History / News

Historians Challenge NYTimes on Slavery

By Nancy Spannaus

December 26, 2019—It’s about time. Five prominent U.S. historians have come forward to challenge some egregious errors in the NY Times’ 1619 Project, a major intervention on the issue of American slavery’s role in the United States which the Times published in August of this year. The five – Victoria Bynum of Texas State University, James McPherson of Princeton, James Oakes of the City University of New York, Sean Wilentz of Princeton, and Gordon Wood of Brown University – express “strong reservations about important aspects” of the project, including identifying some outright lies.

Historians Challenge NYTimes on Slavery

British slavery in the West Indies.

One motivating factor for the Dec. 20 open letter by the historians may be the fact that the Times is preparing to offer the findings of its Project as a free curriculum to the nation’s public schools, thus multiplying the impact of its destructive message that the U.S. republic was built on slavery.

Let me be clear.  I have just finished reading one of the most scathing attacks on British and American slavery I’ve ever seen – Anthony Benezet’s influential 1766 “A Caution and Warning to Great Britain and Her Colonies, in a Short Representation of the Calamitous State of the Enslaved Negroes in the British Dominions.” Benezet, a Pennsylvania Quaker and close collaborator of Benjamin Franklin, lays out in graphic detail the hideous practices of slavery, in a manner that turns your stomach and arouses a sense of horror and shame of what our country was involved in. The piece was reprinted five times and was widely circulated in the colonies and in England. It was not the only such tract.

As the popularity of Benezet’s publication indicates, many of America’s leading revolutionaries shared such revulsion and fought with all their power to try to rid the nation of this scourge. Our national leadership was sharply divided.  Thus to assert, as 1619 Project editor Nikole Hannah-Jones does, that “anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country” is an outright lie.

Moreover, our nation’s economic growth was not based on slavery. A feudalist slave system could never produce the technological powerhouse, and prosperity that was the United States at its height; that could only be done by applying the principles of the American School of Economics, which depends upon elevating the productive powers of free labor through knowledge, technology, and rising living standards.

Not surprisingly, the American statesmen who pushed through American System policies all actively opposed the slave system, seeking to put into effect economic and political policies that would eliminate it from this country. That they were not sufficiently successful is a tragedy, but to eliminate their ideas and fight from the historical narrative of our nation is to rob our nation of the very ideas we require to complete our Revolution.

An image of slavery in Kentucky. Under Hamilton’s system, this oppression would end.

In the future, I intend to write a longer document elaborating on the crucial economic point I’ve made above.  I have given a foretaste in my post on Alexander Hamilton’s outlook on slavery. For now, I will simply report the points made by the historians, and the Times’ response .

Calling a Lie a Lie

The strongest point which the historians stress is that Hannah-Jones’ assertion that “we may never have revolted against Britain… if they [the founders] had not believed that independence was required to order to ensure that slavery would continue.”  The historians say boldly: “This is not true.” They add that “every statement offered by the project to validate it is false.”

I agree that this assertion is among the most outrageous of those made in the document. According to the Times’ editor’s rejoinder, which cites historian David Waldstreicher and others, one of the major events on which Hannah-Jones bases this statement is the impact of Virginia Governor Dunsmore’s late 1775 offer to free the slaves who would resist the American revolt. That call allegedly pushed the Southerners, in particular, to finally support the Revolution.  Yet, a year earlier, those same Southerners were already moving toward independence, demanding an end to the slave trade, and threatening to impose exorbitant taxes on slave “property.

Indeed, the First Continental Congress in 1784 went on record, with unanimous support, to condemn the British policy of enforcing the slave trade. Point no. 2 read: “We will neither import nor purchase, any slave imported after the first day of December next; after which time, we will wholly discontinue the slave trade, and will neither be concerned in it ourselves, nor will we hire our vessels, nor sell our commodities or manufactures to those who are concerned in it.”

It is equally preposterous to consider Lord Dunsmore’s cynical move to be a sign of the British Empire’s determination to end slavery. One need only look at the continuation of slavery and the trade throughout the Empire—especially in their West Indian plantations—to understand that. A 2015 article in the London Guardian shed some light on the often white-washed British role with slavery well into the 19th century. Add to that the treatment of the Empire’s Indian subjects, and even the condition of their miners, and you would be hard-pressed to distinguish it from slavery. Of course, British financial interests were intimately involved with the continuation of slavery in the United States, as their support for the South in the Civil War underscores. (I’ll have more to say about this in my upcoming post.)

Historians Challenge NYTimes on Slavery

Lincoln greeted by jubilant former slaves as he toured Richmond in April 1865.

The other major specific objection which the historians raise concerns material in the 1619 project which they call “misleading:” the characterization of Abraham Lincoln as a racist, and the assertion that the Constitution itself was founded on racial slavery.  They cite Lincoln’s consistent assertion that the Declaration of Independence proclaimed equality of all people, and his agreement with leading abolitionist (and former slave) Frederick Douglass that the Constitution was a “glorious liberty document.” I wholeheartedly share their objection.

In fact, historian Wilentz has studied this issue in depth, and published it in his book No Property in Man: Slavery and Anti-Slavery at the Nation’s Founding. (See my review.)

Will the Times Debate?

In his response, to be published this coming weekend in the New York Times’ magazine, along with the historians’ letter, editor-in-chief Jake Silverstein  provides some of the evidence used by the 1619 Project’s authors, and insists that the paper “takes seriously the responsibility of accurately presenting history.” While claiming to welcome criticism, Silverstein yet rejects the historians’ request for corrections. This, despite the fact that he has to acknowledge that the conclusions reached by Hannah-Jones are in dispute by historians with considerable knowledge.

The Times’ bottom-line argument seems to be that the fact that black people in the United States are still suffering unequally from poverty, imprisonment, and health care today, justifies Hannah-Jones’ assertions about slavery being the foundation of the United States’ creation. One cannot argue that such inequality doesn’t exist, and that the legacy of slavery contributed to it; but that does not permit one to erase the real history of the struggle which built this country.

Silverstein says that the Times is planning to host public conversations next year among academics with different perspectives on American history.  He does not say he will include the authors of the letter, or others who fundamentally disagree with the 1619 Project’s approach.  One would hope that there will be sufficient pressure for them to do so.

 

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