The Flagrant Distortions and Subtle Lies of the ‘1619 Project’
Originally published on National Review
October 7, 2019
Nikole Hannah-Jones isn’t remotely honest in her lead 1619 essay.
I wrote a piece a couple of weeks ago about the long history of slavery around the world, since the “1619 Project” pointedly ignored this history.
My argument was that, no matter how horrific slavery was on these shores, it’s a mistake to say that we were exceptional because of slavery.
I was struck by a tweet in response by Nikole Hannah-Jones, the lead essayist of the 1619 edition of the New York Times magazine, who first said I had conceded that America wasn’t exceptional:
Then, in literally the next tweet in her thread, she said those other societies didn’t have our ideals. One would think that would make those ideals, rather than slavery, rather obviously a key source of our exceptionalism. But she concludes the opposite:
But also, how many of these other slave nations were founded on the individual rights of humankind, on the premise that all men were created equal, that they would lead a government of the people, for the people, by the people. THIS is what makes American slavery exceptional.
— Ida Bae Wells (@nhannahjones) September 6, 2019
With these tweets, she covers all her bases: What we had in common with other societies, namely, slavery, means we weren’t exceptional. And what made us distinct from other societies, namely our ideals, was about slavery, too.
As in the old story about the turtle holding the world on its back, it is slavery all the way down.
There are all sorts of things you can reasonably say about the juxtaposition of our ideals and slavery — that our founders were conflicted and hypocritical; that our ideals were incompletely realized and would remain so for a very long time, stretching deep into the 20th century; that our compromise with slavery significantly vitiated the force of our founding principles.
But to portray the American experiment as all about slavery is perverse. The influence of this twisted view appears in the distortions, both subtle and blatant, in the 1619 essay by Hannah-Jones.
It’s worth delving into these in some detail. They reveal what makes the 1619 project not just an an effort to shine a light on a terrible part of our past but a much more ambitious, ideologically driven attempt to redefine our history.As in the old story about the turtle holding the world on its back, it is slavery all the way down.
The Constitution of the United States recognizes the slaves, held within some of the States of the Union, only in their capacity of persons — persons held to labor or service in a State under the laws thereof — persons constituting elements of representation in the popular branch of the National Legislature — persons, the migration or importation of whom should not be prohibited by Congress prior to the year 1808. The Constitution no where recognizes them as property. The words slave and slavery are studiously excluded from the Constitution. Circumlocutions are the fig-leaves under which these parts of the body politic are decently concealed. Slaves, therefore, in the Constitution of the United States are recognized only as persons, enjoying rights and held to the performance of duties.
Hannah-Jones, in effect, implies a counterfactual history in which the Constitution explicitly recognized “property” in men.
Misrepresenting the Founding Era
In her rendering, Hannah-Jones skips from America’s independence to the “hardening of the racial caste system.” She thus excises the liberalization of the slave regime that attended the Revolution, because it, too, is inconvenient to her narrative.
This liberalization wasn’t a minor phenomenon. It was a key element of the revolutionary period, driven by the obvious tension between the Founders’ ringing calls for liberty — and their worry that the British wanted to reduce them to “slaves” — and the slave system itself.
The Revolutionary era witnessed the first major challenge to American slavery. Almost overnight, it seemed, an institution that had long been taken for granted came under intense scrutiny and debate: critics questioned its efficacy and morality, proponents rushed to its defense, and thousands of slaves took advantage of wartime turmoil to flee their bondage. Tangible results of this challenge included the abolition of slavery in the North, a sharp increase in the number of free blacks in the upper South, and the ending of the African slave trade.
Vermont began a gradual abolition in 1777, with Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey following suit between 1780 and 1804. How can any remotely honest account of America and slavery leave these acts out, and not even mention them in a clause or parenthetically? Sean Wilentz calls it, “to that point, the largest emancipation in modern history and the crucial departure from which all later antislavery activity would follow.”
If you think this is a crucial part of the story of the Revolution and American slavery, you clearly aren’t suited to write for or edit the New York Times’ 1619 project.
Kolchin recounts other elements of this liberalizing tendency: In 1776, the second Continental Congress passed a resolution opposing slave imports, and around this time several states banned them; Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware loosened restrictions on manumission; and Congress in 1784 came within one vote of prohibiting slavery in the Western territories. “It appeared for a while,” Kolchin writes, “as if the very survival of slavery in the new nation was threatened.”
Of course, it wouldn’t be. There was backsliding in the South that grew worse over time. In the antebellum period, a more aggressive, positive defense of slavery arose and an accompanying tightening of slave laws, both of which foreshadowed the Civil War.
The secession of the South spoke, indeed, of a distinctly American element in the story of modern slavery, as Kolchin notes:
Nowhere else did the defense of slavery turn into a veritable pro-slavery crusade, as it did in the United States; nowhere else did slave owners refuse to accept emancipation and go to war to preserve their interests. In their hour of crisis, masters elsewhere grumbled, groused and dragged their heels, but ultimately they reluctantly went along with decisions taken by central governments to convert to free labor. In the Southern United States, slaveholders determined that they would rather fight than switch.
This proved the ultimate undoing of slavery, exactly because an anti-slavery North, the predicates of which Hannah-Jones elides or distorts, was prepared to resist.
Which brings us to Abraham Lincoln.
Hannah-Jones treats at some length Lincoln’s notorious August 1862 meeting with prominent free blacks in the White House. In keeping with his longtime support for colonization, the president lectured them on the need for blacks to remove themselves from the country. “Your race suffer very greatly, many of them, by living among us, while ours suffer from your presence,” he said. “In a word, we suffer on each side.” He noted that Congress had appropriated funding to transport blacks to a colony.
All true enough, but consider, once again, what Hannah-Jones leaves out. She mentions that Lincoln was considering issuing the Emancipation Proclamation at this time, but she ignores the plausible interpretation of various Lincoln scholars that the meeting was a public-relations feint, meant to soften political opposition in the Union to Emancipation.
As Oakes relates, Lincoln was high-handed and uninterested in the views of his guests, a contrast to his respectful treatment of other black leaders; he put a heavy emphasis in the meeting on the gap between the races when, usually, he belittled racial differences; he invited a reporter to record the proceedings, a departure from his usual practice, to ensure that his comments appeared instantly in the newspapers.
Colonization was a common way for opponents of slavery to try to make their views more palatable to prejudiced public opinion. It would have been better, of course, if this hadn’t been necessary. But abolitionists and other opponents of slavery were trying to make gains in 19th-century America as it existed. Lincoln continued to pursue colonization until a small experiment failed miserably. Sometime in 1864, he dropped the idea and by the end of the war he was talking about limited black suffrage.
As for his dealings with black leaders, it does him a profound disservice to neglect his relationship with Frederick Douglass.
In August 1864, in their second meeting together at the White House, Lincoln worried that he might lose his reelection and that Democrats would negotiate a peace that kept blacks enslaved in the South. Convinced that blacks, once freed, couldn’t be re-enslaved, he asked Douglass to find a way to further spread the word of Emancipation in the South and get as many slaves to Union lines as possible.
After Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, Douglass joined the procession to visit the president at a reception at the White House, even though a black man had never been part of such a gathering. Detained at the gate, he asked an acquaintance to tell Lincoln he was there. Swiftly admitted, Lincoln told the crowd, “Here comes my friend Douglass” and insisted on hearing Douglass’s opinion of his speech: “Mr. Lincoln, that was a sacred effort.”
In a eulogy of Lincoln that Douglass delivered at the Cooper Institute, he described Lincoln as “emphatically the black man’s President. He was the first of the long line to show any respect to the rights of the black man, or to acknowledge that he had any rights the white man ought to respect.”
There was agreement on this, by the way, from the other side of the divide in the North. A Copperhead attack on Lincoln the year before had put it in almost exactly the same terms:
When did we ever have a President that made so much of the negro, or was ever willing to take him into his private and social circles as Abraham Lincoln does? — Mr. Lincoln is emphatically the black man’s President and the white man’s curse. What act has the President ever done in his official capacity, trace it out to its legitimate ends, that has been beneficial to the country, or to the white man? Not one, and we defy contradiction!
Hannah-Jones, apparently, begs to differ.
* * *
To reiterate, none of this is to deny America’s considerable sins. The reality of our shortcomings is bad enough that no one focusing on slavery or racial discrimination should feel compelled to distort the record. The lines of Samuel Huntington are apt: “Critics say that America is a lie because its reality falls so short of its ideals. They are wrong. America is not a lie; it is a disappointment. But it can be a disappointment only because it is also a hope.”
This gets at the crux of the matter. The American past has had its share of both hypocrisy and nobility. Truthfulness demands that we acknowledge both. Americans were hypocrites in extolling liberty and grounding our national identity to a significant extent in it, while at the same tolerating or even embracing slavery. But, over time, the principles and rhetoric of freedom proved powerful tools against slavery.
The stakes in getting this right are large. If they succeed in making America only about the hypocrisy, the architects of the 1619 Project will deny the country’s nobility to the rising generation. They will have made America, in Huntington’s terms, a lie pure and simple, and enshrined their own hostile, mythologized account of our history.