Friday, April 24, 2020

Two Crises, Two Presidents



In a 1976 book Plagues and Peoples, the historian William McNeill surveyed world history looking for the impact of two kinds of parasites who preyed upon the human race.  At one end of the scale, macro-parasites—powerful human beings and the armies and movements they led—preyed upon their fellow human beings, and at the other, micro-parasites—bacteria and viruses—did the same.  80 years ago, the United States mobilized successfully to defeat and destroy macro-parasites that threatened to rule much of the globe for a long time.  Today, COVID-19, a micro-parasite, also threatens our way of life.  Our differing responses to the two crises illustrate what has happened to leadership and political life in this country during those 80 years, and do not bode well for our political future.

Hitler’s conquest of France in 1940 corresponded to the spread of the COVID-19 virus outside China earlier this year.  President Franklin Roosevelt had already used the metaphor of a quarantine to call for some steps to keep wars then raging in Asia and threatening in Europe away from the Americas in September 1937.  Now, as I showed in my book No End Save Victory, with France gone and Britain threatened with invasion, virtually all Americans agreed that Hitler posed a threat to the western hemisphere that the US must prepare to meet.  In September 1940 that threat became broader when Germany, Italy and Japan all agreed to go to war with the US if the US became involved in war either in Europe or in Asia.  By that time, Roosevelt and the Congress were taking dramatic steps to strengthen American defenses.  Roosevelt shocked the nation in May for calling for the annual production of 50,000 war planes.  The Congress, almost without dissent or debate, passed a new naval appropriation that would double the size of the Navy within five or six years about a month later.  And in that same month of September, Congress passed the country’s first peacetime draft.  Roosevelt also created a new agency to plan defense production.    All this, however, aimed at a straightforward, limited goal: the defense of the western hemisphere against aggression.  It might be compared, then, to our recent, more limited goal, of making adequate provision for the treatment of severe COVID-19 cases in our hospitals, by providing enough protective equipment for hospital staff and enough ventilators for critically ill patients.  Even that effort has so far been only a partial success.  Roosevelt had also made the preparedness effort a truly national one in June by appointing two prominent Republicans, former Secretary of State Henry M. Stimson and former vice-presidential candidate Frank Knox, as Secretaries of War and of the Navy.  (The Department of Defense did not yet exist.) President Trump has taken no parallel steps.

The threat to the western hemisphere did not materialize as rapidly as many had feared, because Britain refused to make peace with Hitler, and Hitler, after the failure of the Battle of Britain, decided late in 1940 to begin preparing for an attack on the Soviet Union rather than moving troops and planes into Spain, North Africa, or onto various islands in the Atlantic, as his naval leadership wanted him to do.  By the spring of 1941 it had become clear that the limited goal of defending the western hemisphere was effectively putting a cap on the extent of US war planning and production.  Then, on June 22, Hitler’s attack on the USSR began.  This, President Roosevelt saw, opened up new strategic possibilities.  On July 9, less than three weeks later, he sent Stimson a critical letter. “I wish that you and appropriate representatives designated by you,” he wrote, “would join with the Secretary of the Navy and his representatives in exploring at once the overall production requirements required to defeat our potential enemies.  I realize that this report involves the making of appropriate assumptions as to our probable friends and enemies and to the conceivable theaters of operation which will be required.”  Stimson and the War Department got to work on what became known as the Victory Program: a plan to put together the necessary manpower and resources completely to defeat Germany, Italy and Japan.  Should the USSR survive, Roosevelt now understood, this objective had become possible.  Stimson also set the goal of having the necessary forces available within two years—by July 1, 1943.

Much as we would like to eliminate COVID-19 from the face of the earth, we have no assurance that we can do so.  Our broader goal now seems to be to reduce the spread of the virus and improve its treatment to the point where the country can return to work and begin to rebuild our economy, while working on vaccines that may or may not prove effective.  To achieve that goal we obviously need to know a great deal more about the actual incidence of the virus, and we need to be able to trace contacts rapidly to control its spread.  That in turn requires—as every medical authority confirms—a massive expansion of our testing capacity.

The War Department and the Supply Priorities and Allocations Board—the latest in a series of agencies FDR created to handle production—worked on the Victory Program for the rest of the summer.  When completed in September, it set astonishing targets, including nine million men under arms (five million more than currently planned), a force of seven thousand bombers, and further increases in the Navy—all requiring massive new quantities of raw materials, aluminum, iron, and steel.  Roosevelt indicated during the fall that he wanted the program to go ahead, and even referred to it publicly in a press conference, but he could not even submit it to Congress before the United States was in the war.  On December 7, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and diplomatic intercepts had already made clear to Roosevelt and his military leaders that Germany would carry out its obligation and declare war on the US immediately as well.  Then, on December 9, came one of the most extraordinary moments in American history.  At a meeting of the Supply Priorities and Allocations Board, Secretary of War Stimson asked William Knudsen, the chairman of the board of General Motors who had come to Washington without pay to plan war production, if the country could meet the July 1, 1943 target for the completion of the Victory Program.  “We can’t do it by July 1, 1943,” Knudsen replied—“but we can do it by July 1, 1944.”  Two days into the war, Knudsen had in effect predicted the date at which the decisive offensives against Germany and Japan would begin—ending in victory about a year later.

By this time, with effective national leadership, we would know just how many tests for the virus and for antigens and antibodies against it we need, we might have found what tests we can rely on, and we might at least have let contracts for their production.  We could be clearly on the road to achieving our goal and heading off a devastating economic crisis.  Our current national leadership, however, has not been capable of such steps.  Torn by partisanship and a mistrust of expertise, we have not been able to use our brains to define the problem clearly and figure out how to solve it.  This remains our real test.  Much more than the lives threatened by the virus may depend upon it.

Friday, April 17, 2020

And Now, for Something Completely Different. . .

Last week I read a new book, Apropos of Nothing, the autobiography of Woody Allen.  Before I describe the book and tell you what I think about it, I should perhaps say something about how I came to read it.

I am not sure, but I think that the first real Woody Allen movie I ever saw (he didn't make much of an impression on me in What's New Pussycat, which he helped write), was the hilarious Take the Money and Run, which I think I caught at the Orson Welles Cinema near Harvard Square in 1970 or 1971.  Then came Play It Again Sam, which he wrote and starred in but didn't direct, and Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex, which included at least two absolutely hilarious episodes.  By that time, Woody--from the Silent generation, born in late 1935--was an idol of a certain portion of the Boom generation, including myself, because of his humor and because he put things on the screen that no one else would.  Later in the 1970s, of course, came Annie Hall and Manhattan, as well as his first foray into serious drama, Interiors.  By then, as he explains in Apropos of Nothing, he had the power to get final cut for all his movies--partly because they have always been relatively inexpensive.

I am now looking at the complete list of films that Woody has directed.  Those that I really enjoyed and would never get tired of include Take the Money and Run, Love and Death, Annie Hall, Manhattan, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Bullets Over Broadway, Mighty Aphrodite, Deconstructing Harry, Match Point, Midnight in Paris, To Rome With Love, Blue Jasimine, and A Rainy Day in New York, which I watched last month on a DVD I had to buy from Poland (more later on that.)  (Several others, including Love and Death, didn't quite make that cut.)  I also love Play it Again, Sam, which he wrote but did not direct, and The Front, directed by Martin Ritt, in which he played the lead.  That makes fifteen total movies that he wrote and directed that I really loved, out of a total of 49 full-length films, which works out, oddly enough, to a batting average of a little over .300.  Woody is a baseball fan, and his enormous strength and weakness as an artist is that he makes a movie every year, and that he understands, as he has said, that some will inevitably turn out much better than others.  For me the remainder of his films fall into two categories, the ones I enjoyed and the ones that I would have been just as happy had he never made them at all.  Thanks to facebook, however, I know now you can't name any of his movies that some people didn't like.  Or anyone else's movies, for that matter, but that's another story.  Several times in Apropos of Nothing Woody remarks that when a movie goes badly, the writing is almost always the reason.  The reverse is also true.  In his masterpieces, like (for me) Manhattan and Crimes and Misdemeanors and Deconstructing Harry, the energy in virtually every line of dialogue is incredible.  Several of his plots and story designs are also extraordinary.

Personally, Woody Allen is obviously   very complex, and I realized long ago that like certain other artistic heroes of mine like George Orwell and Marcel Proust, he is much more fun to know through his work than he would be in person.  In the autobiography, as in his films, he wears his neuroses on his sleeve, including a phobia about social situations, hypochondria, and much more.  I also felt that despite many decades of therapy, he is still in denial on some points.  He repeatedly says that he felt plenty of love growing up, but it's not always easy to see that in the stories he tells about his parents, especially his mother.  He also claims that he doesn't care what anyone else thinks about his work, and he proudly repeats over and over that he never reads what critics, or others, have to say about it.  That, it seems to me, is a case of the man protesting too much.  I do care what other people think about my books, but not so much that I'm too terrified to see if some one has said something negative about one (as people have from time to time.)  I agree with him, though, that the best way to keep your sanity if you are dedicated writer or author is to get going on the next project before the last one comes out.

Apropos of Nothing is, in its own way, riveting, informative, and revealing.  Woody obviously wrote it without any help--the persona it projects could not have been invented, or even mimicked, by a ghost.  His memory remains excellent and he goes into his childhood and youth in great detail.  He tells us in great detail about his key relationships with Harlene, his first wife (I just spent five minutes searching for her last name in the book and I now think that it isn't there); with Louise Lasser, his second wife, who acted with him in several films; with Diane Keaton, Mia Farrow, and, of course, Soon-Yi Previn, Farrow's adopted daughter and now his wife, with whom he has spent the last 28 years, as well as another whom I will mention in due course.  He admits to plenty of responsibility for the failure of some of these relationships.  It is interesting that with the notable (and total) exception of Mia Farrow, all the major women in his life have apparently remained lifelong friends.  I have seen in my own life the hold that impossible men seem to hold on many women, perhaps simply because of their neediness. 

Perhaps the second-biggest subject of this book--after Woody's own life--is comedy.  With loving detail, he describes the comic environment of the 1950s into which he was introduced and which shaped him.  It included men like Bob Hope, Jerry Lewis, Lenny Bruce, Norman Lear, and perhaps Woody's favorite, Mort Sahl.   It was a world of clubs, television shows, and Hollywood movies, and he became involved in them all.  And it was not without integrity.  At one point Woody quotes his long-time agent Jack Rollins telling him not to do anything just for the money--if you do what you believe in, he said, the money will take care of itself.  That has been my credo as well, but I would have loved at some point to hear either an agent or an editor say it.  I never have.

One of the most fun parts of the book was seeing the connections between his life and various movies he has made.  While none of the films, clearly, is totally autobiographical--not even Annie Hall or Radio Days--bits of his life pop up everywhere.  When he described the New York apartment of Louise Lasser's well-off family, I thought that I had been transported to the set of Interiors: everything was just so.  The scene in Manhattan where Isaac and Tracy (Mariel Hemingway) take a horse and buggy ride through Central Park came from his relationship with Louise--who also looks like the model for many of the impossible women the heroes of his films can't resist.  The hilarious episode in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex in which Woody and Louise play an Italian couple who have sex in public because that's the only way she can become aroused is based on an episode in their relationship. Like Isaac in Manhattan, Woody made his living early in life writing for TV comedy shows.  His cinematic love affairs with Paris and Rome come from his own life as well.  The story of the production of John Cusack's play in Bullets over Broadway, complete with out-of-town tryouts, draws heavily on his own successful Broadway play, Don't Drink the Water.  And so on.

And now I must turn to the most controversial aspects of his life, which are also the subject of many pages of the book.  Woody Allen, as you all know, now has the reputation among many, many people of being a sexual abuser if not a pedophile.  That has had an enormous impact upon his life at two different times--in 1992 and subsequently when he was first accused of serious offenses, and in the last few years, largely because of the #MeToo movement.  I certainly am not going to retrace the whole story of those accusations but I will try to make some things clear about which I feel strongly.

Let us to begin with separate out various elements of these accusations.  Woody Allen and Mia Farrow had had a relationship of more than ten years in 1992 when all hell broke loose.  They had been romantic partners, they had worked together on various movies, they had adopted two children together, and they had tried to conceive a child together, resulting in the birth of Satchel Farrow, now a successful journalist known as Ronan Farrow.  They had however never lived together (and apparently had spent relatively few nights under the same roof), and had never married.  Their romantic relationship had apparently come to an end several years earlier after Satchel/Ronan's birth.

It was at this point in 1992 that first Mia Farrow, and then the whole world, discovered that Woody was having an affair with her adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn, whom she had adopted from a Korean orphanage when she was eight years old.  Soon-Yi was not one of the children that Woody and Mia had adopted together, and she evidently disliked Woody during the 1980s because she thought he was under the thumb of her mother, whom she detested.  By the time of their affair she was 21 or 22 and living on her own; he was 56.  Whatever one may think about the beginning of this relationship, it certainly means something that they have been together ever since, have married, and raised two adopted children of their own together.  I must say, however, partly for humorous reasons, that perhaps Woody's greatest piece of self-delusion in the book is the statement that Mia Farrow discovered the naked polaroid pictures he had taken of Soon-Yi on a visit to his apartment by accident.  It reminded me of one of the most brilliant lines in Manhattan, when he is arguing with his ex-wife Jill (played by a very young Meryl Streep) about an incident in the past when, Jill says, he had tried to run her gay lover over with his car.  He claims it was an accident.  "What would Freud say?" She asks. "Freud would say I tried to run you over,"  he replies. "That's why he was a genius." q.e.d.

Now the second element of the accusations against Woody related directly to the revelation of the affair with Soon Yi.  Many immediately recalled the affair between 42-year old Isaac (Woody) and 17-year old Tracy (played brilliantly by Mariel Hemingway) in Manhattan and used this (and at least one non-sexual friendship in another film, Crimes and Misdemeanors) to suggest that Woody, like Roman Polanski, had a long-standing obsession with very young women.  Now in fact, Tracy was based on a real 17-year old, a young New Yorker and aspiring actress named Stacey Nelkin, whom Woody had met when she auditioned for and then shot a scene for Annie Hall (the scene didn't make the final cut.)  They had had  a real affair and she also appeared much later in a small role in Bullets over Broadway.  As Nelkin explained just a couple of years ago, she regards the affair as a wonderful experience, has no regrets, and certainly does not believe the more serious accusations against him.  I highly recommend that any interested reader watch the interview Nelkin (now 60) did just a couple of years ago here.  And as Woody points out in Apropos of Nothing, Stacey Nelkin and Soon-Yi are the only two much younger women that he has ever been romantically involved with.  Nor has any actress--including the ones (see below) who have recently expressed regrets for having worked with him--ever accused him of making any unwanted advances on a movie set or trying to take advantage of his position.

Last and most important was the accusation leveled by Mia Farrow 1992, and backed up then by their adopted daughter Dylan (then seven years old), that shortly after the Soon Yi story had broken, Woody had visited the Farrow household in Connecticut to spend some time with his children, had taken Dylan in to a crawl space off an attic, and sexually molested her.  In the wake of the accusation, authorities in two states--Connecticut and New York--investigated it thoroughly.  Both teams concluded that the sexual assault had not taken place and no charges were filed.  Obviously, the New York authorities would never have permitted Woody Allen and Soon Yi to adopt two daughters of their own had they thought they were credible.  We are taught in the United States to judge people innocent until proven guilty: Woody Allen was investigated and found innocent by trained professional investigators who look into cases like this for a living.

Another part of the story, which Woody goes into in excruciating detail, is the issue of Mia Farrow as parent, and the really hair-raising accusations which two of her adopted children--Soon Yi and Moses Farrow, who has now become a therapist, defends his adoptive father, and has written a long blog post of his own explaining why the molestation accusation could not possibly be true--have repeatedly made.  Two people who worked in the Farrow household have backed them up.  The children, inevitably, have now split into pro-Mia and pro-Woody camps.   I leave it to anyone interested to look into the controversy themselves, in Apropos of Nothing,  Mia Farrow's own memoir, and elsewhere, and try to reach their own decision.  I see no need to go into it any further here.

Back in 1992, Woody faced years of civil legal proceedings to determine the custody of their children (which he lost) as well as the two investigations.  He got a lot of bad publicity again but continued making movies and the late 1990s became, for me, one of his most productive periods.  Gradually the controversy died down, but it has re-ignited in the last few years thanks largely to the #MeToo movement, which encouraged Dylan Farrow to renew her investigations.  (Her brother Ronan, now a journalist, has played a big role in exposing the behavior of Harvey Weinstein and others that kicked that movement off.) And this time--despite the complete lack of any new evidence about a thoroughly investigated, 27-year old accusation--the consequences for Woody Allen have been devastating.   Several actresses who worked with him, including Mira Sorvino, who won an Oscar for her role in Mighty Aprhodite (and never had a comparable success again), have attacked him and expressed regrets for working for him.  Amazon.com backed out of a long-term deal to finance his annual productions.  Until recently almost any actor in the world was delighted to get in front of a camera for Woody Allen; now many are refusing to do so.  He does still have many defenders, including Alec Baldwin, Cate Blanchett (who won an Oscar for her reprise of the role of Blanche DuBois in the brilliant Blue Jasimine), and Diane Keaton, but they are an embattled minority.  His last movie--which I think was a very good one, Rainy Day in New York--has not been shown or released on DVD in his own country, the United States, although it has deservedly done very well in Europe.  He has managed to complete yet another movie, and I am looking forward to it.

I am very sad that all this has happened to one of our finest filmmakers, who captured so much about the Awakening of the 1960s and 1970s, and whose best films also touch on truly profound issues about human life, and who is now 84 years old.  I am glad that he took the time to write this book, which Ronan Farrow convinced Hachette publishers not to publish after they had contracted for it with Woody. (Perhaps Woody and his new publisher, Arcade Publishing, should thank Ronan for the free publicity. The book appears to be selling very well.) Allen has fallen victim, in many ways, to a new blacklist.  Martin Ritt, who directed him in The Front, was off the blacklist after just a few years, and the whole blacklist lasted only a little more than a decade, but Woody has been devastated by a discredited accusation from 27 years ago.  I am glad that he is still working and living his life, and I will close by linking the final scene of The Front--one of my favorites--in which his character, Howard Prince, faces up to the blacklisters of another time.







Sunday, April 12, 2020

How Are We Doing?

Back in the 1990s, William Strauss and Neil Howe predicted that some dramatic event would trigger a great national crisis sometime in the first 10-15 years of the new century.  Because they drew on so much more history than almost anyone knew, and because the United States seemed at that moment to be going from strength to strength, they had very little impact upon major media and even less in academia.   This remains the case today, even though their most important prediction obviously came true--more than once.  Whether one dates the crisis from 2000-1 (as I do), or from the economic crisis of 2008  (as Neil Howe does), the spiral into chaos has continued with the election of Donald Trump in 2016 and now with the COVID-19 pandemic.  (In The Fourth Turning, by the way, they cited terrorism, economic crisis, federal-state conflict, and epidemics as possible triggers.) 

Drawing on this history of the three previous great crises in our national life--1774-94, 1861-8, and 1929-45--they also predicted the emergence of another leader comparable to Lincoln or FDR, a public commitment to new goals, and the mobilization of the country to meet them.  In this they have been disappointed.  With the exception of the first year or so after 9/11, each one of these crises has made polarization and conflict worse, not better, and the failure to deal effectively with any of them has discredited our professional political class.  I have held off discussing the politics of our latest crisis for a few weeks, but it seems that it, too, is going to continue us down ou road to political hell, at least for a while, while adding a huge new economic crisis to the mix.

Last Sunday's New York Times led with a long story about travel from China to the US during the pandemic, with the purpose of showing that President Trump had not done very much to stop it, despite his boasts.  Today's Sunday Times leads with a long article about Trump's slow response to the crisis.  The editors of the Times, apparently, think it's more important to continue making the [very true] point that Donald Trump is  a totally incompetent and boastful leader than to tell us exactly what is happening with respect to the epidemic and where it all might go.  That, it seems to me, is simply the liberal counterpart of Trump's own approach, which consists of repeating ad nauseam that he and his team are doing a wonderful job, far better than any previous administration in comparable circumstances, and that the mainstream media refuse to recognize it.  Although the Times has the facts on its side in this case, neither approach gets us any closer to dealing effectively with the epidemic and the economic catastrophe that we face, much less using the crisis to pull us together across political lines.

Rhetoric is only one aspect of this problem.  While I have not taken the time to study the government's economic response to the crisis in detail, it seems to have focused on protecting the same big financial institutions that got us into the 2008 crisis and now find themselves overextended again.  One story I read detailed how  the Federal Reserve is now buying "asset-backed securities" based on car loans and other debts, just as it did in 2008-9.  With manufacturing and service industries virtually at a standstill, the financial and legal communities look set to become relatively stronger yet again.  I have not on the other hand seen much serious thinking about how we will sustain most of the population and many small businesses.  My own state of Massachusetts has just given mortgage holders a three-month holiday, protecting them against foreclosure, but on the assumption--a very dubious one in my opinion--that debtors will be able to make these payments good after the grace period is over.  It seems to me that we need something entirely unprecedented, a national holiday on debt payments of all kinds until we decide to send the nation back to work.  We may also need to adopt ex-candidate Andrew Yang's proposal for universal basic income on a temporary basis, which I would combine with Elizabeth Warren's proposal for a wealth tax to pay for it.  In a national emergency we need to draw on the resources of the wealthiest among us, as we did in the era of the two world wars.  This might make a great campaign plank for Joe Biden.

And meanwhile, we may indeed face a very serious decision about our medium-term decision about our response to the epidemic.  We cannot indefinitely continue the social distancing that is lowering our infection rate and with it, our death rate.  A vaccine, authorities seem to agree, is at least a year away.  An article this morning in my other morning paper, the Boston Globe, suggests that we will only be beyond the epidemic when we have herd immunity--which, he writes, only occurs when about 60% of the population has had it.  That is almost 200 million people, and even if the death rate from the virus is only 1%, that means that nearly 2 million Americans would die of it.  (I should say that I don't think we really have any idea of what the death rate actually is because no nation has tested enough to know how many people have been infected.  I might mention anecdotally that I now know personally of about 10 people who seem to have had it but most of them have not been tested and none of them has had a positive test.)  My hunch--and that is all it is--at this time is that our best hope is to discover some treatment options that will significantly reduce the death rate further, so that we will be able to tolerate it as we go back to work.  That decision would be comparable to decisions in earlier eras to accept certain casualty levels in wars, because the nation felt we had to win them.  Like my economic proposals in the preceding paragraph, this problem is only intermittently engaging our leadership now, but things will look very different, I think, by the end of the summer.

Led by Andrew Cuomo, of course, various governors have stepped forward to expand our capacity to treat COVID-19 patients and keep most of us at home and safe.  They have given much better examples of what public service is about than we have seen in many years.  I have begun to think that all our presidents are now so insulated by layers of spin control to give us the same impression of really being on top of events.  We have however, a national an international economy, faced with a pandemic, and states cannot effectively solve our biggest problems.  "Men fight best on death ground," Sun Tzu wrote.  Most of us are not on death ground personally, and will not be, during the epidemic--but our political system is another matter.


Saturday, April 04, 2020

The Controversy over the 1619 Project rages on

[All of our minds are on the COVID-19 epidemic, which so far has not touched my wife and I directly, although one family member of mine may have had a mild case for nearly two weeks.  I have decided not to write about it this week because the situation remains very confused and I don't want to contribute further the division in the country, which the crisis appears to me to be fueling more than healing.  Instead I am going to post this piece about one aspect of the New York Times's 1619 Project about the significance of slavery in America, which I had been working on for a couple of weeks.  I think we should all do our best to see that our lives go on.)

           The Latest Chapter in the New York Times’ 1619 Project and its Aftermath


Last August, the New York Times devoted an entire issue of its magazine to the 1619 Project, commemorating the arrival of the first African slaves in Jamestown, Virginia.  In a series of articles, led by a contribution of Hannah Nikole-Jones, the project argued for the centrality of race and racism in American history, making a number of sweeping claims about actual white American attitudes towards slavery and equality at odds with customary interpretations.  Within weeks, the project drew an impassioned protest from five very distinguished scholars of various periods of American history, all of whom well versed in issues related to slavery and race.  They labeled a number of key claims as false, including one related to the American Revolution. “On the American Revolution, pivotal to any account of our history,” they wrote, “the project asserts that the founders declared the colonies’ independence of Britain ‘in order to ensure slavery would continue.’ This is not true. If supportable, the allegation would be astounding — yet every statement offered by the project to validate it is false.”

In a long response, Times editor Jake Silverstein specifically defended that statement, citing two historical episodes in support of it.  The first was the 1772 British high court decision, Somerset v. Stewart, which freed a slave whose owner had brought him into England on the grounds that slavery had no basis in English common law.  “It is true, as Professor Wilentz has noted elsewhere,” Silverstein wrote, “that the Somerset decision did not legally threaten slavery in the colonies, but the ruling caused a sensation nonetheless. Numerous colonial newspapers covered it and warned of the tyranny it represented. Multiple historians have pointed out that in part because of the Somerset case, slavery joined other issues in helping to gradually drive apart the patriots and their colonial governments. The British often tried to undermine the patriots by mocking their hypocrisy in fighting for liberty while keeping Africans in bondage, and colonial officials repeatedly encouraged enslaved people to seek freedom by fleeing to British lines. For their part, large numbers of the enslaved came to see the struggle as one between freedom and continued subjugation. As [historian David] Waldstreicher writes, ‘The black-British alliance decisively pushed planters in these [Southern] states toward independence.’” Silverstein continues:

“The culmination of this was the Dunmore Proclamation, issued in late 1775 by the colonial governor of Virginia, which offered freedom to any enslaved person who fled his plantation and joined the British Army. A member of South Carolina’s delegation to the Continental Congress wrote that this act did more to sever the ties between Britain and its colonies ‘than any other expedient which could possibly have been thought of.’ The historian Jill Lepore writes in her recent book, ‘These Truths: A History of the United States,’ ‘Not the taxes and the tea, not the shots at Lexington and Concord, not the siege of Boston; rather, it was this act, Dunmore’s offer of freedom to slaves, that tipped the scales in favor of American independence.’ And yet how many contemporary Americans have ever even heard of it? Enslaved people at the time certainly knew about it. During the Revolution, thousands sought freedom by taking refuge with British forces.”

I will return to these citations in a moment.  More recently, on March 11, Jake Silverstein submitted a “clarification” to the project, announcing an amendment to the passage in Nikole-Jones’s article that stated “that one primary reason the colonists fought the American Revolution was to protect the institution of slavery. This assertion has elicited criticism from some historians and support from others.  We stand behind the basic point, which is that among the various motivations that drove the patriots toward independence was a concern that the British would seek or were already seeking to disrupt in various ways the entrenched system of American slavery.” However, emphasizing the diversity of opinion among the revolutionaries, he continued, “We recognize that our original language could be read to suggest that protecting slavery was a primary motivation for all of the colonists. The passage has been changed to make clear that this was a primary motivation for some of the colonists. A note has been appended to the story as well.”  The passage in the online version of Nikole-Jones’s article now reads, “Conveniently left out of our founding mythology is the fact that one of the primary reasons some of the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery.”  The original version isn’t available but apparently the words “some of” did not appear in that sentence in it.

In support of her proposition, Nikole-Jones cited the lawyers Alfred and Ruth Blumrosen, authors of Slave Nation: How Slavery United the Colonies and Sparked the American Revolution, and David Waldstreicher, author of Slavery’s Constitution: From Revolution to Ratification. We shall turn to them in a moment.  In his latest apologia, Silverstein refers readers to a “list of suggested reading from the Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture,”  which includes an article by Waldstreicher. I have done my best to find out how much support these sources give to what they have argued.

The COVID-19 epidemic has closed all the Harvard and local public libraries around me, making it impossible for me to get my hands on the Blumrosens’ and Waldstreicher’s books, but I have found three scholarly reviews of the first and five of the second on line. (I shall incorporate a look into those books in this article as soon as I can read them.) The reviews of the Blumrosens confirm that the book claims that the Somerset decision alarmed the South and moved the southern colonies to favor independence, but none of the reviews found that argument convincing.  One noted that most of the press comment on the decision was in the North, not the South (a point to which I will return), two noted that the British government was making no attempt to extend the principle of the decision to the colonies, and all noted that if the decision really threatened slavery in the British colonies, one would have expected the Caribbean British colonies to have joined in the revolution.  The only source, in other words, for the argument that slavery in general was threatened by the British Crown in the years before the revolution, appears to lack any firm evidentiary basis.  The five reviews of Waldstreicher’s book confirm that it discusses discusses the impact of Lord Mansfield’s Somerset decision in the colonies, but none of them reports that the author argued that that decision led to the revolution or the Declaration of Independence.

 As it happens, the suggested reading list cited by Silverstein includes a chapter from a 1961 book by Benjamin Quarles, The Negro in the American Revolution, which also. “In the thirteen colonies neither governors, legislatures nor the courts took official notice of the Mansfield decision, but it was not without influence on American thinking. The decision confirmed the abolitionist views expressed by reformers; it stimulated requests for legislative action against slavery, and hastened its downfall in New England.”  In the next few years, before the revolution, several Massachusetts slaves sued for and won their freedom in court, despite the opposition of the royal governor, Thomas Hutchinson, who also stopped the colonial legislature from outlawing the slave trade, as was done in Connecticut and Massachusetts. In 1774-5, Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia also stopped the importation of slaves. Quarles adds that the revolution, far from reflecting pro-slavery sentiment, stimulated a great deal of anti-slavery thinking, and led when the war was over to the abolition of slavery in the New England states and in Pennsylvania.  Nikole-Jones has the impact of the decision backwards.

I turn now to the other keystone of Silverstein’s and Nikole-Jones’s argument, Lord Dunmore’s proclamation.  On November 7, 1775, Dunmore, Virginia’s royal governor, did indeed issue a proclamation that not only declared martial law within the colony, but also promised freedom to any slave belonging to a master in rebellion against the crown who would leave his master and join the British army—as several hundred promptly did.  To assess the significance of his proclamation within the context of the revolution, we must put it in a broader historical context.

November 7, 1775 was, of course, nearly seven months after the beginning of the fighting at  Lexington and Concord, six months after the convening of the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia, and about five months after the Battle of Bunker Hill.  While the Declaration of Independence was another eight months off, many of the colonies were openly in rebellion against royal authority, and the situation in Virginia was so dicey as to have persuaded Dunmore himself to take refuge on a British warship in the James River.  His proclamation was not a move against slavery as such that triggered a revolt against British rule to protect that institution, it was an attempt to use a colonial vulnerability—the possibility of a slave insurrection—to punish colonists already in rebellion.  Slavery evidently had nothing to do with the events that had led to fighting in Massachusetts, the convening of the Continental Congress, and the attempts to find some basis for peace within the British Empire.  Other issues—first, taxation, and then the imposition of military rule in Massachusetts, which threatened all the liberties of the colonists—had led to the rebellion, if not yet to the goal of independence.  Historians do agree that Dunmore’s proclamation had some effect on neutral white opinion in Virginia, and some of the articles in the suggested reading list show that other southern colonies feared slave revolts as well.  Yet all this was obviously secondary to the broader political issues that had already brought Britain and the colonies to war.  If the southern leaders had cared more about slavery than anything else, they could have handled Dunmore’s proclamation much more easily simply by submitting to his authority and preserving their right to their slaves.  In the same way, Nikole-Jones and others have quoted Edmund Rutledge of South Carolina to the effect that nothing had moved so many to the cause of independence as Dunmore’s proclamation—but without noting that even months after Rutledge made this remark, his fellow South Carolinians had not authorized him, their delegate to the Continental Congress, to endorse independence.  As the late Pauline Maier documented at length in her book on the Declaration of Independence, Inventing America, the swing towards independence had much more to do with George III’s decision to send armed forces, including foreign mercenaries, to subdue the colonies, and his refusal to discuss a settlement with them, than anything else.  I do not know why Harvard professor and New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore chose to endorse the idea that it was Dunmore’s proclamation, “not the taxes and the tea, not the shots at Lexington and Concord, not the siege of Boston. . . that tipped the scales in favor of American independence,” but I can report that she did not cite a single source for that claim, while every sentence in Maier’s book is well documented.

I have gone through all the selections on the reading list that Silverstein linked. The discussion from the Quarles book that I have already cited is one of the few selections that bears on the issues raised by the 1619 project about the American Revolution.  Articles or book excerpts by Woody Holton, Cassandra Pybus, Robert G. Parkinson and Michael A. McDonnell all confirm, in different ways, the fear of slave revolts among the colonists, and describe what happened to slaves who took up Dunmore’s offer, many of whom, sadly, died of disease on board British ships. Certainly the Crown’s attempts both to get slaves to defect and to engage Indian tribes in the conflict with the colonists played a big role in revolutionary propaganda, but they obviously could not have caused the war, since it had already begun when the British undertook them.  None of the selections argues that the British government intended to abolish slavery in the North American colonies, or presents significant evidence that any of the revolutionaries thought that the British wanted to do so.

For most of two centuries, those black and white Americans who believed in equality for all embraced the language and much of the history of the Declaration of Independence, the Revolution, and the Constitution and its subsequent amendments, while protesting that the rights they proclaimed had been denied to black Americans and asking that they receive them.  They understood, I believe, that the white Americans’ claims to equal rights were revolutionary within the mostly white political context of the North Atlantic world, and that their enshrinement in these documents and the establishment of the United States contributed something new and powerful to human political life—something to which the excluded could and did now aspire.  In the last half century, many, though not all, historians, other academics, and now, journalists and op-ed writers, have gone in a different direction, arguing that hypocrisy was really the defining feature of what the American revolutionaries accomplished, and that none of it had (or will have) any real meaning until it has been extended to everyone on a fully equal basis.  They have not however been able to make that case, as the 1619 Project shows, without doing violence to the facts of American history.  Jake Silverstein and Nikole Hannah-Jones have scaled back their claim about slavery as a cause of the American Revolution, but without providing any real evidence for it.  This is a sad commentary on contemporary journalism, and on the low regard for facts today at both ends of our political spectrum.