David Barton’s Latest: The Reference to “Free White Persons” in the Naturalization Act of 1790 Was Meant to Curb Slavery

Immigration Act

Yes–I have primary sources too!

Earlier today on his Wallbuilders Live radio show, Christian Right activist David Barton made the following case about the Naturalization Act of 1790 and its assertion that citizenship in the new United States be afforded to only “free white persons”:

The Naturalization Act 1790, is the first immigration act passed by Congress. And, it set forth what it takes to be an immigrant to America. If you come here you have to be able to provide your own income for five years.

If you become a public ward of the government within five years, you go back home. You have to have good moral character and a religious recommendation from some organization. So, it was all about character and the type of people you wanted as inhabitants.

So, why is it white? Because this is part of the anti-slavery thing, that we’re not looking for more slaves to come in. It was shortly after this that George Washington passed the law that forbid the exportation of any slaves out of America.

And, Congress had already been notified by the Constitution that Hey we’re going to ban the slave trade as well. We don’t want more slaves coming into America. And, you have to realize that at that point in time, we’re still in the middle of the Atlantic slave trade.

And, sentiment against that is growing. So, there’s lots of slave ships coming out of Africa. We know that over that that four centuries, about 12.7 million slaves were taken out to Africa; and, while most of them did not come to the United States–the United States only got about 2.5 percent of all the slaves sent out of Africa.

Still, there was growing sentiment against the slave trade in America, saying, “Hey, we need to get out of slavery and end the slave trade.” So, that’s kind of the tone at the time this law is passed. Therefore, while this looks racist today, in the context of the times, this is really more about We’re not after more slaves coming in.

Read the entire statement here.

First, notice what the Naturalization Act of 1790 offers citizenship to only free white persons.  Barton argues that by restricting immigration to free white people, Congress was trying to curb the number of slaves coming into the country.

Second, let me say that this interpretation is an example of what happens when you allow politics to shape your understanding of the past.  Barton’s argument here is absurd, but he has to make such an argument to protect his beloved founding fathers.  He knows that this is what his audience needs to hear so he twists and mangles the past to fit his contemporary agenda. He also knows that this is the kind of stuff that keeps him in business.

Third, Barton is making this all up.  He has no evidence for this revisionism.  How do I know?  Because the authors of the Naturalization Act left no specific commentary to explain why they limited citizenship to “free white persons.” In fact, it was not until 1952, with the passing of the Immigration Act and Nationality Act, that Congress prohibited racial discrimination in naturalization.

Fourth, it is likely that Northerners and anti-slavery advocates supported the Naturalization Act of 1790 precisely because it limited citizenship to white people. Duke political scientist and ethicist Noah Pickus has argued that white American men in Congress responsible for the Act–even those who opposed slavery—were trying to imagine what life in the United States would look like after emancipation.  Very few of them wanted African-Americans integrated into white society through citizenship.

As Pickus writes in his book True Faith and Allegiance: Immigration and American Civil Nationalism, “many leaders agonized over the tension between blacks’ natural right to freedom and prudential concerns about an integrated nation.  The free white clause terminology was consistent in the minds of those who opposed slavery with ensuring a cohesive community.  The shared concern to establish a nationalist foundation for citizenship made it easier for all to agree on excluding blacks from citizenship.”  In other words, the framers of the Naturalization Act of 1790 wanted a white republic.

Pickus is also aware that the evidence is scant. So he makes an argument partially based on context.  He writes, “Arguments from silence are, of course, slippery things that depend heavily on the context into which the silence is set.” But Pickus also looks to future debates over emancipation (rather than 1790s debates over naturalization) to advance his argument.  His evidence is found there.

Fifth, there is nothing in the Naturalization Act of 1790 about immigrants being sent back to their home country if they became wards of the state.  Maybe I missed it.  Perhaps someone can double-check for me.  I am afraid that this is Barton trying to twist the act to make a subtle jab about today’s undocumented immigrants.

 

The Author’s Corner With Matthew Clavin

ClavinMatthew Clavin is Professor of History at the University of Houston.  This interview is based on his new book The Battle of Negro Fort: The Rise and Fall of a Fugitive Slave Community (New York University Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write The Battle of Negro Fort?

MC: I am captivated by stories of extraordinary slave resistance that have for a variety of reasons been largely forgotten. Historians have known about Negro Fort for a long time, but I wanted to bring the story of its rise and fall to a wide audience. More than ever, it is vitally important for professional historians to communicate directly with the general public, especially regarding the long and complicated history of race and racism both in the United States and the world.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Battle of Negro Fort?

MC: The Battle of Negro Fort marked a significant moment in early American history. By destroying a fugitive slave community in a foreign territory for the first and only time in its history, the United States government accelerated its transformation into a white republic, which served both the interests and the ideology of an emerging Slave Power.

JF: Why do we need to read The Battle of Negro Fort?

MC: The demonization of people of color on the opposite side of the United States’ southern border is not a new phenomenon. Indeed, American citizens and officials have long referred to these people as murderers, savages, and the like to score political points and secure what they considered important public policy. Following the War of 1812, slavery’s proponents depicted Negro Fort as an existential threat to the southern frontier. Eventually, they were able to convince the federal government to launch an illegal invasion of Spanish Florida to kill or capture the fort’s black inhabitants. The Battle of Negro Fort illuminates how—and why—in the four decades since the Declaration of Independence, much of the American republic’s ambivalence over the institution of slavery had disappeared.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

MC: Since I was little, I have always been fascinated with the history of race and racism. While writing my senior thesis in college on nonviolent direct action and the Civil Rights Movement, I first considered the idea of research and writing history professionally. It wasn’t long after turning in that paper that I decided that I had to become an historian. A lot of people told me that I could never be a historian. I am so glad I did not listen to them.  

JF: What is your next project?

MC: I am currently writing a book that examines the intersection of slavery, anti-slavery, and nationalism in the United States in the decades before the Civil War. The goal is to show just how much love of the American nation justified and inspired revolutionary slave resistance.

JF: Thanks, Matthew!

How Jamestown Embraced Slavery

Cultivation_of_tobacco_at_Jamestown_1615

At Zocalo, Dartmouth historian Paul Musselwhite explains how it all happened.  Here is a taste of “How Jamestown Abandoned a Utopian Vision and Embraced Slavery“:

In the summer of 1619, some of England’s first American colonists were carving up land seized from the Powhatan empire along the James River in Virginia. While the first settlers had arrived back in 1607, they had only recently discovered that they could turn a profit growing tobacco. Tobacco production had increased 20-fold over the past two years, and agricultural land was suddenly at a premium.

Yet the surveyors, instead of laying out private estates for upwardly mobile colonists, were mostly tracing the bounds of thousands of acres of common land. These vast tracts of public land were intended to accommodate hundreds of new colonists and their families, who would serve as tenants, raising crops and paying rents to support infrastructure while learning agricultural skills.

This symbiotic vision of common land and public institutions was one of the most dramatic innovations in the history of English colonialism to that point. But we have lost sight of that original vision and how it was undermined.

Read the rest here.

The 1619 Project: A “patriotism not of hagiography but of struggle”

1619

Over at Boston Review, Princeton graduate student David Walsh wonders why the conservative view of “patriotism” is so “fragile.”  He comes up with three reasons for this:

  1. The conservative propensity for “viewing freedom and equality as incompatible.”
  2. Conservatives are invested in the “explicitly racist power arrangements that the 1619 Protect criticizes.
  3. Conservatives “revere history as a source of  incontestable authority, as opposed to a storehouse of fallible human experience.”

Read the entire piece here.

The Attack on the 1619 Project is an Attack on Mainstream Historical Scholarship and Teaching

I am guessing, and it is only a guess, that most critics of the 1619 Project have not read much serious American history, particularly the history of American slavery and race.  Here is Jeet Heer of The Nation:

Damon Linker’s piece at The Week, for example, has given a lot of ammunition to the kind of people who have been responding to Southern Baptist president J.D. Greear.  Linker, like many conservatives, gets caught-up with the phrase “reframe American history.”  He praises some articles in the 1619 Project, but trashes others.  When was the last time he taught an American history course?  Everyone is an expert.

We can debate what the narrative of American history should look like, or whether or not The New York Times proposal is more political than it is historical, but I would say that we cannot understand colonial America, the American Revolution, or much of early American history without making slavery central to the story.  There is just too much good historical scholarship out there to see this any other way.  Yet we have conservatives like Rod Dreher (another pundit who I am guessing hasn’t taught U.S. history in a while) so upset that he has canceled his 30-year subscription to The New York Times.

I have been teaching the first half of the United States survey for over two decades.  We talk about white colonial settlement, slavery, native Americans, political history, religion, presidential elections, democracy, industrialization, southern culture, the Western ideas that drove the American Revolution, Manifest Destiny, and the coming of the Civil War.  How does one teach these things without slavery? Slavery is everywhere in this course. It constantly rears its ugly head.  There is no way to tell the story without it.  It is central. I don’t advertise my course as a U.S. survey focused on “race” or “slavery” and I don’t put such language in my syllabus.  But these topics just come to the surface naturally and start to shape the narrative.

What the New York Times is proposing in the 1619 Project is not really that radical.  There is actually no “reframing” here. The Times is not as revisionist as it thinks it is.  Just look at any high school or college textbook.  Slavery and race have been central to the study of American history for several decades.

Penn Live: “It’s time to remember the central role slavery played in the making of America”

Virginia sign

This piece at today’s Penn Live/Harrisburg Patriot-News will look somewhat familiar to readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  A taste:

In August 1619, a shipment of “20 And odd Negroes” from Angola arrived at Point Comfort, Virginia. They got there because earlier in the year English pirates stole them from a Portuguese slave ship headed for Vera Cruz, Mexico, and sold them to the earliest Jamestown settlers in exchange for food.

While the story of these Africans is complicated, historians agree that the August 1619 shipment was the beginning of slavery in the English colonies of North America. On Sunday, to commemorate the 400th anniversary of slavery in the colonies, The New York Times released a series of essays and a website called “The 1619 Project.” The Times describes the project as a “major initiative” to “reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who were are.”

The 1619 Project is excellent. Some of our best scholars of African American history, slavery, and race have contributed articles. The racist legacy of slavery in America, they argue, has shaped everything from capitalism to health care, and traffic patterns to music. I hope that teachers will use it in their classrooms.

But not everyone is happy about the 1619 Project. Talk radio host Rush Limbaugh called it a “hoax” and a threat to “American greatness.” Texas Senator Ted Cruz told his Twitter followers that the project is a political attempt by the left to rewrite America’s history. He questioned the journalistic integrity of The Times

Read the rest here.

This is the Best You Will Get from the *National Review* on “The 1619 Project”

1619

Jim Geraghty writes about everything that is missing from the story of African-American history told in The New York Times 1619 Project.  The National Review writer seems to think that the project is an African-American history textbook that must cover everything.

But David French sees some merit in the project:

The black American argument for liberty is achieving new prominence in part because of the New York Times’s “ 1619 Project” — an ambitious effort to reframe the arrival of the first slaves on America’s shores as our nation’s “true founding.” Many of the accompanying essays are interesting and provocative, though they don’t truly make the case that America came into being as a result of slavery rather than through the ratification of one of the most stirring and aspirational documents in human history. The true founding of our nation resulted in the creation of a series of painful conflicts between the promise of liberty and the reality of oppression, and the promise of liberty has prevailed time and again. But the focus on 1619 should provide modern Evangelicals — many of whom are in a state of near-panic — with a healthy dose of perspective.

I like French’s piece because he draws upon African-American history as an antidote to evangelical political pessimism.  A lot of his thoughts here echo the last chapter of Believe Me in which I suggested that the Civil Rights Movement could serve as a model for white evangelical political engagement today.

Ring a Bell on August 25, 2019 to Honor the First Africans to Land in English America

Church bell

The National Park service is calling for a national “day of healing” on August 25 to “honor the first Africans who landed in 1619 at Point Comfort and 400 years of African American history.”  A commemoration will take place at Fort Monroe National Monument in Hampton Virginia on the 25th. The staff of that site is inviting all 419 national parks and the general public to ring bells for four minutes–one for each century of the African-American experience.

Here is a taste of the National Park Service announcement:

Bells are symbols of freedom.

They are rung for joy, sorrow, alarm, and celebration…universal concepts in each of our lives. This symbolic gesture will enable Americans from all walks of life to participate in this historic moment from wherever they are–to capture the spirit of healing and reconciliation while honoring the significance of 400 years of African American history and culture.

Since its establishment on August 25, 1916, the National Park Service has cared for extraordinary historic and cultural sites that are pivotal parts of the American narrative. Parks and our programs can be places of healing and reconciliation. As we gather at parks on this day across the country to commemorate the landing of enslaved Africans 400 years ago, we honor this powerful moment in American history and the significance of four centuries of African American history and culture.

Find a Bell

Your bell could be big, small, old, or new. It could be lots of little bells, one church bell, or a carillon. Be creative as you create a moment that has personal meaning, power, and resonance for you and your group. 

Make your connection–explore the messaging above about the symbolism of bells. Does your site feature a bell? Share a picture or story about a historic bell, maybe the bell of a ship, on a writing desk, in the collection, in a building, in transportation. What does your bell symbolize? Joy, work, celebration, time, education, technology? Can you connect it to the concept of healing and reconciliation?

Plan Your Event

The nationwide bell ringing will take place at 3:00 p.m. EDT on August 25, 2019, the 400th anniversary. Choose a location that accommodates your audience comfortably and, ideally, is a place that has a connection to your group or community’s unique story. You may want to gather a few minutes early to be sure you’re ready at 3:00 p.m. EDT.

Read the entire announcement here.

A quick Google search reveals that churches and denominations will taking-up the National Park Service’s call, including The Episcopal Church, USA.

Will evangelical churches ring their bells on August 25th?  I hope so.  But this might be difficult since most evangelical megachurches do not have church bells or steeples.  🙂

Let’s Remember That Slavery in North America Pre-Dates 1619

Slavery in New Spain

New Spain, 1599

The “20 And odd negroes” who arrived in Virginia in 1619 were the first slaves in English North America, but slavery existed in North American well before this.  Here is Olivia Waxman at Time:

The 400th anniversary being marked this month is really the 400th anniversary of the Anglo-centric history of Africans in the U.S., says Greg Carr, the Chair of the Department of Afro-American Studies at Howard University. Dating the history of Africans in North America to 400 years ago “reinforces this narrative of English superiority.” But, he argues, remembering the Spanish and indigenous sides of the history is more important now than ever, as “the people [officials] are closing the border to are [descended from] people who were here when you came.”

“People don’t tend to want to think about early U.S. history as being anything but English and English-speaking,” echoes Michael Guasco, historian at Davidson College and author of Slaves and Englishmen: Human Bondage in the Early Modern Atlantic World. “There is a Hispanic heritage that predates the U.S, and there’s a tendency for people to willingly forget or omit the early history of Florida, Texas and California, particularly as the politics of today want to push back against Spanish language and immigration from Latin America.”

Read the entire piece here.

Are Conservatives Unable to Deal with the Complexity of American History?

Why Study HistoryThe responses to the 1619 Project sure make it look that way.

Complexity, of course, is one of the 5 Cs of historical thinking.

Over at Slate, Rebecca Onion traces the conservative backlash to The New York Times project back to the “history wars” of the 1990s.  Here is a taste of her piece, “A Brief History of the History Wars“:

The controversial history standards, along with the defeated and revised Enola Gay exhibit, provided a fine set of talking points for Republicans seeking election in 1995. Presidential candidate Bob Dole referenced the Enola Gay exhibit controversy in a speech to the American Legion in September 1995, calling the national history standards an effort “to denigrate America’s story while sanitizing and glorifying other cultures.” Newt Gingrich—a history Ph.D. who has long delighted in claiming the authority of “historian,” despite having left the academy in 1978 after being denied tenure—made hay of the exhibit and the standards in his own efforts to flip the House to the Republicans. “In a postelection interview,” Wallace writes, “Gingrich said that the new Republican leadership intended to improve the country’s moral climate, especially by ‘teaching the truth about American history.’ ” Later, Gingrich told the National Governors Association: “The Enola Gay fight was a fight, in effect, over the reassertion by most Americans that they’re sick and tired of being told by some cultural elite that they ought to be ashamed of their country.”

By 2019, these arguments have become standard conservative fare, and liberals continue to have a hard time countering them. The New York Times Magazine’s use of the term reframe to describe its intention in reconceptualizing the sweep of American history drew particular conservative ire. I think that’s because it sounds a little like “revisionist,” a favorite trigger word for history culture warriors. In 2003, when George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice used it to slam those who criticized the foundations of the war in Iraq, then-president of the American Historical Association James McPherson observed: “Neither Bush nor Rice offered a definition of this phrase, but their body language and tone of voice appeared to suggest that they wanted listeners to understand ‘revisionist history’ to be a consciously falsified interpretation of the past to serve partisan or ideological purposes in the present.”

Read the rest here.

Onion is right about conservative’s resistance to words like “reframing” and “revisionism.”  Yesterday I argued the same thing about The 1619 Project.  I have also said a few things over the years about revisionist history.  This is from Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past:

…the responsibility of the historian is to resurrect the past.  Yet, because we live in the present, far removed from the events of the past, our ability to construct what happened in by-gone eras is limited.  This is why the doing of history requires an act of the imagination.  Sometimes we do not have the sources to provide a complete picture of “what happened” at any given time….

Even the best accounts of the past are open to change based on new evidence or the work of historians who approach a subject with a different lens of interpretation.  In this sense, history is more about competing perceptions of the past than it is about nailing down a definitive account of a specific event or life…While the past never changes, history changes all the time.  Think, for example, about two eyewitness accounts of the same auto accident.  Even if we assume that the drivers involved in the accident believe that they are telling the truth about what happened, it is still likely that the police will receive two very different accounts  of how the accident occurred and two different accounts of who is to blame or who caused the accident.  It is thus up to the police officer in charge, or perhaps a judge, to weigh the evidence and come up with a plausible interpretation of this historical event.  But let’s imagine two weeks after the paperwork is filed and the case is closed, a reliable eyewitness to the accident emerges with new evidence to suggest that the person who the judge held responsible for the accident was actually not at fault.  This new information leads to a new historical narrative of what happened.  History has changed.  This is called revisionism, and it is the lifeblood of the historical profession.

The word revisionism carries a negative connotation in American society because it is usually associated with changing true facts of the past in order to fit some kind of agenda in the present.  But actually, the historian who is called a “revisionist” received a high compliment.  In his book Who Owns History?, Pulitzer Prize-winning history professor Eric Foner recalls a conversation with a Newsweek reporter who asked him, “When did historians stop relating facts and start all this revising of interpretations of the past?”  Foner responded, “Around the time of Thucydides.” (Thucydides is the Greek writer who is often credited with being one of the first historians in the West).  Those who believe “revisionism” is a negative term often misunderstands the way it is used by historians.  Revisionists are not in the business of changing the facts of history.  Any good revisionist interpretation of history will be based on evidence–documents or other artifacts that people in the past left behind.  This type of reconstruction of the past always takes place in community.  We know whether a particular revision of the past is good because it is vetted by a community of historians.  This is called peer review.  When bad history does make it into print, we rely on the community of historians to call this to our attention through reviews.

A few examples might help illustrate what I mean when I say that revisionism is the lifeblood of history.  Without revisionism, our understanding of racial relations in the American South after the Civil War would still be driven by what historians call the “Dunning School.”  William Dunning was an early twentieth-century who suggested that Reconstruction–the attempt to bring civil rights and voting rights to Southern blacks in the wake of the Civil War–was a mistake.  The Northern Republicans who promoted Reconstruction and the various “carpetbaggers” who came to the South to start schools for blacks and work for racial integration destroyed the Southern way of life.  In the end, however, the South did indeed rise again.  In Dunning’s portrayal, Southerners eventually rallied to overthrow this Northern invasion.  They removed blacks from positions of power and established a regime of segregation that would last for much of the twentieth century.  These so-called redeemers of Southern culture are the heroes of the Dunning School, an interpretation of Reconstruction that would inform D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915), one of the most popular, and most racist, motion pictures of the early twentieth century.  In the 1930s the Dunning School was challenged by a group of historians who began to interpret the period of Reconstruction from the perspective of the former slaves . Rather than viewing the blacks in the post-Civil War South as people without power, these revisionist authors provided a much richer understanding of the period that included a place for all historical actors, regardless of skin color or social standing, in the story of this important movement in American history.

Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission Will Commemorate 1619

PA Slave Trade

The PHMC will commemorate 400 years of African-American history through a social media campaign.  Here is a taste of J.D. Prose’s article at The Beaver County (PA) Times:

On Tuesday, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission announced a six-month long social media campaign to commemorate 400 years of black history in America.

In conjunction with the federal 400 Years of African-American History Commission and other cultural and historical organizations, the PHMC will, according to a statement, “share highlights from the hundreds of Pennsylvania Historical Markers dedicated to African Americans and their contributions to Pennsylvania’s rich and diverse heritage” through February, which is recognized as Black History Month.

Various commemorations and programs are occurring this month because it was in August 1619 that the first enslaved Africans were brought to the colonies at Point Comfort, Va.

Using its Facebook (“Pennsylvania Trails of History”), Twitter (@PHMC), Instagram (patrailsofhistory) and LinkedIn(“Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission”) accounts, the PHMC said it will feature stories of the black experience in Pennsylvania, including “both well-known and lesser-known people, places and themes.”

The PHMC said it will encourage followers to share the posts using #400yearsPA.

Read the rest here.

The President of the Southern Baptist Convention Writes a Sympathetic 1619 Tweet and Catches Hell for It

greear1

J.D Greear, the 62nd president of the Southern Baptist Convention, is trying to make the denomination more sensitive to race and the SBC’s long connection to slavery.  It looks like he has his work cut out for him.

On August 19, Greear wrote 3 tweets:

And then all hell broke loose:

 

Some Thoughts on the Opposition to the 1619 Project

1619

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

COtton

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.

*The New York Times* Introduces the “1619 Project”

1619

Here is what it’s all about:

The 1619 Project is a major initiative from The New York Times observing the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery. It aims to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.

Learn more here.

The Author’s Corner With Kelly Ryan

RyanKelly A. Ryan is Dean of the School of Social Sciences and Professor of History at Indiana University-Southeast.  This interview is based on her new book Everyday Crimes: Social Violence and Civil Rights in Early America (New York University Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Everyday Crimes?

KR: When I was researching my first book, I ran across records of abused wives in the revolutionary era and early republic who had the courage to report their husbands to a local justice of the peace. I was surprised by the activism of these women as we know that reporting abuse often leads to greater violence. I wondered about the resistance of slaves and servants –  two other groups categorized as legal dependents – and whether or not they had more or less success in stymying the violence of their masters. Focusing on these groups and newly freed African Americans from the colonial era through the early republic allowed me to get a glimpse of whose voices were privileged and the many ways that legally and socially subordinated individuals fought for their human and civil rights in a society that did not value them as highly as their social superiors.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Everyday Crimes?

KR: Everyday Crimes argues that the resistance of wives, servants, slaves, and free African Americans to violence expanded their human and civil rights.  Although it was dangerous to contest assaults, legal and social dependents obtained greater access to legal rights to sue and offer testimony, expanded divorce and separation options, saw alterations in slave codes, and the emergence of emancipation statutes.

JF: Why do we need to read Everyday Crimes?

KR: In the past few years, our society has grappled with whose voices are privileged in cases of assault and murder. Everyday Crimes shares stories of the victims of violence and the ways our legal and social system indemnified some prosecutors of violence from condemnation. It’s important for Americans to understand how our history is a legacy that continues in the modern era, even as African Americans, women, and children have access to civil rights. We must keep searching for ways to better protect Americans and prevent violence.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

KR: Like most historians, my interest in history stems from amazing teachers in high school and college. Maryknoll High School in Honolulu, Hawaii had passionate instructors of United States, European, and Asian history who taught history as a way of understanding our modern world. I was interested in a great number of things when I arrived at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia as a first year student, but the history professors there, most importantly Lawrence Levine and Howard Smead, made history relevant to everyday life and taught with such great joy. It was infectious. Moreover, I felt that history allowed me to continue focusing on my love of art, anthropology, and literature because all are sources of inspiration and research for historians.

JF: What is your next project?

KR: After 15 year of being a professional historian, I have so many stories connected to sexuality and violence in early America that I have not been able to tell as part of my previous scholarship.  I’d like to bring more of a biographical focus to the men and women who have encountered our criminal justice system. I’m really interested in sharing some of the information I’ve gathered about how early constables and police have been victims of and prosecutors of violence. I also have two forthcoming chapters in planned series edited by other scholars in the Routledge History of American Sexuality and the Cambridge History of the American Revolution.

JF: Thanks, Kelly!

College of William & Mary Lands $1 Million Grant to Explore its Legacy of Slavery and Racism

William and Mary

Here is a taste of Susan Svrluga’s piece at The Washington Post:

The College of William & Mary will deepen and broaden the examination of its own history with a grant emphasizing the experiences of people enslaved by the school and the Founding Fathers.

The five-year, $1 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation will fund several efforts to explore the legacies of slavery and racism, including classes, an oral history project with descendants of enslaved people and exhibits at James Monroe’s Highland. Highland was a home of the fifth U.S. president and alumnus of William & Mary, and the university owns and operates the historic site near Charlottesville.

The grant’s launch coincides with statewide efforts marking the 400 years since the first Africans were brought to Virginia. And it continues the school’s push to give a more honest — and troubling — account of its own history.

Dozens of schools, including Brown University, Georgetown University and the University of Virginia, have been confronting the legacy of slavery and racism in recent years.

Read the rest here.

Trump Says That Colonial Virginia Teaches Us “Our nation’s priceless culture of freedom, independence, equality, justice, and self-determination under God.” Really?

Here is his speech:

5:00ff: Glad to see that Trump gives a shout out to the Jamestown Rediscovery Project and other preservation organizations.  He has no idea what the Jamestown Rediscovery Project does, but at least he recognized it.

5:54ff: Trump says that  the House of Burgesses was founded in 1619.  Yet if I understand my Virginia colonial history correctly, the House of Burgesses was not established until 1642.  Prior to 1642 the Virginia legislature was known as the Virginia General Assembly.

6:00ff: Trump says that the first members of this Virginia General Assembly had “struggled” and “suffered” and “sacrificed” in “pursuit of one wild and very improbable dream.  They called that dream ‘Virginia’.”  Last time I checked, very few of these settlers were “dreamers” in the way Trump makes them out to be.  Yes, they dreamed.  But they dreamed that they would strike it rich growing tobacco or, in the early years, some other cash crop.  They dreamed about using indentured servants and later enslaved Africans to maximize profits.  They pursued their own freedom at the expense of slave labor, a paradox that historian Edmund Morgan has described as “American Slavery–American Freedom.”

6:50ff:  Trump says that the first settlers to Jamestown came to “carve out a home.”  Far from it. Most of them came to get rich and get out.  The settlers did not have dreams of permanence. They did not dream about a future United States.

6:58ff:  Trump said the settlers “came from God and country.”  Not sure what this means.  Probably another teleprompter issue.

7:05ff:  Trump overplays the Christian founding of Jamestown and gives the history of settlement a providential spin. I wrote extensively about the way the Christian Right does this kind of thing in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction.

8:00ff:  Trump’s speechwriters are aware of the so-called “starving time” at Jamestown  Trump doesn’t mention, however, that the problem was not “crop failure” but “failure to grow crops.”

9:00ff: Trump says that the Jamestown settlers practiced what would become the “American character.”  He says they “worked hard, they had courage in abundance, and a wealth of self-reliance. They strived mightily to turn a profit.  They experimented with producing silk, corn, tobacco, and the very first Virginia wines.”  He then says that the Virginians “endured by the sweat of their labor, the aide of the Powhaton Indians, and the leadership of Captain John Smith.”  This, Trump says, “brought a way of life that would define the New World.”

This, of course, is all spin and very ahistorical. Many of the white leaders of Virginia did not “work hard.”  Many of them were “gentleman adventurers” who had no idea how to work. Very few of them “endured by the sweat of their labor.”  Yes, they tried to turn a profit, but they did so at the expense of feeding themselves and their neighbors. And, as noted above, they eventually relied upon indentured servants and slaves to help the settlement, and later colony, survive.  I don’t recognize Trump’s Jamestown.

10:30ff: Trump makes the Virginia Assembly sound like a popularly elected legislative body.  This was a body in which only the wealthy and powerful had representation and the right to make laws.  Whatever populism existed came later–when frontier settlers (former indentured servants) revolted (Bacon’s Rebellion) and burned Jamestown to the ground, forcing the royal governor to flee for his life.

12:30:  Trump mentions the so-called “20 And odd negroes” who arrived in 1619.  I am glad he did not ignore this.  To his credit, he also shows that Americans struggled, and largely failed, to apply equality to all people. But he fails to develop the implications of this argument.  It is like he merely checked-off a box.  The rest of his speech goes forward without any recognition of what slavery did to America.  This history is shallow. As might be expected, it is overwhelmed by Trump’s patriotic narrative.

Of course future historians who study this speech will interpret it in the context of Trump’s recent tweets about sending members of the House of Representatives “back to their countries” and his attacks on Elijah Cummings and the city of Baltimore.

14:45ff:  Trump makes the Whiggish leap from Jamestown to the American Revolution and the birth of American democracy.  His exceptionalism here completely ignores the fact that the English colonies got their ideas of representative government from England and that much of the Revolution could be understood as the consistent application of the British ideas that the colonies had imbibed by being loyal subjects of the empire.

15:15:  The protests begin.

16:00ff: Trump connects the great names of the Virginia founding era–Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Henry, Mason, Wythe, and Lee–to the founding of Jamestown and the founding of the United States.  Again, Trump needs to read Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom.  All of these families were able to produce sons of liberty because of the wealth they accumulated through slavery. This paradox, Morgan argues, is at the heart of the American republic.

17:55ff:  It is absurd to connect Patrick Henry’s “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” to what happened in 17th-century Jamestown.  But Trump makes this connection with no nuance or complexity.

18:26ff:  Do we really want to “cherish the traditions” born in Jamestown, as Trump suggests we do?

19:30ff: Trump says that early Virginia has taught us that:

  • “The people will always be sovereign”
  • “Americans always take ownership of their future and control of their destiny.”
  • “Americans will always “take action,” “seize opportunities,” and “pursue the common good.”

No, Jamestown teaches us none of these lessons.  Instead it teaches us that only the wealthy are sovereign, most of the population could not control their destiny, only a few could “seize opportunities,” and no one was looking out consistently for the “common good.”

20:00ff:  Trump now draws a direct line between the settlers of Jamestown and the settlement of the West, the winning of the American Revolution, the ending of slavery, the securing of civil rights, the invention of the airplane, the end of communism, and the placing of the American flag on the moon.   This is Whig history run amok.  And somehow he even manages to connect Jamestown to the American exploration of Mars!

21:26: Trump keeps going: “But among all of America’s towering achievements, none exceeds the triumph we are here to celebrate today: our nation’s priceless culture of freedom, independence, equality, justice, and self-determination under God.”  Are these really the lessons history students should learn from colonial Virginia?

The one-minute protest at Trump’s speech is getting all the attention today, but we also must come to grips with the fact that Trump completely mishandled the past.

Trump is Going to Jamestown Tomorrow

historicjamestowne_f

Jamestown, Virginia will commemorate the 400th anniversary of the first representative government in British America.  Donald Trump will be there.  Virginia’s black lawmakers will not.

Here is a taste of Gregory Schneider’s piece at The Washington Post:

Virginia’s black state lawmakers will boycott Tuesday’s commemoration of 400 years of representative democracy, saying the Jamestown event “will be tarnished unduly” by the participation of President Trump.

“It is impossible to ignore the emblem of hate and disdain that the President represents,” the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus said in a statement Monday. The group said Trump “continues to make degrading comments toward minority leaders, promulgate policies that harm marginalized communities, and use racist and xenophobic rhetoric.”

And in a direct challenge to Gov. Ralph Northam (D), Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D), the rest of the Democratic Party as well as Republicans, the caucus said: “Those who have chosen to attend and remain silent are complicit in the atrocities that he incites.”

Northam is slated to begin day-long festivities at a 7:30 a.m. ceremony on the site of the original English colony at Jamestown Island, but his office said he never intended to be present for the 11 a.m. session featuring Trump. Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) will also be present with Northam for that event.

Read the rest here.

I imagine that Trump will have a lot to say about the Virginia General Assembly (which would eventually become the House of Burgesses) as a forerunner of American democratic government.  While this is true to an extent, the General Assembly was run by the wealthy tobacco planters of  colonial Virginia.  In other words, it was far from a “democratic” government.  The member of the Assembly were chosen because they had elite family connections and land.

Moreover, I am guessing that Trump will not be in Virginia next month to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the first slaves to arrive on British-American shores.