What Nikole Hannah-Jones and the New York Times left out
Imagine a Native American history curriculum that focused entirely on four massacres of Natives by whites — beginning with the first encounter between Spanish conquistadores and the Inca emperor Atahualpa and culminating with Wounded Knee — and never touched on American Indian life before 1491, the many Native military victories, or the roughly 5.2 million Natives alive in the U.S. today. Would anyone see this as truly representative, or useful to students of any race, or worth teaching in the schools?
The 1619 Project, from the New York Times, must face the same questions. The project focuses on casting the era of historical slavery as an alternative founding for the United States, with its authors arguing that slavery was responsible for nearly everything that “truly made America exceptional.” Slavery, they write, was the primary reason for the Revolutionary War and was responsible for much or most of early American wealth, building “vast fortunes for white people North and South” and making “New York City the financial capital of the world.” Multiple 1619 essays, by Nikole Hannah-Jones and others, attribute to historical slavery and racism everything from the competitive capitalism of the U.S. to contemporary patterns of traffic. Slavery, in this narrative, is both the American original sin and the source of all our baraka — everything that makes this a unique and desirable country.
Honorable, non-racist centrists and conservatives face a serious question as we confront this material. How would a nuanced but thorough telling of American history, one that did not seek to minimize slavery, differ from 1619’s? Aren’t these journalists and radical academics — progressive friends often ask, in something approaching anguish — just telling hard truths? The short answer is a clear no.
The 1619 essays almost universally ignore or minimize four critical pieces of context that any unbiased school curriculum would include. These are the truly global prevalence of slavery and similar barbaric practices until quite recently; the detrimental economic impact of the Peculiar Institution on the South and on the American national economy; the nuanced but deeply patriotic perspectives on the United States expressed by the black and white leaders of the victorious anti-slavery movement that existed alongside slavery; and the reality that much of American history in fact had nothing to do with this particular issue. Not teaching about slavery or Jim Crow segregation in schools would be a deeply immoral act of omission, but it is almost equally bizarre to define these decades-past regional sins as the main through-line of American history.
Each of these themes merits more discussion. The first is the simplest to lay out: Bluntly, while often treated as some kind of unique American foundational curse, chattel slavery — and such similar abuses as the brutal mistreatment of battle captives — was almost universal on earth until the past few centuries, as Dan McLaughlin explains in detail elsewhere in this issue. The practice was commonplace across ancient societies, including Greece and Rome, with Aristotle defending “natural slavery,” and social scientists describing it as the step of human development after people had stopped simply killing and eating their defeated foes.
Slavery was also well known in the allegedly Edenic New World. The anthropologist Marvin Harris has argued that the Aztecs waged war to acquire captives not merely as laborers or sacrifice victims but as food, since their diet lacked protein otherwise: Aztec slaves were seen as “marching meat.” Even nations that did not officially have slaves, such as Russia and some other Orthodox Christian states, often squeaked around the designation by calling oppressed peons who could not freely leave their land something less harsh, such as “chattel serfs.” In Russia’s case, they were not freed until 1861.
The global slave trade was in large part ended by the modern West. The United States banned any importation of slaves in 1808, and the British Empire passed laws restricting the Arab slave trade that same year. It is no exaggeration to say that, from that date forward, the navies of the United Kingdom and America were the primary force on earth working to check the slave trade. In this, they were largely successful — meaning that the unique contribution of English-speaking Westerners to the worldwide slave economy was the near elimination of the trade.
It is also simply not true that slavery made the United States rich. Slavery made many slave masters rich indeed, and some of them invested their brutally gotten gains in American business and industry. One such profiteer, quite arguably, funded Yale University. But the real question for any quantitative social scientist must be: Did slavery — feudal peon agriculture centered on brutalized captive workers — generate more capital than any alternative use of the same area of land and the same number of workers? Here, the answer (again) is a clear-cut no.
The slaveholding South was, frankly, a backwater. As I noted in my Quillette article “Sorry, New York Times, but America Began in 1776,” the region contained more than 25 percent of America’s free population but only about 10 percent of the nation’s capital. Versus the South, the North had ten times as many trained factory workers and five times as many factories. Writers such as the historian Marc Schulman have pointed out that something like 90 percent of the skilled tradesmen in the U.S. were based in the North prior to 1861. And even analyses like these tend to ignore the horrific costs to the United States of the Civil War — which killed 360,000 Union boys in blue (one for every ten slaves freed) and 258,000 Confederates, as well as putting the country billions of dollars into debt for the first time.
Perhaps the negative reality of what slavery actually was explains why so many Americans fought so damned hard to end it. Another point often minimized by “woke,” “critical” narratives of American history and race relations is that an integrated movement opposed to racism has existed in the United States almost since the Founding. And this movement has generally won our major battles against bigotry — in 1865, in 1954 (Brown v. Board of Education), in 1964 (the Civil Rights Act), and, for good or ill, in 1967 (affirmative action).
As early as the 1790s, following a letter- and petition-writing campaign by black New England veterans of the Revolutionary War, ten states and territories that already contained well over half the population of the new nation — Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, Indiana (territory), and the Northwest Territory — had banned slavery and were free land. As noted above, any importation of slaves into any of the U.S. states was banned by law in 1808. And, although viciously opposed, the abolitionist movement continued until the Civil War, which the good guys won. When Union soldiers marched south to free their countrymen, they did so, no matter how complex the motivations of some of them, singing the famous words of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”: “As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free.”
Many early leaders of the American abolitionist and anti-racist movement were black men and women, and they did not hate the country. Frederick Douglass, of course, once famously asked, “What, to the slave, is the Fourth of July?” But in the same speech, the great man referred to the core ideas of the Declaration of Independence as “saving principles,” called the Founding Fathers “brave men,” and contrasted their “solid manhood” with what he saw as his own more decadent era.
While noting that “the point from which I am compelled to view” the fathers of the republic “is not, certainly, the most favorable,” Douglass also said, “It does not often happen to a nation to raise, at one time, such a number of truly great men.” Such quotations abound, and it is always refreshing to contrast the nuanced but real patriotism of such black leaders as Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and Martin Luther King Jr. — or Robert Woodson and Thomas Sowell today — with the trendy pablum spewed out by the current academic Marxists. The New York Times’ first draft of the 1619 Project, notably, apparently did not mention Douglass at all.
The project’s rhetoric also lacks the veracity of Douglass’s. Objectively speaking, the most bizarre and nonempirical of the four “context needed” problems I identified with the 1619 Project is the argument that everything “exceptional” — unique and positive — about the United States emerged out of pre-1865 slavery. While writing this piece, I repeated that claim in passing to a scholarly friend of mine, and she said, “Like . . . modern East Asian immigration? I mean, that’s totally nuts.”
She’s right. Black folks contributed massively to the United States, but many of the great triumphs of American history — the full sweep of the NASA missions, the development of the post–World War II California economy, Chinese and Irish migration, the mass production of automobiles — had very little to do with historical black slavery. Bluntly stated, this fact illustrates an important point: In recent years, the focus of discourse on the race and gender obsessions of the academic Left has threatened to overshadow the rest of American history. Almost certainly, far more high-school students could identify Malcolm X than Martin Van Buren or the Wright Brothers.
That’s bad. It is doubtful that an eyes-open minority immigrant to the United States of 2021 would see contemporary, or even historical, racial conflict as one of the five or ten most notable things about the country — compared with democracy, or hyper-robust capitalism, or diversity itself, or the constant flickering of cellphone cameras and social-media posts, or, for that matter, the weather — unless he had been very specifically taught to do so. And we who already live here would be foolish to see racial conflict as the defining characteristic of our country, although a surprising and increasing number of Americans seem obsessively interested in seeing exactly that.
Let’s see something else: the truth. The 1619 Project makes claims about slavery that are sweeping, interesting, and sometimes accurate. But in taking the singular focus that it does, the project minimizes the global universality of slavery, its negative economic impact, the reaction of contemporaneous black leaders to it and to the country overall, and the far larger sweep of all the rest of American history. Parents and others opposed to 1619 aren’t “scared” and don’t want a warts-free telling of American history. But they don’t want an ideologically driven, all-warts narrative either. They want honest history, warts and all, and we should accommodate them.
WILFRED REILLY — Mr. Reilly is an associate professor of political science at Kentucky State University and the author of Taboo: 10 Facts You Can’t Talk About.