Some Thoughts on the Opposition to the 1619 Project


We introduced readers to The New York Times 1619 Project in this post.  It now looks like there are some people who do not like the newspaper’s attempt to observe the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery.  Here are a few examples:

I am not surprised by any of this.  I knew there would be push-back when I read that The New York Times was framing the 1619 Project as an attempt to “frame the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and, placing the consequences of slavery, and the contribution of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.”

I wonder if any of the aforementioned tweeters have read the essays in the 1619 Project.  Most of them probably stopped after they read the words “frame” and “true founding.”

Historians, of course, have been bringing slavery to the center of the American story for a long time–more than half a century.  The 1619 Project reflects this scholarship and takes it to its logical conclusion.

Frankly, the 1619 project is excellent.  Americans need to wrestle with the legacy of slavery.  I hope teachers will use it in their classrooms.

Newt Gingrich is completely wrong when he says that “if you are an African American slavery is at the center of what YOU see as the American experience, but for most Americans, most of the time, there were a lot of other things going on.” Gingrich is an embarrassment.  (I am especially tough on him because he has a Ph.D in history).

So what were some of those “other things going on?”

Edmund Morgan, of course, showed us that American freedom has always been intricately linked to American slavery.  Pennsylvania farmers in the so-called “best poor man’s country in the world,” pursued their “American” dream by supplying grain to feed West Indian slaves in the British sugar colonies.  As historians Edward Baptist, Sven Beckert, and others have taught us, slavery fueled capitalism and American economic growth.  Even those living in the free-soil north benefited from the wealth generated by slave labor.  As Robert Parkinson argues in his recent book, the racial fears of American patriots had something to do with the way they understood the Revolution.  In Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, I trace the history of race and the legacy of slavery in shaping an evangelical approach to political life.  And we could go on.

But there is plenty of room at the “center” of the American story for native Americans, women, working people, white people, and many others.  We can’t forget, for example, that Western ideas, as articulated in some of our founding documents and by people of Christian faith, provided the impetus for the abolition of slavery.

History is messy and complex.  We should make every effort to remember our past.  And now is the time to remember the significance of 1619 and the central role that slavery and racism has played in the making of America.

Slavery Was America’s First Big Business


Cornell University history professor Ed Baptist talks with Vox‘s P.R. Lockhart about his 2014 book The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American CapitalismHere is a taste:

P.R. Lockhart

When you talk about the sort of myth-making that has been used to create specific narratives about slavery, one of the things you focus on most is the relationship between slavery and the American economy. What are some of the myths that get told when it comes to understanding how slavery is tied to American capitalism?

Edward E. Baptist

One of the myths is that slavery was not fuel for the growth of the American economy, that it actually the brakes put on US growth. There’s a story that claims slavery was less efficient, that wage labor and industrial production wasn’t significant for the massive transformation of the US economy that you see between the time of Independence and the time of the Civil War.

And yet that period is when you see the US go from being a colonial, primarily agricultural economy to being the second biggest industrial power in the world — and well on its way to becoming the largest industrial power in the world.

Another myth is that slavery, in and of itself as an economic system, was unchanging. We fetishize machine and machine production and see it as quintessentially modern — the kinds of improvements in production and efficiency that you see from hooking up a cotton spindle to a set of pulleys, which are in turn pulled by a water wheel or steam engine. That’s seen as more efficient than the old way of someone sitting there and doing it by hand.

But you can also get changes in efficiency if you change the pattern of production and you change the incentives of the labor and the labor process itself. And we still make these sorts of changes today in businesses — the kind of transformations that speed up work to a point where we say that it is modern and dynamic. And we see these types of changes in slavery as well, particularly during cotton slavery in the 19th-century US.

The difference, of course, is that this is not the work of wage workers or professional workers. It is the work of enslaved people. And the incentive is not “do this or you’ll get fired” or “you won’t get a raise.” The incentive is that if you don’t do this you’ll get whipped — or worse.

The third myth about this is that there was not a tight relationship between slavery in the South and what was happening in the North and other parts of the modern Western world in the 19th century. It was a very close relationship: Cotton was the No. 1 export from the US, which was largely an export-driven economy as it was modernizing and shifting into industrialization. And the slavery economy of the US South was deeply tied financially to the North, to Britain, to the point that we can say that people who were buying financial products in these other places were in effect owning slaves and were certainly extracting money from the labor of enslaved people.

So those are the three myths: that slavery did not cause in any significant way the development and transformation of the US economy, that slavery was not a modern or dynamic labor system, and that what was happening in the South was a separate thing from the rest of the US.

Read the entire piece here.