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A few key points: A response to Woody Holton

James Oakes

Platypus Review 148 | July/August 2022

I HAVE ARGUED THAT the 1619 Project failed to acknowledge the decades of scholarship that has made all U.S. historians acutely aware of the significance of slavery and racism. I have expressed particular concern that the Project misconstrues the nature of the slave economy, of cotton production, and the relationship between capitalism and slavery. Hence the most egregious errors I cited were contained in Matthew Desmond’s original essay of August, 2019. I have suggested that what drives these errors was an ideological determination to justify reparations. And I have argued that the 1619 Project erases the conflict that these issues have always raised. Not one sentence, not a single word, in Woody Holton’s reply comes close to addressing these issues.[1] A few key points follow.

Holton repeats the unsubstantiated claim that slavery “fueled” American economic growth, citing northern textile mills to prove his point. I have dealt with this error at length elsewhere, but a couple of elementary statistics are worth nothing.[2] First, most of the cotton produced by slaves was exported at a time when exports accounted for about 5% of the GDP.  Cotton mills employed 115,000 of the 8.2 million free workers in the U.S. in 1860. Whatever else these number suggest, they hardly point to the centrality of slavery to the northern economy.  On the contrary, generations of economic and social historians have traced northern economic development to the evolution of a free labor system, and the relative backwardness of the southern economy to slavery. No compelling body of scholarship has persuasively undermined those propositions. Instead, Holton appears to reaffirm the claim that enslaving millions of workers is an effective way to promote economic development.

Holton rejects out of hand Richard Blackett’s definitive demonstration that the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was largely unenforceable. Of the estimated 10,000 slaves who escaped to the North in the decade before the Civil War, only a few hundred were returned. The President had to send U.S. troops to Boston to re-enslave Anthony Burns, in the face of 50,000 protestors.[3]  There’s a reason secessionists repeatedly cited the North’s failure to enforce the fugitive slave law as a justification for breaking up the Union.

Neither I nor any critic of the 1619 Project has claimed that independence was “inevitable” when Lord Dunmore issued his proclamation in late 1775. What we have all said is that Dunmore was trying to squash a rebellion that was already underway. Does Holton dispute this?

I pointed out that after decades of examining the significance of the year 1619, that particular date has receded somewhat as we became more aware that Atlantic slave trade had existed for more than a century and that enslaved Africans had been brought to North America before 1619.

Holton disputes my claim that the 1619 Project ignored the revolutionary transformation emancipation brought to the slave South by treating the social relations of the Jim Crow era as slavery by another name, and then proves my point by quoting the editor of the project describing the Jim Crow era as a “second slavery.”

One of my concerns about recent scholarship on the early republic is the way so much of it erases the profound conflicts over slavery and racism that roiled the nation from the very beginning. At its best, Holton’s scholarship highlights the social and political conflicts of the Revolutionary Era. But in the 1619 Project, and Holton’s commentaries on it, there’s nothing in the late 18th century but pro-slavery racism. This resort to racial consensus history is nothing less than an intellectual catastrophe. |P

[1] See Woody Holton, “The latest hits on the 1619 Project: Designed obsolescence?,” in this issue.

[2] For my more extensive critique of Desmond’s original essay and the scholarship on which he relied, see James Oakes, “A Few Random Thoughts on Capitalism and Slavery,” The Economic Historian, September 21, 2020, available online at <>; James Oakes, “Capitalism and Slavery and the Civil War,” International Labor and Working Class History 89(Spring 2016): 195–220.

[3] Richard Blackett, The Captive's Quest for Freedom: Fugitive Slaves, the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, and the Politics of Slavery (Cambridge University Press, 2018).  See also my summary of Blackett’s important book in James Oakes, “The Power of Running Away,” New York Review of Books, December 6, 2018.