In the wake of recent Black Lives Matter protests — in response to the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer and the important dialog that has resulted — I am inclined to revisit The New York Times’ controversial 1619 Project. This project propagates a popular narrative, which has taken hold among many in the media, politics, and education, to link the foundational origins of the American experiment not to the context of the American Revolution of 1776 but to 1619, the year that enslaved Angolans arrived on the shores of colonial Jamestown, Virginia.
In this view, all of America’s current institutions, public attitudes, economics, and social structures — or, perhaps more pointedly, the alleged horrors and woes therein — are a result of slavery. Among other claims, it credits slavery for the dismal state of America’s prison system, for suburban traffic congestion, for the prevalence of obesity and diabetes, even for capitalism itself. All this, even though many of this narrative’s adherents belong to the most respected, most lucrative institutions in the country — which, is a testament to the unique constitutional freedoms that Americans enjoy.
Many who hear or read such views are incredulous, including the founders of the 1776 Project, who are attempting to dispel the belief that Black America’s destiny has been shaped in the crucible of slavery and racism.
Bob Woodson, the 1776 Project’s founder, objects to the argument that the “shadow of slavery and Jim Crow” hangs over the destiny of Black Americans. “Nothing is more lethal,” he says, “than to convey to people that they have an exemption from personal responsibility.” The 1776 Project’s organizers, for example, criticize the characterization of America as a place in which all whites are villains and all Blacks are victims. It is easy, they argue, “to point to slavery and Jim Crow and then be done with your account of Black American history. But that is lazy thinking.”
In fact, despite what the liberal media would have you believe, many African Americans have bitterly fought the narrative that Blacks are eternally constrained by the attitudes and structures of racism. Black History Month usually marks an occasion when African Americans celebrate the many victories they have achieved during their struggle for equality, the genius of Black leaders, artists, statesman, and scholars — in short, it has become a celebration of Black excellence not of Black subjugation.
But tracing all of America’s institutions back to slavery misses that mark. Slaves being brought to American shores, and settlers fighting wars of expansion against Native American groups, are almost beside the point. Neither slavery nor conquest are unique to the American experiment. Indeed, those practices existed on the African continent from whence slaves arrived, and they were present among the indigenous people of America as well. What sets America apart — what makes it a unique place among the community of nations — is certain aspirational ideals incorporated into a framework of laws and freedoms centered around the primacy of the individual vis-a-vis the state.
Was the American state, born out of conflict in 1776, a perfect union at the moment of its inception? Plainly, it was not. But it was unique in that it adhered to a set of laws and principles that enabled it to become more perfect over time. To be sure, a major fault line in the formation of the new American state was the incongruous institution of slavery. But, even at the time, slavery was considered deeply problematic among America’s founders. They fully recognized that slavery was incompatible with the ideals of freedom, but they understood that unifying the colonies in opposition to the British monarchy necessitated a compromise on slavery — which was, by that time, a central part of the economies of the five southernmost colonies. Thus, viewing America’s foundational impetus as solely a product of slavery lacks nuance and historical perspective.
Notably, nowhere in the American Constitution is slavery endorsed as a fundamental right or ideal.
Benjamin Franklin thought that slavery was “an atrocious debasement of human nature” and “a source of serious evils.” John Adams, a lifelong opponent of slavery, declared it a “foul contagion in the human character” and “an evil of colossal magnitude.” James Madison called it “the most oppressive dominion ever exercised by man over man.”
Less than a century after our nation’s founding, Americans threw off the wretched institution at the cost of much blood and treasure. More than 100,000 Union soldiers died in a war to free the slaves and unify the country. Freedom, then, was no mere afterthought, but an earnestly sought ideal shared by whites and Blacks alike.
Of course, historical antecedents play a role in the way in which our nation’s institutions were formed. Admittedly, the legacy of slavery did shape, to some extent, the struggles and progress of
Blacks in this country. But so does the legacy of freedom passed down from the founders — arguably, to a far greater extent. The founders did not completely scrap all of the institutions that had developed in Europe over the centuries; they kept English common law as the basis of our legal system, for example. But no one would argue that, because English common law remains a feature of American jurisprudence, it follows that British monarchy forms the basis of American society.
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Photo “Armstrong Williams” by Armstrong Williams.