Home > Uncategorized > The 1619 Project and A More Informed View of Slavery – posted 9/28/2019

The 1619 Project and A More Informed View of Slavery – posted 9/28/2019

Possibly some readers have followed the controversy over the New York Times 1619 Project. That project is an effort to take a new look at the history of slavery in America. 1619 refers to the date the first black slaves were brought to the shores of America.

After the New York Times launched the project in August, conservatives literally freaked out. Among others, former Congressman and Fox News contributor Newt Gingrich argued the project was a “lie” and propaganda. National Review editor Rich Lowry stated that the essays presented an “odious and reductive lie” that “racism is the essence of America”. The general criticism raised by conservatives was that the 1619 Project was attempting to divide and delegitimize America.

The conservatives seem deeply uneasy about looking under the rock that is American slavery. Accompanying a fear of this history is the desire to maintain an innocence about the American past. We all grew up with the triumphalist narrative that focuses on heroic American moments. From the Founding Fathers to Abraham Lincoln to defeating fascism in World War II, there are undeniable heroics.

However, I would suggest fear of history is dangerous and can lead to the promotion of illusions. It is past time that we, as a society, look harder into the history of slavery because that experience still shapes our world. Investigating slavery is like staring into the heart of darkness. There is a desire to look away.

The truth is that there has been an unwillingness to examine the history and the history is little known and understood. In schools I attended, the subject of slavery was largely passed over and I do not think that is too different from the experience of most Americans.

Let me put out some ideas about slavery that I have gleaned from my own exploration. Much of my thinking has been shaped by a brilliant book, The American Slave Coast, written by historians Ned and Constance Sublette.

The Sublettes argue an alternative view of slavery in the United States. Rather than seeing slavery simply as a source of unpaid labor, they see slavery in the United States as a slave-breeding system. They write:

“The story of national expansion premised on the reproduction of captive humans who were labor, merchandise and collateral, all at once, is horrific, and it’s basic to the story of our development as a nation. It’s not a sidebar to American history, it’s central. It’s particularly important, because despite the best work of scholars, American history has always come up against a disinformation process that has sanitized it. But sanitized history won’t explain how we got to the mess we have today.”

Slave-breeding was a commercial enterprise to expand slavery westward. The Sublettes see the struggle that went on between Virginia and South Carolina as a central conflict. Slaveowners in Virginia competed with South Carolina over African importation of slaves.

South Carolina slaveholders obtained their slaves from Africa via the Middle Passage. Virginia bred slaves for the domestic market and aimed to supply high-priced slaves throughout the South. Both states favored the expansion of slavery into western territories as that was seen as essential to the growth potential of the industry and its profits.

The Sublettes argue that the 1808 abolition of the transatlantic slave trade was a huge protectionist victory for Thomas Jefferson and the Virginia slaveholders. By stopping the African importation, Jefferson crippled South Carolina’s ability to compete against Virginia.

W.E.B. Dubois described it:

“Slaves without the African slave trade became more valuable; with cotton culture their value rose still further, so that they were fed adequately and their breeding systematically encouraged.”

Thomas Jefferson had bragged to George Washington that the birth of black children increased Virginia’s capital stock by four percent annually. Jefferson owned over 600 slaves during his lifetime. Washington owned over 300. They were the two presidents who owned the most slaves.

Slaves were the equivalent of money. They also were the basis for increased Southern political representation due to the three-fifths clause in the U.S. Constitution.

The Sublettes show how Native Americans had to be cleared out of the southeastern United States to pave the way for the creation of cotton plantations. Andrew Jackson was key to that effort. More generally, they show how many presidents before Lincoln accommodated slavery. With the exception of the two Adams (John and John Quincy), all the presidents before Lincoln owned slaves.

Some of the stories the Sublettes tell are shocking. President James K. Polk fought the Mexican War, in part, to annex Texas and extend slavery there. He bought slaves in secret while in the White House to feather his post-presidential nest. Polk was the absentee owner of a slave plantation in Mississippi. The overseer of his plantation had a reputation for cruelty and merciless whippings. Polk’s slaves ran away much more than the norm of that time.

Maybe most shocking in the Sublettes’ account was the treatment of African-American women. There was no such thing as rape of an enslaved woman. It wasn’t considered possible that rape could be committed against a slave. Rape of a slave was simply not regarded as rape. Rape was, however, a virtual industry in the South. The historian Kellie Carter Jackson writes:

“Enslaved women had no right to their bodies, no right to their children and no right to refuse enforced breeding.”

The slave-breeding industry is an example of how far human beings will go in the unrestrained pursuit of profit. I would acknowledge the need for much deeper exploration of the history of slavery but the conservatives fear of untold history is misplaced. We do not have that many slave narratives but we need a bottom-up view of the institution. Shallowness of understanding is a much bigger problem than potential bias in telling the story.

In American history, it does not lessen the positives to be honest about negatives. The 1619 Project and other efforts to tell the slavery story should be welcomed.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Pat Dawson
    September 29, 2019 at 6:51 pm

    Very well put, but we don’t want to tarnish that image of a shining beacon on a hill. Truthfully, I hadn’t extended my thought process to the fact that slavery led to slave breeding. It’s common sense. Of course, it would be monetized and made as profitable as possible.
    Same as human trafficking today…. it’s always about the money.

  2. Debbie Socolar
    September 30, 2019 at 9:17 pm

    Thank you for this, Jon.

    • September 30, 2019 at 9:37 pm

      Thanks for reading it, Debbie. I hope you found it worthy.

  3. d4v1d
    October 3, 2019 at 4:19 pm

    I would add that Jefferson didn’t father “children” with Sally Hemmings. He engineered collateral goods to sell, no doubt because of his perpetual financial insolvency. His retirement was the first federal welfare project.

    He undermined through media manipulation his predecessor’s presidency, and sought to inject slavery into the new territory of Ohio by subterfuge.

    I see no moral or behavioral difference between Jefferson and the present occupant of the White House (located, note, in slaveholder territory). I see no difference at all.

  4. anonymous
    October 10, 2019 at 12:37 pm

    Interesting article. Thanks. (I found this site through the Concord Monitor).

    One comment though – I don’t think Gingrich and Lowry offered any serious critique of the project and using them to represent the “other side” of the controversy deprives readers from the more substantive criticism that’s out there.

    For a serious and nuanced critique of the project, I’d suggest watching the bloggingheads.tv discussion between John McWhorter and Glenn Loury. Google “a critical look at the 1619 project” to find it.

    • October 10, 2019 at 5:07 pm

      Thanks. I will take a look

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