1619 and all that: Contradictions of the American Revolution
Book review: David North and Thomas Mackaman, eds., The New York Times’ 1619 Project and the Racialist Falsification of History: Essays and Interviews (Oak Park, Michigan.: Mehring Books, 2021).
THE NORTHITES WHO RUN the World Socialist Web Site (WSWS) may be crazy, but they’re not stupid. Their past could not be more checkered. The group, formally known as the Socialist Equality Party (SEP), originated as one of the shards that the spectacular explosion of Gerry Healy’s International Committee of the Fourth International sent flying in 1985. Since then, it has mainly been known for urging workers not to join unions because the labor movement has become hopelessly bourgeoisified, and for relentlessly flogging a conspiracy theory that top American Trotskyists were in on the plot to assassinate Trotsky in Coyoacán, Mexico, in 1940.
Still, there is clearly something more to the movement, since its intervention in the New York Times’s “1619 Project” has been nothing short of astonishing. When the Times put out a special issue of its Sunday magazine dedicated to the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first boatload of captured Africans in Virginia, most of us took one glance at Times reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones’s silly assertions about “[a]nti-black racism run[ning] in the very DNA of this country” and how the American Revolution was fought in defense of slavery, and tossed the issue aside. After all, we have all seen such nationalist posturing before, so why ruin a nice summer weekend by dealing with it again?
But not the SEP. Within three weeks, it had leapt into the fray with a two-part, 5,000-word article describing the 1619 Project as “a politically motivated falsification of history,” whose “aim is to create a historical narrative that legitimizes the effort of the Democratic Party to construct an electoral coalition based on the prioritizing of personal ‘identities’ — i.e., gender, sexual preference, ethnicity, and, above all, race.”
The article went on to charge that Hannah-Jones sees slavery “not as a specific economically rooted form of the exploitation of labor, but, rather, as the manifestation of white racism,” a supra-historical force that exists “independently of any change in political or economic conditions.” America was, is, and will be racist forevermore, so there’s no point struggling against racism since, like the poor, it will always be with us. All we can do is submit to moral browbeating by people like Hannah-Jones, who seems to get a prestigious award — she is a certified MacArthur Foundation “genius” — and a fancy job every time she directs a new blast at white people.
No other Left group had the gumption, the intelligence, or the analytic skills to take this on, so the SEP certainly deserves credit. But rather than leaving it at that, the Northites then approached prominent historians and asked their opinion as well. The responses were withering. James McPherson, the Princeton historian whose Civil War history, Battle Cry of Freedom, was enthusiastically praised by the Times when it came out in 1988, said that the 1619 Project “lacks context, lacks perspective on the entire course of slavery and how slavery began, and how slavery in the United States was hardly unique.” James Oakes, a Civil War historian at the CUNY Graduate Center, described Hannah-Jones’s DNA remark as an example of “really dangerous tropes” that are “not only ahistorical, they’re actually anti-historical.” Gordon S. Wood, whose Radicalism of the American Revolution also received lavish praise at the hands of the Times in 1993, said he “just couldn’t believe it” when he read Hannah-Jones’s argument that the American Revolution was a pro-slavery revolt.
“I was surprised, as many other people were, by the scope of this thing,” he told the WSWS, “especially since it’s going to become the basis for high school education and has the authority of the New York Times behind it, and yet it is so wrong in so many ways.”
Thrown off balance, the Times Magazine tried to stonewall a protest letter that McPherson, Wood, and Oakes sent in December 2019 along with Victoria Bynum of Texas State University and Sean Wilentz of Princeton. There was no need for a correction, editor-in-chief Jake Silverstein replied, because the Hannah-Jones article had gone through a thorough fact-checking process prior to publication and had been approved. But that fell apart three months later when the fact-checker, Leslie M. Harris, a historian at Northwestern, wrote in Politico that she had warned the Times that Hannah-Jones’s assertions were historically inaccurate, but had been ignored. A week later, Silverstein tried to appease critics by changing Hannah-Jones’s text to read that defending slavery was merely “one of the primary reasons some of the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain” (emphasis added). But that was still incorrect since the clear thrust among patriots from the get-go was anti-slavery rather than pro. As the historian Bernard Bailyn observed, denunciations of the slave trade “had become a commonplace in the pamphlet literature of the northern and middle colonies” by 1774, which is to say two years prior to the Declaration of Independence, and anti-slavery sentiments were making significant inroads in the South as well.
With every failed effort at self-exculpation, the Times thus dug itself deeper and deeper into a hole of its own making. All in all, it may have been the paper’s most embarrassing moment since the Times allowed reporters like Judith Miller to run amok with charges that Saddam Hussein’s arsenal was bristling with WMDs during the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The fact that it was a tiny Marxist group that kicked the process off made it all the more remarkable.
But there’s a problem.
In the course of its assault, the Northites have committed intellectual sins of their own by advancing a blandly “progressive” view of American history that is also simplistic, one-sided, and social-patriotic. The New York Times’ 1619 Project and the Racialist Falsification of History, a collection of WSWS articles assembled by David North and Thomas Mackaman, is rife with examples. It refers to Jefferson’s “alleged hypocrisy” in declaring that “all men are created equal” while enslaving more than 600 people over the course of his lifetime. It says that the American Revolution was progressive because it led to “a written constitution which asserted that the people are the ultimate repository of power” and a Bill of Rights “that guaranteed basic democratic rights — the freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly; the right to be secure from government searches; the prohibition of torture” — even though it did nothing to benefit the 20 percent of the population that was still in chains. It offers the upbeat view that “slavery might have withered away peacefully, as the founders hoped, had it not been for the invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney in 1793,” and says that the founders clearly wanted to phase out the practice because the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 banned it north of the Ohio River in what is now Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.
“If the American Revolution was a reactionary event,” The New York Times’ 1619 Project asks, “why was it hailed by contemporaries beyond the shores of the United States as the dawn of a new democratic age?”
Finally, the compendium lets stand a comment that McPherson and the other historians made in their December 2019 letter concerning Hannah-Jones’s description of Lincoln as just another garden-variety racist, who “opposed black equality” and “believed that free black people were a ‘troublesome presence’ incompatible with a democracy intended only for white people.”
Not so, the five historians countered:
The project criticizes Abraham Lincoln’s views on racial equality but ignores his conviction that the Declaration of Independence proclaimed universal equality, for blacks as well as whites, a view he upheld repeatedly against powerful white supremacists who opposed him. The project also ignores Lincoln’s agreement with Frederick Douglass that the Constitution was, in Douglass’s words, “a GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT.”
It is understandable why a mainstream Democrat like Wilentz would characterize the Constitution in this manner, since he is a Hillary Clinton supporter who once blasted Bernie Sanders for declaring that the United States was “in many ways” created “on racist principles.” It is understandable why Douglass would do so as well since by 1852, when he made the statement, he had completed a long ideological journey from dismissing the Constitution as a pillar of slavery to viewing it in more hopeful terms as a potential instrument for its overthrow.
But Marxists should know better. Pace Douglass, the Constitution surrounded slavery with so many protections prior to Fort Sumter as to render it all but impregnable. By the 1850s, the three-fifth clause in Article I gave slaveowners 25 extra seats in the House and 25 extra votes in the Electoral College, while parity in the Senate, which the Constitution effectively etched in stone, allowed them to fend off a growing anti-slavery majority in the North as well as block any effort to resolve the problem via a constitutional amendment. Article IV required Northern states to return runaways while guaranteeing that a new federal government would protect Southern states “against domestic violence” in the form of a slave rebellion.
To be sure, Lincoln initially tried to keep the controversy within constitutional bounds. But once war began, he soon had no choice but to suspend the Constitution and adopt semi-revolutionary means. Where in December 1861 he was warning against “radical and extreme measures,” by early 1865 he sounded like an Old Testament prophet vowing that the struggle would not stop “until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword.” As Marx put it in August 1862: “Up to now we have witnessed only the first act of the Civil War — the constitutional waging of war. The second act, the revolutionary waging of war, is at hand.”
The Northites might reply, of course, that it would be pointlessly argumentative to challenge Wilentz & Co. on this point just as they were rushing into battle against the Times. If so, the argument would be more persuasive if they had dealt with the issue elsewhere. But as someone who passed through the Healyite movement in the early 1970s and has followed its press ever since, I can attest that they have not. Not once, as far as I can tell, has the WSWS mentioned the problem of a grossly undemocratic Senate that allows the 54 percent of the population that lives in ten highly urbanized states to be outvoted four-to-one by a minority in the other 40. Not once has it mentioned the 81 percent of racial minorities who also live in the top ten and whom the Constitution allows to be outvoted even more heavily. The same goes for the Supreme Court: not once has WSWS criticized the absurdity of lifetime judges or allowing public policy to be decided on the basis of a musty old document dating from the age of silk knee britches and powdered wigs.
It is an astounding blind spot. An article in 2016 thus blamed a slew of enemies for Trump’s election victory: Hillary Clinton for being “unwilling and incapable of presenting a program that could attract any significant popular support;” Obama for “presid[ing] over unending war;” organized labor for “work[ing] systematically to suppress the class struggle and maintain the political stranglehold of the Democratic Party,” and so on. But not once did it mention the Electoral College, which is the only reason why Trump was able to capture the White House despite trailing by 2.9 million popular votes. A 2018 article blamed America’s political decline on the two-party system, corporate lobbying, and growing ballot-access restrictions, but made no mention of the stultifying effects of a 234-year-old Constitution that grows more rigid and confining with each passing decade. A recent article about the “Trump putsch” similarly made no mention of the antiquated political mechanics — checks and balances and all the rest — that have led to a generation of gridlock and an increasingly explosive atmosphere on Capitol Hill.
So did the Northites remain silent about the protest letter’s praise of the U.S. Constitution because they were trying to be diplomatic? Or did they do so because they basically agree with people like Wilentz that America’s constitutional underpinnings are sound?
As for other examples of North and Mackaman’s descent into social patriotism, there is nothing the least bit “alleged” about Jefferson’s hypocrisy. To the contrary, it was all too real. To be sure, he betrayed all the agonies of man caught in a painful dilemma. But such moral equivocations should not get him off the hook. Unlike Hamilton, a name WSWS can barely bring itself to mention, Jefferson was a thoroughgoing racist who, among other things, was outraged when Voltaire and the naval hero John Paul Jones praised a black Boston poet named Phillis Wheatley. His reason: poetry is based on love, and true love is something black people cannot feel. “Their love is ardent,” he wrote, “but it kindles the senses only, not the imagination.” Hence, Wheatley’s poetry is “below the dignity of criticism.” Jefferson wrote in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1781–83) that black people are ugly, which is why they prefer beautiful white women much as orangutans prefer “black women over those of his own species.”
“Their griefs are transient,” Jefferson added, a convenient argument for a planter in the business of tearing children away from their mothers and auctioning them off to the highest bidder. “A [slave] woman who brings a child every two years [is] more profitable than the best man of the farm,” he observed. In the late 1770s, while the Revolutionary War was raging all about him, he proposed revising the Virginia slave code so that any white woman who remained in the state after giving birth to a black man’s child would be declared an outlaw, meaning that locals would be free to beat or kill her with impunity. The result if the law had gone through would have been an invitation to lynch-mob terror.
Moreover, this was at a time when Jefferson was regularly raping a slave woman named Sally Hemings, the half-sister of his own wife, and creating biracial offspring whom he also kept in captivity. The WSWS’s The New York Times’ 1619 Project says that Jefferson’s “compromises with slavery represent the great irony and even tragedy of his life.” But what about his slaves? Doesn’t their tragedy rate a mention?
One could go on. The idea that slavery might have withered away had it not been for the cotton gin is silly. Planters could still have used slaves to harvest sugar cane in Louisiana, to grow rice in the Carolinas, or a thousand other thing that the famous American spirit of invention would have been sure to think up. The idea that the Northwest Ordinance, which Jefferson authored, was an attempt to phase out slavery is false since the measure was aimed as much at solidifying slavery in the South as it was at banning it to the North.
The SEP is entirely correct in arguing against any suggestion that the Revolution was launched in defense of slavery, which, if true, would have meant that it was an upside-down version of the U.S. Civil War, with Britain in the role of the abolitionists and the infant United States, from Maine to Georgia, in the role of the Confederacy. But as nonsensical as this is, the fact remains that attitudes began to shift as the war dragged on. The highwater mark in terms of anti-slavery sentiment was probably in March 1779, when the Continental Congress unanimously approved an extraordinary resolution calling on South Carolina and Georgia to enroll slaves in their state militias and then emancipate them once the war was over. One historian calls it “the first Emancipation Proclamation,” since it would have severely dented slavery by making it increasingly difficult to keep black people in bondage once their friends and families were set free. But the South Carolina state assembly reacted in horror to the proposal, with one member proposing to secede from the war effort if it went through. When, after the fall of Charleston, the British threatened to expropriate their slaves if planters did not swear allegiance to George III, most quickly fell in line. As despicable as this was, it was the exact opposite of what Hannah-Jones would have predicted since, instead of waging revolution in defense of slavery, the planters abandoned revolution at the first opportunity in order to preserve slavery.
Lines continued to harden thereafter. At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Georgia and the Carolinas threatened to bolt if the slave trade was abolished and only grudgingly acceded to the 20-year extension set forth in Article I, section 9. When Southern delegates insisted that slaves should be counted for purposes of congressional apportionment even though, as property, they could not vote, Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts shot back that, in that case, he wanted Northern horses and cattle to be counted too. But the Northern bourgeoisie was not yet ready to challenge the Southern plantocracy, so the planters had their way. Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, a delegate from South Carolina, was thus able to report back to his state legislature: “We have a security that the general government can never emancipate them, for no such authority is granted, and it is admitted, in all hands, that the general government has not powers but what are expressly granted by the Constitution, and that all rights not expressed were reserved by the several states.”
Finally, the North-Mackaman compendium is correct in saying that the Constitution “asserted that the people are the ultimate repository of power.” But the effects were paradoxical. While strengthening slavery in the South, it entrenched anti-slavery in the North by ensuring that “we the people” would have full power to address the problem in their home states however they saw fit. By the 1780s, five Northern states — New York, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania — had taken the first tentative steps toward abolition, and more would follow suit once the Constitution was ratified. The document’s immense contradictions put the new republic on the path to civil war before it was even born.
So if the American Revolution was not reactionary, it was not progressive either. Instead, it occupied a twilight zone somewhere in between. Rather than the French Revolution of 1789–94, which eventually banned slavery in Haiti and all other French colonies, the event it perhaps most resembles is a French aristocratic revolt that occurred two or three years earlier, when Louis XVI allowed the formation of an “assembly of notables” to deal with his growing list of economic woes. The issue was similar — no taxation without representation — since the assembly insisted that the King could not push through revenue-raising measures without the approval of France’s regional parlements. Commoners rose up under the leadership of various “princes of the blood” and other marshals, dukes, and marquis just as the Sons of Liberty in America rose up under the leadership of Washington, Jefferson, and other Virginia grandees. The notables “cloaked their objections in language about defending the public good and protecting liberties,” one historian writes, and went after Louis XVI with the same vigor with which Jefferson pummeled George III in the Declaration of Independence. In 1788, the city of Grenoble even rose up in revolt: “The people tore up parts of the streets and armed themselves with the stones. They climbed up on the roofs and used tiles and paving stones to drive the troops away.”
Since the Grenoblois were defending the same aristocrats they would later send to the guillotine, the uprising was less an opening act in an unfolding revolutionary process than the last expression of an ancien régime that would soon be overthrown. The American Revolution was much the same, another expression of the ancien régime that the Civil War would not topple until 1865. The real tragedy is not Jefferson and his histrionic breast-beating, but the fact that “red Republicans” were unable to carry the revolution of 1861–65 through to completion and thus allowed the pre-war constitutional order to return in full force. The result was racist terrorism, smashed strikes, and a white Southern ruling class that found itself stronger than ever now that blacks counted as “five-fifths” of a person even though they were unable to vote. Thanks to Southern one-party rule and the seniority system, Southern Democrats captured control of all key Senate committees, returning the chamber to its traditional — which is to say, constitutional — role as a bastion of reaction. A century and a half later, Americans are still groaning under a slaveholders’ constitution no matter how much the Socialist Equality Party tries to avert its gaze.
The New York Times’ 1619 Project and the Racialist Falsification of History opens with a quote from the historian Robert R. Palmer about how the American and French Revolutions “shared a great deal in common.” But if they had actually read Palmer’s masterpiece, The Age of the Democratic Revolution (1959–64),still one of the greatest historical works this country has ever produced, they would know that his view of American events was much more nuanced:
[…] the Americans had enjoyed a good deal of self-rule in the old British empire; and, except at the extremes, among the upper classes and among the slaves, the level of wealth was higher than among corresponding classes in Europe. The Americans in colonial times had not suffered from exploitation, and in their years of independence they did not suffer from poverty. Only in some respects was the country a “new nation” at all; it had announced some new ideas that had proved exciting in Europe, and it was already modern in its lack of feudal, dynastic, and churchly attachments; but in some ways it was actually old-fashioned, having shared less than Europe in the scientific, literary, capitalistic, governmental, and bureaucratic development of the preceding two hundred years. American English, with its neologisms and its archaisms, was characteristic of the state of society.
Old-fashioned government led to slavery and civil war, and now it is leading to disaster again as democracy collapses and society comes apart at the seams. This time, let us hope that American workers give their society the wholesale transformation that it both needs and deserves. | P
 Niles Niemuth, Tom Mackaman, David North, “The New York Times's 1619 Project: A racialist falsification of American and world history,” World Socialist Web Site, September 6, 2019, available online at <https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2019/09/06/1619-s06.html>.
 Tom Mackaman, “An interview with historian Gordon Wood on the New York Times’ 1619 Project,” World Socialist Web Site, November 27, 2019, available online at <https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2019/11/28/wood-n28.html>.
 Leslie M. Harris, “I Helped Fact-Check the 1619 Project. The Times Ignored Me,” Politico, March 6, 2020, available online at <https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2020/03/06/1619-project-new-york-times-mistake-122248>.
 Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press, 1967), 239.
 Joseph Kishore, “Trump’s victory and the debacle of American democracy,” World Socialist Web Site, November 9, 2016, available online at <https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2016/11/09/pers-n09.html>.
 Barry Grey, “A closer look at American ‘democracy,’” World Socialist Web Site, December 20, 2018, available online at <https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2018/12/20/pers-d20.html>.
 Henry Wiencek, An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), 46, 235.
 Paul Finkelman, Slavery and the Founders: Race and Liberty in the Age of Jefferson (London: Routledge, 2015), 47.
 Wiencek, An Imperfect God, 232–34.
 Jeremy D. Popkin, A New World Begins: The History of the French Revolution (New York: Basic Books, 2019), 88.
 Ibid., 95.
 R.R. Palmer, The Age of the Democratic Revolution: A Political History of Europe and America, 1760–1800 (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 2014), 753.