The 1619 Project


The 1619 project is a recent set of articles published by the New York Times. Several of the articles were written by academic scholars, but I want to focus on the article by Nikole Hannah-Jones as the first article in the series and the headliner and the flaws and biases on full display in her writing.

The 1619 project is meant to be given to children in school to learn as historical truth.  Children necessarily lack the ability to detect possible bias; authoritarian societies know this and need to indoctrinate the children early in their lives. How we present ideas to children is very important.

The author starts out with almost an entire page on herself and her father’s misguided patriotism: that he loves a country that has so clearly done wrong since the beginning of it’s founding.  His flag waving proudly in his yard; oh, how deceived he is to believe in what this country presumably stands for.  This entire prologue is just an appeal to emotion and hardly any worth discussing in any academic sense.

Her first argument of substance is: the labor of slavery is what created anything of value in this country.  Without slavery, there would be no capital buildings, no wall street, no skyscrapers, no profound economic wealth whatsoever.

This argument ignores all of the wealth that capitalism and entrepreneurs have built via the profit/loss system; when in actuality slavery was, at best, a poor attempt to mimic the actual wealth generation device of voluntary labor.  Slavery was inefficient, difficult to maintain (what with all the constant revolts and need to watch them carefully), and cost the taxpayers a ton of money (since the governments of the time were the ones generally catching all the runaway slaves and returning them to their masters).  None of this led to “massive wealth generation”.  What people often conflate of this time period is that the slave plantations of the south were given enormous tracts of land by the royal governments there; this made it impossible to compete with them by smaller plantations because they could not acquire land in order to grow crops.  Thus, monopoly privileges on particularly sought out resources by Europe (mostly tobacco) led to the massive wealth generation of the few plantation owners in the south, not slavery per se.  It is true that slave labor was cheap and plentiful, but it was only made economically possible by the feudal property structures in place and the concentration of them on large areas of land granted to plantation owners.

Her second argument is: because Washington, Madison and Jefferson had slaves, their entire argument and ideas that went into the founding of this country and the revolution were nonsensical because these three people argued for freedom for “all people” while hypocritically owning slaves.

She didn’t mention at all that the 3 people she cites were all from Virginia, nor did she mention that they were all fairly minor players in the creation and initial execution of the revolution.  Washington swooped in later to command the army and bungled almost everything he touched militarily, but Boston had been the birthplace of the revolution that had spearheaded both the ideas and almost all of the action; people like Samuel/Jon Adams, Jon Otis, and others had been writing about liberty from the economic cruelty that Britain had been imposing on the merchants there for a very long time.  Sam Adams had been organizing revolts and mobs to denounce and stop the tax collectors and lawmakers in Boston and had been stoking the flames of liberty.  Thomas Paine also played a pivotal role in the ideas of that time.

She didn’t mention anything about the stamp act, which the colonists properly understood as a tax on knowledge, information, and on learning. She didn’t mention the dreaded “Navigation Acts” which forced the colonists to use British ships for all commerce and therefore pay British duties on all goods and not hire the cheaper, faster Dutch colony cargo ships. She does not concede the general, economic unrest of the normal man at the hands of Britain.  This man, who was not economically able to own slaves or considered it completely immoral, were the primary agents in the general revolt.  This is the difference between a “general revolt” and “Jefferson’s revolt”: the common man was the primary actor.  This is primarily why Britain lost: they had to fight all of the Americans and not just the army itself.

To the extent she does mention the common man’s plight, she says just that:

“Yet in making the argument against Britain’s tyranny, one of the colonists’ favorite rhetorical devices was to claim that they were the slaves — to Britain. For this duplicity, they faced burning criticism both at home and abroad.”

She does this to downplay any resentment that people had against the governments of the time; what does their plight matter when compared to those of the actual slaves here?  But this is meant only to minimize legitimate, grievous complaints against the laws and government that the colonists had at the time.  Why else would the masses of the general population rise in revolt?  To defend a few people in the South, far removed from them, who held slaves?  Notice how she also doesn’t mention any of the other arguments the colonists made, outlined clearly in the newspapers and pamphlets of that time period.

She of course doesn’t mention anything about all the people who were trying and were successful in taking steps to abolishing slavery at the time.  In fact, one of the major tenets and successes of the revolution was to radically abolish land feudalism, a type of slavery inherited from medieval Europe.  Moreover, many states made steps toward abolishing slavery in their own Constitutions, mostly in the North where the population of slaves were less than 5 percent of the population vs 40 percent in the South:

  • The Delaware constitution prohibited the importation of new slaves
  • Massachusetts outlawed the slave trade completely.  John Adams, who at this time had switched his opinion away from freedom, killed a bill there in 1777 to completely emancipate all slaves there
  • Vermont directly prohibited slavery in it’s Constitution
  • NH, CT and RI gradually followed suit
  • Aaron Burr, governor of NY and archenemy of the play Hamilton, attempted to abolish slavery and also argued for the right for slaves to vote, marry, and be jurors and legalize in NY but was ultimately squashed by John Jay.
  • The Quakers as an entire culture/group, who held the ideas of freedom and liberty closer than probably any other group in America, had voluntarily disbanded and abolished slavery entirely within their ranks even before the Revolution started.

None of this stuff is mentioned because it doesn’t fit the author’s narrative: white people are bad (even those who didn’t own slaves) and all of their ideas are crap because there existed some black people in slavery somewhere.  She mixes the Constitution and Declaration of Independence together like they were the same document, when in fact they were almost 10 years apart and written by entirely different people (Jefferson, who she clearly hates, wasn’t even involved with the Constitution).

This is just a smear piece with a clear agenda, and it is an amateur, non-academic attempt to undermine the principles and ideas of freedom.  Her good points, in the few that she makes, are overshadowed by all that she leaves out because of her bias.  Her bias is against capitalism and against the ideas of freedom for non-slaves; this is quite clear from the article.

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