June 21, 2023
Back in 2019, the executive editor of The New York Times, Dean Baquet, reassured a restive newsroom that while, admittedly, the Times’ plan A to dump Trump—Russiagate—had failed ignominiously with the release of the Mueller Report, they shouldn’t worry because the newspaper’s plan B to rid us of this turbulent president—harping on racism nonstop—was gearing up nicely.
Central to the post-Russiagate NYT assault on Trump, according to Baquet, was black journalist/amateur crank historian Nikole Hannah-Jones’ (soon-to-be) Pulitzer Prize-winning crackpot “1619” theory, which ethnocentrically and egomaniacally
aims to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 [when blacks first arrived, 12 years after Englishmen and ~15,000 years after American Indians] 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.
In particular, Hannah-Jones announced that the American revolution of 1776 happened in order to preserve slavery in the colonies from British abolitionism.
As an amateur crank historian myself with my own crackpot theory of 1776, I’m rather sympathetic to Hannah-Jones’ imaginative theorizing that the purpose of the American Revolution was “to ensure slavery would continue.”
She does have one data point in her favor. In the 1772 Somerset v. Stewart legal case in Britain, a mirror image of the 1857 Dred Scott case in America, Lord Mansfield ruled that a black slave in England could not be forced by law by his master to go to Jamaica. The judge pointed out that Parliament had never passed any positive law establishing slavery in Britain, so he wasn’t going to enforce an action as egregious as making a slave in England cross the Atlantic.
But the extent of this decision can be exaggerated. Mansfield himself said thirteen years later, “The determinations go no further than that the master cannot by force compel him to go out of the kingdom.” On the other hand, Mansfield’s ruling, while not exactly abolishing slavery in the British Isles, made it even less popular than it had been.
There were only about 15,000 slaves in Britain at the time; they didn’t play any major role in the economy; there was, as Thomas Malthus would soon point out, no shortage of indigenous British farm laborers; and, unlike in the American South, the Caribbean, and Latin America, where sub-Saharans tended to be healthier than European labor, blacks tended not to flourish physically at England’s high latitude.
Hence, the Somerset case, by raising doubts about the enforcement of property rights in slaves in the United Kingdom, made importing more slaves even less of an appealing business plan. Domestic slavery faded away over time within Britain.
On the other hand, there were strong economic interests in English port cities profiting from the brutal transatlantic slave trade, which went on unimpeded for another generation.
Moral reformers, such as William Wilberforce, were largely in agreement that abolishing the oceanic slave trade was a much higher priority than emancipating current slaves. Benjamin Franklin, who had owned a few house slaves (but who would eventually live long enough to polish his reputation by turning abolitionist in his old age), scoffed at Mansfield’s ruling:
O Pharisaical Britain! to pride thyself in setting free a single Slave that happens to land on thy coasts, while thy Merchants in all thy ports are encouraged by thy laws to continue a commerce whereby so many hundreds of thousands are dragged into a slavery that can scarce be said to end with their lives, since it is entailed on their posterity!
Finally, Wilberforce and friends got Parliament to ban the transatlantic slave trade in 1807. After Napoleon’s hash was finally settled at Waterloo in 1815, the Royal Navy went on patrol against slave ships in the Atlantic.
Another generation later in British colonies like Jamaica, slaves were emancipated by legislation in 1838, with substantial compensation paid to their owners.
So, Hannah-Jones does have an argument that the general trend in the United Kingdom was against slavery.
But heavyweight historians interviewed by the leftist World Socialist Web Site, an anti-woke old-fashioned workers-of-the-world-unite outlet, were unimpressed by Hannah-Jones’ attempt at rewriting history, which made the thin-skinned journalist sore at the unfairness of it all. How can the plucky 1619 Project, backed only by the upstart New York Times and brave little Shell Oil, stand up to the media might of the World Socialist Web Site and its bullying tactic of interviewing leading historians of, you know, American history?
My impression is that rather than the slavery question dividing the English-speaking world down the middle of the Atlantic in 1776, as Hannah-Jones implies, instead, slavery was on the defensive on both sides of the Atlantic, but with a north-to-south gradient in popularity.
By the American Revolution, slavery was declining in respectability on this side of the ocean as well, especially at latitudes similar to England. Thus, slavery was quickly abolished by legislation or judicial decision in the newly independent states of Vermont (1777), Pennsylvania (1780), Massachusetts (1783), and Connecticut (1784), which is hard to reconcile with Hannah-Jones’ theory.
A major reason for Northern abolition was biological/economic: Sub-Saharans were more prone than Europeans to fatal respiratory diseases north of the Mason-Dixon line, so the profit from owning sickly blacks was not large in the North.
In contrast, in the South, blacks were more resistant to warm-weather fevers than were whites, so their farm labor made up a sizable part of the economy.
Still, during the Revolutionary era, it’s hard to find the kind of ringing endorsements of slavery by American Southerners that, in contrast, came so abundantly from their great-grandsons during the King Cotton years of the 1850s.
Even in the South, slavery wasn’t hugely profitable in the 18th-century because the traditional crop in the more populated colonies of Virginia and North Carolina was tobacco, a not particularly onerous one to grow (unlike debilitating sugar). And tobacco tended to exhaust the soil over time (which was sometimes blamed on poor farming practices induced by slavery), so the future profits to be extracted from the growing number of slaves didn’t look all that alluring.
The slave-owning Founders seemed to sometimes look forward to a hazy distant future without slavery, but they generally couldn’t figure out how to get there without bankrupting themselves or what then to do with their poor ex-slaves.
The enterprising Washington made enough money to free his slaves in his will. But Jefferson, a big spender and a poor businessman, could never achieve enough prosperity that his creditors would let him emancipate a major part of his collateral.
So, the Southern Founders tended to be rather embarrassed by and apologetic about slavery and preferred to euphemistically downplay discussion of their increasingly peculiar institution.
Jefferson himself introduced a fervent denunciation of the Atlantic slave trade into his first draft of the Declaration of Independence. In what Garrison Keillor calls “the long whiny part in the middle about what the king did,” Jefferson complained:
He [King George] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian King of Great Britain.
Jefferson went on to kvetch that:
…he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people on whom he has obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed again the Liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.
But the other Signers, some of whom profited from the slave trade, objected, and so it was almost completely deleted. Here’s all that’s left in the final version, which is striking for how vague is the language about the threat posed by black slaves currently encouraged to rebel against the rebels by the British army versus how explicit and angry it is about Indians:
He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.
Contra 1619, in the Declaration’s laundry list of objections to British rule, there’s zero mention of Lord Mansfield’s decision or the like.
Similarly, the Constitution eleven years later was euphemistic about its protection of the slave trade for another twenty years, using instead Open Borders language that the Cato Institute would find congenial:
The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight….
And this twenty-year time limit suggests the delegates in 1787 accepted that the winds of progress were blowing against slavery, or at least its worst aspect, the slave trade from Africa.
Indeed, in 1806, President Jefferson wrote to Congress:
I congratulate you, fellow-citizens, on the approach of the period at which you may interpose your authority constitutionally to withdraw the citizens of the United States from all further participation in those violations of human rights which have been so long continued on the unoffending inhabitants of Africa, and which the morality, the reputation, and the best interests of our country have long been eager to proscribe.
Congress then voted to outlaw the slave trade on the first day permitted under the Constitution, January 1, 1808.
What then happened to change the diffident and compromise-inclined slavery lobby of the Founding era into the fire-eating Slave Power of the 1850s?
In a word, money. The invention of the cotton gin, patented by Eli Whitney in 1794, and the opening up of the cotton belt in the western Deep South with the deportation to Oklahoma of the Cherokee in the 1830s, set off a vast economic boom. By the King Cotton era of the late 1850s when British factories’ seemingly insatiable demand drove the prices of cotton, Southern land, and slaves to record highs, Southerner plantation owners had become megalomaniacally convinced of the moral rightness of their lucrative system.
But the tumultuous course of the Industrial Revolution was hardly foreseeable in Philadelphia in 1776. As evidence, that same year Adam Smith published the most deservedly famous work of economics, The Wealth of Nations. Yet the brilliant Scotsman, a friend of James Watt, the perfecter of the steam engine, offers not a hint in his vast book that the market system he extolled was about to revolutionize the world through exponential industrial growth.
My personal crackpot theory of the American Revolution is the opposite of 1619’s. Rather than the signers of the Declaration of Independence being focused on blacks (whom white Americans found quite easy to keep in bondage, at least when whites were loyal to the Crown), the Revolutionaries were more worried about American Indians (and their continental European allies).
My guess is that 1776 was in large part due to fears the Crown would slow down colonials from moving west and displacing Indians. In 1754, young George Washington had started what turned into the French and Indian War in North America (and the vast Seven Years War around the world) by attacking a French military unit near what’s now Pittsburgh on the headwaters of the Ohio River.
Britain arduously won and acquired from France the eastern half of the vast Mississippi watershed. Franklin, who earlier in the decade had been calling for immigration restrictions to keep wages high and land prices low in America’s narrow Atlantic littoral east of the Appalachians, switched to emphasizing the glittering Alexandrine prospect of westward expansion: In 1760 he wrote that whichever country controlled the Mississippi River Valley and the Great Lakes would become so populous that it would be the world’s greatest power by 1900. (The final outcome of World War I in 1918 suggests Franklin was right.)
But the British government was more annoyed by the expensive war than were their expansive colonists. Thus the Crown issued the Proclamation of 1763 banning colonists from settling the Ohio River Valley newly acquired from France in order to keep settlers from provoking more wars with the Indians, such as Pontiac’s Rebellion of 1763–65.
Blacks like Nikole Hannah-Jones tend to possess a Southern-centric view of American history because that’s where the blacks were. They assume that because the South was, briefly, prosperous before the Civil War, that therefore We Built America. Okay, but, as the saying goes, by 1865 that wealth was mostly Gone With the Wind.
As a native Californian, in contrast, my prejudice is that what really matters in American history is the vast westward expansion that eventually reached the Pacific. Blacks played a supporting role in American expansion in the Southeast, but their historic importance petered out around Texarkana at the western end of the cotton belt.
On a continental scale, however, the truly epic conflict was the now increasingly forgotten 280-year-long struggle between Europeans and Native Americans.