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.