Tuesday, December 03, 2019

Denying the grandeur of the nation’s founding—Wilfred McClay on 1619: "Most of my students are shocked to learn that that slavery is not uniquely American"


Does [the 1619 Project] put forward the hypothesis that the introduction of these 20 individuals—who many scholars argue must have been indentured servants rather than slaves, since there was no provision for chattel slavery in the English common law—is to be taken to represent the nation’s real beginning,
asks Wilfred McClay in Commentary (thanks to the American Conservative's Rod Dreher, via Instapundit) —
and thereby to supersede the French and Indian War, the Revolutionary War, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution, among many other conventional items, in understanding and accounting for the nation’s creation?

Does it mean that the existence of those elements we associate with American exceptionalism, such as individualism, political democracy, constitutional liberty, economic freedom, egalitarianism, inventiveness, and so on, are somehow to be attributable to slavery?

 … Be that as it may, we can say this much: Considered strictly as an exercise in historical understanding, and in deepening the public’s understanding of a profound issue in our national past, the Project represents a giant missed opportunity. It passes over the complex truth in favor of an exaggeration bordering on travesty. And if it has any influence, that influence will be as likely as not to damage the nation and distort its self-understanding in truly harmful ways—ways that will perhaps be most harmful of all to Americans of African descent, who do not need to be supplied with yet another reason to feel cut off from the promise of American life.

 … But to acknowledge that slavery and its effects have been woven deeply and indelibly into the fabric of American society, and will always be a part of the American story, is one thing. To say that they represent the predominant forces shaping American life down to the present—that is quite another.

There are two fundamental sets of questions, then, to be asked of the 1619 Project.

First, are its fundamental assertions plausible? Do they rest on a solid and uncontroversial scholarly basis? Is there an evidentiary basis at all for saying that “everything exceptional about American history” rests upon slavery?

The second set of questions involves what we are to make of the New York Times’ decision to take on this project in the way that it has. Is it the proper role of a journalistic organization, especially one as powerful as the Times, to promote and advocate for a particular interpretation of American history? Do such actions constitute responsible journalism? Do they contribute to the solution of our current problems through the introduction of honest, unflinching, and fair-minded consideration of the issues raised by the American experience with slavery?

Or are they doing something far less creditable, less balanced, and more polemical, using a distorted and one-sided account of our history to intervene in our current political wars, in ways that can only broaden and deepen those conflicts, and turn them into far worse forms of warfare?

The answer to the second set of questions will depend on what we conclude about the first set. And with them the Project seems to go astray almost immediately.

To begin with, there is an implication running through much of the 1619 Project that slavery is a subject that somehow is rarely if ever spoken of in American history. It would be hard to imagine a more absurd claim.
 … Here we come to an example of a real failure in our educational system, something that the Times could actually help address. Most of my college students come to class without any larger context for their understanding of American slavery. They compare the realities of American life against an abstract standard of perfection and find them wanting. Moreover, they believe that slavery is uniquely American, and uniquely Southern, and that freedom and prosperity are the default position of the human race.

They are shocked and disbelieving when they are told that slavery has existed all over the world, in most cultures and most time periods of human history, and that it has in fact been more the rule than the exception in human history. They do not know that the Greeks, the Romans, the Vikings, the Byzantines, the Ethiopians all embraced slavery. They are shocked to learn that American slavery was exponentially more humane than that of, say, Brazil, and that the American portion of the slaves imported from Africa was only about 4 to 5 percent of the total number imported to the Western hemisphere. They are shocked to learn about the role of Islam in the propagation of slavery. They are shocked to know that slavery still exists openly today in countries such as Mauritania, and our vaunted agencies of international governance do little to nothing about it.

Will the 1619 Project bring these facts to light? Will it seek to give us a better- informed perspective on the uniqueness of the liberty and prosperity and order that we enjoy, and the obstacles in our own history that we have managed to overcome to get where we are? Will it point out that the United States did not create slavery, did not create racism or racial prejudice, that these things are as old as human history and are the default position of human nature, absent some strong countervailing moral force; but that the United States, while having a history that is touched by these evils and while having participated in them, is also a country that has a larger history of which it can be proud, a history of seeking to overcome such things?

It could indeed do that, if it chose to. But that is not what it has chosen to do.

Instead, the Times has chosen to link the commemoration of 1619—a project that in itself is indisputably worthy and important—with a highly questionable scholarly agenda and an equally questionable journalistic one. It uses 1619 as a pretext for other things. I have no idea whether the political gambit of attributing comprehensive bred-in-the-bone racism to the overwhelming majority of Americans can be successful. I doubt that it can, but who knows? But I do know this:

Rooting the nation’s institutions in 1619 not only becomes a way of denying the grandeur of the nation’s actual founding a century and a half later, and of the institutions, including the world’s oldest constitution, that were established then; and of denying the nation’s immense moral progress since that time, and its capacity for even greater progress. Even more important, it becomes a massive distraction, a way of not thinking constructively about the problems that face us, and the changes that could bring progress. Do we really want to continue down that road? I hope that we won’t. But the example being set by the New York Times is far from encouraging.
Related: Pulitzer Prize Winner James McPherson Confirms that No Mainstream Historian Was Contacted by the NYT for Its 1619 History Project

• Gordon Wood: "The Revolution unleashed antislavery sentiments that led to the first abolition movements in the history of the world" — another Pulitzer-Winning Historian Had No Warning about the NYT's 1619 Project

• James Oakes on 1619: "Slavery made the slaveholders rich; But it made the South poor; And it didn’t make the North rich—So the legacy of slavery is poverty, not wealth"

1619, Mao, & 9-11: History According to the NYT — Plus, a Remarkable Issue of National Geographic Reveals the Leftists' "Blame America First" Approach to History

1619: Wondering Why Slavery Persisted for Almost 75 Years After the Founding of the USA? According to Lincoln, the Democrat Party's "Principled" Opposition to "Hate Speech"

Who, Exactly, Is It Who Should Apologize for Slavery and Make Reparations? America? The South? The Descendants of the Planters? …

Monday, December 02, 2019

James Oakes on 1619: "Slavery made the slaveholders rich; But it made the South poor; And it didn’t make the North rich—So the legacy of slavery is poverty, not wealth"

it’s astounding that you have to go to the World Socialist Website to find such comprehensive debunking of the NYT’s twaddle 
exclaims Glenn Reynolds. Indeed, thanks to the efforts of the WSWS, of all places, we are getting to get an idea of not only how many mainstream historians the New York Times failed to approach for its 1619 project, but that they did not even had any idea of its "assembly" and coming publication. Following his in-depth talks with James McPherson and Gordon Wood, the WSWS's Tom Mackaman now brings us (thanks to the American Conservative's Rod Dreher) an interview with

James Oakes, Distinguished Professor of History and Graduate School Humanities Professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York [and] the author of 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 (2007); and Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861–1865 (2012). His most recent book is The Scorpion’s Sting: anti-slavery and the Coming of the Civil War (2014).
Q. Can you discuss some of the recent literature on slavery and capitalism, which argues that chattel slavery was, and is, the decisive feature of capitalism, especially American capitalism? I am thinking in particular of the recent books by Sven Beckert, Ed Baptist and Walter Johnson. This seems to inform the contribution to the 1619 Project by Matthew Desmond.
A. Collectively their work has prompted some very strong criticism from scholars in the field. My concern is that by avoiding some of the basic analytical questions, most of the scholars have backed into a neo-liberal economic interpretation of slavery …

What you really have with this literature is a marriage of neo-liberalism and liberal guilt. When you marry those two things, neo-liberal politics and liberal guilt, this is what you get. You get the New York Times, you get the literature on slavery and capitalism.
Q. And Matthew Desmond’s argument that all of the horrors of contemporary American capitalism are rooted in slavery …
A. There’s been a kind of standard bourgeois-liberal way of arguing that goes all the way back to the 18th century, that whenever you are talking about some form of oppression, or whenever you yourself are oppressed, you instinctively go to the analogy of slavery. At least since the 18th century in our society, in western liberal societies, slavery has been the gold standard of oppression. The colonists, in the imperial crisis, complained that they were the “slaves” of Great Britain. It was the same thing all the way through the 19th century. The leaders of the first women’s movement would sometimes liken the position of a woman in a northern household to that of a slave on a southern plantation. The first workers’ movement, coming out of the culture of republican independence, attacked wage labor as wage slavery. Civil War soldiers would complain that they were treated like slaves.

Desmond, following the lead of the scholars he’s citing, basically relies on the same analogy. They’re saying, “look at the ways capitalism is just like slavery, and that’s because capitalism came from slavery.” But there’s no actual critique of capitalism in any of it. They’re saying, “Oh my God! Slavery looks just like capitalism. They had highly developed management techniques just like we do!” Slaveholders were greedy, just like capitalists. Slavery was violent, just like our society is. So there’s a critique of violence and a critique of greed. But greed and violence are everywhere in human history, not just in capitalist societies. So there’s no actual critique of capitalism as such, at least as I read it.

There’s this famous book on the crop lien system and debt peonage in the late 19th century South called Slavery by Another Name. [Douglas Blackmon, 2008] It wasn’t slavery. But it was a horrible system and naturally you want to attack it so you liken it to slavery. So that’s the basic conceptual thrust of what we’re now reading.

One of the things that Desmond does in his piece, and he did in the podcast as well, 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.

This ignores a large and impressive body of scholarship produced a generation ago by historians of the capitalist transformation of the North, all of it pointing to the northern countryside as the seedbed of the industrial revolution. Christopher Clark, Jeanne Boydston, John Faragher, Jonathan Prude and others—these were and are outstanding scholars, and anyone interested in the origins of American capitalism must come to terms with them. Some of them, like Amy Dru Stanley and Christopher Tomlins, launched sophisticated criticisms of capitalism. The “New Historians of Capitalism,” reflected in the 1619 Project, ignore that scholarship and revert instead to standard neo-liberal economics. There’s nothing remotely radical about it.
Q. And a point we made in our response to the 1619 Project, is that it dovetails also with the major political thrust of the Democratic Party, identity politics. And the claim that is made, and I think it’s almost become a commonplace, is that slavery is the uniquely American “original sin.”
A. Yes. “Original sin,” that’s one of them. The other is that slavery or racism is built into the DNA of America. These are really dangerous tropes. They’re not only ahistorical, they’re actually anti-historical. The function of those tropes is to deny change over time. It goes back to those analogies. They say, “look at how terribly black people were treated under slavery. And look at the incarceration rate for black people today. It’s the same thing.” Nothing changes. There has been no industrialization. There has been no Great Migration. We’re all in the same boat we were back then. And that’s what original sin is. It’s passed down. Every single generation is born with the same original sin. And the worst thing about it is that it leads to political paralysis. It’s always been here. There’s nothing we can do to get out of it. If it’s the DNA, there’s nothing you can do. What do you do? Alter your DNA?
Q. You have a very good analysis of the literature on slavery and capitalism that Desmond is drawing on, in the journal International Labor and Working Class History. And one of the very important points you make is that this literature is just jumping over the Civil War, as if nothing really happened.
A. From our perspective, for someone who thinks about societies in terms of the basic underlying social relations of production or social property relations, the radical overthrow of the largest and wealthiest slave society in the world is a revolutionary transformation. An old colleague of mine at Princeton, Lawrence Stone, used to say, when he was arguing with the revisionists about the English Civil War, that “big events have big causes.”
The Civil War was a major conflict between the North and South over whether or not a society based on free labor, and ultimately wage labor, was morally, politically, economically, and socially superior to a society based on slave labor. That was the issue. And it seems to me that the attempt to focus on the financial linkages between these two systems, or the common aspects of their exchange relations, masks the fundamental conflict over the underlying relations of production between these two ultimately incompatible systems of social organization, these political economies.

By focusing on the similar commercial aspects of the slave economy of the South and the industrializing economy of the North, the “New Historians of Capitalism” effectively erase the fundamental differences between the two systems. This makes the Civil War incomprehensible. They practically boast about this.
Q. It seems that they’re kind of inviting in through the back door the old argument about the Civil War being the “war between brothers.” But now it’s the war between capitalist brothers. It begs the question, what was the dispute about then?
A. They don’t have an explanation. In the introduction to Slavery’s Capitalism [1] they write something like, “this raises some serious questions about the Civil War.” Well, for you it does, because of how you’ve framed it. But there’s plenty of evidence even in that book to indicate that they’re playing around with their own evidence. …
 … Q. You mentioned the ahistorical character of some of this work, and it seems to me that they also have to overlook a lot of what people back then said and thought about these divergent systems. Planters imagined that they were defending a feudal-patriarchal world. But if you consider a figure like Frederick Douglass, who worked as a slave and as a wage laborer in the North, he and others like him were convinced that the northern economy was more dynamic.
A. Certainly, the anti-slavery position is that the free labor economy of the North is more dynamic than the slave labor economy of the South. In the 1850s this was not an unreasonable position to take. But the sectional crisis didn’t happen because all of a sudden northerners became anti-slavery. The problem was that the anti-slavery North gradually became a lot more powerful. It became a lot more powerful because the capitalist economy was proving to be far more dynamic and wealthy than the slave economy. The slave economies of the New World were basically extractive economies whose function was to provide commodities and raw materials to the more developed economies of the metropole. Specifically, the southern cotton economy was the creature of British industrial development, and industrial development in the North. It came into existence to feed that increasingly dynamic system. …
 … Q. Let me ask you about Lincoln. He’s not discussed much in Ms. Hannah-Jones’ article—
A. Yes, she does the famous 1862 meeting Lincoln had in the White House on colonization—
Q. Lincoln is presented as a garden-variety racist…
A. Yes, and she also says somewhere else that he issued the Emancipation Proclamation simply as a military tactic…
Q. Could you comment on that?
A. It’s ridiculous. Most of what Abraham Lincoln had to say about African Americans was anti-racist, from the first major speech he gives on slavery in 1854, when he says, “If the negro is a man, why then my ancient faith teaches me that ‘all men are created equal’; and that there can be no moral right in connection with one man’s making a slave of another.” Lincoln says, can’t we stop talking about this race and that race being equal or inferior and go back to the principle that all men are created equal. And he says this so many times and in so many ways. By the late 1850s he was vehemently denouncing Stephen Douglas and his northern Democrats for their racist demagoguery, which Lincoln complained was designed to accustom the American people to the idea that slavery was the permanent, natural condition of black people. His speeches were becoming, quite literally, anti-racist.

Now, he grew up in Indiana and he lived as an adult in Illinois, and Illinois had some of the harshest discriminatory laws in the North. That is to say, he inhabited a world in which it’s almost unimaginable to him that white people will ever allow black people to live as equals. So on the one hand he denounces racism and is committed to emancipation, to the overthrow of slavery, gradually or however it would take place. But on the other hand he believes white people will never allow blacks equality. So he advocates voluntary colonization. Find a place somewhere where blacks can enjoy the full fruits of liberty that all human beings are entitled to. It’s a very pessimistic view about the possibilities of racial equality. Ironically, it’s not all that far from Lincoln’s critics today who say that racism is built into the American DNA. At least Lincoln got over it and came to the conclusion that we’re going to have to live as equals here. …
 … Q. Yes, context is important, and it reminds me of his letter to the New York Tribune
A. To Greeley. Exactly. It’s the same month. It’s the same summer. And it’s doing exactly the same thing. It’s strategic.
Q. It reads differently if you know that he has the Emancipation Proclamation in pocket
A. In the Greeley letter Lincoln says that if he could restore the Union without freeing a single slave he would. But he’s already signed the Washington D.C. emancipation bill. He’s already signed the bill banning slavery from the western territories. And he’s already ordered the Union soldiers to emancipate all the slaves coming to their lines in the war. So option one is already off the table. He can’t in fact restore the Union without freeing any slaves. Then he says in the same letter to Horace Greeley that if he could restore the Union by freeing all the slaves, he would. But he can’t do that either, because as he said many times that the only emancipating power he had under the Constitution derived from the war powers to suppress a rebellion. He can’t do that in Maryland, because it’s not in rebellion, or in Delaware, Kentucky and Missouri, because those states were not formally in rebellion. So option two is out: He can’t restore the Union by freeing all the slaves. That leaves option three: If he could restore the Union while freeing some slaves, he would. So when Lincoln says to Greeley he has these three options, he doesn’t really have three options. He is simply saying he is going to restore the union. That’s what I’m supposed to do. That’s the only thing I can do. The Constitution doesn’t let me fight a war for the purpose of abolishing slavery. But if I need to free some—actually most—of the slaves to restore the Union, I will. Lots of northerners denied that Lincoln needed to free any slaves to restore the Union. And this is the critical point: The only people who viewed emancipation as a military necessity were the people who hated slavery. And Lincoln was one of them.
 … Q. … I believe that Illinois forbade blacks from settling in its borders.
A. They passed these laws that anti-slavery people viewed to be unconstitutional, that said no black person can enter Illinois who is not also a citizen of the United States. They often had to keep the citizenship provision in, because at the time of the Missouri Compromise—there were in fact two debates about Missouri. Missouri, having been allowed to enter as a slave state, submitted a constitution banning blacks from settling. The anti-slavery people said you can’t do that. In the Constitution the privileges and immunities granted to citizenship are very real, and the least of them is the privilege to move from one state to another. And black people are citizens. So the racial restriction laws tended to say a black person can’t come in who is not a citizen. By and large, by saying that a black person cannot come in who is not a citizen of another state, they are trying to keep fugitive slaves out, because slaves are not citizens. It’s a fugitive slave enforcement statute essentially.

Historians have made very similar arguments about the rise of Jim Crow in the late 19th century. The threat that emerges in the late 1880s, with one million or more black farmers joining the Colored Farmers Alliance, along with another one million or more white farmers in the farmers alliance, that turns into a very real Populist threat. It is met with this incredible upsurge of racist demagoguery, Jim Crow laws proliferate, blacks are disenfranchised. So the racist backlash of the 1890s is very closely related to the need to push down this threat emerging, the possibility of a white-black alliance. Of course they’re racist, and I’m sure they believe everything in their own racism. But there’s a reason they’re saying it and a reason they’re doing what they’re doing. And it has to do with maintaining the political power of the landlord-merchant class.
Q. The formulation that behind debates over race are struggles over power struck me in relationship to the present as well, and in particular the promotion by the 1619 Project of racialist politics, which is certainly once again a cornerstone of the Democratic Party.
A. Here I agree with my friend Adolph Reed. Identity is very much the ideology of the professional-managerial class. They prefer to talk about identity over capitalism and the inequities of capitalism. We have an atrocious wealth gap in this country. It’s not a black-white wealth gap. It’s a wealth gap. But if you keep rephrasing it as black-white, and shift it off to a racial argument, you undermine the possibility of building a working-class coalition, which by definition would be disproportionately black, disproportionately female, disproportionately Latino, and still probably majority white. That’s the kind of working-class coalition that identity politics tends to erase.
Q. Another point that you make in Scorpion’s Sting is that Lincoln and the Republicans didn’t really want to talk about race. They wanted to talk about slavery.
A. Right. They want to defend the northern system of labor, a capitalist system, free labor, over and against what they viewed as a backwards system, slavery, a system that gave rise to a powerful slaveholding class that was becoming more and more aggressive in its demand. And the northern Democrats the Republicans are facing keep on focusing on the race issue. It’s quite clear that the Democrats are using the race issue to avoid talking about slavery. Republicans don’t want to talk about race, but they are confronting this racism and they have to face it.

A lot of historians have pointed out that Lincoln is cagey in the way he talks about racial equality. The most famous example is the Charleston debate of 1858—everybody quotes it— where he says that he has never declared himself to be in favor of blacks voting, blacks serving on juries. He says I have never advocated those things. But notice he does not say whether or not he himself supports them. He is just saying he has never publicly advocated for them. He is being cagey because he is being pushed. It doesn’t make his deference to racism acceptable, but the context surely matters.

 … But once that movement fades, because no more states are going to abolish slavery, and then the second party system comes along and suppresses anti-slavery, you get a bulge in American racism. And when anti-slavery comes back, starting with the abolitionists in the 1830s, culminating in a mass party, the Republicans—the first really successful mass anti-slavery party—then those people tend to moderate their racism.

 … There’s a way in which that capitalist logic, in the context of 19th century liberalism, pushes racism to the side. So as anti-slavery peaks, so does that push back against racism. …
 … Q. Central to the argument of the 1619 Project is not just that there is white racism, but a permanent state of white privilege. That can be answered in the present with data, but I’m curious how, as a historical question, you approach that claim, for example when you look at the antebellum South, where you have a lot of white households who own no slaves.
A. … the slaveholders resort to white supremacy. They try to use white supremacy to maintain the loyalty of the non-slaveholders.

But how well it’s going to work in any situation is not so clear. A substantial number of non-slaveholders were not interested in seceding. Ultimately one of the major factors in the collapse of the Confederacy is the collapse in support from the non-slaveholders. The slave states that have the largest share of non-slaveholders—Maryland, Kentucky, Delaware and Missouri—don’t secede. The slaveholders in those states are themselves divided and may want to join the Confederacy, but they can’t get majorities to support secession.

Did you know that more Missisippians fought against the Confederacy than for it, when you add the blacks and the whites? So there’s this collapse of internal support. And then there’s this fear all through Reconstruction, that the goal of Republicans is to get poor whites and blacks together based on shared interests. That’s the frightening thing to the landed class. So it’s something that they try to impress on the poor whites. But it doesn’t always work. …
 … Q. It seems to me that there are two aspects to the argument. One is that poor whites in the South allegedly derive some sort of psychological wage from being white. But as you’ve discussed, that is actually a political argument, and its authors are the planters. But then there’s also an allegation that poor whites derive an economic benefit from slavery, whether or not they own slaves. Have you looked in your research at any of the data on wages in the antebellum South?
A. There’s dispute about that, and it’s not so clear as it used to be that wages are depressed by slavery. 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.
Q. One of the points you make in one of your earlier books, and raise again in Scorpion’s Sting, is the relationship between the concept of self-ownership and private property, which you trace back to the English Civil War. Could you elaborate on this?
A. … The primary defense of slavery was always, always, the defense of private property: slaves are our property and you can’t take our property away from us. You can say, and slaveholders do say, that our material interest in the value of slave property leads us to take good care of these valuable human beings. You can say that as a result we treat our slaves kindly. But Genovese was clear that by paternalism he did not mean benevolence. I actually think paternalism was a much more powerful element in anti-slavery ideology, which emphasized slavery selling apart wives and children from fathers. When the Republicans in 1856 compare slavery and polygamy as the twin relics of barbarism it’s part of an attack on the Slave South—that it doesn’t recognize the legitimacy of slave families, their familial bonds.

So my argument is that the centrality of property rights is something the slaveholders are always going back to, basing themselves on liberal theorists, that the function of a state is to protect private property. And in that sense, it’s coming out of the same liberal tradition that produces an anti-slavery ideology based on the premise that property rights themselves initiate in self-ownership. What C. B. Macpherson called the “political theory of possessive individualism,” produces ultimately a defense of slavery—based on the possessive individualism of the slaveholders—but also an anti-slavery argument based on the premise that my rights of property begin with my ownership of myself, and that is incompatible with being owned by someone else. Liberalism is the lingua franca of the debate over slavery.
Q. Can you address the role of identity politics on the campus? How is it to try to do so serious work under these conditions?
A. Well, my sense is that among graduate students the identitarians stay away from me, and they badger the students who are interested in political and economic history. They have a sense of their own superiority. The political historians tend to feel besieged.

The reflection of identity politics in the curriculum is the primacy of cultural history. There was a time, a long, long time ago, when a “diverse history faculty” meant that you had an economic historian, a political historian, a social historian, a historian of the American Revolution, of the Civil War, and so on. And now a diverse history faculty means a women’s historian, a gay historian, a Chinese-American historian, a Latino historian. So it’s a completely different kind of diversity.

 … Within US history it has produced narrow faculties in which everybody is basically writing the same thing. And so you don’t bump into the economic historian at the mailbox and say “Is it true that all the wealth came from slavery,” and have them say, “that’s ridiculous,” and explain why it can’t be true.
Q. Another aspect of the way the 1619 Project presents history is to imply that it is a uniquely American phenomenon, leaving out the long history of chattel slavery, the history of slavery in the Caribbean.
A. And they erase Africa from the African slave trade. They claim that Africans were stolen and kidnapped from Africa. Well, they were purchased by these kidnappers in Africa. Everybody’s hands were dirty. And this is another aspect of the tendency to reify race because you’re attempting to isolate a racial group that was also complicit. This is conspicuous only because the obsession with complicity is so overwhelming in the political culture right now, but also as reflected in the 1619 Project. Hypocrisy and complicity are basically the two great attacks. Again, not a critique of capitalism. It’s a critique of hypocrisy and complicity. Here I agree with Genovese, who once said that “hypocrites are a dime a dozen.” Hypocrisy doesn’t interest me as a critique, nor does complicity.
Q. And their treatment of the American Revolution?
A. I don’t like great man history. Not many professional historians do. So I’m sympathetic with my colleagues who complain about “Founders Chic.” (I have the same problem in my field: Lincoln is great, but he didn’t free the slave with the stroke of his pen.) But that’s different from erasing the American Revolution, which amounts to erasing the conflict. What you’re doing by erasing abolitionism, anti-slavery politics, anti-racism, is you’re erasing the conflict. And if you erase the conflict you have no way of explaining anything that happens, and then you wind up with these terrible genetic metaphors—everything is built into the DNA and nothing changes. It’s not just ahistorical. It’s anti-historical.
Q. What are you working on now?
A. I am finishing a book on Abraham Lincoln and the anti-slavery Constitution, which I never expected to write. That’s almost finished. But the big project I’m working on is the history of the Civil War. …

Notwithstanding the claim that we don’t have class in this country, anti-slavery politics is a politics whose dominant framework, as far as the Republicans were concerned, was that this was a war between slaveholder and non-slaveholders. They framed it as a class war. And if you don’t understand that going in, then the increasing tendency of the war to become a more and more radical assault on slavery, to the point that they rewrite the Constitution—if you don’t understand where they’re coming from before the war—then you’re just going to say the radicalism is an accidental byproduct of it.
Related: Pulitzer Prize Winner James McPherson Confirms that No Mainstream Historian Was Contacted by the NYT for Its 1619 History Project

• Gordon Wood: "The Revolution unleashed antislavery sentiments that led to the first abolition movements in the history of the world" — another Pulitzer-Winning Historian Had No Warning about the NYT's 1619 Project

1619, Mao, & 9-11: History According to the NYT — Plus, a Remarkable Issue of National Geographic Reveals the Leftists' "Blame America First" Approach to History

1619: Wondering Why Slavery Persisted for Almost 75 Years After the Founding of the USA? According to Lincoln, the Democrat Party's "Principled" Opposition to "Hate Speech"

Who, Exactly, Is It Who Should Apologize for Slavery and Make Reparations? America? The South? The Descendants of the Planters? …

Sunday, December 01, 2019

Gordon Wood: "The Revolution unleashed antislavery sentiments that led to the first abolition movements in the history of the world"—another Pulitzer-Winning Historian Had No Warning about the NYT's 1619 Project

Thanks to the efforts of the World Socialist Web Site, of all places, we are getting to get an idea of not only how many mainstream historians the New York Times failed to approach for its 1619 project, but that they did not even have any "awareness that it was being done". Following his in-depth talks with James McPherson, the WSWS's Tom Mackaman now brings us (thanks to the American Conservative's Rod Dreher) an interview with
Gordon Wood … professor emeritus at Brown University and author of 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, and dozens of other books and articles on the colonial period, the American Revolution and the early republic.

Q. Let me begin by asking you your initial reaction to the 1619 Project. When did you learn about it?
Gordon Wood (2016)
A. 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 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.
Q. I want to return to the question of slavery and the American Revolution, but first I wanted to follow up, because you said you were not approached. Yet you are certainly one of the foremost authorities on the American Revolution, which the 1619 Project trains much of its fire on.
A. Yes, no 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. I read the Jim McPherson interview and he was just as surprised as I was.
Q. Can you discuss the relationship between the American Revolution and the institution of slavery?
A. One of the things that I have emphasized in my writing is how many southerners and northerners in 1776 thought slavery was on its last legs and that it would naturally die away. You can find quotation after quotation from people seriously thinking that slavery was going to wither away in several decades. Now we know they couldn’t have been more wrong. But they lived with illusions and were so wrong about so many things. We may be living with illusions too. One of the big lessons of history is to realize how the past doesn’t know its future. We know how the story turned out, and we somehow assume they should know what we know, but they don’t, of course.

They don’t know their future any more than we know our future, and so many of them thought that slavery would die away, and at first there was considerable evidence that that was indeed the case.

At the time of the Revolution, the Virginians had more slaves than they knew what to do with, so they were eager to end the international slave trade. But the Georgians and the South Carolinians weren’t ready to do that yet. That was one of the compromises that came out of the Constitutional Convention. The Deep South was given 20 years to import more slaves, but most Americans were confident that the despicable transatlantic slave trade was definitely going to end in 1808.
Q. Under the Jefferson administration?
A. Yes, it was set in the Constitution at 20 years, but everyone knew this would be ended because nearly everyone knew that this was a barbaric thing, importing people and so on. Many thought that ending the slave trade would set slavery itself on the road to extinction. Of course, they were wrong.

I think the important point to make about slavery is that it had existed for thousands of years without substantial criticism, and it existed all over the New World. It also existed elsewhere in the world. Western Europe had already more or less done away with slavery. Perhaps there was nothing elsewhere comparable to the plantation slavery that existed in the New World, but slavery was widely prevalent in Africa and Asia. There is still slavery today in the world.

And it existed in all of these places without substantial criticism. Then suddenly in the middle of the 18th century you begin to get some isolated Quakers coming out against it. But it’s the American Revolution that makes it a problem for the world. And the first real anti-slave movement takes place in North America. So this is what’s missed by these essays in the 1619 Project.
Q. The claim made by Nikole Hannah-Jones in the 1619 Project that the Revolution was really about founding a slavocracy seems to be coming from arguments made elsewhere that it was really Great Britain that was the progressive contestant in the conflict, and that the American Revolution was, in fact, a counterrevolution, basically a conspiracy to defend slavery.
A. It’s been argued by some historians, people other than Hannah-Jones, that some planters in colonial Virginia were worried about what the British might do about slavery. Certainly, Dunmore’s proclamation in 1775, which promised the slaves freedom if they joined the Crown’s cause, provoked many hesitant Virginia planters to become patriots. There may have been individuals who were worried about their slaves in 1776, but to see the whole revolution in those terms is to miss the complexity.

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.
I would have liked to have asked Hannah-Jones, how would she explain the fact that in 1791 in Virginia at the College of William and Mary, the Board of Visitors, the board of trustees, who were big slaveholding planters, awarded an honorary degree to Granville Sharp, who was the leading British abolitionist of the day. That’s the kind of question that should provoke historical curiosity. You ask yourself what were these slaveholding planters thinking? It’s the kind of question, the kind of seeming anomaly, that should provoke a historian into research.

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.
Q. In fact, those who claim that the American Revolution was a counterrevolution to protect slavery focus on the timing of the Somerset ruling of 1772, which held that slavery wasn’t supported by English common law, and Dunmore’s promise to free slaves who escape their masters.
A. To go from these few facts to create such an enormous argument is a problem. The Somerset decision was limited to England, where there were very few slaves, and it didn’t apply to the Caribbean. The British don’t get around to freeing the slaves in the West Indies until 1833, and if the Revolution hadn’t occurred, might never have done so then, because all of the southern colonies would have been opposed. So supposing the Americans hadn’t broken away, there would have been a larger number of slaveholders in the greater British world who might have been able to prolong slavery longer than 1833. The West Indies planters were too weak in the end to resist abolition. They did try to, but if they had had all those planters in the South still being part of the British Empire with them, that would have made it more difficult for the British Parliament to move toward abolition.
Q. Hannah-Jones refers to America’s founding documents as its founding myths…
A. Of course, there are great ironies in our history, but the men and the documents transcend their time. That Jefferson, a slaveholding aristocrat, has been—until recently—our spokesman for democracy, declaring that all men are created equal, is probably the greatest irony in American history. But the document he wrote and his confidence in the capacities of ordinary people are real, and not myths.

Jefferson was a very complicated figure. He took a stand against slavery as a young man in Virginia. He spoke out against it. He couldn’t get his colleagues to go along, but he was certainly courageous in voicing his opposition to slavery. Despite his outspokenness on slavery and other enlightened matters, his colleagues respected him enough to keep elevating him to positions in the state. His colleagues could have, as we say today, “cancelled” him if they didn’t have some sympathy for what he was saying.
Q. And after the Revolution?
A. American leaders think slavery is dying, but they couldn’t have been more wrong. Slavery grows stronger after the Revolution, but it’s concentrated in the South. North of the Mason-Dixon line, in every northern state by 1804, slavery is legally put on the road to extinction. Now, there’s certain “grandfathering in,” and so you do have slaves in New Jersey as late as the eve of the Civil War. But in the northern states, the massive movement against slavery was unprecedented in the history of the world. So to somehow turn this around and make the Revolution a means of preserving slavery is strange and contrary to the evidence.

As a result of the Revolution, slavery is confined to the South, and that puts the southern planters on the defensive. For the first time they have to defend the institution. If you go into the colonial records and look at the writings and diary of someone like William Byrd, who’s a very distinguished and learned person—he’s a member of the Royal Society—you’ll find no expressions of guilt whatsoever about slavery. He took his slaveholding for granted. But after the Revolution that’s no longer true. Southerners began to feel this anti-slave pressure now. They react to it by trying to give a positive defense of slavery. They had no need to defend slavery earlier because it was taken for granted as a natural part of a hierarchical society.

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. … 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. These dependencies were simply incompatible with the meaning of the Revolution.

After the Revolution, Virginia had no vested interest in the international slave trade. Quite the contrary. Virginians began to grow wheat in place of tobacco. Washington does this, and he comes to see himself as more a farmer than a planter. He and other farmers begin renting out their slaves to people in Norfolk and Richmond, where they are paid wages. And many people thought that this might be the first step toward the eventual elimination of slavery. These anti-slave sentiments don’t last long in Virginia, but for a moment it seemed that Virginia, which dominated the country as no other state ever has, might abolish slavery as the northern states were doing. In fact, there were lots of manumissions and other anti-slave moves in Virginia in the 1780s.

But the black rebellion in Saint-Domingue—the Haitian Revolution—scares the bejesus out of the southerners. Many of the white Frenchmen fled to North America—to Louisiana, to Charleston, and they brought their fears of slave uprisings with them. Then, with Gabriel’s Rebellion in Virginia in 1800, most of the optimism that Virginians had in 1776—1790 is gone.

Of course, I think the ultimate turning point for both sections is the Missouri crisis of 1819–1820. Up to that point, both sections lived with illusions. The Missouri crisis causes the scales to fall away from the eyes of both northerners and southerners. Northerners come to realize that the South really intended to perpetuate slavery and extend it into the West. And southerners come to realize that the North is so opposed to slavery that it will attempt to block them from extending it into the West. From that moment on I think the Civil War became inevitable.
Q. There’s the famous quote from Jefferson that the Missouri crisis awakened him like a fire bell in the night and that in it he perceived the death of the union...
A. Right. He’s absolutely panicked by what’s happening … His friend Adams was, of course, opposed to slavery from the beginning, and this is something that Hannah-Jones should have been aware of. John Adams is the leading advocate in the Continental Congress for independence. He’s never been a slaveowner. He hates slavery and he has no vested interest in it. By 1819–1820, however, he more or less takes the view that the Virginians have a serious problem with slavery and they are going to have to work it out for themselves. He’s not going to preach to them. That’s essentially what he says to Jefferson.

By the early nineteenth century, Jefferson had what Annette Gordon-Reed calls “New England envy.” His granddaughter marries a New Englander and moves there, and she tells him how everything’s flourishing in Connecticut. The farms are all neat, clean and green, and there are no slaves. He envies the town meetings of New England, those little ward republics. And he just yearns for something like that for Virginia.
Q. How it is that the American Revolution raises the dignity of labor? Because it seems to me that this concept certainly becomes a burning issue by the time of the Civil War.
A. It’s a good question. 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. Assuming that work was despicable and mean was what justified slavery. Scorn for work and slavery were two sides of the same coin. …

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.
 … Q. The 1619 Project claims basically that nothing has ever gotten any better. That it’s as bad now as it was during slavery, and instead what you’re describing is a very changed world...
A. Imagine the inequalities that existed before the Revolution. Not just in wealth—I mean, we have that now—but in the way in which people were treated. … juries became somewhat reluctant to convict to hanging a person for stealing a handkerchief. So the convict was sent as a bonded servant to the colonies, 50,000 of them. And then when the American Revolution occurs, Australia becomes the replacement.

I don’t think people realize just what a cruel and brutal world existed in the Ancién Regime, in the premodern societies of the West, not just for slaves, but for lots of people who were considered the mean or lowly sort. And they don’t appreciate what a radical message is involved in declaring that all men are created equal and what that message means for our obsession with education, and the implications of that for our society.
Q. You spoke of the “consensus school” on American history before, from the 1950s, that saw the Revolution, I think, as essentially a conservative event. And one of the things that they stressed was that there was no aristocracy, no native aristocracy, in America, but you find, if I recall your argument in The Radicalism of the American Revolution, that though aristocracy was not strong, it was something that was still a powerful factor.
A. … It’s interesting to look at the debates that occur in the New York ratifying convention in 1788. The leading Anti-Federalist, Melancton Smith, a very smart guy but a middling sort and with no college graduate degree, gives the highly educated Alexander Hamilton and Robert Livingston a run for their money. He calls Hamilton and Livingston aristocrats and charges that the proposed Constitution was designed to give more power to the likes of them. Hamilton, who certainly felt superior to Smith, denied he was an aristocrat. There were no aristocrats in America, he said; they existed only in Europe. That kind of concession was multiplied ten thousand-fold in the following decades in the North, and this denial of obvious social superiority in the face of middling criticism is denied even today. You see politicians wanting to play down their distinctiveness, their elite status. “I can have a beer with Joe Six-pack,” they say, denying their social superiority. That was already present in the late 1780s. That’s what I mean by radicalism. It’s a middle-class revolution, and it is essentially confined to the North.
Q. You were speaking earlier of the despair of Madison, Adams and Jefferson late in life. And it just occurred to me that they lived to see Martin Van Buren.
A. That’s right. Van Buren is probably the first real politician in America elected to the presidency. Unlike his predecessors, he never did anything great; he never made a great speech, he never wrote a great document, he never won a great battle. He simply was the most politically astute operator that the United States had ever seen. He organized a party in New York that was the basis of his success.
Van Buren regarded the founding fathers as passé. He told his fellow Americans, look, we don’t need to pay too much attention to those guys. They were aristocrats, he said. We’re Democrats—meaning both small “d” and also capital “D.” Those aristocrats don’t have much to say to us.

Did you know that the “founding fathers” in the antebellum period are not Jefferson and Madison and Washington and Hamilton? In the antebellum period when most Americans referred to the “founders,” they meant John Smith, William Penn, William Bradford, John Winthrop and so on, the founders of the seventeenth century. There’s a good book on this subject by Wesley Frank Craven [ The Legend of the Founding Fathers (1956)].
It’s Lincoln who rescues the eighteenth-century founders for us. From the Civil War on, the “founders” become the ones we celebrate today, the revolutionary leaders. Lincoln makes Jefferson the great hero of America. “All honor to Jefferson,” he says. Only because of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson didn’t have anything to do with the Constitution, and so Lincoln makes the Declaration the most important document in American history, which I think is true.
Q. For our readership, perhaps you could discuss something of the world-historical significance of the Revolution. Of course, we are under no illusion that it represented a socialist transformation. Yet it was a powerful revolution in its time.
A. It was very important that the American colonial crisis, the imperial crisis, occurred right at the height of what we call the Enlightenment, where Western Europe was full of new ideas and was confident that culture—what people believed and thought—was man-made and thus could be changed. The Old World, the Ancién Regime, could be transformed and made anew. It was an age of revolution, and it’s not surprising that the French Revolution and other revolutions occur in in the wake of the American Revolution.

The notion of equality was really crucial. When the Declaration says that all men are created equal, that is no myth. It is the most powerful statement ever made in our history, and it lies behind almost everything we Americans believe in and attempt to do. What that statement meant is that we are all born equal and the all the differences that we see among us as adults are due solely to our differing educations, differing upbringings and differing environments. The Declaration is an Enlightenment document because it repudiated the Ancién Regime assumption that all men are created unequal and that nothing much could be done about it. That’s what it meant to be a subject in the old society. You were born a patrician or a plebeian and that was your fate.
Q. One of the ironies of this Project 1619 is that they are saying the same things about the Declaration of Independence as the fire-eating proponents of slavery said—that it’s a fraud. Meanwhile, abolitionists like Frederick Douglass upheld it and said we’re going to make this “all men are created equal” real.
A. That points up the problem with the whole project. It’s too bad that it’s going out into the schools with the authority of the New York Times behind it. That’s sad because it will color the views of all these youngsters who will receive the message of the 1619 Project.
See also Tom Mackaman's previous Interview with Gordon Wood on the American Revolution

Related: Pulitzer Prize Winner James McPherson Confirms that No Mainstream Historian Was Contacted by the NYT for Its 1619 History Project

1619, Mao, & 9-11: History According to the NYT — Plus, a Remarkable Issue of National Geographic Reveals the Leftists' "Blame America First" Approach to History

1619: Wondering Why Slavery Persisted for Almost 75 Years After the Founding of the USA? According to Lincoln, the Democrat Party's "Principled" Opposition to "Hate Speech"

Who, Exactly, Is It Who Should Apologize for Slavery and Make Reparations? America? The South? The Descendants of the Planters? …