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Saturday, April 04, 2020

The Controversy over the 1619 Project rages 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.


Bozon said...

I think it is wonderful that you are undertaking such an inquiry. I have been posting bits on these themes, but had not thought that you would take them up seriously.

The discussion in your post seems to me to be one between mainly two dueling Whig interpretations of the causes of the American Rebellion or Revolution, and the role of slavery within it, and as a cause.

My own view is that this debate, interesting as it sometimes is, nevertheless misses most of the actual ideological and theological underpinnings of the colonial rebellion.

It was not, for the colonists themselves, North or South, so much about either losing their slaves (one big element of their trade and commerce both north and south) on the one hand; or about taxes and representation on the other, although that was typically how Northern, mainly religious, publicists framed the issues for southern readers in a secular vernacular, whose religions were different from those of the north.

The slavery card was how Lord Dunmore proceeded, but no one seriously thought that Britain would try to abolish slavery in the colonies with desperate British factories all clamoring for American cotton.

I suggest answers to these questions are best found in The Language of Liberty 1660-1832 Political discourse and social dynamics in the Anglo-American world.

All the best

Rupert Chapman said...

Dear Professor Kaiser:
I really like your contribution to this debate because of the dispassionate tone and dedication to seeking the evidence. I particularly like the way in which you point out that taking Lord Dunmore's proclamation as causal in the American War of Independence is to place the effect before the cause. Time and sequence are crucial in all historical studies, including my own speciality, archaeology.

There is, however, one misconception which I would, respectfully, like to point out. You state that, '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.' But while it is true that the colonists so perceived matters, and while George III definitely approved of the action, it was not HE who sent those armed forces, but his Prime Minister, Lord North. What the colonists, and many within Great Britain, failed to recognize is that there had been a major constitutional change within Great Britain, from an absolute monarchy, in which the monarch WAS the executive, to a constitutional monarchy, in which an elected minister of the monarch (not yet actually called the Prime Minister) governed in the name of the monarch. To say that George III took the actions mentioned is like saying that Elizabeth II sent the British military to the Falkland Islands, an action of which she doubtless approved.
Best wishes,
Rupert Chapman

Energyflow said...

Fascinating discussion. Similarly as history is rewritten based on modern prejudice, current events are quite twisted to suit political purposes. Both of these were parodied in Orwell's 1984. History is constantly rewritten to fit the current party line. Thank God there is real source material to draw on. It is not all virtual. We can go down quite the rabbit hole of our own political prejudices if we are not careful as those Times editors seem to have done. Objectivity over emotion is incredibly difficult when dealing with such broad issues as race, religion, national identities. 'My country right or wrong' said many before Vietnam. My father said catholicism ws the one true church. We see the abuse scandals there and how people leave the church. The current schism in American ppolitics has its current roots as we have often discussed here in the 1960s. This trend is apparent in the 1619 project. Identity politics is overemphasized in general, creating unneccessary divisions, microaggressions, fake news instead of professional journalism. Now this coronavirus could be exactly the big crisis hat you continue to say 9/11 was. 80 years after WWII it would be expected. This could bring the country together and heal those festering wounds as the community comes together with a new purpose of rebuilding infrastructure, manufacturing capacity lost abroad and hopefully reducing useless foreign miltary engagements, weapons manufacrurers. If covid-19 reveals our globalised JIT system as flawed it could revitalize local and national identities against dehumanizing globalization. I saw a film where the rich live above the earth on a perfect garden of eden satellite while everyone else was impoverished here below. The reality of centralized global conntrol by the rich today and the rebellion in many nations against it(brexit,Trump) is very similar to the rebellion against imperial Britain by the colonists. Meanwhile those same globalists play divide et impera everywhere to destroy aspirations of national sovereignty against the wealthy globalist agenda. In the case of the 1619 project this agenda is aimed at the highly educated, convincing them that the foundation of America was racism, meaning America, like Nazi Germany, the ultimate horror of the last crisis, is effectively illegitimate as a construct and in effect that all national borders are racst constructs, that nobody has a right to any homeland as such anywhere. This propagated reeducation of the global elite then lands in the textbooks of all the children everywhere as the plutocrats plan to use this or another crisis to expand their control. The plutocrats know the reality. Their useful idiots at the NYT like Pravda editors are mere pawns. Power is an aphrodisiac. 'History'is an ideological tool. Rewrite history and you control the future. This is not just a battle over some obscure past occurrences but of our ability to live together in harmony without megacorps, huge financial institutins, militaries Rome like destroying every bit of personal autonomy, in Estonia, Iowa, Bolivia, Yemen, Uganda.

Bozon said...

To place this debate into a wider more adequate context I suggest referring to Elliott's Empires of the Atlantic World. It is just a much better much more rounded, non negro race Whiggish, and more complete, if now slightly dated, discussion of the context surrounding negro slavery, as well as other forms of labor, in the New World, not just North America, than is presented in The 1619 Project, which leaves everything to be desired at every turn.

All the best

Bozon said...

Revisiting this matter, I tend to think that fear of a slave revolts on a large scale would have been tantamount to emancipation had it occurred. Certainly the evidence is there for the British having tried to foment them.

Having read Parkinson's article, from several years before, fleshes out a better case than the 1619 Project account for the importance of this issue.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Jefferson's rough draft is also a good context source. It does not seem that the Crown forced slavery on the colonies.

Until after the Seven Years War, the Crown had had difficulty forcing anything on them, even when it had tried. The Dominion Of New England is just one isolated example.

All in all, the hypocrisy moniker seems to me to fit rather well with colonial motivations.

All the best

Bozon said...

How about Shaun King? He wants to tear down monuments (presumably including churches) connected with Jesus, a white racist. Trump's new Executive Order specifically references King.
I had noted on my site that this would spread much farther than mere Southern token white racists, to Northern founding fathers and beyond to all of Western Civilization.That prediction has already come true.
Now it looks more and more like a full on August 24, 1572 St Bartholomew's Day kind of thing, coming soon to a theater near you.
All the best,

Bozon said...

Your readers may appreciate this analogy, maybe not.

The 1619 Project, and the treatment of the George Floyd case, have analogies, in scope, to some stories the NYT has run in the past, as news stories.
The Kitty Genovese Story, a news story, implicitly indicted all Americans, similarly to how the 1619 Story reads for white Americans, and to how the Floyd Story reads for cops.
The Kitty Genovese Story turned out to be completely wrong in every way. She was definitely killed. And unfortunately Floyd was killed too I believe.
I am not suggesting that they falsified the Floyd story, but it seems to function in tandem with the problematic 1619 account nevertheless.
The NYT, many decades later, apologized in print for the Genovese Story.
You can read about it.
All the best

Bozon said...

Just another update, with history unfolding.
This theme, global oppression and white racism, having been long fanned and promoted here by the NYT for its own other agendas, has now erupted in random race related protests in major Western cities, the long conflicts within Ethiopia for example.

It is one thing to have American negroes protesting "American inequality" or "American slavery", right or wrong, in American cities.

As I have noted, however, even this has had an activist non negro ideological globalist Socialist backing, from the beginning.

What we are now seeing, however, is quite another thing altogether, both here and in Europe, even from that pathetic situation.

All the best

Bozon said...


History is unfolding rapidly, and quickening now, on the topic of so called populist protests, however one defines the slippery left or right pejorative term "populism".

I give it also a decided racist and religious connotation, left and right, and all creeds, on my site, because it has so often been glossed over here, used mainly by the left to lambast the domestic right, leaving a world brimming with vigorous racist sectarians of color largely unexamined.

While it may seem that such protests as the yellow vests, for example, or the Polish abortion legislation protests, or protests in East Russia, or HK, or COVID return to lockdown protests everywhere, are not connected, according to some analyses, I would argue that they all, recently now, somehow, parasitically even, feed on the postmodernist, widening, legitimization of nonviolent or violent protests, in any and all societies, on any political social or religious issue whatsoever, for which the 1619 Project, and then the related BLM initiative, served to widen the opening in awareness, globally, of the lack of political and law and order obstacles to protest actions.

All the best