The Truth Exactly Backward

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2020 Issue of Thinking Minnesota, now the second largest magazine in Minnesota. To receive a free trial issue send your name and address to [email protected].

In August, The New York Times launched the “1619 Project” with great fanfare. The self-proclaimed goal of the project—a series of more than 30 essays and artistic productions— is to “reframe” history, convincing Americans that our nation’s “true founding” occurred not in 1776, but 400 years ago, in 1619, when 20 or so slaves came ashore in the Jamestown colony.

The Times maintains that America’s “founding ideals were false when they were written” and that “nearly everything that made America exceptional grew out of slavery.” It intends to “plac[e] the consequences of slavery” at “the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.”

The Times is disseminating its message that “racism runs in the very DNA of this B country” as widely as possible. The 1619 Project includes a multipart audio series. The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting has packaged it as a curriculum, with study guides and activities for teachers and students. College students across the country are absorbing its claims.

In fact, the 1619 Project gets the truth exactly backward. America is exceptional bot because it once allowed slavery – a universal, unquestioned practice throughout most of human history – but because its founders launched a great and unprecedented experiment in democratic self-governance. Our history, with fits and starts, has been one long progress toward freedom, lighting a beacon to which people of all races have flocked.

The Times’ project is the latest chapter in the American left’s ongoing campaign to rewrite history. This movement approaches history, in all its messy complexity, not as a search for truth but as a vehicle for advancing a political agenda.

The 1619 Project aims to recast Americans’ concept of their nation as one founded on freedom, equality and opportunity into one irremediably corrupted by slavery, inequality and racism. Using distortions, half-truths and outright falsehoods, the Times promotes a narrative that our founding ideals, allegedly false from the beginning, remain so, by extension, today.

It concludes that wholesale social, political and cultural transformation—led, no doubt, by right-thinking people like those on its payroll—will be necessary to redeem our nation from this original sin.

The 1619 Project’s simplistic and misleading “good guy/bad guy” narrative rests on several central falsehoods.

First, it portrays slavery as an evil for which Americans bear unique responsibility and should feel overwhelming guilt, even today.

In fact, until recently, slavery and human bondage were the norm throughout the world. Slavery was a bedrock institution in ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome and Asia, and among the Incas and Aztecs in the New World. In the early 1800s, an estimated three-quarters of the world’s population endured slavery or serfdom of some kind.

Today, approximately 40 million human beings remain trapped in slavery in countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, China and various parts of Africa.

By focusing uniquely on the U.S., the Times creates the impression that most slaves in the Atlantic slave trade were brought here. In fact, that was true of only about 5 percent. The other 95 percent were transported to Latin America and the Caribbean, with about 40 percent going to Brazil.

The 1619 Project also errs in laying blame for the slave trade almost exclusively on white Europeans and Americans. In fact, Europeans were latecomers.

“The Arabs’ treatment of black Africans can aptly be termed an African Holocaust,” according to historian John Dewar Gleissner. “Arab slave traders removed slaves from Africa for about 13 centuries, compared to three centuries of the Atlantic slave trade.” Arab traders primarily sent slaves throughout the Middle East and Asia, as far as China.

Moreover, from 1500-1700, there were more white Europeans enslaved on North Africa’s Barbary Coast than black slaves sent from West Africa to the Atlantic world, according to historian Stewart Gordon. Whites were enslaved in the Ottoman Empire decades after American blacks were freed. In the 1840s, 10 percent of British naval power was devoted to trying to end the Arab slave trade in the Indian and Atlantic oceans.

The Times is essentially silent about another fact that doesn’t fit its narrative: Africans themselves were central players in the slave trade.

“Buying and selling human beings had been part of many African cultures…long before the first white peoplelanded” on their shores, according to a September 2019 article in The Wall Street Journal titled, “When the Slave Traders Were African.”

Anguished debate

Once Europeans became involved, they generally waited on the coast for African traders—sometimes supplied by slave-trading ethnic groups like the Efik ofNigeria—to bring slaves to them. Even at the height of the Atlantic slave trade, Africans kept more slaves for themselves than they sent to the Americas.

“The anguished debate over slavery in the U.S. is often silent on the role that Africans played,” according to the Journal article. There is little national discussion of this topic in Africa today, and some Africans remain proud of their family’s slave-trading heritage, the article notes. When President Bill Clinton apologized for slavery during a visit to Africa, Uganda’s president replied, “African chiefs were the ones waging war on each other and capturing their own people and selling them. If anyone should apologize, it should be the African chiefs.”

‘A national evil’

In light of this history, the American founders’ statement in 1776 in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights” was a bold and radical claim. This ideal, if not yet social reality, reflected Christian and Enlightenment principles, and sprang from a dawning mid-18th century European moral awakening that maintained all human beings have an inherent dignity and natural rights.

James Madison, from Virginia, branded slavery a “national evil,” and Ben Franklin, of Philadelphia, was president of an abolition society. The founders knew they couldn’t free the slaves and win their own independence at the same time, given Southern opposition. But the Declaration laid the moral, political and social foundation for slavery’s eventual extinction.

Six of the former 13 colonies abolished slavery shortly after the Revolutionary War. In 1787, the Northwest Ordinance barred it in the nation’s vast new territories, and Congress abolished the slave trade in 1808, as soon as the Constitution allowed for it. The abolition movement grew in influence, even as the invention of the cotton gin made slavery more profitable.

The Civil War, in which approximately 360,000 Union soldiers gave their lives, ended slavery. In his second inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln speculated that the bloody war was the punishment God had exacted from our nation for its toleration of slavery. The 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution quickly followed, abolishing slavery and guaranteeing former slaves legal equality and the right to vote.

In the South, “Jim Crow” legal discrimination grew in power, but in 1954 the Supreme Court banned school segregation in Brown vs. Board of Education. This was followed by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. At the time, all Supreme Court justices and all senators were white. The 1960s saw expansive “Great Society” social welfare legislation.

In truth, America’s national story is one long quest for civil rights.

The 1619 Project charges that “our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written” and that the founders didn’t actually believe them. Ironically, this was precisely the view of defenders of slavery—like John C. Calhoun.

Calhoun said of the Declaration of Independence, “There is not a word of truth in it.” And U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney, who handed down the infamous Dred Scott decision, wrote that “it is too clear for dispute, that the enslaved African race were not intended to be included” in the declaration’s ideal of equality.

On the contrary, Frederick Douglass, a towering civil rights hero and former slave, lauded the Constitution as “a glorious liberty document,” while the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. hailed the declaration as a “promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.”

Prosperity from slavery?

The Times is wrong, too, in its outlandish claim that American economic prosperity—even today—derives from slavery. This notion is a revival of the Civil War- era Southern planters’ claim that “Cotton is King.”

If the Times were right, the South would have won the Civil War. George Orwell, author of the novel 1984, pointed out that lies, repeated often enough, can come to be seen as truth.

The 1619 Project’s mantra that America is racist to its core dovetails with the divisive racialist ideology—so influential today—that urges Americans to view one another as members of racial groups first, and as individual human beings second. This cynical vision threatens to undermine the very principles and institutions that offer greatest opportunity to all who seek freedom and prosperity, including black Americans.

Our nation does not need race-based shaming for whites and condescending “victim” talk for blacks. It needs inspiring examples of the beliefs and actions that enable individuals to take full advantageof the priceless benefits of living here.

Man’s seemingly boundless capacity for inhumanity to his fellow man is one of history’s indelible lessons. Only in Western civilization has the worldwide institution of slavery been questioned and reformed. Critics like the Times adopt the standards of equality and natural rights— which arose only in the West—and then revile those who created them.

Katherine Kersten is a Senior Policy Fellow at Center of the American Experiment.