The 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first African slaves in Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in North America, has occasioned some somber reflection — and some contentious debate — on the history of slavery in America. Increasingly, the prevailing view among progressives, including Democratic presidential candidates such as Sen. Kamala Harris of California and former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, is that the United States was founded on slavery and built on the backs of the enslaved. This perspective is also reflected in “The 1619 Project,” a package of features in the latest issue of The New York Times Magazine exploring the way America was shaped by slavery’s legacy.
Where many see an essential and belated reckoning, critics such as conservative pundit Erik Erickson see an insidious attempt to delegitimize America and destroy its foundations. Are these critics raising a valid point, or dismissing the black experience to preserve a comforting myth of the American founding as a lofty endeavor?
There is no question that Americans have often failed to grapple with terrible pages in our history. Generations learned whitewashed (as it were) versions of history that glossed over the brutalities of slavery and Jim Crow. But today, we risk replacing one mythology with another that demonizes America and its achievements.
Thus, the Times’ “1619 Project” presents some fascinating and important material — but it also relies on contested, often dubious scholarship to argue that slavery was the cornerstone of the founding and that key features of American society today are shaped by slavery.
The introductory essay by Nikole Hannah-Jones tells the moving story of her father’s devotion to an America that treated him as a second-class citizen. Hannah-Jones rightly asserts that the United States was “founded on both an ideal and a lie” — a declaration of liberty, equality and inalienable rights by men who denied all these to the enslaved humans in their midst. But she goes further to claim that protecting the institution of slavery was, in fact, “one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain.”
While a few revisionist historians have made this argument, it is contradicted by vast evidence. Yes, antislavery sentiment was starting to brew in England at the time, but it was brewing even more in America, where the first abolitionist society was formed in Philadelphia in 1775, and it surged with the Revolutionary War. After independence was won, Northern states moved one after another to outlaw slavery, and all states except South Carolina banned the importation of slaves.
Jones makes an inspiring point when she says that blacks who demanded their freedom played a key role in forcing America to live up to its ideals. But her narrative also suggests that these ideals were not merely marred by hypocrisy but deliberately crafted as a cover for slavery’s preservation. It’s an approach that has caused some social media users to declare that honoring the founders is no different from honoring Hitler.
We live in a time when a resurgent far right more or less transparently questions the ideal of a multiracial democracy, claiming that America was founded as a nation for whites. Is it wise for progressives to play into their hands by essentially validating that narrative, or to make ordinary Americans feel that patriotism is being made politically incorrect?
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.