The United States of America began in 1776, not 1619.
That one sentence is the thesis statement of “1776”—a non-partisan black-led response to the New York Times’s “1619 Project” initiative, which launched last week at D.C.’s National Press Club. I am pleased and proud to be a part of 1776, along with founder Bob Woodson, Glenn Loury, Coleman Hughes, Jason Hill, Carol Swain, John Wood, Taleeb Starkes, Robert Cherry, and many others. From my perspective as a member, 1776 has three core goals: (1) rebutting some outright historical inaccuracies in the 1619 Project; (2) discussing tragedies like slavery and segregation honestly while clarifying that these were not the most important historical foundations of the United States; and (3) presenting an alternative inspirational view of the lessons of our nation’s history to Americans of all races.
The first of these points is perhaps the least important, but still a weighty task. Many of the claims made by the 1619 Project, which attempts to link everything from non-socialized medicine to American sugar consumption to historical slavery, are simply not true. Gordon Wood, one of the USA’s leading historians of the Revolutionary War, has been sharply critical of 1619’s best known essay (“America Wasn’t a Democracy Until Black Americans Made It One,” by Nikole Hannah-Jones), dismissing Hannah-Jones’s claim that the USA seceded from Britain primarily to protect the institution of slavery as factually inaccurate.
Wood points out that attributing American secession to a desire to protect slavery—rather than (say) taxation without representation, conflicts over French and Indian war debt, or tense armed exchanges like the “Boston Massacre”—“makes the Revolution out to be like the Civil War,” which is “wrong in so many ways.” The eminent historian seems bemused and angered by the decision of the Times to support an arguably questionable scholarly project, saying: “I was surprised by the scope of this thing, [since] it’s going to become the basis for high school education, and has the weight of the New York Times behind it.” Given that the generally reputable Pulitzer Center is already offering a “1619 Project Curriculum” targeted at “all grades,” Dr. Wood’s words of warning ring true.
Similarly, John Oakes, Distinguished Professor of History and Graduate School Humanities Professor at the City University of New York, has been extremely critical of the 1619 Project’s claim that “anti-Black racism runs in the very DNA of this country,” and the project’s explicit attempt to link many Black problems of today (i.e. “mass incarceration”) to historical slavery. As Oakes notes, this is an almost ahistorical view. To people who believe it: “There has been no industrialization. There has been no Great Migration. We’re all in the same boat we were back then.”
I will note that my recent book Taboo: Ten Facts You Can’t Talk About makes this same point at some length, pointing out that quite a few contemporary Black problems have very little to do with slavery. For example, the Black rate of “illegitimate” out-of-wedlock childbirths was 11 percent in 1938, barely 70 years after slavery ended, but today hovers around 74 percent—and the illegitimacy rate today is approximately 35 percent for American whites. The welfare policies of the 1960s frankly have been a greater cause of this multi-colored social issue than racialized oppression 150 years ago. The same could be said of a dozen other issues, from opioid and cocaine abuse to high rates of local incarceration, which seem to bedevil our poor white countrymen roughly as much as blacks, while having little effect on West Indian immigrants who are also almost entirely descended from slaves.
A third—at the very least—strategic omission that is consistent throughout almost all the 1619 Project essays is a focus on American slavery in isolation, to the frequent exclusion of both (1) narratives about the successful American anti-slavery movement and (2) narratives about the far harsher slave trades conducted around the globe for most of history. As yet another internationally famous professor, Princeton University’s James McPherson, has pointed out, slavery in the U.S. was not unique, but rather “only a small part of a larger world process that unfolded over many centuries.” In all likelihood, human beings have been capturing and trading slaves since the first Neolithic battle leaders progressed past simply killing and eating their war captives. Slavery was common in ancient Greece—where Aristotle famously described the unhappy life of a slave as being composed of “work,” “beatings,” and possibly “feedings”—universal in Republican and Imperial Rome, and (under the guise of “chattel serfdom”) not abolished in Russia until 1866.
If this even needs to be said, beautiful people of colour kept slaves as well. In fact, one of the world’s most significant slave trades, the Barbary Slave Trade, was focused almost entirely around the sale of white European slaves to Moorish and Black purchasers in North Africa. The Barbary Trade operated from the 16th century to the late 18th century, inspired a verse in the U.S. Marine Corps Hymn (“to the shores of Trip-o-li”), and even helped add the word “slave” to English-language dictionaries: The term comes from “Slav,” an ethnic descriptor for the residents of chaotic Eastern European states (today’s Bosnia, etc.) who were frequently sold into slavery to masters of all shades. While some desire on the part of 1619 participants to focus on the evils of our own society is understandable, it is hardly honest to attribute the unique characteristics of American society to slavery, when essentially all societies had slavery historically and only one became the USA. As the 1776 bossman Bob Woodson has noted, lies and omissions are not effective tools with which to fight racism.
All that said, it is not enough merely to critique an opponent’s worldview: A successful movement must provide a worldview of its own. Three core elements of my view of slavery—and, I think it is fair to say, 1776’s as well—are: (1) recognizing that an anti-slavery movement led by white and Black people of goodwill existed in this country as long as slavery did, and won in the end; (2) recognizing that slavery did not “build the USA,” but rather made the pre-bellum South into something of a backwater, due largely to the proud if subtle resistance of the slaves themselves; and (3) recognizing that America paid a diverse butcher’s bill of hundreds of thousands of lives, during the Civil War, in order to FREE the slaves.
A rock-ribbed anti-slavery movement dates back almost literally to the American founding. As early as the 1770s, Black New Englanders, thousands of whom were Revolutionary War veterans, began a petition-writing campaign that targeted Northern state legislatures and demanded an end to slavery. These petitions, essentially, worked. By the 1790s, 10 states and territories, containing more than 50 percent of the free population of the new nation—Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, the North-West Territory, and the Indiana Territory—were free land by law. And the anti-slavery upswell continued. In 1794, Congress prohibited any participation by American ships in the Atlantic slave trade. In 1808, the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves made any shipment of enslaved persons from abroad into the USA a crime. Finally, in 1865 all slavery was declared illegal, at the Constitutional level, in the United States. Since that last milestone, 154 years ago, it is worth noting that the population of the country has grown 874 percent (38,000,000 to 333,000,000) and our GDP has increased 11,796 percent ($15 billion to $18.638 trillion), with both increases driven largely by modern-era foreign immigration.
Even within the South, when slavery legally existed, there is little evidence that reliance on feudal serfdom made American slave states richer than their free counterparts. In fact, historian Mark Schulman points out that before the Civil War, “the vast majority of industrial manufacturing” and other competitive industrial work took place in the U.S. North. In 1860, the South had about 25 percent of the USA’s free population, but “only 10 percent of the country’s capital.” The same was true for physical plant: the North had five times as many modern factories, and at least 10 times as many trained factory workers. Overall, 90 percent or more of the nation’s skilled-trades workers were based in the North. In his magisterial Black Rednecks and White Liberals, Thomas Sowell goes a step beyond Schulman, arguing that the prevalence of slavery in the antebellum South actually led to a mocking attitude toward hard work that continues to plague both “white trash” and inner-city Black communities today.
Finally, any cost-benefit analysis of the impact of slavery on the USA would be incomplete without including the costs of freeing the slaves. In fiscal terms alone, the price tag for the Civil War was a high one. Between 1861 and 1865, the U.S. national debt surged from $65 million to $2.77 billion, an increase of many tens of billions in today’s dollars. And, even this pales in comparison to the great conflict’s human toll. According to History.com’s Jennie Cohen, the generally accepted figure for Union Army battle deaths during the Civil War is 360,222. The equivalent figure for Confederate deaths, which many historians consider a low-ball, is 258,000. All told, about one in 10 American men of military age in 1860 died as a direct result of the Civil War. Among Southern white men in their early 20s, 22.6 percent—nearly one in four—died during the war. It seems no exaggeration to estimate that more than one Union soldier died for every 10 slaves freed. If the USA owed a bill for slavery, we have, arguably, already paid it.
The vision of 1776 goes far beyond disagreement with the political Left about questions of historical slavery. When I talked to the project’s founder founder Bob Woodson on February 3rd, he described the broader vision behind 1619 as “just more of the same.” Sounding quite similar to Dr. Oakes, Bob pointed out that the thesis underlying many 1619 Project essays—and, arguably, most arguments on the identitarian Left—can be summed up as “You do not control your own life.” This claim might be dismissed as an exaggeration, but it is not: in what sense can one be said to have free will, if the true cause of (say) the individual decision to father a child out of wedlock was a lost race war back in 1856? Modern ideas of miasmatic racism make the radical argument seem stronger and more tempting: If the REAL reason young brothers struggle with the SAT is “the subtle institutional structural racism of the white gaze,” and not the fact that we study a bit less for the exam, then why ever bother to study more?
When we spoke, Bob was eloquently dismissive of this argument, which I hate myself. He pointed out that probably the worst possible predictor of ethical behavior among people, especially young males, is the belief that one is not in charge of one’s own destiny. Scathingly, he dismissed those promoting this idea as “moral traitors.” And during one insightful exchange, he noted the obvious—the upper-middle class black and white protesters promoting amoral po-mo ideas in the hood don’t have to live there: “The activists do not have to stay in the conditions they are causing.” When Black Lives Matter wildly exaggerated the rate of police brutality, and ended up causing a backlash “Ferguson Effect” that claimed 3,000 lives, the movement’s grad-school radicals could return to bucolic college campuses at will. In the meantime, working class residents of Ferguson had little choice but to stay home and watch their neighborhoods burn. Very often, those responsible for promoting hip, new, brave ideas never stick around to watch them fail.
Well, we at 1776 have seen them fail. Against them, we propose a simple and positive thesis: America is a very good (if sometimes flawed) society, it is frankly not very hard to succeed here, and hard work and personal responsibility will help you do so. There have been dark periods of American history, to be sure, and it is important to discuss them honestly. But there have been dark periods during the centuries- or millennia-long histories of virtually all human societies. Further, many Americans were able to use the indomitable human resource of free will to succeed even then. As Bob pointed out at least twice during our recent conversation, the Black entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker, born in rural Louisiana just two years after slavery ended, went on to found a beauty-products empire and become the wealthiest self-made woman in America by the time of her death in 1919.
Today, 101 years after the great lady passed, there is no excuse for promoting a kind of historical fatalism in the world’s richest large society. Blacks and whites can certainly—if they choose to spend valuable time this way—debate racism, and which group has it five percent easier. But can anyone seriously describe it as a Herculean task to work five percent, or 10 percent, or 20 percent harder than the average millennial American? The plain fact is that people regularly come to the USA from countries where cars are a luxury item, such as Pakistan and Vietnam, and out-perform our native-born citizens. When the U.S. Census Bureau recorded this data in 2014, the top three income-earning groups in the USA were Indian Americans ($100,295 per year), Taiwanese Americans ($85,566), and Filipinos ($82,369). Nigerians also did quite well; American whites, analyzed together as a group, earned $57,355 per household and finished behind 18 minority immigrant groups.
There is no reason—no reason at all—that middle-class American Blacks or Appalachian whites cannot be expected to perform at the same level as recent immigrants from the Philippines. But doing so will require members of these populations to learn about real skills such as advanced mathematics, rather than obscure racial atrocities from centuries ago. When I asked Bob to sum up 1776 in a sentence, he said: “America is a remarkable place, where you can be the agent of your own uplift.” I would add only one sentence to that: “If you are willing and able to compete.”
Now, there’s a message I am proud to deliver. God bless America.
Wilfred Reilly is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Kentucky State University. His most recent book is Taboo: Ten Facts You Can’t Talk About. For more info about “1776”, visit the project’s website.
Feature image: Coleman Hughes reads his essay for the Woodson Centre’s 1776 Project, February 15, 2020.
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