Several years ago, I purchased a used copy of Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman’s Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery (1974), one of the five most important books on American slavery that have appeared in the last 50 years. The previous owner had inserted a series of newspaper clippings of book reviews and essays written around the time the book was published. This material also included his handwritten notes on the subject, including a description of a Liberty Fund conference on slavery held during the late 1990s. He expressed shock at the taboo nature of the topic and was dismayed by the relative lack of civility from the panel even 30 years after the height of the Civil Rights movement.
To my accidental correspondent, the passage of time should have allowed for greater nuance and dispassionate conversation. He failed to realize that the history of American slavery will always arouse strong emotions because it is intimately bound with current-day struggles over U.S. political power. This is still the case in 2020.
“The 1619 Project,” a special project by The New York Times Magazine, highlights the undeniable fact that American slavery remains a potent political issue. According to the magazine’s editor and director of the project, Jake Silverstein, “We are journalists, trained to look at current events and situations and ask the question: Why is this the way it is? In the case of persistent racism and inequality that plague this country, the answer to that question led us inexorably into the past….”
While no historian would question this emphasis on the past—indeed, many fell in love with the past because of their interest in current events—beginning with a premise and then working backward to “prove it” destroys the very nature of historical inquiry. In this case, both Silverstein and Nikole Hannah-Jones, the project’s creator, operate under the assumption that slavery is still inexplicably linked to issues of race in America. In short, without slavery, American racism would not exist. Even more to the point of the 1619 Project’s creators, slavery created a permanent victim class in American society, primarily comprised of black Americans, which established and sustained “white privilege.”
The goal of the 1619 Project has clearly been political rather than historical or educational. Modern colleges and universities already teach the so-called truths of Silverstein’s project on a regular basis. Entire departments have been founded to perpetuate race and gender studies, and these professors regularly teach American history survey courses to a supposedly un-indoctrinated American public. This raises several questions. First, is the 1619 Project a novel approach to the subject of race and slavery in America? Second, did slavery create American racism? Third, how unique was American slavery? And fourth, did black Americans make America a “democracy” as Hannah-Jones suggested in the opening essay to the project, and if so, is the 1619 Project little more than a thinly veiled political polemic?
According to Silverstein, “The project was intended to address the marginalization of African-American history in the telling of our national story and examine the legacy of slavery in contemporary American life.” This would imply that American pop culture has been devoid of material dedicated to race and slavery. Indeed, it assumes that Americans are not at all acquainted with the issue and that there has been a veritable conspiracy to keep black American history off the pages of American history textbooks and out of the popular imagination. The 1619 Project echoes a recent report by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) entitled “Teaching Hard History,” which is designed to give educators tools to provide “an intervention in the ways that we teach and learn about the history of American slavery.” Both the 1619 Project and the SPLC ignore the pervasive role of slavery in America’s popular imagination going back to the 19th century.
American secondary schools regularly assign Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) as the definitive treatment of American slavery. The book sold 300,000 copies in the year it was published and nearly 1.5 million copies around the world by the end of the 1850s, making it the bestselling fictional work of the period, and it has never been out of print. There have been dozens of film and theatrical adaptations, and it has inspired several artistic representations, among them a sculpture in Brussels, Belgium, by Louis Samain. No work had a more dramatic and lasting effect on the perception of slavery in America than Uncle Tom’s Cabin, particularly in the North and in Europe. The book has been translated into 70 languages and in 2018 was named the second most-influential story in the world by a BBC poll of 108 literary critics.
Solomon Northup’s book Twelve Years a Slave (1853), published one year after Uncle Tom’s Cabin and dedicated to Stowe, was made into a major motion picture in 2013, which landed an Emmy and a Golden Globe for best picture, and earned almost $200 million worldwide. Other dramatic representations of slavery have been financial successes at the box office and on the small screen, the most conspicuous example being the 1977 TV series Roots, based on Alex Haley’s novel, which won nine Emmy awards, a Golden Globe, a Peabody award, and which was the second most-watched television finale in American history. Steven Spielberg’s Amistad (1997), Quentin Tarantino’s violent Django Unchained (2012), and a 2019 theatrical biography of Harriet Tubman round out recent representations of the evils of slavery on the big screen. These Hollywood products are in line with the narrative of the 1619 Project and the SPLC’s didactic literature on American slavery and race relations. Not to mention Broadway’s runaway hit of 2015, the hip-hop musical Hamilton also focused on race and diversity and aimed at challenging the “great white male” version of the American founding.
A study conducted between 2004 and 2005 by education professors Sam Wineburg and Chauncey Monte-Sano asked both high school students and adults to choose the top 10 most heroic Americans. They could not select a president or the wife of a president, and the survey did not provide possible answers. The top three choices of high school students were Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, and Harriet Tubman, and those three names were in the top 10 of adult answers as well. White classrooms in heartland states like Indiana were more likely to list King and Parks than more diverse schools in other parts of the country. Wineburg and Monte-Sano praised the findings as the result of decades of “diversity” education.
The evidence indicates that the 1619 Project and the SPLC overstate their case regarding the “marginalization of African-American history in the telling of our national story.” With the success of several books, films, and television shows focusing on the legacy and history of slavery in America, no one could accurately claim that the black American experience is underrepresented in pop culture. American students at all levels are being exposed to a 1619 Project story on race and slavery on a regular basis, either through popular media, diversity-centered curricula, or academic departments.
Conversely, very few Americans have heard of the nearly one hundred “anti-Tom” books published in the 1850s that challenge the Uncle Tom version of the South. Boston minister Nehemiah Adams’ A South-side View of Slavery (1854), does not appear on any required reading lists. After reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Adams traveled to the South to validate Stowe’s description of Southern society. Instead, he ended up writing an account of his investigation that showed that many of the abolitionist claims against Southern society were grossly exaggerated or outright fabrications. Adams simply described what he witnessed during his travels, but because his impressions didn’t conform to the narrative of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, leading abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison called South-side View “as vile a work as ever written.” Adams’ book and others like it provide a more accurate, nuanced, and less polemical historical view of slavery, but they have been marginalized or forgotten in American society, criticized for being overtly reactionary or partisan, and ignored by popular media. William Gilmore Simms, perhaps the most widely respected Southern writer of his generation, was blacklisted in Northern literary circles after writing his own challenges to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. His blacklisting continues to this day.
The censured conversation about the history of slavery obscures the fundamental question: Did slavery cause American racism? “Race prejudice seems stronger in those states that have abolished slavery than in those where it still exists, and nowhere is it more intolerant than in those states where slavery was never known,” Alexis de Tocqueville remarked in his observations about this country, Democracy in America (1835). Tocqueville blamed this phenomenon on slavery, writing, “Memories of slavery disgrace the race, and race perpetuates memories of slavery.” So, even in New England—a region that Tocqueville incorrectly believed had been little touched by slavery—the mere fact that those of African descent had been made slaves meant that they would be forever treated as slaves even after being granted legal freedom.
Tocqueville’s argument may be a case of putting the cart before the horse. Race relations in colonial America were complex, particularly in the South. The historian Eugene Genovese remarked in his seminal Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (1974):
Wherever racial subordination exists, racism exists; therefore, southern slave society and its racist ideology had much in common with other systems and societies. But southern slave society was not merely one more manifestation of some abstraction called racist society. Its history was essentially determined by particular relationships of class power in racial form.
In other words, for Genovese—who wrote then as an orthodox Marxist—racism as an abstraction had little to do with Southern society. The South was reinforced by slavery, but not created by the institution. He wrote, “The racial distinction between master and slave heightened the tension inherent in an unjust social order…” but it did not create it.
“Neither slavery nor serfdom was racially determined,” Genovese argued in his Mind of the Master Class: History and Faith in the Southern Slaveholder’s Worldview (2005). “From ancient times Europeans had recruited slaves without regard to race, and whites overwhelmingly predominated among the millions of slaves held in Europe.” This was certainly the case in early colonial British North America, where the earliest slaves were Europeans. The Africans who arrived in 1619 entered an already existing slaveholding society, though one that would change over time.
By the 16th century, both European Christians and Muslim cultures equated slavery with Africa. But this was not the result of European kidnapping raids into the African interior, as Hannah-Jones suggests in the 1619 Project. Europeans did not have the military muscle to travel inland in order to capture future slaves. The historian John Thornton explained in Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World (1992), “Africans played a more active role in developing the commerce, and they did so on their own initiative.” These slaves would be “purchased more often than captured” for there were no “dramatic European conquests in Africa.” Africans set the terms, the prices, and the supply. If anything, the identification of slavery with Africa was created by Africans who lived in a “deep-seated legal and institutional” slaveholding culture, as Thornton wrote. Europeans may have demanded the labor, but Africans drove the institution.
Certainly, Americans in both the North and South lived in a racially stratified society, but one that was based on their understanding of history and theology, rather than on the existence of slavery itself. Notions of race had been developed by Greek and Roman philosophers and historians and had filtered through successive generations to American thinkers. In fact, it was Northern theologians who dominated American pro-slavery literature from the early 18th century forward, and who argued that Africans were an inferior and barbaric race in need of civilization and Christianization. The Biblical defense of slavery became a common theme in both the North and the South during the 19th century. The historian Larry Tise wrote that, “The adoption of a pro-slavery ideology by the South in the 1830s marked, not a departure from the rest of the nation either ideologically or psychically, but rather a full adoption of what may have been at the time America’s strongest sociopolitical and cultural philosophy and tradition.”
Racist statements were commonplace among some of the most ardent anti-slavery advocates in the United States, most of whom were Northerners. The idea of racial segregation was born in the North, and the term likely originates from 1850s Connecticut and its efforts to segregate rail cars, C. Vann Woodward notes in The Strange Career of Jim Crow (1955). Even the abolitionist Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner thought that African-Americans would eventually become a contented laboring class because they were incapable of anything else. As Fogel and Engermann wrote in Time on the Cross, “It is one of the bitterest ironies of history that the antislavery critics who worked so hard to break these chains probably did as much as any other group, perhaps more, to fasten the spikes that have kept blacks in the agony of racial discrimination during their century of freedom.”
In fact, in many cases African slavery refuted the notion of black inferiority. Distinguished historian Clarence Ver Steeg noted that slaves were used as frontline troops during the Yamasee War (1715-1717) and that “blacks were entrusted with responsibilities for defense that almost equaled those of whites.” Fogel and Engermann found that slave labor was more efficient than white labor and that because of economic necessity, slaves and freedmen alike were often entrusted with highly skilled tasks and trained to accomplish those tasks.
Horace King, for example, was born a slave in South Carolina and in time became one of the most prominent engineers and bridge builders in the entire South. Richard Wade discovered that slaves at the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond, Virginia “did the skilled work such as puddling, heating, and rolling as well as the usual common tasks” and in the process produced a high-quality product that successfully competed with Northern manufacturers. These slaves were required to work 10-hour shifts but were paid overtime if they exceeded those hours.
To our accustomed eight-hour workday sensibilities this sounds brutal, but consider that free white women in 1850s Massachusetts Lowell textile mills were required to work 80-hour work weeks with no overtime pay. Fogel and Engermann argued that the economic exploitation of slaves has been exaggerated, writing that “Over the course of his lifetime, the typical slave field hand received about 90 percent of the income he produced.” Genovese found that Southern “Paternalism’s insistence upon mutual obligations—duties, responsibilities, and ultimately even rights—implicitly recognized the slaves’ humanity.”
This humanity was manifested in the way slaves lived and worked in the South. According to Genovese, fair trials for slaves accused of even capital crimes were commonplace throughout the South and were conducted with scrupulous attention to duty and to the law. Convictions for rape and murder were frequently overturned in appellate courts. Lower-class white Southerners and black slaves generally shared the same diet. Slaves reared and nursed Southern white children, cooked their food, and easily mingled in Southern society. The African population in North America increased due to the natural birthrate, a situation that was unheard of in the rest of the Atlantic world.
Genovese, Fogel, and Engermann all concluded that living conditions among slaves were comparable or better than those of other laboring classes in the 19th century. Indeed, Genovese noted, “Were anyone perverse enough to bother, he might easily find that the living conditions of a large minority or even a majority of the world’s population during the twentieth century might not compare in comfort with those of the slaves of Mississippi a century earlier.” Even W. E. B. Du Bois would have agreed with this conclusion, though he well understood, as did everyone in antebellum America, including slaveholding Southerners, that power and the potential for abuse were the real issue in American slavery. But even here, Genovese, Fogel, and Engermann determined that cruelty to slaves had virtually disappeared by the late antebellum period due in large part to internal reform rather than pressure from Northern abolitionists. Slavery in North America was unique not because it was more brutal and oppressive than slavery elsewhere, but because it was far less harsh than slave systems in other Western slave societies during the same time period. This does not justify the institution, but it does lend historical perspective.
One of the most egregious claims of the 1619 Project is that black Americans “made” America a democracy. Hannah-Jones wrote that because black Americans fully embraced Jefferson’s statement that “all men are created equal,” they formed the backbone of the American democratic experience. In fact, democracy was alive and well in the 18th century, as self-rule was better understood in that time than our own, so much so that the founding generation sought to curtail its riotous manifestations when they drafted and ratified the Constitution in 1787 and 1788.
We should not confuse 18th-century local “democracy” with the creation of a highly centralized administrative state providing social services, or with the advent of universal suffrage. This is precisely what Hannah-Jones does when she equates democracy with the present political order. By making the case that black Americans have been the true “democrats” in American history, she is trying to hold together a political crusade that goes on and on. For most of American history, slavery was a political issue, whatever else it may have been. Hannah-Jones and her colleagues have not changed that pattern. Not surprisingly, they ignore the complicated history of black America and Africa, from black slaveowners (some of which were regarded as the most brutal tyrants in their regions) to the glaringly anti-egalitarian social order in most African societies.
The 1619 Project is nothing more than a political agenda, masquerading as bold scholarship. Silverstein suggested the “facts” of the project are not in dispute, only the interpretation. This is clearly not the case.