The 1619 Project

Did we ever have a thread about the 1619 project here? Because I feel like there’s a lot of hyper partisanship on both sides regarding that piece. There are bigots and racists who hate any kind of acknowledgement of bad practices, but then there are folks on the left who ignore major historical errors made in the project’s assertions.

This isn’t the thread for it, but it seems like an important discussion topic, but I feel like most of the coverage of it in the media is superficial and entirely through the lens of partisan politics.

Edit by Clay – Link for reference: The 1619 Project - The New York Times

Ok what are these historical errors?

@Timex is correct, in that some of the 1619 partisans overstated the case, sometimes vociferously. For instance, apparently at one point the materials in the project alleged the sole, or at least primary, motivation for the American Revolution was to preserve slavery. Which isn’t very good scholarship, though certainly one of the key challenges in getting the southern colonies on board was insuring the survival of slavery after independence in in spite of the opposition to slavery coming from other colonies. There were a lot of other reasons, though not necessarily the ones often touted by hyper-patriots.

The real question of course is not whether there are errors in the historical narrative of the 1619 materials–of course there are, all narratives have their flaws–but whether those flaws significantly affect the overall value of the narrative. My personal perspective is that the positive elements of The 1619 Project far outweigh the negatives, but like any framework, you have to recognize the limitations.

I’m glad that we finally have a thread on this. I’m looking forward to learning more about it. I know that Andrew Sullivan’s email blasts to me often mention some egregious things in the 1619 project that he finds very objectionable, but I don’t know enough about it to know when he’s right and when he’s making mountains out of molehills again.

I…dunno. I guess I’d agree that it wasn’t the sole or even primary cause. But I’d say it was one of a handful of important motive forces leading to the American Revolution.

And I should say that I have a dog in this fight, since this is the subject of a book my brother wrote last year on this very subject. With these things in mind regarding said brother and author:

  1. He’s been a pretty center-right voter most of his adult life. I think he voted for Clinton in 1992, and Kerry in 2004 and Obama in 2008. But he voted for Romney in 2012, I’m pretty sure. He’s obviously not a radical leftist, nor has that point of view; he’s a physician living in rural Missouri with a lifelong fixation on history and research.

  2. He started putting together his research and thesis on the subject years before their was a 1619 project. And then over the course of a couple of years went and found all of Franklin’s own correspondence on the various subject matters at hand over the course of years, as well as related correspondence, journals, etc between anti-slavery activists in London who at various times ping-ponged between encouragement of Franklin’s behind-the-curtain lobbying of southern colonies, to horror when some of those fine Englishmen realized he was using the King’s Court Somersett decision not to slow slavery in the colonies, but instead to emancipate them from England.)

Now, I think you can absolutely make an argument that plenty of other factors led to the American Revolution, for sure.Tax policy, representation, corrupt governors in thrall to the Crown…a myriad of things are obviously front and center.

But when it was seeming as if some of the southern colonies were dragging their feet and even discussing separating from the northern firebrands and mid-Atlantic trader colonies, Franklin’s imploring case to the Southern Colonies that the English government was going to free their slaves within the next decade if not sooner was a very important push to get them on board. And in turn, having the southern colonies willing to get involved pretty clearly helped embolden the effort in general.

And look where the fuck that got us.

That’s pretty much what I’m saying, yes. Good historians rarely make categorical statements about something being “the” cause. From the very beginning, the entire structure that became the USA was built on an active acceptance of slavery. The Constitution tries to finesse things a bit by not mentioning it by name, but it too IMO actively endorses the institution, and enshrines protections for it in the law of the land.

The Revolution required compromises between states that had somewhat different political economies–the whole Hamilton/Jefferson thing, for instance–but which all shared a basic Anglo-American grounding in white supremacy as well as a healthy dose of disdain for the poorer elements in society. I think it’s essential to teach about that. It does have some nuance, however.

Historians are always having to deal with people who seem to think history = “what happened.” No, history is the narrative(s) we create from the stuff that happened, as best we can. It isn’t history until the historian collects it, collates it, and makes decisions based on it. Hence, every historical narrative is going to be subject to scrutiny and critique. None are going to be perfect. Some will be much better than others, based on what the evidence is, how the evidence is used, and the skills and integrity of the historians involved. The people opposed to the 1619 narrative are often those who believe there is one “right” narrative, and it’s the one they believe. From that point of view, everything else is “political” or “revisionist.” Of course, all history is political, and all good history is revisionist.

Oh, and Ben Franklin along with Jefferson wrote some pretty intense racist stuff, though Franklin arguably retreated from his early views. Jefferson, not so much.

I’m interested in hearing more about what you are referring to here.

Previously, in defense of 1619’s claim that the revolution was primarily motivated by a desire to preserve slavery, the author had pointed to Somerset V Stewart, but this argument didn’t seem to hold up to scrutiny. The revolution was already well underway by 1772 when that case happened in Britain, and it was barely reported in the colonies at all at the time.

I’m interested in knowing what this bit regarding Franklin is though.

It was absolutely a desire to not be “divided and conquered”, once people like Franklin had decided on a course of independence, that led them to mollify the Southerners. Wasn’t the fear - and i’m not a scholar about this - that the South would have not joined with the other colonies and gone independent, thus making the new country weakened and fearful of foreign interventions?

There’s really nothing all that bad or misleading about the 1619 project per se - it’s clearly from a “point of view” and not a canonical history of the United States, and Hannah-Jones’ own essay starts from an autobiographical point of view. It’s just when you take it as a kind of biblical exegetical task and pick apart every line and word that you might (and have been found) certain inaccuracies. But the essays certainly have the kind of bylines that will cause conservatives already suspicious of anything critical of the past heart attacks, and that’s all they need to read to be sure of what the content of the “1619” project is.

Maybe more interesting is how it intersects with or is informed by Critical Race Theory… i mean, i guess interesting, since CRT has now become a RWM target du jour and why anyone would want to help lighten their load or follow their lead. The pedagogical “Introduction to CRT, 3rd edition” is even framed in confrontationalist terms. It asks questions, textbook like, at the end of each chapter. The very first question it asks is:

  1. Is critical race theory pessimistic? Consider that it holds that racism is ordinary, normal, and embedded in society and, moreover, that changes in relationships among the races (which include both improvements and turns for the worse) reflect the interest of dominant groups, rather than idealism, altruism, or the rule of law. Or is it optimistic, because it believes that race is a social construction? (As such, it should be subject to ready change.) And if CRT does have a dark side, what follows from that? Is medicine pessimistic because it focuses on diseases and traumas?

The authors even seem to have pessimistic views of long term race relations, though for socio-structural reasons.

Hannah-Jones’ own essay reflects this to some extent - the painful anecdote about the “Great Emancipator” asking black leaders what they thought about leaving the country seems to hint at this underlying tension in CRT, some kind of skepticism if true racial leveling is even possible.

It’s possible that some people are picking up deeply cynical “vibes” from the 1619 Project and that buried beneath it is some kind of revolutionary, post-colonial, postmodern, anti-western “air”. It’s actually more likely that skeptics are afraid that the 1619 Project reflects yet another social media progressive you have been told “teachable moment” where the current progressive conclusion is just right, and questioning it even slightly is not just wrong but morally wrong, and now i’m going to be cancelled for disagreeing, ect, however they’d see it. But again, let them make those arguments - if indeed those are their arguments - for themselves.

So the American Revolution was most certainly not underway by 1772. In fact, from about 1771 to 1774 or so, there seemed to be a sense (outside of Boston and parts of New England at least) that reconciliation and rapprochement between the colonies and Crown was a strong possibility, if not already underway.

For Franklin’s part, he was infuriated to the breaking point with the Penn family’s proprietorship of the colony of Pennsylvania. He was absolutely adamant about getting the Penns out. And his first goal was to try to get Pennsylvania under full royal governorship. But upon visiting England to lobby for just that, he discovered that conservatives advising George III had great affection for Thomas Penn and his son. It became apparent to him that putting the colony under crown control was a non-starter.

And at that point, Franklin became in close contact with the radical revolutionaries in Boston – as well as with some of the few anti-Penns in England, who coincidentally happened to be very anti-slavery as well.

And Franklin got it into his head that if he couldn’t get Pennsylvania under crown control, perhaps something more radical might happen. He felt that the Penns simply lacked the fortitude to stand up in conflict (a notion he may have gotten from the lackadaisical, infuriating non-concern the Penns showed during the Pontiac War), and thought that if a determined ouster of the Penns and their government emplacements in the colony could happen, perhaps the colony could break away and be self-governing.

And Franklin’s contacts in England rapidly dissuaded him from that fantasy. The Crown wouldn’t stand for it, even if the Penn family bent over and responded weakly. Franklin was told in no uncertain terms that really the only way to free Pennsylvania from the family who held it as a proprietary holding was if he was able to separate all the English colonies along the coast.

And that’s when there’s a noticeable change in the tone of Franklin’s correspondence. He turns pretty quickly to colonial autonomy, if not outright independence, and starts using his influence in the US to advance that notion.

So that’s how Franklin – who to that point had been sometimes skeptical of the Crown, but no more radicalized than that – became a proponent for a lot of the ideas coming from the Sons Of Liberty and allied thinkers in Boston.

And about this same time, the same English anti-slavery gentry that had disavowed Franklin of the idea of Pennsylvania being allowed to become self-governing, alerted him to the advancing case of Somerset(t) v Stew(u)art.

And in that case, Lord Mansfield as Chief Justice of the King’s Court ruled thusly, in freeing a slave born and sold in America:

The state of slavery is of such a nature that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political, but only by positive law, which preserves its force long after the reasons, occasions, and time itself from whence it was created, is erased from memory. It is so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law. Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from the decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England; and therefore the black must be discharged.

(That decision was believed to be essentially: “Unless you’ve got a specific English law that allows slavery as an institution, then there’s no way you can keep slaves.” It didn’t exactly say that at all, it turns out. Franklin may have known that himself…but he was happy to let the popular view that Mansfield had made manumission possible on a wide scale be believed.)

And so it was in the lead-up to Lexington & Concord and the shot heard 'round the world that Franklin had begun – subtly at first, but then with more vigor, and using surrogates to help make his case for him so he could remain behind the curtain – to gently push at influential and rich land-holders in the South, eventually getting to his main point: Mansfield’s decision had effectively made it legal for any slave to sue for his or her freedom, and that the King’s Court would almost certainly grant that freedom. And further, he expressed that it was entirely likely that the anti-slavery groups in England would start actively taking up the cases of slaves held in the colonies, and likely force government action that would result in gradual emancipation in America.

And – here’s what my brother found – Franklin was sharing his own correspondence with the anti-slavery folks in England with the southern plantation and land owners. Basically showing them that he wasn’t just using scare tactics – this was real, and Lord Mansfield’s position on the court and his ruling on English law and slavery wasn’t going to waver.

I meant that there was a LOT of shit going down in the colonies already at that point. Starting with the stamp act in 1765, you started seeing a lot of unrest in the colonies. Hell, there was the Boston massacre in 1770. The idea that a court case in Britain, that almost no one knew about in the colonies anyway, could have been the primary cause when there were such events years previously, just didn’t make any sense. Now, perhaps there was some underground messaging campaign by Franklin telling people about that case so that it was more widely known than the public historical record shows.

The stuff with Franklin hang the Penns is interesting though, although even with that angle it kind of defeats the idea that a primary reason for the revolution was to preserve slavery, given that if Franklin was trying to use it to manipulate southerners into joining the cause, that works have only been a tool, not an actual motivation for Franklin.

Out of curiosity though, is there any historical record of anyone in the south actually saying publicly that they needed to revolt against England to keep owning slaves?

I think it is important to remember, too, that the people doing the revolting were, effectively, English subjects. They were, in the main, fine with continuing to be English subjects, as long as they didn’t have to abide by pesky imperial rules about who with and what they could trade, among other things. They didn’t like being second-class Englishmen, especially as they were in the main becoming or had the potential to become far wealthier and exert more local power and control than any similarly situated English person back in England itself.

What became a revolution leading to independence was initially, and for quite some time as noted upthread, more of a violent but controlled form of protest designed to force Parliament to back off and cut the American British some slack. Ineptitude and stubbornness on the part of the folks in London eventually made that impossible, helped along by the minority in America who had wanted independence all along and hence were not really interested in much compromising.

In this context, the realization of the colonies where slavery was predominant–remember, it was present in all of the colonies, not just “the South”–that the arc of British policy was trending away from slavery and towards abolition certainly helped push otherwise reluctant colonials into the revolutionary camp. The problem with conventional historical narratives about this period is they exaggerate both the degree of so-called oppression the American colonists experienced, and the egalitarian and democratic aspects of the revolution, while seriously downplaying if not ignoring the role of slavery in not just the southern colonies but in the economy of New England and the mid-Atlantic, for instance.

The colonies’ wealth rested in the end to a large part on slavery, directly or indirectly, and this would only grow more pronounced in the early 19th century with the rise of cotton.

But at the same time, many of the key figures of the revolution, were abolitionists. Men like Thomas Paine didn’t own slaves and spoke out publicly against the institution of slavery. Clearly those guys didn’t revolt against England to preserve slavery.

It actually is interesting, and very Franklin like, that he would have tried to get support for the revolution from the south by creating this idea that Britain was going to take their slaves. At the same time, I can’t imagine that case in England, spread only by Franklin in private communiques with very little of any public acknowledgement, compared to the kind of widespread resentment caused by things like the Townshend acts.

Things like the Boston massacre were covered in tons of newspapers at the time, and then further memorialized by sermons and pamphlets. All indications are that such things played a much bigger role in the psyche of the American colonists, just based on his much historical record exists.

But in some ways, this discussion illustrates why the 1619 project does in fact have value, even with what I would consider significant errors or at least dramatic overstatements.

It at least questions the existing narrative, and can as a result create a potential for discussion and exploration.

But there’s definitely a polarization that takes place around it, where many people are accepting everything it says without question, or rejecting everything it says without question, and I don’t think either of those positions really lead to anything good.

Franklin was playing both sides of the colonies like a conductor with an orchestra.

Franklin also was the guy who took Tom Paine under his wing and help publish and publicize him – including getting Paine to write an abolitionist letter to a paper in Boston. (That letter was well-received in New England and even the Mid-Atlantic, which still technically allowed slaves at the time; it passed without much of any notable comment in the south, even as other public declarations of support for abolition or manumission got plenty of pearl clutching on the veranda.)

And Franklin was also behind the leak of the Hutchinson letters that helped stoke revolutionary thoughts through New England.

And all the while, Franklin was maintaining a correspondence with Henry Laurens of South Carolina…and suddenly in about 1772, just a month or so after the King’s Court ruling, Laurens went from being a pretty loyal and reasonably content subject of His Majesty to openly espousing the need for autonomy even if it meant separation. (Those are letters that have survived – basically close friends and even some family of Laurens wondering amongst themselves “The hell got into Hank about hating the mother country all of a sudden?”)

Why is this relevant if the outcome of the war for independence didn’t do jack for African slaves? In fact, they probably would have been freed earlier if the colonies stayed part of the British Empire given that Britian abolished slavery in the 1830s

It’s directly relevant to evaluating the claim made by 1619 that the revolution was primarily motivated by a desire to preserve the institution of slavery. This is simply an ahistorical statement.

While Trigger presents some evidence that SOME in the colonies may have had such a motivation, there is simply no coherent argument to be made that it was the primary motivation for the American Revolution.

I need to push back here a little. Just like Great Britain joining the EU helped put the breaks on a lot of EU progres,I would expect that America, staying as a colony, would slow down the progress the abolitionist could have accomplished.

Also, note that the cost of paying slave owners in America would have been significantly more, so that would be an extra huddle to overcome.

It seems like a pretty straightward claim to prove, no?

  1. American Revolution could not have started without strong support from the Southern states
  2. Southern states would not have supported American revolution without guarantees that slavery will stay intact

Isn’t this all you need?

Not to be pedantic, but does the 1619 project actually make this claim?

My post above was (long-windedly) trying to say that this is what people are hearing but (imo) not exactly what the 1619 Project was actually saying.

I do agree with this - I always thought that the main point of the 1619 project was that slavery was present in the US from the very beginning of its colonization (i.e. there was no utopian period in the US where the White colonists weren’t also slavers).