The Hidden Stakes of the 1619 Controversy
Last August the New York Times Magazine released a special issue they called the 1619 Project, which uses the 400th anniversary of the arrival of “20 and odd” enslaved Africans in Virginia to recast the history of the United States as a story about slavery and its long afterlives. Stocked with good writing and armed with the latest scholarship, lead writer Nikole Hannah-Jones began with a frontal attack on the traditional notion of 1776 as the beginning of an American history of exceptional liberty. She ended her introduction with a soaring call to reconciliation and a new American identity. It was also impossible to miss the challenge that the project’s essays and poems posed to the conception of U.S. history as a tidy story of progress ever since the Revolution.
The enthusiastic response to the 1619 Project exceeded even the expectations of the magazine. Tens of thousands of extra copies sold out immediately. Teachers announced plans to use the essays in schools, as the project’s designers had hoped. In response, rightwing magazines began to offer stinging rebukes. Some of the ruckus reprised debates about recent books on the antebellum South by historians such as Walter Johnson and Edward Baptist, who locate the roots of modern American capitalism within plantation slavery, setting the stage for the 1619 Project’s emphasis on disturbing continuities in the present.
Later, after this initial wave of critique, the World Socialist Web Site published an essay calling the project “racialist” and went on to publish rebukes in interviews with four prominent historians—Gordon Wood, James Oakes, James McPherson, and Victoria Bynum—while Sean Wilentz criticized the project in the New York Review of Books in November. A backlash built momentum, culminating in December with a letter from those five historians addressed to the Times Magazine’s editor-in-chief, Jake Silverstein. The magazine’s publication of this letter, along a response from Silverstein defending the project’s interpretations and the scholarship on which they were based, has triggered an ongoing roiling debate.
The letter writers had three main objections, all concerning passages in the project’s lead essay by Hannah-Jones—none of which concern the other line of controversy, especially among conservative commentators, about the relations between capitalism and slavery (coverage of the letter to the Times has monopolized the most recent discussion, leading that theme to drop out of the conversation). The first concerns her assertion 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” and that “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.” The second concerns her depiction of Abraham Lincoln as not committed to black equality, and the third concerns her contention that across U.S. history, black people have “for the most part . . . fought alone” in their struggles for freedom.
These are perennial issues in the history of emancipation and civil rights. It is no coincidence, though, that the first claim, about the American Revolution, has proved the most controversial. This dispute reflects deep fault lines in the field of U.S. history over interpretations of the Revolution, particularly in terms of its relationship to slavery and the status of African Americans. Though it rarely spills out into public view in quite the way it has recently, there is a longstanding debate within the academy over just how revolutionary the American Revolution really was.
Some historians, espousing what we might call the establishment view, insist that it is anachronistic to see slavery as central to our understanding of the decades-long revolutionary period. According to this view, the Revolution was in fact fundamentally antislavery, since it led to what Bernard Bailyn called in his 1967 study The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution a “contagion of liberty” that made it possible for Americans to think critically about ending the institution. Such accounts emphasize that various Northern states restricted the slave trade and began to institute gradual emancipation during and after the Revolutionary war, and that enslaved people used the ideals of equality voiced during the Revolution to press their own case for freedom. Although a civil war was fought over what the government could and could not do about slavery, these historians say, Lincoln and other members of the Republican Party envisioned a path to emancipation under the Constitution and made it happen.
This is the accepted orthodoxy underwriting the contention, made in the letter sent to the Times, that it is just wrong—as well as bad politics—to tell schoolchildren that some or many or even any American revolutionaries fought to defend their property in slaves from a powerful imperial government. Hannah-Jones wrote that defending slavery was a primary motivation for independence in 1776, but the pushback from Wood and Wilentz was far more absolute. This was not surprising to academics who have followed the work of these historians. Wilentz argues in his latest book, No Property in Man: Slavery and Antislavery at the Nation’s Founding (2018), that the Constitution was antislavery in its essence and most of its subsequent workings, and has repeatedly gone out of his way to attack those who emphasize the proslavery politics of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Andrew Jackson. And for his part, Wood, a student of Bailyn, called talk of slavery and the Constitution in Staughton Lynd’s pathbreaking work “anachronistic” in his 1969 book The Creation of the American Republic and has never let up. According to his view, the founders belonged to a “premodern” society and didn’t talk or think about slavery or black people. In response to Silverstein’s response, he wrote, “I don’t know of any colonist who said that they wanted independence in order to preserve their slaves. No colonist expressed alarm that the mother country was out to abolish slavery in 1776.”
On the other side of this debate is a growing number of scholars—Woody Holton, Annette Gordon-Reed, Michael McDonnell, Gerald Horne, and myself, among others—who question the establishment view of the Revolution and the founders. These historians, most of them younger than Wood or Wilentz, see a multi-sided struggle in an American Revolution that was about colonizing and winning power and authority. They see slavery as more than a peripheral matter. They do not take for granted that the story is primarily one of uncovering the motives and beliefs of the founders. Their work has considerably undercut the glass-half-full version of the narrative, which sees the end of slavery as a long-term consequence of American idealism and independence.
In ambitious works that explore the “unknown” revolutions that contributed to the independence movement, for example, books such as Gary Nash’s The Unknown American Revolution (2005) and Alan Taylor’s American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750–1804 (2016) have challenged Wood’s sunnier version of events. In their hands the story loses some of its traditional romance but gains a deeper sense of realism. Other scholars, such as Robert Parkinson in his book The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution (2016), have shown just how concerned the revolutionaries were, in both the North and the South, with slaves as an internal enemy. Perhaps most important of all, newer histories show how Africans and their children themselves forced the issue onto the agenda of the revolutionaries and the empires competing for dominion, especially in wartime. If we were talking about any other revolution or civil war, we wouldn’t be surprised that enslaved people fought on both sides, depending on which side seemed more likely to improve their condition.
The resistance to this new scholarship by the deans of the establishment bears some similarities to the denunciations leveled at Charles Beard and the Progressive historians a hundred years ago when they began to develop the argument that perhaps the Constitution benefited the wealthy more than it helped ordinary (white) people. The newspaper editor—and later corrupt twenty-ninth president—Warren Harding heaped shame on Beard for desecrating the image of the Revolution. A few years later he started using the term “founding fathers” in his stump speeches. This time around, historians who emphasize slavery and reaction, including the reaction against antislavery, are accused by the doyens of U.S. history (and now a few of their somewhat younger successors, such as Wilentz) of being ideological purveyors of identity politics—as if Pulitzer and Bancroft prize–winning scholars such as Holton, Gordon-Reed, and Taylor are not, in fact, extending and enriching the field.
The split between these two camps is hinted at in Adam Serwer’s fine recap of the 1619 Project controversy for The Atlantic, “The Fight over the 1619 Project Is Not About the Facts,” published in late December as the debate was still heating up. Serwer writes:
The clash between the Times authors and their historian critics represents a fundamental disagreement over the trajectory of American society. Was America founded as a slavocracy, and are current racial inequities the natural outgrowth of that? Or was America conceived in liberty, a nation haltingly redeeming itself through its founding principles?
What Serwer misses is that this is not simply a clash between the Times authors and a group of historians: it is also a pre-existing argument between historians themselves. (Wilentz, in his subsequent reply to Serwer in The Atlantic this week, tries to perform a magician’s act and render invisible the very existence of that debate, much as he ignores the scholarship when he is not mischaracterizing its substance.) The arguments made by the 1619 Project are largely based on the work of scholars such as Horne, Holton, Taylor, myself, and others (indeed, Hannah-Jones and Silverstein have acknowledged as much). By bringing the critical ideas of these scholars to a wide audience, the 1619 Project essentially drew back the curtain on a vital debate within the field of U.S. history. By responding with such force, critics of the project have helped define the contours of this debate. It is an important one for us to have, in part because this is an argument that goes all the way back to the founding itself.
In the years leading up to the Revolution, the politics of slavery proved polarizing, and the most deeply committed patriots, including John Adams and Jefferson, sought to control it and usually to tamp it down. Their private papers amply demonstrate their knowledge that the enslavement of Africans was tyranny of the most extreme sort. But they mostly kept such thoughts to themselves and their antislavery friends abroad, saving their loudest protests for what they described as their own enslavement—by the British. This questionable rhetorical tactic met with mixed results. By 1767 American protesters who claimed that unfair taxes amounted to a form of enslavement were being called out for their hypocrisy, even by their friends. “Oh! ye sons of Liberty, pause a moment, give me your ear,” asked Boston merchant Nathan Appleton. “Is your conduct consistent? can you review our late struggles for liberty, and think of the slave-trade at the same time, and not blush?” He also mocked racial justifications for slavery: “Methinks were you an African, I could see you blush.” Ending slavery was the only way to “shew all the world, that we are true sons of Liberty.”
A transatlantic battle of the pundits and politicians raged. Pioneering antislavery activist Granville Sharp quoted from ads for fugitive slaves in New York newspapers and opined that the colony deserved “the name of New Barbary, instead of New York.” Liberals such as colonial agent Benjamin Franklin were in the best position to justify those increasingly referred to on both sides of the Atlantic as “the Americans.” He wrote in London newspapers that slavery on the continent didn’t amount to much and was the fault of the English merchants who controlled the trade. Franklin also blamed the West Indies planters,whose lobbyists argued that simple racial inferiority explained slavery.
When Gordon Wood complains that no American founders said they were declaring independence in order to keep their slaves, he neglects the fact that most revolutionaries who tried to explain American protest were embarrassed about slavery. Long before anyone stated why they chose sides in ’76, they all learned that saying that they wanted to protect that property would have undermined their claims against the British by exposing them as hypocrites. It wasn’t a selling point in the pamphlet war; it was something to be defensive and quiet about.
That changed decisively in 1775, after Lord Dunmore, royal governor of Virginia, followed through on his threats to arm slaves—threats that had earlier been voiced on the floor of Parliament. Then suddenly the patriots spoke openly and often about slaves—as the enemy. No one ever had to say, “let’s rebel to keep our slaves” because they could say, and did say in Boston as well as in Virginia—at the very same time as the more famous battles of Lexington and Concord—let’s rebel because slaves are being armed against us. All this culminated in Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence, in which he penned a tortured, now often mocked paragraph that tried elaborately to suggest that the British were in league with “African corsairs” (slave traders) to make war against innocent Africans, who the British now were attempting to turn against the Americans.
Jefferson had tried out this blame of the British for the slave trade in his much-praised Summary View of the Rights of British America (1774); the hysterical, baldly hypocritical wartime version made it past Adams and Franklin on the Declaration committee, but not the Continental Congress, where, according to Jefferson in his memoirs, deep Southerners and New Englanders alike balked at the antislavery precedent that it would have set. (Franklin, however, had suggested adding that the King had “incited domestic insurrections among us” into the Declaration’s culminating complaint against the King for setting “the merciless Indian savages” against the colonists. The final Declaration of Independence, in other words, didn’t mention slavery explicitly, but the liberation of slaves by the British provides its ultimate justification.) To give the revolutionary ideology or movement all the credit for antislavery is essentially to echo without acknowledgment Franklin and Jefferson’s spin. It’s politics, and all the more dangerous when it claims to have all the “facts,” as Wilentz and Wood do.
Revolutions are measured by results as well as intentions, by effects as well as causes. And here too the record is mixed—in some regards the war only strengthened slavery, and in others it did indeed open new paths for dismantling it. Emancipation in the North was only conceivable with the revolutionary transfer of sovereignty to states that could, and in some cases quickly did, emancipate or legally permit voluntary emancipation. This development, along with the thirty to hundred thousand Africans who became free during the war years, created free black communities that ultimately formed the mainstay of an abolitionist movement that destabilized U.S. politics and inspired a slaveholders’ revolt and a civil war.
This is more than the proverbial butterfly’s wings—a lot more. It may not persuade us fully that the arc of history bends toward justice, but it should make it clear that the Revolution and the Civil War are fundamentally linked events. Both were civil wars. Both were nationalist revolts. Like most civil wars and especially those in the Americas, both precipitated the liberation of slaves, in a complicated dance of self-emancipation and contingent policy. Both led to reconstructions that reshaped constitutions. Much of the debate about how, and how much, to see slavery as a fundamental aspect of the founding, including the contention about how proslavery or antislavery the Constitution was or became, will be more satisfactorily addressed by thinking of the first century or so of United States history as two revolutions, two civil wars, two emancipations, two reconstructions, and a lot of not-so-great compromises.
But if results matter, numbers matter too. And the unavoidable fact is that in the American Revolution, slaveholders won the freedom to determine the future of slavery under a constitution that protected their interests in multiple, complicated, and especially political ways. The infamous Three-Fifths Clause, which counted three-fifths of “all other persons”—meaning the enslaved—for representation and taxation gave the South more power to shape all federal legislation as well as presidential elections. The Constitution of 1787 hardwired slavery into the political order, without ever mentioning the word “slavery.” This enabled the liberals of 1787 to walk away having not admitted there to be “property in man” but having done much that would prove to be worse.
With friends like these the enslaved hardly needed enemies. Quickly, systematically, the number of free people of African descent rose in the North and in Southern towns, but the number of enslaved in the United States increased far more. The domestic slave trade encouraged and facilitated by the new national market moved a million people from the Chesapeake and the coastal regions to the new cotton districts and actually un-domesticated slavery, making it worse than it already was. It is debatable whether any of that would have happened in anything like the way that it happened without the sovereignty and power that the Revolution and Constitution accorded to the master class, the ways it freed them from imperial or national oversight.
In short, the story of African Americans confirms both the radical and the conservative—even reactionary—nature and results of the American Revolution, and quite possibly more the latter than the former. This is true both because any revolution ought to be measured by its effects on working people, and because the freedom-loving Revolution was supposed to be about liberty and humanity, not just taxes or nation-making. Even if one insists that the paradox is nothing of the sort because in the end, liberty was about property and thus about slavery, the mixed results were inherent, not accidental. What happened to African Americans forms not so much an exception as the revealing rule: that the Revolution had both radical and reactionary results.
Where does all this leave us? We should view with a wary eye any accounts of the two U.S. revolutions that insist that only the emancipation, or only the hypocrisy, matters. In this we can follow two commentators on those revolutions, the enslaved New England poet Phillis Wheatley and the abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
n the case of Wheatley, it has taken a long time for scholars to appreciate just how engaged she was in the linked revolutionary and slavery controversies. Indeed, she epitomizes the link because she herself advanced it. One of Wheatley’s first circulated poems celebrated the repeal of the Stamp Act. In October 1772, in a poem celebrating Lord Dartmouth’s ascent to Secretary of State for the colonies, Wheatley directly compared the critique of slavery to colonial protest: “Thus I deplore the Day, / When Britons weep beneath Tyrannic Sway.” (By “Britons” she meant Americans.) She wrote this poem to be hand delivered to Dartmouth by an English lobbyist, a canny diplomatic move that helped set in motion her trip to London to secure publication of her book of Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773). Boston patriots had been afraid to touch her manuscript because they worried it would encourage attacks on patriot hypocrisy already common in England. In the book itself she downplayed to some degree the link she had made between herself, and criticisms of slavery and race thinking, to the colonial protest movement. Both patriots and Tories who read her book could ally the antislavery ethos she embodied and conveyed to their political outlook, implicitly as well as explicitly. Wheatley hedged her bets.
In a sense, the Revolution cut off Wheatley’s newfound British antislavery ties. So did her emancipation upon returning to Boston. Despite publishing poems celebrating the war effort, General Washington, and the prospects of the new nation, she was unable to get her proposed second volume into print, and she died penniless in 1784. Was she a victim of a racist, proslavery American Revolution? Yes, and no—or, more precisely, only if one shrinks the Revolution to the war. She had made her fame and her freedom in “the American Revolution.” She was hardly the only person to lose in Boston’s war-ravaged economy or the only public figure to die young for lack of work or patronage. To depict her as a victim of a lost (potentially more egalitarian) British-Atlantic world, as Mark Peterson has recently done in his rich history of Boston as an Atlantic “city-state,” is to miss or understate what she accomplished. She helped force the issue of the relationship between the American Revolution and the politics of slavery into public consciousness. She could hardly have done more: no one did. We can respect her choice of the patriot movement without presuming that she was uncritical of the results.
Similarly, Frederick Douglass has been cited as a severe critic of the republic, and of the founders’ hypocrisy. In 2019 his Fifth of July address from 1852 received more attention than ever, with its coruscating, and poetic, distancing of black Americans from white: “The Fourth of July is yours, not mine. . . . You may rejoice, I must mourn.” One hundred and seventy years ago, Douglass blasted his country for its original and lasting sins in the same kind of language that frames the 1619 Project.
But this is the same Douglass who had recently decided to cast his lot with an antislavery interpretation of the U.S. Constitution. How that came about is instructive, too. The blame game that Wilentz and others have sought to play on the 1619 Project’s journalists is as much about political strategy as it is about history, and it can be traced all the way back to the split among abolitionists in 1840. Garrisonian radicals insisted that the Constitution was a “covenant with death.” They also tied the struggle against slavery and for black citizenship to the plight of women. The liberals, by contrast—who went on to found antislavery political parties—saw these positions as divisive and strategically unsound. It might be fine for fashionably progressive circles in eastern cities, but it wouldn’t play well in Ohio. (Not coincidentally, Wilentz has been writing for years about such progressive-liberal splits, while consistently championing traditional Democratic Party politics—opposing first Barack Obama, then Bernie Sanders, and now anyone else who indulges “high-minded politics,” in the present or the past.)
Douglass himself had split with Garrison for a number of reasons, including a sense that he should be leading rather than following. Not coincidentally, he changed his mind about the Constitution and about abolitionists working with political parties. Some have thrown up their hands or criticized his seeming inconsistency, but there was a deep logic, as well as political savvy, here. It is the same understanding that Wheatley had: that to celebrate what was good and criticize what was lacking in the American Revolution were two sides of the same civic coin. Both were necessary for political reasons, but not least because both were true.
So it is all the more important to push back critically against the voices who would insist that the American Revolution and the Constitution were innocent of slavery—but also against the notion that they had no antislavery implications whatsoever. It remains important to question the myth that the founders never thought about slavery politically and that black people were not “central” actors of the period. Similarly, we should interrogate the debatable but equally problematic notion that no white person with power ever really meant that all men are created equal. The Revolution was a triumph and a tragedy precisely because it was an emancipation and a betrayal of its egalitarian potential. Denying the radicalism or the reaction against it is to deny that the American Revolution actually was a revolution.
Revolutions must be measured by what they do for everyone. Because revolutions do concern and involve those at the bottom, they inspire backlashes. The fact that both radicals and reactionaries, not to mention the descendants of fighters both for liberty and for slavery, have had, and still have, a reasonable claim on the American Revolution explains a lot of what we are going though politically right now. What else can we expect in a republic built on slavery as well as on antislavery, and on the denial of both aspects of our past?
A bridge over the fault lines in the scholarship might be built by emphasizing both the proslavery and antislavery dimensions of the American Revolution and Constitution. This sort of understanding would also make better sense of the Civil War. But it would require us to see the American Revolution as more like other revolutions in history: filled with idealism, but also with selfish motives, and characterized by violent backlashes. Most of all, it would require us to accept that racism is a product as well as a cause of our politics, starting with the American Revolution, and that we should stop blaming those who wish to explain its persistence.
David Waldstreicher is Distinguished Professor of History at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.