Last August, the New York Times launched The 1619 Project, an ambitious effort to educate the public on the role of slavery in shaping America. The Project began with an issue of the Times Sunday Magazine devoted entirely to the subject of slavery. It has grown to include a podcast, and curriculum materials for schools. A book is planned. There is reason to believe that a generation of young, impressionable students will form their historical outlooks based on the Project.
Its title says much about its purpose: to challenge the notion that 1776 is the birth year of America. According to the Times, 1619, when slaves are said to have first arrived on our shores, “is the country’s very origin.”
It’s worth noting at the outset that the title of the Project may be misplaced. According to Professor Nell Painter, the first Africans to arrive on our shores in 1619 were indentured servants, not slaves — a status they shared with many impoverished white arrivals. Racialized slavery did not emerge in Virginia until the 1660s. But setting aside the question of dates, the abominable institution of slavery took root in the New World and two centuries would pass before it was extirpated.
Now any project that aims to educate the public on our nation’s history should be lauded. Much of the information imparted by the 1619 Project is thought-provoking and valuable. But its central theme should not go unchallenged.
Project creator Nickole Hannah-Jones, in her introductory essay, describes this theme:
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. By 1776, Britain had grown deeply conflicted over its role in the barbaric institution that had reshaped the Western Hemisphere. In London, there were growing calls to abolish the slave trade. This would have upended the economy of the colonies, in both the North and the South…. In other words, we may never have revolted against Britain if the founders … had not believed that independence was required in order to ensure that slavery would continue. … [S]ome might argue that this nation was founded not as a democracy but as a slavocracy.
If these statements were true, if the purpose of the American Revolution was to preserve slavery, then our nation was founded in evil, and every American should properly feel some element of shame in his or her heritage.
But these statements are not true. They are wrong.
The ideological bases of the American Revolution, far from supporting slavery, were in mortal conflict with it. The nation’s founding principles ensured that the institution would eventually die. True, slavery would persist in the United States until 1865. But however long the postponement, the Declaration of Independence was slavery’s death warrant.
The arrival of slaves into the English colonies marked the introduction of an Old World institution into the New. In the 17th century, slavery was practiced in most of Europe and Asia. It was particularly prevalent on the African continent, where one third to one half of many kingdoms’ inhabitants were slaves, routinely sold by their rulers to European and Arab traders. Slavery was not an American custom. It was a foreign custom exported here.
In his Pulitzer Prize winning Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, Professor Bernard Bailyn cited contemporary pamphlets, letters, and newspapers to show that slavery was inimical to the growing intellectual movement toward independence.
The leaders of the movement considered slavery an ignominious state of existence. A primary cause for revolution was the idea that British tyranny rendered the colonists the equivalents of slaves. John Dickinson, whose Farmer’s Letters kindled the movement, and who participated in both the Second Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention, wrote: “Those who are taxed without their own consent expressed by themselves or their representatives are slaves. We are taxed without our consent expressed by ourselves or our representatives. We are therefore – SLAVES.” In the same vein, future President John Adams protested that British rule had reduced his countrymen to “the most abject sort of slaves.”
One contemporary newspaper writer compared the American colonists to African slaves, with a glaring difference. The African slaves, he wrote, “deserve highly to be pitied,” while the American colonists, due to their acquiescence in British oppression, ought “to be held in the utmost contempt.”
The revolutionaries realized the contradiction between the ideals of freedom to which they aspired, and the reality of slavery all around them. Thomas Jefferson personified this contradiction. He wrote the stirring words of the Declaration of Independence – “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” – while owning and living off the labor of slaves. But Jefferson recognized that “the rights of human nature are deeply wounded by this infamous practice” and that the “abolition of domestic slavery is the great object of desire in those colonies where it was unhappily introduced in their infant state.”
Jefferson was a hypocrite. But the side of him that abhorred slavery – not the side that owned slaves — represented the true Spirit of 1776.
The closer events moved to war, the more evident it became to the ideological advance guard of the Revolution that their cause stood in contradiction with slavery.
James Otis, a Boston merchant, wrote that all men “white or black” were “free born.” In describing the slave trade, he concluded: “Nothing better can be said in favor of a trade that is the most shocking violation of the law of nature, has a direct to tendency to diminish the idea of the inestimable value of liberty, and makes every dealer in it a tyrant ….”
In 1773, Benjamin Rush, a Philadelphia physician who would latter sign the Declaration of Independence, authored the pamphlet “On Slave-Keeping,” in which he condemned slavery as “a vice which degrades human nature,” and warned his fellow patriots that “the plant of liberty is of so tender a nature that it cannot thrive long in the neighborhood of slavery.”
In April 1776, the Second Continental Congress resolved that “no slaves be imported into any of the thirteen colonies.” Although the resolution had no practical effect on the colonies, it reflected the ideology of the nation about to be born.
By the time the Declaration of Independence was signed, many colonies had already taken action to remove or restrict slavery. The Massachusetts legislature voted twice to abolish the slave trade, but their votes were vetoed by the royal governor. Rhode Island passed legislation granting freedom to any slaves imported into the colony. Delaware prohibited importation. Pennsylvania taxed slavery out of existence.
In 1787, after the War of Independence was won, American statesmen gathered in Philadelphia to draft the Constitution. The anti-slavery forces tried but failed to include a provision ending the slave trade. Instead, Article I, Section 9 prohibited Congress from banning “the importation of such persons as any of the states now existing shall think proper to admit prior to the year one thousand eight hundred and eight.” The message was a warning. Come 1808, the slave trade would be subject to termination. That is exactly what happened.
Ending the slave trade was not equivalent to abolishing slavery. But, as historian Eric Foner has pointed out, banning the importation of slaves sent a significant message. Advocates for slavery had contended that slaves were just another form of property. But Congress was not banning the importation of any other form of property. The ban applied only to slaves. Banning the slave trade repudiated the insidious notion that slaves were mere property.
Nations, like people, are amalgams of inclinations and impulses, some noble, some not. The idea of American “exceptionalism” is not based on the notion that the United States is pure. It isn’t. Its record includes many shameful episodes, the worst of which was its over-long tolerance of slavery. But its founding principles – limited government, individual rights, and the rule of law — were moral and upright, and they lit up the world.
In the years after the American Revolution, other revolutions occurred throughout the hemisphere, led by people determined to emulate the American example. The first such revolution in the New World took place in Haiti in 1791. The revolutionaries were slaves. Their leader, Toussaint L’Ouverture, was deeply inspired by the American Revolution. Many of his chief lieutenants had served in the French Army on the American mainland during our War of Independence, and had witnessed the American Revolution firsthand.
Most of these revolutions failed to establish liberal democracies. The newly independent countries, lacking our natural rights tradition, proved infertile soil for the American ideological seeds. But that doesn’t change the fact that our neighbors correctly viewed our Revolution as a commitment to individual rights, not to slavery. It inspired them to act.
That same inspiration continues in modern times. It was on display in Tiananmen Square in China in 1989, where students constructed a “Goddess of Democracy,” based on the Statue of Liberty. It was on display last summer, when protestors in Hong Kong sang the Star-Spangled Banner. And we saw it just last week in the streets of Tehran, where the government has painted huge American flags on the streets, and encouraged their people to step on them as a sign of disrespect. Instead, the Iranian demonstrators parted as they approached the flags, taking pains to avoid stepping on them.
It is possible that these brave foreigners understand the principles underlying the American Revolution better than Americans do. If that is the case, it may be time for some public-spirited institution to take a page from the New York Times and offer another educational project.
This one could be called The 1776 Project.