The United States of America is not defined by its worst national sins. The American story is not a story of a country defined by slavery, but a country defined by trying, in fits and starts, with faltering and hesitance, but also with moments of glory, to figure out what it means to live with liberty and self-government. By reframing America’s founding around slavery, the New York Times’ 1619 Project misreads history along with the role Americans played in realizing the ideals of their Declaration of Independence and their Constitution.
By Lyman Stone and Joshua Lawson for The Federalist and THE INTERNATIONAL CHRONICLES
Historical facts about slavery: It didn’t begin or end in the United States.
The same people most obsessed with slavery seem to have little interest in the full scope of its history.
There has been an effort for decades now — although with new momentum lately, as exemplified by the New York Times’ 1619 project — to identify the United States and its founding with slavery.
To the extent that this campaign excavates uncomfortable truths about our history and underlines the central role of African Americans in our nation, it is welcome. But it is often intended to undermine the legitimacy of America itself by effacing what makes it distinctive and good.
Yes, slavery and racial prejudice were our great original sins. It would have been better if we had, like the British, been leaders against the slave trade and for abolition (the representation of slaveholders in Congress and the rise of King Cotton forestalled this). But we didn’t invent slavery, even in its race-based form.
Slavery didn’t make us unique, which is obvious if we consider its history in a little broader context. Critics of the American Founding don’t like to do this because it weakens their case and quickly brings them up against politically inconvenient facts that they’d prefer to pass over in silence.
Let’s dwell, then, on a few things they don’t tell us about slavery. None of these are secrets or are hard to find, but they are usually left out or minimized, since they don’t involve self-criticism and, worse, they entail a critical look at societies or cultures that the Left tends to favor vis-à-vis the West.
None of what follows is meant to excuse the practice of slavery in the United States, or its longevity. Nor is it to deny that the Atlantic slave trade was one of history’s great enormities, subjecting millions to mistreatment so horrifying that it is hard to fathom. But if we are to understand the history of slavery, it’s important to know what happened before 1619 and what happened elsewhere besides America.
Through much of human history, slavery was ubiquitous and unquestioned
Slavery wasn’t the exception in human history; it was the norm. The “perennial institution,” as historian Seymour Drescher calls it, was an accepted feature of the ancient world, from ancient Egypt to Greece to Rome, and of traditional societies.
The Greeks, according to the compelling David Brion Davis book Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World, “came to see slave labor as absolutely central to their entire economy and way of life” and deployed it in a wide range of occupations. Roman slavery wasn’t race-based but was brutal all the same (see the fate of slave gladiators, among many other atrocities).
In the post-Roman world, the Byzantines, the Vikings, and Central Asian societies all embraced slavery in various forms.
Again, this wasn’t remarkable. Consider, for instance, Ethiopia. Stewart Gordon writes in his book Shackles of Iron: Slavery Beyond the Atlantic that its first legal code, dating from the mid-13th century, “recognized slaves as central to the economy and defined the acquisition and holding of slaves as the natural order of things.” In the 16th century, Ethiopia “was a full slave society,” even taking tribute from some provinces in the form of slaves.
Slavery knew no bounds of color or creed. During one period, from 1500 to 1700, there were more white European slaves held captive on the Barbary Coast than slaves sent from West Africa to the Atlantic world, according to Gordon.
All this history wasn’t incidental to what eventually arose in the Atlantic world. Davis notes, “There was a genuine continuity of slave-trading and slave-holding from Ancient Greece to Rome and from the late Roman Empire to the Byzantine and Arab worlds, from the medieval shipment of slaves from the Balkans, the Black Sea and Caucasia to Muslim and Christian Mediterranean markets, and from there to the beginnings in the fifteenth century of an African slave trade to Portugal and Spain, and then to the Atlantic Islands and New World.”
And slavery was widespread throughout the New World. “An imaginary ‘hemispheric traveler,’” Davis writes, “would have seen black slaves in every colony from Canada and New England all the way south to Spanish Peru and Chile.”
The East African slave trade lasted into the 20th century
The United States ended slavery too late (again, Britain is a better model). But let’s not forget how long the slave trade, ended in 1808 in the United States, lasted elsewhere.
Gordon discusses the East African slave trade, also called the Arab slave trade: “Throughout the vast Indian Ocean region,” he writes, “slave trade and ownership were considered completely moral and legal, regardless of the religion of the slaver or the buyer.”
More than a million slaves were taken from East Africa in the 1800s. Despite British attempts at suppressing it, this trade continued into the 20th century. According to Gordon, “Perhaps the last large-scale movement of East African slaves to the Middle East was in the 1920s.”
Relatedly, the Muslim world was a vast empire of slavery and enslaved countless black Africans.
Islam was a great conveyor belt of slavery
“Long before the establishment of African slavery in the Americas,” James Walvin writes in his A Short History of Slavery, “Islamic societies were characterized by the widespread and generally unchallenged use of slavery. Indeed slavery was commonplace throughout Arabia well before the rise of Islam. But as Islam spread between the eighth and 15th centuries, and especially to black Africa, it extended and confirmed the commonplace use of slavery and slave trading.”
According to Walvin, Muslim slavers transported enslaved Africans across vast distances — via overland routes — “long before the European pioneers in the Americas began to consider the use of African slaves as laborers in the American settlements.” The routes across the Sahara, he adds, “survived from the seventh to the twentieth century, and millions of Africans were force-marched along them from their homelands to the slave markets to the north.”
This story is relevant to the nature of slavery in the Atlantic world. At first, slavery in the Muslim world wasn’t race-based, but that changed. Davis writes: “The Arabs and other Muslim converts were the first people to make use of literally millions of blacks from sub-Saharan Africa and to begin associating black Africans with the lowliest forms of bondage.”
It may well be, he continues, that “racial stereotypes were transmitted, along with black slavery itself — to say nothing of the algebra and knowledge of the ancient Greek classics — as Christians treated and fought with Muslims for the first Islamic challenges to the Byzantine Empire, in the seventh and eighth centuries, through the era of the crusades.”
Certainly, while slavery was in eclipse in the rest of Europe, it had a new vitality on the Muslim-occupied Iberian peninsula, with Muslims and Christians both engaged in the practice.
“By the fifteenth century,” historian James Sweet notes, “many Iberian Christians had internalized the racist attitudes of the Muslims and were applying them to the increasing flow of African slaves to their part of the world.“ He adds, “Iberian racism was a necessary precondition for the system of human bondage that would develop in the Americas during the sixteenth century and beyond.”
One would think that there would be more attention paid to the Muslim world’s contribution to race-based slavery, but since it doesn’t offer any opportunity for Western self-reproach, it’s mostly ignored.
The Atlantic slave trade would have been impossible without African cooperation
Slavery wasn’t a European imposition on West Africa. It was already a common practice before the European slavers showed up to subject African captives to the hideous Atlantic passage and bondage in the New World.
According to John Thornton, “slavery was widespread in Atlantic Africa because slaves were the only form of private, revenue-producing property recognized in African law.”
Europeans didn’t capture millions of slaves on their own. The slavers were confined to the coasts. They weren’t capable of enslaving masses of Africans, and even when they attempted it, they risked disrupting the entire system (and retribution from the Africans).
In the interior, slaves were captured in battles and raids and marched to the coast in unspeakable conditions. They were then sold to the Europeans for liquor, textiles, tobacco, and other goods.
Davis notes “the rise of predatory states, such as Futa Jallon, Dahomey, Asante, Kasanje, and the Lunda Empire, which found it financially profitable to wage war on neighbors and sell prisoners to the Portuguese, Dutch, English, French, Danes, or Americans.”
The system of West African enslavement kept running even when the Europeans stopped coming, “flooding various regions with nonexportable slaves,” as Davis puts it. The slave population in West Africa would come to exceed that of the New World.
Brazil took the lion’s share of slaves from the Atlantic slave trade
Any historical accounting of the Atlantic slave trade has to judge Brazil harshly.
Ninety-five percent of the slaves transported across the Atlantic went to places south of the present-day United States, with Brazil alone taking about 40 percent.
Black slaves were already about 10 percent of Lisbon’s population in 1550, and Brazil had about 1 million slaves by 1790.
Even though a relatively small 5 percent of African slaves went to colonial America, the population in the colonies and the United States grew until there were four million slaves by the time of the Civil War. Brazil never had this natural increase because the life expectancy of the slaves there was so low. Life on Brazil’s sugar plantations was brutal and regimented.
“Beginning in the 1960s,” Davis writes, “historians have demolished the myths that Brazilian slavery was benign or humane and that Brazil was relatively free from racism.” The record shows, he writes, “extreme forms of racial prejudice coupled with the view that slaves were mere instruments of production.”
Even when the Atlantic slave trade was mostly illegal and on the way out, the beat went on. Brazil and Cuba received most of the more than 2 million slaves transported between 1820 and 1880, according to Davis.
To repeat, none of this justifies American cruelty and hypocrisy across the centuries. It does suggest, however, that an appropriate perspective should take full account of all that sets us apart, which emphatically wasn’t chattel slavery.
None of the other societies tainted by slavery produced the Declaration of Independence, a Washington, Jefferson, and Hamilton, the U.S. Constitution, or a tradition of liberty that inspired people around the world for centuries. If we don’t keep that in mind, as well as the broader context of slavery, we aren’t giving this country — or history — its due.
Joshua Lawson: No, America Wasn’t Built On Slavery, But Faith That All Men Are Created Equal
It’s there in plain sight. Spelled-out in its mission statement, the New York Times’ 1619 Project seeks to “reframe” American history to mark the year 1619 as the “true founding.” By doing so, the project will “[place] the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center” of the American story.
The year 1619 was chosen for the Times’ “re-founding” to mark when the first slaves arrived in the English settlement of Jamestown. For the Times, this moment irredeemably tainted the nation. Yet viewing the centuries-old actions of men through a 21st-century lens will not solve our present social tensions. Slavery was a heart-wrenching, obstacle during America’s birth, but by no objective analysis was it the central factor of the founding as the 1619 Project claims.
Slavery Is a Blight on All Humanity, Not Just America
Slavery was and is an abomination. The ownership of one man over another is an affront to both natural law and our God-given inalienable rights as human beings. It is an evil part of America’s past—as well as that of nearly every nation on earth. The fact that slavery has a universal heritage does not absolve American slave owners, but it does provide a necessary historical context.
During the 17th century, slavery was, sadly, an accepted part of life throughout the world. By A.D. 1619, slavery had existed for more than 5000 years, dating back at least to Mesopotamia. At the time the first African slaves arrived in Jamestown, the Spanish and Portuguese had been enslaving blacks and native peoples in the New World for more than 100 years. Native American tribes had been enslaving each other for who knows how long before that.
What’s notable about the United States is not that its citizens held slaves, but that the West’s crusade to end slavery began after Jefferson penned the aspirational words of America’s founding document.
America’s Founding Ideals Aren’t Lies
Written by Nikole Hannah-Jones, the 7,600-word flagship essay of the 1619 Project asserts that “our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written.” Forgiving the fact that America is not a democracy but a constitutional republic, what ideals does she mean? The central organizing principle of the American founding was the preservation of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Hannah-Jones claims, “white men who drafted those words did not believe them to be true for the hundreds of thousands of black people in their midst.” She provides no evidence or examples for this sweeping assertion. Alternatively, we know from numerous primary sources that the Founding Fathers did believe those words.
Jefferson’s original final draft of the Declaration explicitly referred to black slaves not as property but as men and castigated King George III for suppressing parliamentary efforts to prohibit or restrain “this execrable commerce” (referring to slavery). Letters written to John Jay show Alexander Hamilton hoping the Revolutionary War could lead to the emancipation of blacks and appraising them equal to whites in their abilities. Additional examples are plentiful.
Without the Founders’ Compromise, America Wouldn’t Exist
The Founders were painfully aware of the cognitive dissonance of forming a nation under the proclamation that all were created equal while maintaining slavery. They also had to face the political reality that the 13 colonies could not be united in a new nation if they immediately abolished slavery.
To insist that southern colonies immediately free their slaves would have been tantamount to demanding they destroy the economic livelihood of the entire region—a political fantasy and a suicidal non-starter. As scholar Harry V. Jaffa once pointed out, “if they had attempted to secure all the rights of all men, they would have ended in no rights secured for any men.”
With no other way to obtain the necessary support for unity and ratification, the Founders spitefully tolerated slavery’s existence, while also placing it on a path to extinction. Once the nation secured independence, American statesman of the Founding Era slashed away at slavery as quickly as prudence and political reality would allow.
American Statesman Led the Movement to End Slavery
The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 prohibited slavery in the territory that would become the states of Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin. In 1794, Congress barred American ships from engaging in the slave trade. Additional legislation in 1780 banned Americans from employment or investment in the international slave trade. Finally, the U.S. Congress officially banned the importation of slaves beginning on January 1, 1808, the earliest date allowed under the deal made to ratify the Constitution.
Far from the bastion of racism, hate and pro-slavery sentiment that the 1619 Project portrays, much of the United States was ahead of the world in ending the horror of slavery. Shortly after the signing of the Declaration, northern states took the lead. By 1804, New York, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Vermont, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania had passed laws that immediately or gradually abolished slavery.
This broadside assault against the institution of slavery explicitly contradicts the history sold by Hannah-Jones and the 1619 Project. If the American Founding was grounded in slavery, and the Founders didn’t believe a word of the opening of the Declaration, how does one account for these actions?
According to Hannah-Jones, one of the “primary reasons” Americans declared independence was to preserve slavery, fearful of the “growing calls” to abolish the slave trade in London. However, a closer look shows the abolitionist movement didn’t have a truly organized presence in England until 1783 when the first petition was filed by Quakers. It wasn’t until 1787 that the influential Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade was founded.
Ultimately, more than 750,000 men died in the conflict that would finally end the wicked institution of slavery in America once and for all. When it was all over, the Civil War claimed eight times as many American lives as a percentage of the U.S. population as the Second World War.
Worldwide Abolition Lagged Behind the Northern States
Slavery wasn’t abolished until 1834 in the British Empire, 1848 in French colonial possessions, 1858 in Portuguese colonies, 1861 in Dutch Caribbean colonies, 1886 in Cuba, and 1888 in Brazil.
The pace of abolition was even worse in the non-Western part of the world. Barbary pirate slavers from North Africa enslaved more than a million Europeans until the end of WWI, three times the number of Africans sold to America. Slavery wasn’t abolished in China until 1910 (but was still practiced until 1949) and didn’t completely end in Korea until 1930. Qatar allowed slavery until 1952, Saudi Arabia and Yemen until 1962, and Mauritania until 1980—nearly 200 years after it was abolished by the state of Massachusetts.
Using the latest reliable figures from 2016, the Walk Free international human rights organization estimates that on any given day 40.3 million men, women, and children will be victims of modern-day slavery in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Tragically, that number is a low estimate, given the lack of reliable data from Arab states and the prevalence of slavery that still exists there.
Judging America By a Utopian Standard Is Naive
The entire framing of The New York Times’ effort deserves to be questioned. Reconstructing the American founding to the date of the first slave is a standard the Times is only placing on the United States. Is America’s “newspaper of record” about to embark on a grand venture of politely telling every other nation its celebratory founding is to be recalibrated to the date of its first instance of slavery? No, the Times’ project is deliberately—and solely—aimed at the United States.
Leftists have been engaging in this sort of deception for generations. Between the 1930s and 1980s, every perceived shortcoming of the United States was put under a microscope while the left was largely silent on the atrocities of communist tyrannies.
The left holds contempt and disdain for America’s ideals. In their heart-of-hearts, honest leftists cannot deny the unbelievable success of the United States and its institutions nor the appeal of its founding principles abroad. So, the left’s only recourse has been to mount its arguments by comparing American history to a Utopian standard they never use with any other country.
Self-criticism can be helpful, especially when it leads to improvement or the discovery of “blind spots” in one’s thinking. Yet as The Federalist’s David Marcus points out, the 1619 Project isn’t breaking new ground or telling Americans anything they haven’t already heard. Public-school textbooks have extensively covered the evils of America’s past for decades.
The central message of Howard Zinn’s popular textbook “A People’s History of the United States” is the Marxist narrative of “oppressed” versus “oppressor.” In the past 20 years, Hollywood has frequently reminded moviegoers of America’s past sins, the (undisputed) evil of slavery, and the long struggle to realize a more perfect union.
In 2017, the Smithsonian magazine warned against giving too much importance to the 1619 date, cautioning that doing so “distorts history” and places undue emphasis on “us” versus “them” narratives. You don’t say.
The 1619 Project Won’t Heal the Nation, it Will Sow Discord
The famous Roman orator Cicero held to a useful dictum: When you witness large forces on the move or scandal fills the air, ask yourself one question: Cui bono? To translate, “Whom does it benefit?” All Americans should ask themselves the same question about the Times’ ambitious revisionist history endeavor. Who benefits? For what good?
The 1619 Project is politically driven 2020 posturing dressed in the veneer of a historical “exposé.” By warping history, it hopes that dopamine hits of anger and injustice will prevent readers from engaging in objective analysis. Just in time to paint America as racist for the upcoming presidential election.
Judging by responses like the one that appeared in Slate, leftists are ready to swoop in on any criticism of the project, especially from conservatives. It’s hard to see how the entire effort won’t serve to rupture America’s partisan divide even further, and that this wasn’t part of the plan all along.
More problematically, its conclusions—that the United States was built by evil men and founded on a lie—lead to the sort of fundamental transformation leftist radicals have sought for a century. If America is as insidiously evil as the 1619 Project paints, what other recourse but to rip out its cancerous foundations root and stem? Leftists are banking that the outrage caused by the 1619 Project will provide them the political capital required to move to the next stage: a full reconfiguration of America into their image.
We Can’t Change the Past, But We Can Improve Tomorrow
America does not need further tribal rhetoric tearing up what little societal cohesion remains. The nation certainly doesn’t benefit from Times writers conducting a growing chorus of anger and grievance.
The New York Times used to at least feign impartiality. Yet the last two years give reason to question its reputation for sound judgment, especially where history is concerned. It published, for instance, one pillow-soft piece lauding mass-murderer Mao Zedong and another opining that sex was better under communist rule.
So, what if we stopped focusing on “racial identity” and the sins of men committed 400 years ago? What if, instead, we followed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s advice and judged one another by the content of our character here and now—today—not in 1619, but 2019? Cui bono? To whom would that benefit? Everyone who prays for unity in our fractured republic.
Lyman Stone: Slavery In America Did Not Begin In 1619, And Other Things The New York Times Gets Wrong
The New York Times has published a series of essays about slavery, race, and American politics under the heading “1619 Project.” These essays cover an enormous amount of terrain: music, constitutional theory, economics, management, ethnic identity, and more.
Many conservatives responded negatively, which at first perplexed me. Slavery was a huge part of American history and has affected every facet of our society. A collection of articles outlining this history seems as good a topic as any to write about.
But zoomed out from the mostly mundane minutiae of individual articles — in the absence of slavery and thus without as much African influence in our music, what would American music sound like? — a larger concern animates the 1619 Project. The project’s central purpose is not simply to educate Americans about the history of labor accounting from plantation to data visualization, or an account of the history of brutal sugar cultivation, but to give a specific narrative about what America is.
The project’s summary makes the aim quite clear: “[The 1619 Project] aims to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.”
Considered this way, the 1619 Project looks very different. It isn’t mostly about helping Americans understand the role played by plantation agriculture in American history. It’s mostly about convincing Americans that “America” and “slavery” are essentially synonyms.
It’s mostly about trying to tell readers they should feel sort of, kind of, at least a little bit bad about being American, because, didn’t you hear? As several articles say explicitly, America, in its basic DNA, is not a liberal democracy, constitutional republic, or federation. It’s a slave society.
Let’s Start with the First Thing Wrong Here
There are a lot of ways to attack this story. But the simplest place to start is the central conceit of the project: that year, 1619.
1619 is commonly cited as the date slavery first arrived in “America.” No matter that historians mostly consider the 1619 date a red herring. Enslaved people were working in English Bermuda in 1616. Spanish colonies and forts in today’s Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina had enslaved Africans throughout the mid-to-late 1500s: in fact, a slave rebellion in 1526 helped end the Spanish attempt at settling South Carolina.
The presence of Spanish power continued to inhibit English settlement of the deep south basically until the Revolutionary War. In some sense, the 1526 San Miguel de Guadeloupe rebellion cleared the way for English settlement of South Carolina.
Of course, when the English did arrive in South Carolina, they struggled to make a living. Early settlers survived on a trade of buckskins and vegetables. It was not until South Carolinians fought the Yamasee Wars of 1715-1717, and sold between 20,000 and 50,000 kidnapped Native Americans into slavery into New England and the Caribbean, that South Carolinians had the capital to buy enough African slaves to get rice and indigo plantations up and running.
But before 1526, slavery was already ongoing in the eventual United States. The earliest slave society in our present country, and our most recent slavery society, was in Puerto Rico. The island’s Spanish overlords were enslaving the Taino natives by 1500. By 1513, the Taino population had shrunk dramatically due to brutal violence and disease. Thus, Spain brought the first African slaves to Puerto Rico.
Chattel slavery in Puerto Rico continued, despite many “Royal Graces” easing life for free blacks and sometimes promising eventual emancipation, until 1873. Even then, slaves had to buy their own liberty. It’s not clear when the last slave was free in Puerto Rico, but it would still have been a fresh memory in 1898 when the United States gained control from Spain.
Slavery in America did not begin in 1619. It began in 1513. Any argument for a 1619 date implicitly suggests that the American project is an inherently Anglo project: that other regions, like Texas, California, Louisiana, and Puerto Rico, have subordinate histories that aren’t really, truly, equal as American origin stories.
In essence, the 1619 date for the beginning of slavery sets up a story of America as an essentially Anglo project that African-Americans were forced into and now claim their share of. But in reality, our country has many origins: French Cajuns and Huguenots, Swedes in Delaware, Dutch in New York, Russians in Alaska, Mexicans in the southwest, Spanish in Florida and Puerto Rico, and of course Native Americans everywhere.
Missing Essential Stories of American Slavery
Native Americans point to another vital reality: African-American identity and a personal history of enslaved ancestors are not synonymous. Some African-Americans, like President Obama, have no ancestry among enslaved Africans in America. Many people enslaved in America, most notably the first slaves, Native Americans, are not of African descent.
Furthermore, “unfree labor” did not end with the end of race-based chattel slavery. Unfree Asian labor in Hawaii and the Pacific west continued almost until the 20th century, while today prisoners of all races are often press-ganged into underpaid labor.
This is not to diminish the African-American experience of slavery: the overwhelming majority of enslaved people in America were of African descent, and the overwhelming majority of people of African descent in America are descended from ancestors who were enslaved. Today, it is reasonable to speak of the African-American experience and the experience of enslavement as essentially and inexorably connected.
But when we talk about history and origins of our society, when we try to untangle the web of events that brought us to where we are today, we have to be more careful. Slavery in America began with Spanish enslavement of Native Americans. In the most enslaved parts of America like South Carolina, slavery largely began with the enslavement of Native Americans.
Like Americans whose origins are in non-Anglo colonies, so too the 1619 Project’s narratives seem to miss a significant part of the legacy of slavery: Native Americans, who remain significantly poorer than African-Americans, less educated, and often with shorter life expectancies. Undoubtedly the 1619 Project’s writers have genuine sympathy for Native Americans. I’m sure they would read my comment here as disingenuous: do I really support Native American rights to land and reparations? For the record, yes, I do.
The 1619 Project’s narratives seem to miss a significant part of the legacy of slavery.
But beyond that, the 1619 Project bills itself as helping Americans see the real story of American origins. And the real story as the 1619 Project tells it is that slavery began in 1619 with 20 Africans. This isn’t true. This ignores the experience of Puerto Rico, where slavery began earlier, and lasted longer.
Furthermore, a serious accounting for slavery has to wrestle with the experience of Native Americans and Hawaiian islanders, and especially the status of their ancestral lands and sovereign rights. More broadly, to wrestle adequately with the painful historical reality of America’s “labor freedom,” we have to be able to talk about less-than-free Asian migrant workers in California and Hawaii, as well as the indenturehood of the Scots-Irish and subsequent Appalachian poverty.
That these peoples are not treated as subaltern today to the same extent that Native Americans or African Americans still are should not exclude them from a project concerned with history. Plus, many poor whites in Appalachia with accents still experience a version of ethnic subaltern status. We should let them speak without writing it off as white racial grievance.
The United States Was a Footnote in Slavery’s History
Finally, it’s worth exploring the specialness of American slavery. The New York Times is an American publication, so it makes sense to explore the American experience. But a wider-angle lens can help us understand that experience.
Those early slaves in 1619 that The New York Times focuses on arrived on the San Juan Bautista. If that name doesn’t sound English, that’s because it isn’t. It was a Portuguese ship en route to Spanish Mexico. Off the coast of Mexico, it was attacked and captured by English pirates masquerading as Dutch. They sold their enslaved human cargo at Jamestown.
Slavery is no more ‘native’ to the American experience than, well, anything.
From its earliest moments in the Spanish colony of 1526, Puerto Rico in 1513, or even Jamestown in 1619, the truth is that America was a footnote to a larger world of slavery. We did not invent this evil. We enthusiastically embraced it.
But when we explain the role played by slavery, we have to recognize that slavery is no more “native” to the American experience than, well, anything. We stole the first slaves from Portugal. Slavery struggled to “take off” in much of the South because managing a plantation is extremely technical and complicated, and many Americans were not good at it. It was an influx of experienced human traffickers, slave-torturers, and large-scale agribusiness experts from Haiti and other Caribbean colonies in the 1700s that gave much of the Deep South enough “expertise” in the abuse of humanity to develop a thriving slave economy.
Lacking much home-grown ingenuity, U.S. slavery had reached an economic bottleneck by the 1780s: tobacco destroyed soil nutrients and was unsustainable, rice and indigo couldn’t be widely cultivated, the colonies had a bad climate for sugar, and the de-seeding process for “upland cotton” was prohibitively expensive, meaning only Caribbean-style “Sea Island” cotton could be cultivating on a large scale. It took a clever abolitionist New Englander, Eli Whitney, to invent the cotton gin.
He thought he was sparing slaves the tedious work of de-seeding Sea Island cotton. He didn’t realize he was opening the door to cotton cultivation, and thus a slave economy, throughout the interior south.
The history of slavery is not one of some evil creativity unique to Americans.
In other words, the history of slavery is not one of some evil creativity unique to Americans. We emulated models of slavery pioneered elsewhere. We “improved” on it, of course; the American zeal for “efficiency” drove escalating brutality (although Anglo cotton plantations never reached the perigee of inhumanity achieved by the Francophone sugar plantations of Haiti and Louisiana).
We are covered in the blood-guilt of millions of enslaved people. But when we try to tease out the strands of American identity, slavery, like so many other pieces of America, is an immigrant. To the southern Tidewater colonies, to their eternal ignominy, it was a welcome one. But many inland southerners and to many northerners, slavery was a baleful evil they—perhaps incorrectly—saw as forced upon them by Britain.
America’s Story Is of Increasing Refusal to Tolerate Slavery
This story of slavery as something somehow “foreign” to many Americans will read as a bit much to many enthusiasts of the 1619 Project. If Americans were so unhappy with slavery, why didn’t they abolish it?
My answer is simple: we did. At the risk of historical absurdity, it must be noted that when Georgia was founded in 1732, slavery was banned, making it the first place in the Western hemisphere to ban slavery. But alas, the appeal of plantation wealth was too great, and by 1752 the King George II (the father of the George we rebelled against) had taken over Georgia as a royal colony, and instituted slavery.
In 1780, still amidst the guns of war, Massachusetts’ constitution rendered enslavement legally unenforceable, and the judiciary soon abolished it.
Thus, in 1775, there was no free soil anywhere in the Western hemisphere. Slavery was a universal law. While I cannot say for certain, it is possible there was no free soil in the entire world—that is, no society that categorically forbade all slavery.
But then something changed. Revolutionary agitation led to war in 1776, and by 1777, Vermont’s de facto secession from New York and New Hampshire created the first modern polity in the western hemisphere to forbid the keeping of slaves. In 1777, war with Britain was barely begun.
Vermont was hardly secure. But in their opening salvo to a watching world, Vermonters made clear what they thought America was about: liberty for all mankind. In 1780, still amidst the guns of war, Massachusetts’ constitution rendered enslavement legally unenforceable, and the judiciary soon abolished it.
Numerous states followed suit. Their exact procedure varied: some immediately emancipated all slaves, some used gradual emancipation, and some tried other “creative” methods. But the point is that, unlike in some early-abolition countries like France or Peru, or in Georgia’s early free status, abolitionism stuck in America.
The fledging Confederation Congress set aside the majority of the land ceded from Great Britain as free soil. Despite concerted attempts by southerners to “flip” both Indiana and Illinois as slave states, the early commitment to abolition held fast. Likewise, the United States was the second country, by a matter of weeks, to outlaw the international trade in slaves, after Great Britain. Countries like Spain and Portugal continued thereafter to trade slaves for decades, and Brazil did not outlaw slavery until 1888.
In other words, Americans were early adopters of abolition. We were the first to establish formally abolitionist constitutions and states, the second to ban the trade in slaves, and middle-of-the-pack in achieving uniform abolition of slavery.
No, Slavery Does Not Define America
Undoubtedly, we still must atone for much. Slavery lasted longer than any conscience should have allowed. The Christian consciences of America’s founders should have stirred them to intolerance of a single day of slavery on our shores. Alas, it did not. This is a moral failure.
The history of America is not defined by some romance with enslavement, as the 1619 Project seems to suggest.
But the history of America is not defined by some romance with enslavement, as the 1619 Project seems to suggest. The high points of American history, the ones we celebrate, memorialize, emphasize, and teach to our children as who we are, and as examples to be emulated, are moments of liberation.
The Jamestown founding of America has no national holiday, in part because most Americans sense that slavers looking for gold is, while part of our history, not the part we want our children to emulate. But when Thanksgiving comes, we celebrate the Plymouth colony: religious dissidents seeking liberty.
While fictionalized to some extent, it speaks well of Americans that Thanksgiving is presented as a collaboration between religious dissidents and Native Americans: the story we tell to our children, the example we hold up as how Americans ought to live, is that they ought to tolerate diversity of opinion and actively seek cooperation and peace with extremely different neighbors.
The history of America is indelibly marked by the sin of enslavement of many peoples, African and Native American. To remind Americans of this, and to carefully trace how slavery has impacted our society today, is a good thing.
What Defines Us Isn’t Our Worst Moments
America has been blessed by courageous black voices for centuries reminding the mostly white body politick of this sin, and calling us to repentance and reconciliation. This call to repentance has often come at considerable cost to those African-Americans who speak up in a society that, like all human societies, dislikes being reminded of its sins.
The American story is not a story of a country defined by slavery, but a country defined by trying to figure out what it means to live with liberty and self-government.
Much of the straight history presented in the 1619 Project is good, insightfully presented, and will be news to many Americans. As a Lutheran, I applaud the authors of the 1619 Project for confronting Americans with the law of God, holding a mirror to our sins, past and present.
Yet I also wonder if that mirror of our ugliness is truly who we are. Is a person who he is in his darkest moment? If we record people in their most vicious hour, when they most succumb to the temptations that nag on all of us, is that video who they truly are?
I think not. I think we are not defined by who we have been, and we are not defined by our worst national sins. The American story is not a story of a country defined by slavery, but a country defined by trying, in fits and starts, with faltering and hesitance, but also with moments of glory, to figure out what it means to live with liberty and self-government.
It is altogether fitting, then, to conclude as a great, glorious, flawed, struggled, penitent, but courageous American concluded, when discussing what it meant to be American in a time of great division. “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”