Thursday, January 2, 2020

Pondering the 1619 Project

In August the NY Times launched the "1619 Project," with the aim of changing how Americans think and feel about our history. "It is finally time," wrote the editors, "to tell our story truthfully." The problem, of course, is that we have paid insufficient attention to slavery.

Well, maybe. Who knows? That is, I would say, a matter of opinion, or perhaps of ideology. Which is why I didn't even bother to read half the articles the Times posted and never got around to writing about it. If you think slavery is the most important and interesting thing about the American past, I doubt there is anything I can say to dissuade you.

But I keep encountering the 1619 Project over and over in various contexts, sometimes lauded but more often abused. So I went back and read the original essays, along with the most prominent criticisms. I came away thinking that the project is wrong-headed in a way that goes far beyond most of the attacks made against it; in fact, some of those attacks share exactly the same problem.

The 1619 Project was created by people who do not care in the least about the world of 150 or 250 years ago. They are concerned, wholly and entirely, with the contemporary world, and especially with their own politics. They failed to do the work, did not even attempt to do the work, necessary to think their way back into the past. As a result they are weirdly wrong in how they describe our history. They make repeated factual errors but even when they are factually correct they still misunderstand what was happening and what people lived through.

There is, first of all, a constant insinuation that slavery was an invention of the colonial era. For example, the editors write that the arrival of the first slaves in Virginia in 1619 "inaugurated a barbaric system of chattel slavery that would last for the next 250 years." But slavery is at least 5,000 years old and probably much older, and it was practiced by the vast majority of agricultural and pastoral societies in human history. Including those in sub-Saharan Africa, including those in Native America. You cannot understand the colonial era without remembering that most people considered slavery an established fact of life, described in their most important source of moral instruction (the Bible), present in every society they knew anything about. What was new in the colonial era was not the practice of slavery but the revulsion against it; not enslavement but the first organized movement in human history to abolish it.

I should say that not all the essays in the 1619 Project are bad, and there are certainly a lot of good stories. Complaints focus on three points, each of them instructive. I will take them up in turn, starting with the strangest essay: "In order to understand the brutality of American capitalism, you have to start on the plantation," by Matthew Desmond.

Desmond starts his piece with the story of Pharmaceutical con man Martin Shkreli and he goes on to write about American inequality, lack of unions, our "peculiarly brutal economy" and then our "uniquely severe and unbridled economy." He is halfway through his article before he gets to the past. As you might expect, his investment in understanding either slavery or pre-1865 capitalism is minimal, limited to interviewing a couple of far-left historians associated from a movement called the New History of Capitalism. I have mentioned this sort of scholarship before, which is aimed at discrediting capitalism by associating it in people's minds with slavery rather than freedom.

To me capitalism, as opposed to just doing business, implies the existence of markets for capital, like stock and insurance markets. Those things arose in Europe alongside global trade, allowing the great risks associated with ocean-born commerce to be spread among investors. The major products traded around the world included slaves themselves and the products of plantation agriculture such as sugar and cotton. So, yes, the rise of modern capitalism was mixed up with slavery. But that is not what NHC scholars claim. They want to argue that capitalism arose to service slavery, or maybe that they comprised an interlinked system for oppressing and exploiting the masses. Slavery, wrote NHC historian Sven Beckert, "was not just integral to American capitalism but its very essence." They deny that there was any sort of moral or practical distinction between businessmen like ship or mill owners and slave owners; all were profiting from slave labor, so all are equally complicit.

This misunderstands the past in several ways. First, it does violence to how people saw themselves; planters justified themselves, not as capitalists, but as exemplars of a much older way of living that stretched back through medieval lords to Roman senators. Many of them were critics of unbridled capitalism and considered slavery superior to it. Plus, it ignores the politics of the time. When Britain began debating the abolition of slavery in the 1790s the old landed families generally supported it; slavery was, as I keep saying, an ancient tradition, and they were all for ancient traditions, especially the ones that promoted the power of landowners. The abolitionist movement was led by Methodist ministers and financed by manufacturers like Josiah Wedgwood. Capitalism, to the extent that it was an organized political force, was anti-slavery. This was reflected in the attitudes of the British military; army officers, drawn from landowning families, were mostly pro-slavery, while the navy, full of merchants' sons, was strong for abolition from an early date.

I think it is also important to note that while the crops traded around the world were largely grown by slaves, that was more of a historical accident than a necessity. The same trade – in sugar, tobacco, cotton, indigo – went on just fine after slavery was abolished. When the US Civil War cut off cotton supplies to Europe, the British made up much of the loss in India using a putting out system, that is, giving small farmers seeds along with a promise to buy the resulting cotton crop at a pre-arranged price after harvest. There was no sense in which slavery was vital to either global trade or the growth of capital markets, and furthermore there was a lot of capitalism (for example, the spice trade) that had nothing to do with slavery.

The lead essay in the 1619 Project is by Nikole Hannah-Jones, a Times journalist. Hannah-Jones, after a long introduction about the oppression of her family, makes two claims that have inspired  angry commentary. One of them concerns Abraham Lincoln's support for African American migration to Africa. Some people have tried to deny this, but Lincoln was at a minimum very interested in such schemes. To Hannah-Jones this undermines the whole notion that Lincoln fought for Civil Rights and makes him a segregationist on a grand scale. That Lincoln was much admired by, among others, Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King does not seem to matter to Hannah-Jones, who thinks she understands something they did not. But Frederick Douglass certainly knew Lincoln was interested in helping black Americans migrate to Africa, since he did his best to argue the president out of this position both in print and in person. Most African Americans leaders did not think much of the idea. But some did, and 15,000 African Americans actually migrated to Africa before 1860, so it's not as if the idea was a slavocrat conspiracy. As for Lincoln, he supported the idea because he could not see how black and white Americans could live equally as citizens of the United States. He once remarked that it would be "at least a century" before black Americans could achieve equality. Does that make him a traitor to Civil Rights? Or does it make him wise? Because he was right. The end of slavery did not lead to equal rights for black Americans, and there was nothing he or anyone else could have done to make nineteenth-century white Americans treat blacks as their equals.

The question of a "return" to Africa is, I think, an interesting and important one, and I would actually like to read more about the movement and the African Americans who supported it. As I said, most African Americans did not support it, and the black leadership was decisively against it. But that hardly makes every person who supported the notion some kind of turncoat.

Hannah-Jones also makes the single most egregiously false statement of the whole 1619 Project:
Conveniently left out of our founding mythology is the fact that one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery.
How do we know this is false? Well, for one thing, the American revolutionaries wrote hundreds of thousands of words explaining their rebellion, and so far as I know not one of them ever said this. True, some of them (like Jefferson and Washington) were ambivalent about slavery and might have left it unmentioned out of delicacy, but there were plenty of hard-core pro-slavery men among the revolutionaries. They insisted, you will recall, that Jefferson remove a negative reference to slavery from the Declaration of Independence. So it seems telling to me that a British threat to slavery went unmentioned. Also, pro-Revolution sentiment was strongest in the part of North America with the fewest slaves, New England. The leading Tories of the middle and southern colonies were mostly very wealthy, pro-slavery men. Hannah-Jones tries to justify her assertion by pointing to the early stirrings of the abolition movement in Britain, but those stirrings also existed in America.

Hannah-Jones also makes much of a proclamation issued in 1775 by Lord Dunmore, offering freedom to any Virginia slaves who would fight against the Revolution. But encouraging revolts among your enemies' slaves is a political move that goes back at least to ancient Greece and has nothing whatsoever to do with abolishing slavery. Lord Dunmore went on to be the rabidly pro-slavery governor of the Bahamas, so he at least understood this.

The real problem here is a failure of historical imagination. First, Hannah-Jones simply cannot imagine a time when slavery was not an urgent political issue. But until well after the American Revolution, it was not. In 1765 when the agitation for American independence got under way hardly any white person in America or Britain thought slavery either was or would become a reason for political conflict. It became so largely because of the political ferment that surrounded and gave life to the Revolution, when the growing Enlightenment belief in universal human rights mixed with the rhetoric of liberty to birth a new revulsion with tyranny in any form.

Second, Hannah-Jones, and many other contemporary Americans, cannot accept that the American Revolution was a profoundly radical event. To us, government by non-poor white men is the most conservative possible position, so we cannot see what is so great about the Revolution or the Constitution. We have trouble understanding that this was, not just a radical idea, but possibly the single most radical idea in the entire history of human politics. If you had told almost any European intellectual from any period before 1700 CE that you were going to set up a Democracy in a society with millions of residents, with no hereditary monarchy or aristocracy, he would have laughed at you. If you had told him that in fact we had created such societies, and that some of them had achieved levels of order and prosperity never before equaled in history, he would have called you a liar. The belief was almost universal that any large state needed a hereditary ruling class. But a combination of the practical experience in representative government built up in Europe since the Middle Ages with the radical political theories of the Enlightenment showed the way to a completely new kind of government.

Of course the representative states of the 1700s were imperfect; neither the American nor the French Revolution came close to our understanding of human rights. But, as people like Jefferson and Lincoln understood, they were still a major advance over aristocracy, and furthermore the principles they articulated were capable of ever greater extension. Almost all of the nations that had important representative bodies in the 1800s now have universal adult suffrage. It took a long time, but it did happen.

When you criticize the Enlightenment because it was not truly committed to universal human rights or world peace, you are attacking it for falling short of principles that did not exist until the Enlightenment created them. To us, it is hard to imagine a time when nobody but a few mystics in caves believed in universal equality and democratic rule; to us, the ideas seem obvious. But they seem obvious only because the Enlightenment created them, and because the political systems of the US, Britain, and some European nations gradually put them into practice.

When it comes to questions of emphasis, I am pretty free and easy about history. You should read about what interests you, and think about what has meaning for you. But I am dubious about all ideological attempts to rewrite the past. This is partly because I have an attachment to the truth, but mostly because I am dubious about ideology. To me one of the main reasons to study the past is its complexity. You cannot impose any narrative on the past without doing it violence; no matter what generalization you make, there will be uncountable exceptions. This ought to teach you the same thing about the present. No ideology can contain the variety, wonder, and horror of the world.

I was moved the write about the 1619 Project because I am troubled by the salience of its ideology in our time. I think we have quite enough politics of ethnic grievance already. I think we have quite enough desire to sweep away the whole past and start from scratch. I think we have quite enough hatred of capitalism, but maybe not enough subtle understanding of political economy that we could use to craft a better system. We have quite enough belief that certain people or classes of people are entirely bad, or entirely good. What we need, I think, is not anger but wisdom, not sweeping generalizations but more recognition of individual experience and individual needs. The 1619 Project is the opposite of that, which to me makes it both bad politics and bad history.


David said...

I agree entirely about the 1619 project. I remember when I first read about it, I thought, "Hoo boy, I know what this is going to be." I've ignored it since, but everything you say bears out my expectation. In fact I've been disappointed in virtually all those NYT "projects," although "Disunion," about the Civil War, had some good essays in it.

That said, it seems to me your critique is a bit more ideological--or, let's say, not as disinterested--as you claim. For example, your devotion to the idea that the American Revolution was a radical break with the past seems more than merely intellectual. Would that not be fair? This is not to prejudice the question of how radical the revolution was, which I'd be happy to debate, but which is separate from how personally, vs. purely academically, one is devoted to one side or the other. Clearly I find the revolution a lot less radical than you, in that I find it very much in harmony with pre-Enlightenment, even medieval, trends in European history, as well as Enlightenment ones. (Of course, there's surely a personal element in my approach too; I *like* thinking that the medieval people I study were cussed and rebellious and not too impressed by majesty from way back and deep inside.)

I also think New World slavery, especially after about 1660, has more of the uniquely capitalist in it than you warrant. Sugar especially was a big business of a type and on a scale not much seen before, with elaborate systems of capital investment and insurance, creation of markets (by means of spreading abroad the idea of baking with sugar, for example), and a need to constantly feed in production materials--ie, slaves--given the death rates in both transport and usage in the New World, that all seem new to me. There was indeed something wannabe aristo about New World plantation builders, most famously about the great Virginia families, as both Morgan and Fisher show. But if a capitalist like Josiah Wedgwood was on the abolitionist side of the debate, the sugar growers and slave traders were surely capitalists on the other. I'm no socialist--I love my comfortable bourgeois life and its plentiful cookies and donuts--but there's more to the idea that New World slavery represents an epoch-making marker in the history of capitalism than you allow.

John said...

It is true that I am attached to my belief that the Enlightenment was a profound and radical event. I have lost many of my first historical attachments but after 45 years of pondering the question I have ended up believing that one even more strongly. I have, however, given up my belief that the Enlightenment was entirely a good thing; I would now say that it had many bad effects. I am still on the whole a fan, but I see the price more clearly. Ditto democracy, which I think has been in some circumstances actively pernicious. For example, it may have delayed the end of slavery in the US.

I have been very impressed by the evidence that sugar planters, just like the Virginia elite, saw themselves as old-fashioned aristocrats rather than capitalists. They spent their fortunes marrying into the old elites and building big country houses in the home country and so on. I suppose you are right that in fact they were capitalists on a grand scale. They, however, did not agree. And I was impressed in reading up for this post by the fact that in the British slavery debates the old, landed aristocrats mostly allied with the sugar planters to block abolition, while the shippers and manufacturers leaned for it. There seems to have been a major difference of some kind -- style? Culture? between those families that went for tradition and those that opted for modernity and reform. All of the active members of the Lunar Society were anti-slavery. I think this is important but I concede that in business terms the sugar planters were working with the shippers and the mill owners, not the wheat growers.

David said...

Oh yes, the Enlightenment was certainly a profound and radical event. I would even say it was in many ways very positive--why would I not, being myself a rootless cosmopolitan semi-rationalist and unbeliever? The Enlightenment created the world where I can be something other than a Hasid. I'm not sure I would say the American Revolution was so radically, radically new or Enlightenment, though; it was, and certainly began, in many ways as a traditional, medieval-style rights-and-privileges, defend-the-charters tax revolt--one that, in important ways, was against Parliament rather than the Crown. In other ways, it was a continuation of traditions that went back to the Roundhead radicalism of the 17th century. For a lot of participants, the evidence I've seen indicates the relevant models were Magna Carta, the Dutch Revolt, and the Glorious Revolution.

I would also note that, judging from Wills' Inventing America, the relevant Enlightenment writers were a lot of guys like Francis Hutcheson whom nobody reads anymore--not the Continental authors who are famous now, like Beccaria or Rousseau or even Montesquieu. It may be that Wills has been superseded, however.

Miss Grimke said...

Regardless of whether our white ancestors believed in their heart of hearts that slavery was wrong, the wealth of the American colonies was built on the forced labor of kidnapped Africans and their descendents, from the underwriters of the Triangle Trade in Massachusetts to the factory farms of South Carolina.