Saturday, November 30, 2019

Historian Rips Apart New York Times Reporting on Slavery

At the post, Civil War Scholar Rips Apart New York Times Reporting on Slavery, I report on the interview The World Socialist Web conducted with James M. McPherson about the problems he had with the recent New York Times’ "1619 Project." 

WSW has followed up that interview up with an interview of Gordon Wood, professor emeritus at Brown University and Pulitzer Prize-winning author.

Here are key snippets:
Q. Let me begin by asking you your initial reaction to the 1619 Project. When did you learn about it?

A. Well, I was surprised when I opened my Sunday New York Times in August and found the magazine containing the project. I had no warning about this. I read the first essay by Nikole Hannah-Jones, which alleges that the Revolution occurred primarily because of the Americans’ desire to save their slaves. She claims the British were on the warpath against the slave trade and slavery and that rebellion was the only hope for American slavery. This made the American Revolution out to be like the Civil War, where the South seceded to save and protect slavery, and that the Americans 70 years earlier revolted to protect their institution of slavery. I just couldn’t believe this.

I was surprised, as many other people were, by the scope of this thing, 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.

Q. I want to return to the question of slavery and the American Revolution, but first I wanted to follow up, because you said you were not approached. Yet you are certainly one of the foremost authorities on the American Revolution, which the 1619 Project trains much of its fire on.

A. Yes, no one ever approached me. None of the leading scholars of the whole period from the Revolution to the Civil War, as far I know, have been consulted. I read the Jim McPherson interview and he was just as surprised as I was.

Q. Can you discuss the relationship between the American Revolution and the institution of slavery?

A. One of the things that I have emphasized in my writing is how many southerners and northerners in 1776 thought slavery was on its last legs and that it would naturally die away. You can find quotation after quotation from people seriously thinking that slavery was going to wither away in several decades. Now we know they couldn’t have been more wrong. But they lived with illusions and were so wrong about so many things. We may be living with illusions too. One of the big lessons of history is to realize how the past doesn’t know its future. We know how the story turned out, and we somehow assume they should know what we know, but they don’t, of course. They don’t know their future any more than we know our future, and so many of them thought that slavery would die away, and at first there was considerable evidence that that was indeed the case...

I think the important point to make about slavery is that it had existed for thousands of years without substantial criticism, and it existed all over the New World. It also existed elsewhere in the world. Western Europe had already more or less done away with slavery. Perhaps there was nothing elsewhere comparable to the plantation slavery that existed in the New World, but slavery was widely prevalent in Africa and Asia. There is still slavery today in the world.

And it existed in all of these places without substantial criticism. Then suddenly in the middle of the 18th century you begin to get some isolated Quakers coming out against it. But it’s the American Revolution that makes it a problem for the world. And the first real anti-slave movement takes place in North America. So this is what’s missed by these essays in the 1619 Project.

Q. The claim made by Nikole Hannah-Jones in the 1619 Project that the Revolution was really about founding a slavocracy seems to be coming from arguments made elsewhere that it was really Great Britain that was the progressive contestant in the conflict, and that the American Revolution was, in fact, a counterrevolution, basically a conspiracy to defend slavery.

A. It’s been argued by some historians, people other than Hannah-Jones, that some planters in colonial Virginia were worried about what the British might do about slavery. Certainly, Dunmore’s proclamation in 1775, which promised the slaves freedom if they joined the Crown’s cause, provoked many hesitant Virginia planters to become patriots. There may have been individuals who were worried about their slaves in 1776, but to see the whole revolution in those terms is to miss the complexity.

In 1776, Britain, despite the Somerset decision, was certainly not the great champion of antislavery that the Project 1619 suggests. Indeed, it is the northern states in 1776 that are the world’s leaders in the antislavery cause. The first anti-slavery meeting in the history of the world takes place in Philadelphia in 1775. That coincidence I think is important. I would have liked to have asked Hannah-Jones, how would she explain the fact that in 1791 in Virginia at the College of William and Mary, the Board of Visitors, the board of trustees, who were big slaveholding planters, awarded an honorary degree to Granville Sharp, who was the leading British abolitionist of the day. That’s the kind of question that should provoke historical curiosity. You ask yourself what were these slaveholding planters thinking? It’s the kind of question, the kind of seeming anomaly, that should provoke a historian into research.

The idea that the Revolution occurred as a means of protecting slavery—I just don’t think there is much evidence for it, and in fact the contrary is more true to what happened. The Revolution unleashed antislavery sentiments that led to the first abolition movements in the history of the world...

The Declaration is an Enlightenment document because it repudiated the AnciĆ©n Regime assumption that all men are created unequal and that nothing much could be done about it. That’s what it meant to be a subject in the old society. You were born a patrician or a plebeian and that was your fate.

Q. One of the ironies of this Project 1619 is that they are saying the same things about the Declaration of Independence as the fire-eating proponents of slavery said—that it’s a fraud. Meanwhile, abolitionists like Frederick Douglass upheld it and said we’re going to make this “all men are created equal” real.

A. That points up the problem with the whole project. It’s too bad that it’s going out into the schools with the authority of the New York Times behind it. That’s sad because it will color the views of all these youngsters who will receive the message of the 1619 Project.
\ -RW

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