Even if we didn’t live in a time of political hyperpolarization, which we do, the combustible topic of slavery’s history and legacy would be deeply controversial, which it is. The New York Times poured some gasoline on this fire last summer with its “1619 Project,” in which the Times apparently decided that because it had mastered the task of reporting “all the news that’s fit to print” with unquestioned and unimpeachable fairness and accuracy, it was now time to move on to providing a definitive take on the US history of race. This seems to me roughly like someone who is working hard to swim 21 laps in an Olympic pool deciding next to swim 21 miles across the English channel. One can admire the spirit behind attempting a much bigger challenge, but still be unsurprised when it doesn’t go well.
When a newspaper says “we stand behind our reporting,” it is often just saying that the story accurately reported a claim or an accusation made by someone else, typically with an attempt to get a reaction from someone on the other side of the accusation. A newspaper article isn’t a legal brief or a PhD dissertation, seeking to weigh and balance all the evidence.
But the 1619 Project does claim to be something else. From the “Editor’s Note” at the start:
Out of slavery — and the anti-black racism it required — grew nearly everything that has truly made America exceptional … The goal of The 1619 Project, a major initiative from The New York Times that this issue of the magazine inaugurates, is to reframe American history by considering what it would mean to regard 1619 as our nation’s birth year. Doing so requires us to place the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are as a country.
Later on, when leading historians criticized many prominent claims in the issue, the response of the editor included a number of conciliatory platitudes like “historical understanding is not fixed,” “differing views exist,” it’s “an important discussion to have,” and we are “planning to host public conversations next year.” But that kind of rhetoric conflicts directly with how the 1619 Project was described originally. The issue isn’t framed in terms of “there are arguments over history, and while conventional US historians believe X, a number of younger historians are challenging their views.”
Instead, the 1619 Project had a stated goal, and it wasn’t some gentle claim how historical understanding is not fixed, or how there are differing views of history. Instead, it says quite bluntly that “[t]he goal .. is to reframe American history” in a specific way, and further suggests that the goal will be pursued in an ongoing way in the future. Opinionated essays can be illuminating, but fair-minded essays give the reader a sense of the broader context. Here, as discussed below, the substantially differing view of leading US historians and economists were ignored. Meanwhile, as the editor’s note at the start points out: “Alongside the essays, you will find 17 literary works that bring to life key moments in African-American history.” I’m a fan of history, and a fan of literature, but for me, but mixing the two in a project that wants to change “the story we tell ourselves” doesn’t raise one’s confidence in the underlying historical narrative.
Finally, the 1619 Project made clear that took its goal of reframing American history very literally, by taking active steps with the Pulitzer foundation to turn the series into material for high school history classrooms. In other words, this newspaper project had gone a long way past being a first rough draft of history. It had gone a long way past trying to report or describe the differing views among US historians on race and slavery. Instead, the 1619 Project was making big claims about historical truth.
Here, I’ll offer some examples of how some leading US historians reacted to the 1619 Project. But the underlying intellectual history here is that there have some books in recent years that have been called “New History of Capitalism,” which argue in different ways that US industrial capitalism is founded on slavery. After mentioning reactions from historians, I’ll turn to what economists working in the field of economic history have had to say about this work.
It’s not clear whether the writers in the 1619 project were unaware of prominent existing US historians, or were aware of them and chose to ignore their work. Either way, it’s not good journalistic practice. Tom Mackaman interviewed several eminent US historians, Gordon S. Wood, James McPherson, and James Oakes, at the World Socialist Web Site. All three have spent their lifetimes publishing articles and books in this field. For example, Gordon Wood wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Radicalism of the American Revolution, as well as Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789–1815. James McPherson wrote Battle Cry of Freedom, perhaps the best-known account of the Civil War. James Oakes wrote two books which have won the prestigious Lincoln Prize: The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of anti-slavery Politics; and Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861–1865.
In short, if you are going to commit an issue of the NYT Magazine to issues of slavery and race in US history, you might want to check in with these kinds of authors. Here’s what Wood had to say:
Well, I was surprised when I opened my Sunday New York Times in August and found the magazine containing the project. I had no warning about this. I read the first essay by Nikole Hannah-Jones, which alleges that the Revolution occurred primarily because of the Americans’ desire to save their slaves. She claims the British were on the warpath against the slave trade and slavery and that rebellion was the only hope for American slavery. This made the American Revolution out to be like the Civil War, where the South seceded to save and protect slavery, and that the Americans 70 years earlier revolted to protect their institution of slavery. I just couldn’t believe this.
I was surprised, as many other people were, by the scope of this thing, especially since it’s going to become the basis for high school education and has the authority of the New York Times behind it, and yet it is so wrong in so many ways. … [N]o one ever approached me. None of the leading scholars of the whole period from the Revolution to the Civil War, as far I know, have been consulted.”
In 1776, Britain, despite the Somerset decision, was certainly not the great champion of antislavery that the Project 1619 suggests. Indeed, it is the northern states in 1776 that are the world’s leaders in the antislavery cause. The first anti-slavery meeting in the history of the world takes place in Philadelphia in 1775. That coincidence I think is important. … The idea that the Revolution occurred as a means of protecting slavery—I just don’t think there is much evidence for it, and in fact the contrary is more true to what happened. The Revolution unleashed antislavery sentiments that led to the first abolition movements in the history of the world. …
We should understand that slavery in the colonial period seemed to be simply the most base status in a whole hierarchy of dependencies and degrees of unfreedom. Indentured servitude was prevalent everywhere. Half the population that came to the colonies in the 18th century came as bonded servants. Servitude, of course, was not slavery, but it was a form of dependency and unfreedom that tended to obscure the uniqueness of racial slavery. Servants were bound over to masters for five or seven years. They couldn’t marry. They couldn’t own property. They belonged to their masters, who could sell them. Servitude was not life-time and was not racially-based, but it was a form of dependency and unfreedom. The Revolution attacked bonded servitude and by 1800 it scarcely existed anywhere in the US. … The elimination of servitude suddenly made slavery more conspicuous than it had been in a world of degrees of unfreedom. The antislavery movements arose out of these circumstances. As far as most northerners were concerned, this most base and despicable form of unfreedom must be eliminated along with all the other forms of unfreedom. …
Central to the middle class revolution was an unprecedented celebration of work, especially manual labor, including the working for money. For centuries going back to the ancient Greeks, work with one’s hands had been held in contempt. Aristotle had said that those who worked with their hands and especially those who worked for money lacked the capacity for virtue. This remained the common view until the American Revolution changed everything. The northern celebration of work made the slaveholding South seem even more anomalous than it was. … Slavery required a culture that held labor in contempt. The North, with its celebration of labor, especially working for money, became even more different from the lazy, slaveholding South. By the 1850s, the two sections, though both American, possessed two different cultures.
She argues that racism is the central theme of American history. It is certainly part of the history. But again, I think it lacks context, lacks perspective on the entire course of slavery and how slavery began and how slavery in the United States was hardly unique. And racial convictions, or “anti-other” convictions, have been central to many societies.
But the idea that racism is a permanent condition, well that’s just not true. And it also doesn’t account for the countervailing tendencies in American history as well. Because opposition to slavery, and opposition to racism, has also been an important theme in American history. … From the Quakers in the 18th century, on through the abolitionists in the antebellum, to the radical Republicans in the Civil War and Reconstruction, to the NAACP which was an interracial organization founded in 1909, down through the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, there have been a lot of whites who have fought against slavery and racial discrimination, and against racism. Almost from the beginning of American history that’s been true. And that’s what’s missing from this perspective.
From James Oakes:
One of the things that Desmond does in his piece … is to leap from the inequality of wealth in slavery to enormous claims about capitalism. He will say that the value of all the slaves in the South was equal to the value of all the securities, factories, and railroads, and then he’ll say, “So you see, slavery was the driving force of American capitalism.” But there’s no obvious connection between the two. Does he want to say that gross inequalities of wealth are conducive to robust economic development? If so, we should be in one of the greatest economic expansions of all time right now, now that the maldistribution of wealth has reached grotesque levels. …
But what’s clear, to me at least, is that the slave economy inhibits the kind of development that northern farmers are engaged in. So that the average wealth of a non-slaveholding farmer in the South is half the wealth of a northern farmer.
This is one of the things I find so disturbing about the argument that slavery is the basis of capitalism. Slavery made the slaveholders rich. But it made the South poor. And it didn’t make the North rich. The wealth of the North was based on the emerging, capitalist internal market that allowed the North to win the Civil War. It’s true that cotton dominated the export market. But it’s only something like 5 percent of GDP. It’s really the wealth of the internal northern market that’s decisive. That depends on a fairly widespread distribution of wealth, and that doesn’t exist in the South. There’s a lot of evidence from western Virginia, for example, that non-slaveholders were angry at the slaveholders for blocking the railroads and things like that that would allow them to take advantage of the internal market. So the legacy of slavery is poverty, not wealth. The slave societies of the New World were comparatively impoverished. To say things like, the entire wealth of “the white world” is based on slavery seems to me to ignore the enormous levels of poverty among whites as well as blacks.
[Added later: Just noticed that there now one more interview up, this one with Claybourne Carson. As he says: “[T]he saddest part of this is that the response of the Times is simply to defend their project.” In addition, there is an interview with Richard Carwardine: “[T]his is a tendentious and partial reading of American history. … It is also wrong in some fundamentals.” Or here is a gentle destruction of the central arguments from Sean Wilentz in the Atlantic: “The New York Times’ 1619 Project launched with the best of intentions, but has been undermined by some of its claims.”)
Of course, gentle reader, you can read the articles and links above and form your own judgments. One can certainly read the 1619 Project essays and get something out of them. But it seems to me very difficult to read the interviews with the historians and to believe that 1619 Project essays should be treated as “history.”
Behind the scenes in the world of economic history, there has been a set of ongoing disputes which bear on these issues (and which are mentioned in passing in the Oakes interview). A group of authors have been pushing for what is sometimes called the “New History of Capitalism,” which argues that US industrial capitalism is founded on slavery. Some common examples of books along these lines include Empire of Cotton: A Global History by Sven Beckert, River of Dark Dreams by Walter Johnson, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by Edward Baptist, and The Business of Slavery and the Rise of American Capitalism, 1815– 1860 by Calvin Schermerhorn. The common reaction of economists to this work is that sometimes offers useful additions to social history, but it seems written without having bothered to come to grips with several decades of work by economic historians on the main themes.
The past decade has seen a resurgence of interest in economic history among historians. … Particularly among Americanists, this shift is gathering momentum, and works on economic history have been among the most celebrated books produced by historians in recent years. Yet this new wave of research has not brought historians back to the academic field of economic history. The scholars producing it do not think of themselves as participants in the field and have worked in isolation from it. Instead, many of them have styled themselves “historians of capitalism.” A separate community of economic historians seems to be emerging. …
The lack of engagement with the work of economic historians leads these authors to make assertions that have been conclusively refuted. Each of these books argues that slavery depended on the acquisition of new territory for its survival or at least for its economic vitality. Yet the amount of unexploited land suitable for the cultivation of cotton within the slave states at the time of the outbreak of the Civil War was immense. There is also a revival of the notion that plantations grew only cotton and were dependent on imports from other regions for food. This view, which figured prominently in Douglass North (1961), was based on a misinterpretation of trade statistics that did not account for the fact that agricultural products shipped to New Orleans were re-exported to other destinations at high rates, as shown by Albert Fishlow (1964) and Robert Gallman (1970). There are discussions of productivity gains in cotton production that minimize the role of the introduction of new cotton varieties, which are now known to be among the primary drivers of those gains. Among the most labor intensive phases of cotton production is the harvest; biological innovations that produced taller plants and bolls that were easier to pick significantly increased slave-labor productivity. Indeed, the narrow focus on cotton in these works prevents them from assessing the full significance of slavery in the development of the American economy. Although cotton was certainly the most valuable slave crop, large numbers of slaves in Kentucky, Missouri, and Virginia were employed in the production of crops that are traditionally associated with small family farms, such as wheat (Wright 2006).
For a sense of the tone in which the economic hypotheses of these authors are discussed, here is Hilt’s comment on one of the works:
[T]he focus of The Half Has Never Been Told is not cultural but economic, and much of its economic analysis is so flawed that it undermines the credibility of the book. For example, Baptist makes the astonishing claim that all of the increase in productivity in cotton picking observed in the antebellum era was due to increases in the whipping and torturing of slaves. This claim enables him to make the central argument of the book, that the “ultimate cause” of the Industrial Revolution was the “systematized torture” of American slaves (pp. 135, 141; see also p. 413). Notwithstanding the fact that the Industrial Revolution began before American slaves were producing cotton in any significant quantities, Baptist’s claim regarding torture and productivity is false, and the evidence he offers in support of it consists of a selective account of the quantitative and narrative record.
The review argues that both books overstate the importance of slavery and cotton production for US economic growth. …. It is not fully accurate, as Baptist claims, that `some fundamental assumptions about the history of slavery and the history of the United States remain strangely unchanged’ (p. xvii) since the nineteenth century, as a review of the current literature concerning slavery that fills in the gaps in his introduction might indicate.
There are good reasons why slavery remains a topic of keen interest. Slavery’s pervasive impact on American society, the misery it caused, and its toxic effects on American’s troubled history of race relations are all legacies of the nation’s original sin. Slavery and the war that ended it led to an impoverished South. It was in this backward, largely rural and agricultural setting, that freedmen and women, lacking education and capital, and often surrounded by hostile whites, had to start new lives. For too long there was a general acquiescence to a southern revisionist version of slavery, the causes of the Civil War, and the subsequent southern white supremacy governments and policies. The NHC [new history of capitalism] has rightly highlighted past injustices and their ramifications.
However, to recognize the pure evils of the slave system, does not mean that slavery was “absolutely essential” for U.S. economic growth, for the Industrial Revolution, or for world development. Neither the NHC’s evidence nor its methodology supports such deterministic conclusions. If slavery had been abolished nationally in 1790, we still would have had the Cotton South, and we still would have had an American Industrial Revolution. The British Industrial Revolution was already underway, and it would have continued. The slave system did increase the scale of farm size in the South, made many slave owners rich, and oppressed blacks. It also impoverished many whites who existed on the margins of the more stratified, less urbanized, and less educated society that slave system created. The riches of slave owners were not essential for national development, and the policies that this elite imposed on local, state, and national governments were on balance detrimental to development. The slave system was an effective way to produce cotton, but hardly the only way. Slavery was a national tragedy that inhibited economic growth over the long run.
Overall, the 1619 Project is explicitly pre-committed to a particular version of history and economics, while failing to mention that professional historians and economists who are long-time experts in these matters fundamentally disagree with many of its central claims. It seeks to “reshape American history,” but fails to provide the context that it is presenting a highly disputed set of views. It is an untrustworthy guide.