Ignoble History: The 1619 Project

Following are transcribed remarks of a talk given by Allen C. Guelzo – Sr. Research Scholar, director at Princeton University   

See:  http://napa-institute.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Virtual-Conference-Schedule-Updated-8.13.2020v2.pdf

Allen is the Senior Research Scholar in the Council of the Humanities at Princeton University and Director of the James Madison Program’s Initiative in Politics and Statesmanship

Allen C. Guelzo Director, Initiative on Politics and Statesmanship, Princeton University

The 1619 Project, published as a special issue of The New York Times Magazine in 2019, claims to offer a comprehensive new interpretation of American history, in which every aspect of American life is interpreted as some reflection of slavery or racism. But like all single-explanation theories, it commits serious historical errors. Worse still, its marketing as a K-12 school curriculum encourages a younger generation to see their country as a political, social and economic failure.

1619 – first African slaves – to be deposited – arrived in 1529 – as part of an unsuccessful colonizing venture of the Spanish adventure on Georgia coast – a small hair to split – but it serves to emphasize an overarching and important concept – slavery – was planted here long before US existed!!  It was going on long before Europeans made serious efforts in colonizing America,

Slavery had flourished in certain areas…. In Africa….  Mali, Ashanti, Congo, Western Africa – kingdoms obliged their labor…. EU Congo – cruised coasts hunting for slaves, W. African kingdoms obliged selling their brethren out…. Imported into English alongside EU convict and indentured who’s terms didn’t differ all that much from slavery…

Real mischaracterizations of 1619 – arrival in America was not the beginning –  it was the beginning of the end…  New Society built in 17th century Virginia around slave labor – would be the last new society that took slavery for granted… 17th century saw the birth of the enlightenment… new ways of conceiving the universe, new ways of conceiving society – around natural laws of Galileo, Newton, not a pyramid with Kings on top… a society of equals… not a kingdoms…. The last outpost of an old world… New World that would be born, and lead to the dismissal of race as a factor….  It is indeed the 1776 world we live in today, not that of 1619….  The abolition of slavery, dismissive of race began in 1776.. It is the 1776 world we live in – not the 1619 – which was the end…. (or rather the beginning of the end…)

Historical details – in 1619 lead essay – she asserts one primary reasons colonists decided to declare Independence from Great Britain was to protect slavery – hence American Revolution, was not fought for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, or all men are created equal, but to keep British overlords from meddling with American slavery…

As to the famous 1772 Summerset decision… Britain’s Lord chief justice Mansfield ordered the freeing of a slave… brought into England  James Sommerset on grounds slavery was not a legal condition… in British isles…. This decision was supposed to have stimulated panic among American colonies slaveholders… and bolt for Independence before Sommerset could be applied to them…. Amongst the leading American slaveholders dread was growing there were calls to abolish the slave trade and we needed to go to revolution to save it…

Key refute here, by an historian who was consulted by the 1619 project:  https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2020/03/06/1619-project-new-york-times-mistake-122248

At one point, she sent me this assertion: “One critical reason that the colonists declared their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery in the colonies, which had produced tremendous wealth. At the time there were growing calls to abolish slavery throughout the British Empire, which would have badly damaged the economies of colonies in both North and South.”

I vigorously disputed the claim. Although slavery was certainly an issue in the American Revolution, the protection of slavery was not one of the main reasons the 13 Colonies went to war.

Mathew Desmond – picked up thread slavery explains everything- in an essay …. “American Capitalism is brutal you can trace that to the plantation”…. He asserted cotton houses and slave auction blocks… of the American South are the birthplace of America’s low road approach to capitalism… where inequality reigns and poverty spreads….. 

Problem:  Desmonds proof is a version of guilt by association.. He says slave plantations used vertical reporting systems, double entry recordkeeping and precise quantification to extract maximum amounts of profit from slave labor… He argued slavery’s violence was neither arbitrary nor gratuitous  – it was instead rational, capitalistic, ergo, capitalism is slavery. 

Yet mistakes are at surface – double entry bookkeeping innovation of Italian renaissance, long before there was any system we would call capitalism or southern slavery.  The Portuguese and Spanish empires of 16th century – were built on slave labor – no one has ever accused them of having a capitalistic enterprise!

Soviet union – conducted fully 25% of foreign trade with capitalist Western European economies – none of that made them capitalistic!!

In brief:

  • Slavery was indeed profitable – not because it was slavery – but because it dealt in the most desirable commodity in 19th century Atlantic world:  Cotton – profits are not = capitalism.
  • Every other aspect of slavery pointed in the opposite direction from capitalism.
  • Most destructive hammer against this argument was wielded by the slaveholders themselves – since Southern slaveholders were capitalisms most energetic critics – declared in 1850’s. “unrestricted exploitation of ‘so-called’ free society is more oppressive to the laborer than domestic slavery”.   George Fitzhugh, pro-slavery apologist – boasted that a southern farm is the “beau ideal of communism” – not capitalism – where each receives NOT according to his labor (Marxism), but according to his wants
  • Foreign observers noted the absence of Capitalism in the South
  • James Walker, a Charleston Lawyer – “ours is not so much slavery…   in truth it is but feudality…”
  • These are the most obvious blunders of the 1619 project

Why is it important to understand 1619 Project is so wrong headed??

History matters to Americans… it is vital to us – our identity as Americans is not based on blood, soil, language, or religion – but our history.  Built on propositions of Declaration of Independence and our Constitution, and way we have fought for freedom in Revolution, Civil war, and 2 world wars. 

If those propositions found in Constitution and Declaration and their freedoms are not the basis of our identity, then confidence in the entire American experiment in liberty is in jeopardy.   Democracy as so built cannot function if children are taught it’s a cynical ploy to oppress black slaves.

There are claims within the American economy are examples of the “low road capitalism” based on slave plantation model leaves us with suspicion it’s tainted.  We would have to embrace Capitalism if tainted by association with slavery then it becomes easier to recommend socialism. 

Alternative perspective offered by Wilfred M. McClay – Land of Hope:  An Invitation to the Great American Story Hardcover – Illustrated, May 21, 2019.

No need to Overbalance…. To say we have always done well is not correct either – Lincoln himself said we are imperfect… It is important to understand how our principles guide us and that we strive to realize them more and more….