But I do think that, aside from a very genuine desire to tell the story of black America, the project has a fairly clear present-day agenda of furthering progressive-left ideology. It affirms that “whiteness” and “white supremacy” are the dominant facts of modern American society. It sends the not-always-subtle message that American liberal democracy is not morally superior to totalitarian communism: witness Hannah-Jones’s pointed reference to plantations as “forced labor camps,” a term with obvious linkage to the gulag. It singles out “conservative” elements of American society—from a punitive justice system to “brutal” capitalism—as rooted in slavery and racism, often based on very shaky logic. (Thus, Matthew Desmond’s essay on slavery and capitalism treats the United States’ relatively weak worker protections as a legacy of slavery; but of the two countries he cites as having the strongest such protections, one—Brazil—was the Americas’ biggest slave economy and abolished slavery 25 years after the United States, while the other—Thailand—had slavery legally until 1905 and informally to this day.) Meanwhile, no mention is made of racist elements in progressive movements and causes, from eugenics to population control to labor unions to gun control.

The debate around the 1619 Project has been equally steeped in progressive shibboleths—above all, the view that ideas and speech should be judged both intellectually and morally on the identity of the speaker. Hannah-Jones’s first reaction to critiques from historians was to jeer, “Right, because white historians have produced truly objective history.” Nicholas Guyatt, a white British historian, dismissed Wilentz’s factual objections to the claim that “for the most part black Americans fought back alone” as “deserv[ing] very little response” because “it’s a bad look for white historians to argue that ‘white people were always an integral part of the fight for racial equality.’” (Notably, Guyatt altered the tone of Wilentz’s passage by snipping the word “some” from its beginning.) A white American history professor, Kevin Gannon, derided Wilentz and other critics as “Eminent White Men™.”

This crude reductionism is wrong—intellectually, morally, and factually. In the Jefferson wars of eight years ago, for instance, the devastating indictment of Jefferson’s history as a slaveholder came from Wiencek, who is white—and was subjected to a withering critique by Annette Gordon-Reed, a preeminent black historian who defended Jefferson on a number of points. (Gordon-Reed, one of the historians consulted for the 1619 Project, also publicly dissented from the project’s goal of “proposing 1619, rather than 1776, as the nation’s founding year”; Hannah-Jones was reduced to rather ungraciously suggesting that the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian “didn’t understand” the statement.)

Likewise, Friedersdorf’s essay, which proposes that 1776 is a more “inclusive” founding than 1619, has been attacked for rejecting “ideals that grew from the black experience in American history” as divisive while “centering the ideals from the white experience of 1776.” But that, again, is a false framing. The ideals of 1776 are also the ideals of Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth, as enriched through their experience—just as they are the ideals of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. No American history curriculum would be complete without those perspectives.

As the recent Hong Kong protests show, those ideals have meaning around the world, across cultural and racial lines. Yet here at home, they are increasingly embattled from both the radical right and the radical left. Unfortunately, the ideological component of the 1619 Project is part of this attack.

Cathy Young

Cathy Young is a columnist for Newsday, a contributing editor to Reason, and an associate editor at ArcDigital.