The 1619 Project

The exact quote from 1619 is:
“one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery”

And I’m sorry, but I just do not see this statement as being true. The historical evidence that this was a primary motivation of the colonists in their revolt against the British is just not there.

Trigger presents some interesting evidence that it may have motivated SOME, but there’s just no way that it played nearly as large a role in motivating the revolution as the various oppressive acts the British committed against the colonies going back all the way to 1765. The main argument about that slavery was a motivating factor all stems from a british court case in 1772, and by that point there had already been actual conflict between colonists and the British in Boston, which was the central starting point of the revolution, and which was definitely not motivated by a desire to preserve slavery (because at that point there was literally zero reason for anyone to have thought that the British were going to end slavery).

I guess when reading it it seems less didactic than pulling out quotes makes it - it’s clear from the essays that slavery has always been a part of the United State’s historic narrative, and i think that’s entirely true.

If you want to niggle there’s a lot of heavy lifting being performed by “one of the”. It’s also going to be hard to square away, especially for younger people, the reality of the 3/5s and layout of the legislature, all of which had components of preserving slavery. It’s also hard not to argue that had the revolution failed, or had the south split off in the Constitutional Convention, that slavery would not have been ended in North America much sooner. The effect of independence was to preserve and indeed spread slavery - in fact the distorted, sclerotic and dysfunctional American Federal political setup gave the impetus to not just preserving slavery but turning it into a hill to literally die on 80 years later.

But what people read is that the US declared Independence from the crown in order to preserve slavery. That’s at least imo not the 1619 Project is saying. What the 1619 Project is putting words to is the frustration that African Americans feel about a society declaring Independence over Liberty and Rights of Man while apparently having absolutely no issue not only preserving but in the end spreading the institution of slavery. That contradiction lies at the heart of the 1619 Projects’ authors philosophical dilemmas. If in the end they approach this issue from a deeply cynical point of view, it should at least be able to be understood as why they do.

Preservation of slavery may have been a primary motivation for some American colonists. The end result of the Revolution did in fact preserve and ultimately enhance slavery as an institution. Taken as a whole, I would say preserving slavery was one of many motivations, the significance of which varied with the individual.

People like Paine and Sam Adams were sort of outliers, and their subsequent impact on the post-Revolutionary development of American political economy was limited, if not minimal. The American Revolutionaries were as a rule not very radical or really revolutionary.

That is really the key thing; the Revolution was mostly about a relatively elite group of American British subjects who chafed at the demands put on them by a remote imperial metropolitan government, who had the at least potential resources to get far wealthier and have far more commercial and political autonomy than Parliament back home was willing to give them. A big part of what made the Colonies wealthy, or potentially wealthy if they could trade with anyone they wanted, was slavery, which was the foundation of the agricultural economy in the South and the foundation of the political and social order in those states as well.

So slavery is integral to the entire dynamic of the Revolutionary period, but in and of itself is really subordinate to the political economy of emerging merchant capitalism. Race and racism are tools that arose to implement, sustain, and justify a political economy based on slavery and the subordination of poor white political potential. This was going on long before the Revolution. The benefit of the Revolution to poor whites, not to mention Blacks, was somewhat questionable.

Again, I don’t know if it would have ended sooner though if the revolution had failed. That is large wealthy block that would have slowed down the process in America, that didn’t exist in1833 in the current timeline.

Absolutely, which is why I’ve said that this isn’t a question of the project being all right, or all wrong.

But I do believe that suggestions like that perhaps detract from the overall impact of the piece, although perhaps they actually increased it by creating additional stir.

Slavery absolutely, unquestionably, played a major role in the founding of our country. It’s literally written into our Constitution. It created a major point of contention among the different Colonies, because abolitionists in some of the colonies were already quite established and were already actively moving towards ending slavery (which is yet another reason why thinking that siding with them against the British was not likely motivated by an desire to preserve slavery).

Slavery was less of a motivating factor for revolution, than it was a landmine that needed to be avoided when uniting against the British.

There was lots of discussion around exactly this issue and it’s pretty clear Nikole Hannah-Jones was speaking to the intent of the founding fathers. Here is one of the fact checkers for the project calling them out.

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.

The NYT then issued an update five days later.

The passage in question states that one primary reason the colonists fought the American Revolution was to protect the institution of slavery.

From that Politico article:

But it has also become a lightning rod for critics, and that one sentence about the role of slavery in the founding of the United States has ended up at the center of a debate over the whole project. A letter signed by five academic historians claimed that the 1619 Project got some significant elements of the history wrong, including the claim that the Revolutionary War was fought to preserve slavery. They have demanded that the New York Times issue corrections on these points, which the paper has so far refused to do. For her part, Hannah-Jones has acknowledged that she overstated her argument about slavery and the Revolution in her essay, and that she plans to amend this argument for the book version of the project, under contract with Random House.

The whole Politico article is really good despite its ridiculous and misleading headine. (The author is pretty sympathetic to the aims of the 1619 Project.) So thanks for posting @RayRayK.

The 1619 Project, in its claim that the Revolution was fought primarily to preserve slavery, doesn’t do justice to this history. Nor, however, does the five historians’ critical letter. In fact, the historians are just as misleading in simply asserting that Lincoln and Douglass agreed that the Constitution was a “glorious liberty document” without addressing how few other Americans agreed that the Constitution’s protections should be shared with African Americans. Gradual emancipation laws, as well as a range of state and local laws across the antebellum nation limiting black suffrage, property ownership, access to education and even residency in places like Ohio, Washington and California, together demonstrate that legally, the struggle for black equality almost always took a back seat to the oppressive imperatives of white supremacy. And racial violence against black people and against those few white people who supported ending slavery and supported black citizenship undergirded these inequalities—a pattern that continued well into the 20th century.

As someone who has spent much of my career as a historian working with museums, K-12 teachers and the media to make the history of slavery and race accessible to the general public, I know how important listening to and reading these kinds of histories is. It is easy to correct facts; it is much harder to correct a worldview that consistently ignores and distorts the role of African Americans and race in our history in order to present white people as all powerful and solely in possession to the keys of equality, freedom and democracy. At least that is the corrective history toward which the 1619 Project is moving, if imperfectly.

The fact checker is very sympathetic, while also calling out a number of factual problems, like mixing later antebellum slavery policies with pre revolutionary ones and the claims about the intent of the founding fathers. Glad you liked the article!

What do you see as misleading about the headline? It’s tied to this part of the content.

Despite my advice, the Times published the incorrect statement about the American Revolution anyway, in Hannah-Jones’ introductory essay. In addition, the paper’s characterizations of slavery in early America reflected laws and practices more common in the antebellum era than in Colonial times, and did not accurately illustrate the varied experiences of the first generation of enslaved people that arrived in Virginia in 1619.

Sorry, perhaps I ahem overstated my claim there. The headline suggests an adversarial approach to the project. The article itself is anything but. That said, I know that 1) the person with the byline isn’t the headline writer and 2) a headline designed to generate interest is more likely to be read and this article is probably worth reading, so I’m not actually too chuffed about it.

I would absolutely say that presenting slavery as the sole or even primary motive force behind the Revolution is in error. Heck, re-reading my brother’s book last night, he doesn’t make that claim either – he lumps the Stewart v Somerset decision in with a group of other things that Franklin was doing as well that helped give everyone a push in all the various colonial regions beholden to the British in the 1770s.

But I do think it can be lumped into a sub-set of “Really important ancillary factors” especially when looking at specific regions.

The Politico piece is good, but a number of historians have also pointed out one of the flaws in the reasoning of that article’s author as well.

One of Leslie Harris’s major points is that Stewart v Somerset didn’t actually free any slaves at all other than Mr. Somerset. Despite Lord Mansfield’s broad-sounding language in his opinion, Mansfield in practicality had made a very narrow ruling applicable only to the case of Somerset himself.

Which is true.

And Harris then points out that in reality, the Crown didn’t enact legislation to outlaw slavery in the Caribbean colonies until some 60 years after the Mansfield decision.

Which is also true.

But. The issue that Harris misses is the ol’ “Perception becomes reality” argument, along with a bit of “Hindsight is 20/20”. It really doesn’t matter at all that the English didn’t emancipate or manumit slaves in their Caribbean colonies for another 60 years here. That’s a level of hindsight that English abolitionists and southern plantation owners in the colonies didn’t have back in 1770.

And we do have the things those folks wrote contemporary with that decision and the oncoming Revolution. And the perception was very much that Mansfield’s ruling could be levered to apply almost universally. The English anti-slavery groups felt that they could flood the courts with individual petitions for manumission and eventually cause Parliament or George III to take decisive action to call for graduated emancipation over a generation in the colonies.

The southern plantation owners and slave owners for their part got themselves heavily worked up that the Mansfield decision meant their slaves were going to be taken from them in a way they saw as financially ruinous, and saw it happening imminently, regardless of what legal expert opinion on the matter said – or even what Mansfield himself said. By and large the opinion emanating from the south was that the Stewart v Somerset decision was the beginning of a very rapid descent down a slippery slope, regardless of whether that’s the way history would bear it out or not.

Yeah, thanks. Even already this has been one of the most informative and fascinating threads I’ve read here (and that’s really really saying something.) I clearly need to read more history. I’ve read some Wood, McCullough’s 1776, a few surveys of the origins of American slavery, and of course Zinn’s People’s History, but I’m super interested in some of the work she mentions near the end of that article. And I should look up your brother’s book which sounds like a palace intrigue narrative.

I think that’s exactly part of the problem (and in this case, likely intentional on the part of Politico’s headline writers).

There’s this notion among many, on both sides (I know we hate that phrase, but I think it’s correct here), where “you’re either with us or against us.” If you criticize some elements of 1619 (or really, a multitude of various things), it means that the entire thing is trash and must be discarded.

The historians who have taken issue with certain elements of its portrayal of history aren’t suggesting that. But they are seized upon by right wing nuts to say, “Look! It’s all trash!”. But then that may create a backlash where any criticism is viewed as though it’s coming from those right wing loons.

If only “history” was this cut and dried thing, a nugget of incontrovertible truth that only needed to be uncovered! Instead, it’s a messy, ongoing process where different takes on things introduce new understandings but also raise new questions. It’s almost as if the narrative of humans and their societies is a complex, multifaceted phenomenon!

This kind of sums my view, albeit with a much lower level of intensity than I feel. Timex is a believer in the peaceful gospel of Matthew and I am a believer in, hmm, kicking the right wing in the ass.

My big picture view of the 1691 Project has 5 points:

1)Before we get to the 1619 Project, we have to acknowledge that a lot of mainstream history has whitewashed the racism and slavery out of parts of American history (see the absence of the Tulsa Massacre in most American history books) and that there has been a lot of spin and propaganda in the portrayal of American history. We all want to feel virtuous and there is pressure to accentuate the positive, which can be misleading. Thus, the baseline was IMO sanitized and inaccurate.

2)The core point of the 1619 Project, that racism and slavery were part of the American experience from its inception and have impacted many aspects of American history, is true. It also contradicts the perception created by #1, above, which creates a conflict.

3)The authors of the 1619 Project did, in some areas, go too far or overstate their case, but in my view this is a fairly narrow critique. For example, the authors said slavery was “one of the primary causes of the American Revolution” - well, “primary” is pretty strongly worded. I wouldn’t go that far. On the other hand, they did not say “THE primary cause” which is an even stronger statement. I would probably write it as “slavery was one of the contributing causes to the American Revolution.” Bottom line is, there are some excessive statements in the 1619 Project, but really, not anywhere close to discrediting the whole project. Reasonable counter-claims and criticism of overreach are appropriate, in response.

4)There is some historian-level pushback vs. the 1619 Project, which is reasonable, but has been seized upon, magnified, manipulated and exploited by the right wing media and legislators to try to suppress a whole range of history teaching. The recent bill passed in Oklahoma is a good example of excessive pushback and overreach.

5)It’s healthy to engage in critical discussions like we are doing here about issues like that but a)be careful about falling into the right wing framing on this and b)the bigger harm to the country BY FAR IMO is not the 1619 Project but the coordinated pushback and counterattack.

Basically I feel the big picture point of the 1619 Project, with some caveats, is valid and needs to be taught and discussed. Race and slavery were major contributing influences to American History, intrinsic to many aspects of the American experience. America is a nation founded upon contradictions, where we can have Thomas Jefferson writing “All Men are Created Equal” at the same time that he owned and held in bondage numerous men and women. Some people want to focus on the equality and ignore the slavery while others want to focus on the slavery and ignore the equality.

But the thing is, that contradiction, IS American history. You can’t say “Was Thomas Jefferson all about equality or was he all about slavery?” - he was a flawed and conflicted human who was in reality, all about BOTH. As was/is America more generally. That’s the big positive that the 1619 Project brings to the discussion: an awareness of the inherent contradictions. Yes, they overstated their case, but that doesn’t make their argument wrong, just modestly flawed.

So it’s fine to discuss and critique the project but we should really be careful about falling into the trap of right wing framing, focusing too much on relatively narrow overstatements, or being influenced by manipulative and exaggerated claims attacking the project. For example, I think what is happening in Oklahoma should be of significant concern.

I’m not so sure; when I saw National Treasure… {ducks the violent throwing of objects and runs out of the room}

More seriously, I really appreciate this thread; great posts to read

People might do the same thing for different reasons?


And sometimes for reasons we didn’t even think of!

These two statements are…different. The first says that slavery was the primary reason, and the second says it was one of several primary reasons. The first is not an accurate summary of the second.

Just want to say that this is a tremendously informing and interesting post and thank you for taking the time to write it and to follow up with more context.