Recent years have seen eruptions of violence and hate in America: riots, looting, the tearing down of statues. Often those rioting are privileged white youth. One wonders, why are self-described “anti-racist” riots happening now? Today’s African Americans have power and wealth that would have been unimaginable to their ancestors. Americans have elected a black president, a black vice president, and there are many current and former black governors, senators, congressmen and women, SCOTUS justices, professors, journalists, entrepreneurs, millionaires and billionaires, bestselling authors, A-list film stars, influencers, trend-setters and adored entertainers and athletes. Interracial marriage is an accepted feature of American life; indeed, Prince Harry, Kim Kardashian, John Legend, Tiger Woods, Candace Owens, Clarence Thomas, George Lucas, Robert DeNiro, Serena Williams and Heidi Klum are just a few of the celebrities in current and former interracial love matches. Why then has race-informed rage inflamed so many?
One excellent guide through America’s agonized spasms is Peter W. Wood’s “1620: A Critical Response to the 1619 Project.” Peter W. Wood has a Ph.D. in anthropology and was a tenured professor at Boston University. He is president of the National Association of Scholars. He has written an easy-to-read guide to the 1619 Project. Almost like a pop-up book, “1620” expands into an anthology if one follows the many references to online essays that Wood provides.
Wood is never anything but courteous and cool-headed, but he also refuses to walk on eggshells. His prose is direct and unapologetic. For example, Wood writes that the 1619 Project is “an effort to destroy America by teaching children that America never really existed, except as a lie told by white people in an effort to control black people. It eradicates American history and American values in one sweep.” This effort to destroy America by distorting American history is of great import. “American history is important because … We Americans have so little to substantiate our common identity.” Similarly, Wood cites numerous scholars who are equally plainspoken. Allen Guelzo, for example, said “The 1619 Project is not history; it is ignorance.” Gordon S. Wood called the project “perverse and distorted.”
At the same time, Wood acknowledges that taking on the 1619 Project is a quixotic quest. “Criticisms of the 1619 Project seem as futile as moths beating their wings against a porch light.” Nikole Hannah-Jones is a celebrity and is “exempt from ordinary forms of accountability.” Regarding the 1619 Project’s slickly-produced advertisement, aired during the Academy Awards, Wood wrote, “Historians publishing articles that detail the numerous inaccuracies in the Times‘ pseudohistory are up against a famous, popular, and distinctive singer-actress and a soundtrack that dictates what your feelings should be. It is no contest.”
The New York Times premiered the 1619 Project in August, 2019. The Project consists, inter alia, of newspaper and magazine articles, school curricula, live events, and a podcast. The 1619 Project, Wood notes, has, in a precious touch, its very own font. The goal of the 1619 Project is “to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of the United States’ national narrative.” The 1619 Project is promoted by the National Education Association, The Zinn Education Project / Rethinking Schools, and The Pulitzer Center, among others.
Iowa-born, 45-year-old Nikole Hannah-Jones, the daughter of a black father and a Czech-American mother, is the driving force behind the 1619 Project. Hannah-Jones worked as a journalist with the Oregonian, the Raleigh News and Observer, and ProPublica before moving to the New York Times in 2015. Hannah-Jones said it would be “an honor” for her to accept responsibility for the riots and looting in the summer of 2020, and to accept the name “The 1619 Riots.” As Wood records in his book, Hannah-Jones has repeatedly contradicted herself, made comments she later denied making, and deleted extreme tweets, including one that accused her scholarly black critics of not caring about enslaved children. In response to these black critics, Hannah-Jones expressed contempt for them by tweeting a photograph of her pointing to her gold teeth. Hannah-Jones won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary for her introductory essay to the 1619 Project.
Wood summarizes the 1619 Project’s main points: America began, the 1619 Project argues, not with the traditionally celebrated date of July 4, 1776, commemorating the Declaration of Independence. Rather, America began when the White Lion, a pirate ship, brought “slaves” to Virginia in August 1619. Further, “the primary purpose of the colonists who declared independence from Britain in 1776 was to preserve American slavery from the danger of Britain’s outlawing it; the Southern planation system of growing cotton with slave labor is the foundation of modern American capitalism; Lincoln was a racist who had no interest in conferring real citizenship on those who were enslaved … The nation’s history is best understood as a struggle by American blacks against white supremacy … Black Americans fought back alone against discrimination … without this struggle [by blacks] America would have no democracy at all.” Wood says that entire books could be written in opposition to any one of these main points. “The 1619 Project simply ignores the abolition movement … It likewise ignores the huge role of white Americans in the post-Civil War constitutional amendments, and in the civil rights movement.” Another claim of the 1619 Project is that slavery has been ignored by American historians. In fact, Wood writes, “One would be hard pressed to find another historical subject that has produced a greater volume of scholarship.”
1619 Project rhetoric implies that slavery was an American invention; in fact slavery has existed across the globe for thousands of years. It implies that 12.5 million Africans were shipped to America. In fact the real number is 388,000. The remainder were shipped to the Caribbean and Central and South America. The arrival of Africans in 1619 “inaugurated a barbaric system of chattel slavery that would last for the next 250 years … it is the country’s very origin.” False on two points, Wood argues. The Africans who arrived in 1619 landed in a colony that was not comparable to the antebellum, plantation-era South. Rather, they landed in a colony where indentured workers could earn their way to freedom and go on to purchase their own slaves.
“Slavery was not recognized by English common law; once the captives landed their status became fuzzy … None were recorded as slaves … many of the captives were, after a term of indenture, set free … the colony at the time had no system of slavery as such,” writes Wood. Records of “slaves” refer to Englishmen who had been convicted of crimes and who were punished by a period of involuntary servitude. If you missed church services you would “be a slave for the following week.” Indentured servants, including these Africans, had rights under law and a chance to work their way out of servitude.
Those released from bondage in mid-seventeenth-century Virginia acquired property and married, often to white settlers. Wood quotes Ira Berlin, an historian of American slavery. “At least one man from every leading free black family – The Johnsons, Paynes, and Drigguses – married a white woman.” Before 1640 “blacks and whites mingled freely.” “The summer workweek was five and a half days with holidays off ” and discipline was often meted out through the courts.
This is not mere rhetoric. The 1619 Project implies that Virginia in 1619 was comparable to, say, a plantation in Mississippi in 1855. Any such understanding is false, and refuses the complex and changing realities of American slavery. Wood does not linger on this point, but this review will.
One need only read of black slaves who totally defy our concept of slavery, and black slave owners, to understand how different experiences of American slavery could be, varying from time to time, place to place, and person to person. On this point, historian Leslie M. Harris wrote that conditions “vary widely depending on the era and the colony … [the 1619 Project’s] characterizations of slavery in early America reflected laws and practices more common in the antebellum era than in Colonial times, and did not accurately illustrate the varied experiences of the first generation of enslaved people that arrived in Virginia in 1619.”
That forced labor in America varied is no minor point. One of the current anti-racist movement’s dogmas is that white people per se are essentially evil in a way that “black and brown” people are not. White people, because of their unique evil, were destined to produce the chattel slavery of the antebellum South. The historical record shows that that is not the case. Forced labor in the Americas varied because historical conditions varied. Blacks and whites married in seventeenth-century Virginia. Later such marriage was outlawed, and then, again, made legal. The dogma of unchanging, essential white evil, essential white supremacy, is false.
Reading even brief biographies of black slave owners confounds current anti-racism dogma. Consider Anthony Johnson, John Carruthers Stanly, William Ellison, Dilsey Pope, Nathaniel Butler, the Pendarvis family, Justus Angel, Marie Therese Metoyer, Antoine Dubuclet and Andrew Durnford. These were black men and women who owned slaves.
Blacks who owned slaves sometimes purchased their own wives. After purchase, some waited to free their wives. If a wife proved unsuitable, the free black husband might sell his enslaved black wife to another owner. One enslaved woman married to her black master attempted to use her husband’s manumission papers in a scheme to liberate another slave with whom she was in love. In Virginia, black slave owners were entitled by law to the services of white indentured servants. Black slave owners in Louisiana published their willingness to fight for the Confederacy. “The free colored population of Louisiana … own slaves, and they are dearly attached to their native land … and they are ready to shed their blood for her defense. They have no sympathy for abolitionism.”
Cherokee, Choctaw, and Chickasaw Indians owned black slaves. There was great controversy among Cherokee about intimate relations between black slaves and Cherokee owners. At one point marriage between a Cherokee and a black person was punishable with the death penalty. Some Cherokee focused on purity of blood. Fully or partially black people identifying as Cherokee lacked such blood purity. This heated debate broke out in the Cherokee Freedmen Controversy.
Not just blacks who owned slaves in America confound anti-racist dogma. Wood writes, “When Europeans encountered native kingdoms on Africa’s Atlantic coast in the fifteenth century, they discovered slavery as a deeply embedded practice.” European travelers described sadistic human sacrifice of slaves, sacrifice involving the spilling of much blood, in Benin in West Africa. See here for accounts of the grisly human sacrifice of slaves, including women slaves being gagged, staked to the ground, disemboweled, and left to die slowly in the hot sun. Again, these practices of human sacrifice were carried out by Africans on fellow Africans, and they existed before contact with Europeans.
Wood writes, “Slavery continued among American tribes beyond the reach of Western law well into the nineteenth century.” Native American tribes, before any contact with Europeans, practiced systems of enslavement that might include torture, human sacrifice, and cannibalizing of slaves. Native American parents would sometimes sell their children into slavery. Aztec slaves might wear cumbersome wooden collars that made movement difficult. Cherokee also used collars for slaves. Aztec kings’ funerals were accompanied by the sacrifice of slaves, and multiple, prescribed ceremonies days after the king’s death also involved the killing of yet more slaves. Aztec nobles would be buried with slaves to help them in the afterlife. Some tribes practiced genetic slavery; children of slaves would themselves be slaves.
In the Pacific Northwest, up to a third of the population was enslaved. If slaves were disobedient, shamans would carry out exorcisms to tame the slave. Slaves might be killed during a potlatch, so that the slave’s owner could ostentatiously exhibit his own casual indifference to worldly possessions. That’s virtue signaling taken to the most extreme degree.
Slavery continued under Russian control of the Pacific Northwest. When the area came under American control and slavery was outlawed, Native Americans erected a totem pole depicting Abraham Lincoln. In some tellings, the pole was erected by grateful, freed slaves. As others tell it, the pole was erected by slave-owners angered at the theft of their property. Their goal was to shame Americans into compensating them for lost property.
Native American slave owners might mutilate slaves’ bodies. As Judge Dawson stated in an 1886 court case, “The object of such mutilation is to impress upon the slaves their inferiority, and render their humiliation complete.” Judge Dawson ends his opinion with a ringing condemnation of slavery, and an insistence that the enslaved Indian who appealed for his freedom to an American court should win the day. “Can such a system be tolerated in a country whose people lay claims to civilization and Christianity? Does not every precept of religion, every principle that underlies our system of government, every axiom of our political fabric, cry out against such monstrous inhumanity?” The enslaved Indian petitioner “has lost one eye, his ears are badly mutilated, and he is certainly a sad spectacle of humiliated manhood. The crack of the lash, the torture of mutilation, the fear of death, the annoyance of the juggler [shaman], the excess of manual labor imposed upon him, the extreme hardships of his life, with the sense of degradation and inferiority constantly before him, have subdued his manhood, and the pitiable spectacle of his once stately form is an evidence of the blighting curse of slavery.”
The Muslim Slave Trade lasted far longer than the Atlantic Slave Trade, enslaved more people, including millions of white Europeans as well as white Americans, and continued into the twenty-first century. The Islamic Republic of Mauritania did not make slavery a crime till 2007. Ghanaian researcher John Azumah estimates that a minimum of 28 million Africans were trafficked in the Muslim Slave Trade. Thousands of Slavic slaves per year fed Muslim slave caravans in the Middle Ages. One caravan included five thousand Slavic slaves. Female Slavic sex slaves in Al-Andalus, that is, Muslim Spain, were subjected to female genital mutilation. Between 1500-1700, Muslims enslaved c. two million people from Eastern Europe, including Poland. Islam advanced with armies of slave soldiers. The Muslim Slave Trade habitually castrated males; estimates are that six of ten victims died from this procedure. The Muslim Slave Trade is supported by canonical Muslim scripture and the example of Mohammed, Islam’s “perfect example.” Mohammed was a slave owner and slave trader, and he enslaved people he conquered in battle. He encouraged his followers to have sex with their slave captives, including in front of their husbands.
For eleven years, Professor Duke Pesta gave his American university students quizzes to determine what they knew about slavery. Pesta administered these quizzes “at seven different universities, ranging from large research institutions to small liberal arts colleges to branch campuses.” He discovered “students’ overwhelming belief that slavery began in the United States and was almost exclusively an American phenomenon … more students connected Thomas Jefferson to slavery than could identify him as president … students were given an overwhelmingly negative view of American history in high school, perpetuated by scholars such as Howard Zinn in ‘A People’s History of the United States.'” Students were coming to college “pre-programmed.” Knowing nothing about socialism, they defined it as “fairness.” “They cannot tell you many historical facts … but they are, however, stridently vocal about the corrupt nature of the Republic and the wickedness of the founding fathers.” Students exhibited “moral superiority” about America’s “racist and sexist” nature.
My own university students had never heard of the Barbary Wars, the first war America fought against a country other than England, and the first war America fought on foreign soil. The students didn’t know that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson asked why African Muslims enslaved Americans. They didn’t know that Adams and Jefferson learned that “It was written in their Koran, that all nations which had not acknowledged the Prophet were sinners, whom it was the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave.”
Wood does not linger on African or Native American slavery, or leftists’ indoctrination of American students. This review does. None of these facts are adduced to argue that American slavery was anything but what most people think it was: a crime committed by whites against blacks. For the most part, that is true. Black and Cherokee slave-owners were a negligible minority. The existence of the Muslim Slave Trade does not absolve America of its guilt and duty of repair. Why, then, mention any of this in a review of Wood’s excellent book?
The 1619 Project, and the wider “anti-racism” movement, including Critical Race Theory and Black Lives Matter, are de facto religions. Americans are retreating rapidly from engagement with her Judeo-Christian roots. Americans are not abandoning all the trappings of religion; rather they are seeking new religious dogma and expression. Anti-racism provides that.
Post-Christian New Agers like to use the word “karma” to mean “justice.” Karma doesn’t mean justice at all. Past life actions may doom or elevate a Hindu. Bad person in a past life? Be an Untouchable in this life. Good people may be reborn as high-caste Brahmins. America’s new race-based religion is, in one respect, similar to the Hindu caste system. One’s “racial ancestors'” actions determine punishment or reward in this life. Unlike Christianity, there is no hope of redemption. An Untouchable is an Untouchable is an Untouchable. White people can never overcome whiteness.
The new race-based religion rejects transcendent messages from both the Old Testament and the New. Both the Old Testament and the New insist that descendants cannot be punished for their ancestor’s crimes (See Ezekiel 18 and John 9:1-3.) In the Good Samaritan parable, Jesus introduces a morality that insists that all people, regardless of ethnic identity, are to be accorded the same ethical treatment. It is exactly such Christian concepts that allowed an abolition movement to arise. Stripping away identity as the most important criterion, Christians could see themselves in slaves, even if those slaves were ethnically different. The new anti-racist ideology removes Christian spectacles, and encourages us to revert to blind tribalism. Under tribalism, we can’t feel each others’ pain, and we apply differing ethical standards to persons in tribes other than our own. “White fragility” and “white discomfort” deserve no compassion, we are taught, with adamant insistence. Rather, white people’s exhibitions of pain are power plays that essentially evil whites resort to in order to establish their constant goal: white supremacy. If a white person is hurting, the response must not be to feel human compassion and reach out to comfort. The response must be to mock and defeat him or her.
The Good Samaritan ethic is profoundly different from tribal ethical systems that differentiate between in and out group members and have differing ethical standards for each. In Pagan Rome, Roman citizens were largely exempt from crucifixion, but Jews could be crucified, and thousands of Jews were. Islamic legal systems are inspired by qisas. In law codes inspired by this Islamic precept, the punishment for killing a Hindu woman is much less than for killing a Muslim man. Race-based ethics are a step backward. Not just ethics, but, in the new race-based religion, truth itself varies by skin color, as we shall see, below, in Nikole Hannah-Jones’ response to her critics.
The race-based, generational vendetta-based ethic is expressed exactly, if semi-incoherently, in an internet post saluting the 1619 Project:
“As of today we black and Latinos are still under the Jim Crow Law we the people who our ancestors came over on the mother ship’s in chain’s and sold to work there crops are still Slaves under the Jim Crow Law as of today in time and in history. In time God is going to pay back to all who done wrong to our ancestors and all that’s going on in darkness again with the Jim Crow Law of today ‘s world.”
Of course those who “done wrong” to “ancestors” are no longer alive, but there are white people in the world, and those white people, because they share the same skin color as a select group of perpetrators, perpetrators arbitrarily singled out from a vastly larger group of perpetrators of various shades, including “black and brown,” must be punished and must be fleeced.
America’s new race-centered religion argues that all whites are guilty of the crimes of slavery and white supremacy, and that that guilt adheres to white identity. White people exploit; white people establish hierarchies; white people are obsessed with concepts of tribal purity. “Black and brown” people are communal, peace-loving, and completely innocent of any historical crime. Whites must be punished for their guilt. Ibram X. Kendi spells out tribal ethics exactly as does the above-quoted internet poster. Kendi is simply more sophisticated and more amply remunerated for advancing tribal ethics. “The only remedy to racist discrimination is antiracist discrimination. The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination. The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination … to get beyond racism, we must first take account of race. There is no other way. And in order to treat some persons equally, we must treat them differently.”
This rigid division of humanity into good, innocent, worthy-of-financial-compensation “black and brown” people and bad, guilty, must-be-made-to-pay-up white people is evident in my city today. Paterson, NJ’s BLM chapter has announced its “solidarity” with “people of color” Muslim Arabs in opposition to “white” Jews. In fact, of course, Jews and Arabs are quite similarly pigmented. Similarly, when NATO began to bomb Serbia in 1999, I tried to organize my fellow peace-loving leftists against the bombing campaign. One prominent black preacher refused to participate. He supported the “people of color” Albanians against the “white” Serbs. No such color distinction exists between these two groups, in fact.
As mentioned, the vast majority of the Atlantic Slave Trade’s cargo went to the Caribbean and Central and South America. So much for the “black and brown” formulation. “Brown” “Latinx” people were the most numerous slavers in the Americas, and today’s race-based religion not only exonerates “brown” people, it embraces them and conflates them with black people. This ahistorical formulation violates truth and exposes the new religion’s goal: the demonization of whites. “We are demonizing kids. We’re demonizing white people for being born. We are using language that makes them feel less than for nothing that they are personally responsible for,” as one practitioner put it, in a leaked audio.
The ruthless but remunerative career of slave catcher Nathaniel Butler, himself a black man; Cherokee racists intent on preserving the purity of the blood of their tribe; the grand guignol of slave-era Benin; and Haida mutilations of their slaves: all these nightmares inform us that the ugliness of slavery in America was an expression of flawed human nature, not white nature. Coming to terms with the nightmare of slavery does not involve locating evil in white skin. Rather, any real coming to terms with the exploitation of one human being by another demands that we consider a husband, ostensibly in love with his wife, who is willing to sell her to another man because she didn’t meet his needs.
The universal, Christian ethic demands that I see myself in the slave-owning husband, regardless of his color, and the enslaved wife, regardless of her color. I must guard against the sins he commits hiding in my own heart, just waiting for me to give in to my worst impulses. I must feel compassion for the victim I have never been. Tribalism short circuits that race-blind exercise. A spiritual exercise that builds both responsibility and compassion is eliminated in tribal ethics. All that is left is hatred of the other tribe, and the thirst for revenge from people irrationally imagined to be descendants of wrongdoers.
Both the Old and New Testaments insist that “no one is righteous; no, not one.” We are all equal because we are all sinners. Someone directed by the Judeo-Christian ethic would read about the horrors of slavery and recognize: “People like me did this. This is part of human nature. I am human. I must guard against such evil in myself, and I must work toward making the world a more ethical place where such horrors do not occur, including in contemporary slavery.”
Someone informed by the current race-based ethical system locates all evil in white skin. The religious ritual in response to white evil is, as the above-quoted practitioner acknowledges, to “demonize” whites, beginning with white schoolchildren. That approach will never lead to a better world, and it would never have informed anything like America’s abolitionist movement. It is a nihilist approach that leads only to destruction. The 1619 Project is part of a larger effort to distort atrocity as part of a marketing of a perverse and destructive race-based ethical system and economic shakedown.
On June 30, 2020, the New York Times ran a Hannah-Jones piece entitled “What is Owed: If True Justice And Equality Are Ever to Be Achieved in the United States, the Country Must Finally Take Seriously What It Owes Black Americans.” The article fairly screams at the reader: against a black background, the headline font is all caps, supersized, bright yellow, and ragged-edged. Amidst the lettering are black-and-white photos of angry black people raising fists. “It does not matter if your ancestors engaged in slavery or if you just immigrated here two weeks ago,” Hannah-Jones writes. If you are white, you owe black people money. “It is time for reparations.” “My ultimate goal is that there will be a reparations bill passed.”
Reparations will be convenient for Hannah-Jones. Her Czech half can pay reparations to her black half. A quick trip to the drive-up ATM and she won’t even have to leave her car, and balancing her checkbook will be a breeze. Of course it is likely that Hannah-Jones’ Czech ancestors were serfs; serfdom was not eliminated in Czech lands till 1848. No matter. White serfs’ suffering under their lash was just another expression of “white fragility” the Woke must mock.
When American slavery is placed in the context of world and historical slavery, it is clear that what makes America exceptional is America’s rejection of slavery. Wood writes, “America, contrary to Hannah Jones, was born not in the midst of indifference to slavery but in the gathering storm of principled opposition to slavery.”
Before America was born, Quakers established the “Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery and the Relief of Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage.” Ben Franklin was the group’s president. 646,392 Union soldiers were killed or injured ending slavery. If a proportional loss occurred given America’s population today, that would amount to eleven and a half million casualties. Their sacrifice is what makes America exceptional. Their descendants don’t owe reparations to anyone. Instead of respecting their sacrifice, as Wood writes, the goal of the 1619 Project is to promote a “new form of American exceptionalism in which the United States is uniquely awful.”
One must find fault not just with the 1619 Project’s assertions, one must also fault its method. History is traditionally hammered out in a scholarly process that involves credentialed historians who have devoted their lives to their craft. As previously mentioned, Hannah-Jones was a mid-level journalist who focused mostly on segregation while working for local newspapers. Her CV does not qualify her to rewrite American history. Any historian hoping to do so would have to contend with peers, that is other men and women who have also devoted their lives to scholarship, checking over facts and methodology. There was no such peer review of the 1619 Project.
Scholarship uses tools like footnotes. Footnotes were not invented in order to give headaches to undergraduate students typing up their work and struggling to adhere to formatting guidelines. Footnotes allow scholars to see exactly where a given assertion finds support. If an author says something like “Abraham Lincoln was a white supremacist,” a footnote allows readers to discover what material lead the author to that startling conclusion. “Nikole Hannah Jones” Wood reports, “cites no sources at all: the project as presented in the magazine contains no footnotes, bibliography, or other scholarly footholds.” Of the fourteen main contributors, only five are historians . Seven are journalists; six work for the New York Times.
As a “riposte” to the 1619 Project, Wood proposes the November, 1620 arrival of Puritans in Massachusetts. Their Mayflower compact “pointed the way toward America’s self-government.” “The document sketched, for the first time in European settlement of the New World, an ideal of self-government based on justice … The leaders invited servants and underage men to sign it as well. The Mayflower compact was egalitarian in that sense. It ignored class, wealth, and other marks of status – though it did not include women.” The Mayflower Compact’s concept of authority was a Christian one; the true leader was a servant to the people. The men who exercised authority “earned what authority they had by tireless service fetching wood and making fires, preparing food for the sick, washing infected clothes, and doing so ‘willingly and cheerfully.'”
The Mayflower Compact is not limited to its place and time. Rather, it is “profoundly connected” to the Declaration of Independence. Wood quotes Rebeca Fraser “The Mayflower Compact has a whisper of the contractual government enunciated in the Declaration of Independence that governments derive their just powers ‘from the consent of the governed'” The Mayflower Compact is a better choice for America’s founding than the arrival of Africans in Virginia in 1619. Forced labor was all but universal in 1619. What makes America different from every other location where forced labor was practiced is the kind of ideals expressed in the Mayflower Compact, elaborated in the Declaration of Independence, and enforced with the willing sacrifice of human blood in the Civil War.
In December, 2019, five major historians — Victoria Bynum, James M. McPherson, James Oakes, Sean Wilentz, and Gordon S. Wood – published a letter protesting the 1619 Project. Wilentz is the Sidney and Ruth Lapidus Professor of the American Revolutionary Era at Princeton. Wood quotes Wilentz’s New York Review of Books argument that the West is unique in recognizing slavery as “A barbaric offense to God, reason, and natural rights.” Wood and Wilentz cite abolitionists like John Woolman, an American merchant from Pennsylvania, who detailed arguments against slavery in his publications and speeches. “By the mid-1770s, in the American colonies as well as in Britain and France, a significant number of reformers and intellectuals had come to regard American slavery as pure evil. Over the next fifteen years, they set in motion political movements dedicated to eradicating the degradation of persons into property … Revolutionary America, far from a pro-slavery bulwark against the supposedly enlightened British Empire, was a hotbed of antislavery politics, arguably the hottest and most successful of its kind in the Atlantic world prior to 1783.”
Gordon S. Wood is a senior scholar of the American Revolution and recipient of a number of awards for his dozens of books and articles on the topic. In November, 2019, the World Socialist Website published an interview with Wood. Peter W. Wood quotes from this interview.
Gordon Wood expressed concern that the 1619 Project will become “the basis for high school education and it has the authority of the New York Times behind it, and yet it is so wrong in so many ways … None of the leading scholars of the whole period from the Revolution to the Civil War, as far I know, have been consulted.”
Wood said that in the new American nation “nearly everybody knew” that slavery was “a barbaric thing” and wrongly assumed it was “on the road to extinction.” “It’s the American Revolution that makes [slavery] a problem for the world. And the first real anti-slave movement takes place in North America.” Virginia planters, Wood explained, that is men profiting from slavery, “in the years following independence, took the lead in moving to abolish the despicable international slave trade.”
Peter W. Wood quotes historian Christopher Leslie Brown. Contrary to the 1619 Project’s main assertion, that is, that American colonists fought the Revolution to protect American slavery from the allegedly imminent British abolition of slavery, “The British antislavery movement that began in the late 1780s was a late-born sibling in the family of Anglo-American antislavery campaigns. It took shape after the individual initiatives that first arose during the 1760s and 1770s in New England, the Delaware Valley and … the Chesapeake Bay.”
Wood’s chapter addressing the 1619 Project’s take on slavery and capitalism cites several critical historians and economists. Wood argues that the 1619 Project and its attendant supporters produced a series of bogus claims that are easily proven false. Slavery did not account for the percentage of the US economy that Team 1619 said it did. Slave-holders did not invent double entry bookkeeping; in fact, such bookkeeping had been in use for centuries. There was no “pushing system” of increased torture of slaves that somehow, counterintuitively, resulted in increased slave efficiency. In fact it was re-organized work teams and improved crops that produced better yields.
The idea that cotton production in the South was the basis of American capitalism was given the lie during the Civil War. The agricultural South lost the war and the industrial North, relying on the labor of non-slaves, won. “The North produced cities, factories, infrastructure, and a tide of industrial invention.” Wood argues that slavery retarded the economy, and degraded the concept of work. As long as work was associated with forced labor that resulted in no profit to the worker, work was held in contempt. In the capitalist North, with fewer slaves, work was associated with personal profit and advancement. That attitude enriched the North.
Matthew Desmond, a Princeton sociologist, penned a central 1619 piece on slavery and capitalism. Wood cites Phillip W. Magness, an author on economic history, the history of slavery, and related subjects. Magness wrote in a February 2020 article that Desmond’s piece is so thoroughly bad that the Times should retract it.
Predictably, when confronted with criticisms of the 1619 Project, Hannah-Jones responded harshly. “Their criticism is not legitimate,” she said, at one event. Hannah-Jones said historians criticized the project because she is “a black woman who presents the way I do.” In response to one critic, Hannah-Jones said, “LOL. Right, because white historians have produced truly objective history.” Otherwise, “She offered no substantive response” writes Christine Rosen in Commentary. Though Hannah-Jones focused on race, as previously mentioned, the 1619 Project’s critics include numerous African American scholars. They formed a counter project, 1776 Unites.
Leslie M. Harris, a scholar and a black woman, responded to identity-based defenses of the 1619 Project. “Some observers, including at times Hannah-Jones herself, have framed the argument as evidence of a chasm between black and white scholars…the argument among historians … is hardly black and white. Over the past half-century, important foundational work on the history and legacy of slavery has been done by a multiracial group of scholars.”
The 1619 Project provokes strong emotions. There is a large amount of material out there addressing the Project, material most of us can’t devote time to reading. We recognize that slavery was horrible, and we may not understand why anyone would react negatively to a project purporting to advance knowledge about it. Peter W. Wood’s book is a gift to the reader. Wood presents the reader with an easy-to-read, wide-ranging guide to a very hot topic. He does so with grace and class. Work like Wood’s and the scholars he cites give the reader hope in scholarship and the continued viability of the American experiment in democracy.
Danusha Goska is the author of God through Binoculars: A Hitchhiker at a Monastery.