J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, November 01, 2021

Reading “The 1619 Project”

Two years ago the New York Times published a special issue of its Sunday magazine called “The 1619 Project.” And the historiographical disputes it kicked up are still going on.

Not only is there an expanded and revised form of that essay collection coming out as a book this season, but so are multiple books that seek to refute its argument.

Most of the negative attention has focused on project leader Nikole Hannah-Jones’s introductory essay, which begins, “My dad always flew an American flag in our front yard…” More particularly, on her take on the American Revolution.

I’ll quote the portions of Hannah-Jones’s original text that relate directly to the Revolution and the founding of the U.S. of A.:
Before the abolishment of the international slave trade, 400,000 enslaved Africans would be sold into America. . . . They built the plantations of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, sprawling properties that today attract thousands of visitors from across the globe captivated by the history of the world’s greatest democracy. They laid the foundations of the White House and the Capitol, even placing with their unfree hands the Statue of Freedom atop the Capitol dome. . . .

The United States is a nation founded on both an ideal and a lie. Our Declaration of Independence, signed on July 4, 1776, proclaims that “all men are created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” But the white men who drafted those words did not believe them to be true for the hundreds of thousands of black people in their midst. “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” did not apply to fully one-fifth of the country. . . .

The very first person to die for this country in the American Revolution was a black man who himself was not free. Crispus Attucks was a fugitive from slavery, yet he gave his life for a new nation in which his own people would not enjoy the liberties laid out in the Declaration for another century. . . .

In June 1776, Thomas Jefferson sat at his portable writing desk in a rented room in Philadelphia and penned these words: “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.” For the last 243 years, this fierce assertion of the fundamental and natural rights of humankind to freedom and self-governance has defined our global reputation as a land of liberty. As Jefferson composed his inspiring words, however, a teenage boy who would enjoy none of those rights and liberties waited nearby to serve at his master’s beck and call. His name was Robert Hemings, and he was the half brother of Jefferson’s wife, born to Martha Jefferson’s father and a woman he owned. It was common for white enslavers to keep their half-black children in slavery. Jefferson had chosen Hemings, from among about 130 enslaved people that worked on the forced-labor camp he called Monticello, to accompany him to Philadelphia and ensure his every comfort as he drafted the text making the case for a new democratic republic based on the individual rights of men.

At the time, one-fifth of the population within the 13 colonies struggled under a brutal system of slavery unlike anything that had existed in the world before. Chattel slavery was not conditional but racial. It was heritable and permanent, not temporary, meaning generations of black people were born into it and passed their enslaved status onto their children. Enslaved people were not recognized as human beings but as property that could be mortgaged, traded, bought, sold, used as collateral, given as a gift and disposed of violently. Jefferson’s fellow white colonists knew that black people were human beings, but they created a network of laws and customs, astounding for both their precision and cruelty, that ensured that enslaved people would never be treated as such. . . .

Yet in making the argument against Britain’s tyranny, one of the colonists’ favorite rhetorical devices was to claim that they were the slaves — to Britain. For this duplicity, they faced burning criticism both at home and abroad. As Samuel Johnson, an English writer and Tory opposed to American independence, quipped, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?”

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. The wealth and prominence that allowed Jefferson, at just 33, and the other founding fathers to believe they could successfully break off from one of the mightiest empires in the world came from the dizzying profits generated by chattel slavery. In other words, we may never have revolted against Britain if some of the founders had not understood that slavery empowered them to do so; nor if they had not believed that independence was required in order to ensure that slavery would continue. It is not incidental that 10 of this nation’s first 12 presidents were enslavers, and some might argue that this nation was founded not as a democracy but as a slavocracy.

Jefferson and the other founders were keenly aware of this hypocrisy. And so in Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration of Independence, he tried to argue that it wasn’t the colonists’ fault. Instead, he blamed the king of England for forcing the institution of slavery on the unwilling colonists and called the trafficking in human beings a crime. Yet neither Jefferson nor most of the founders intended to abolish slavery, and in the end, they struck the passage.

There is no mention of slavery in the final Declaration of Independence. Similarly, 11 years later, when it came time to draft the Constitution, the framers carefully constructed a document that preserved and protected slavery without ever using the word. In the texts in which they were making the case for freedom to the world, they did not want to explicitly enshrine their hypocrisy, so they sought to hide it. The Constitution contains 84 clauses. Six deal directly with the enslaved and their enslavement, as the historian David Waldstreicher has written, and five more hold implications for slavery. The Constitution protected the “property” of those who enslaved black people, prohibited the federal government from intervening to end the importation of enslaved Africans for a term of 20 years, allowed Congress to mobilize the militia to put down insurrections by the enslaved and forced states that had outlawed slavery to turn over enslaved people who had run away seeking refuge.
The essay, having already discussed the arrival of enslaved Africans at Jamestown in 1619, then went on to address the ante-bellum period, the Civil War, the backlash against Reconstruction, Jim Crow segregation, and finally the civil rights movement. The extracts I’ve quoted total more than 1,000 words, and they’re just one part of this essay, which in turn was just one essay in “The 1619 Project.”

Almost immediately, in August 2019, the magazine noted that this essay had made a common error in saying the Declaration of Independence was “signed” on 4 July 1776. Well, the text was signed that day, but only by Continental Congress chairman John Hancock and secretary Charles Thomson to signify that the body had approved it.

When we talk about the Declaration signing, we usually mean when dozens of delegates put their names on the handsome, widely reproduced handwritten copy. That process started on 2 August. So the Times scrupulously changed “signed on July 4” to “approved on July 4” and noted the correction, as good news outlets do.

I would also change the statement “The very first person to die for this country in the American Revolution was a black man,…Crispus Attucks.” Young Christopher Seider was killed eleven days earlier in violence arising directly from Boston’s effort to resist the Townshend duties. Forgetting him is another very common error.

In addition, while Attucks surely had African ancestry, eyewitnesses saw as much or more Native ancestry in his appearance; they referred to him as “the mulatto” or even “the Indian.” Attucks might well be considered “black” today. Nonetheless, I think we shouldn’t omit his full heritage nor forget the European conquest of the Americas began well before the establishment of chattel slavery on those continents.

Neither of those details was what in these thousand words kicked up so much controversy, however.

TOMORROW: Primary reasons.


Charles Bahne said...

I would also question the reference to Attucks as a man "who himself was not free." While he had certainly been enslaved earlier in his life, most of the discussions that I've read indicate that he'd been living as a free man for as many as 20 years before the Massacre. He may have been a "fugitive", but in 1770 he doesn't seem fearful of being captured back into slavery. He had, in fact, come back to Boston that winter, perhaps only temporarily, after years of living elsewhere.

J. L. Bell said...

It’s true that the newspaper advertisement seeking Attucks’s return appeared decades before 1770 and wasn’t repeated. On the other hand, he was using the name Michael Johnson, which appears in the first newspaper reports and the coroner’s paperwork, so that could be evidence Attucks was living undercover when he was shot.

adkmilkmaid said...

I'm reading this series of posts with great interest. Thank you.