1619 & 1776


I’m reading The 1619 Project.  I’d heard some of the controversy about the NYT project and saw the authors had made several corrections, so wanted to read it for myself.  Based on what history I’ve read, I find The 1619 Project an enlightening historical analysis.  It makes sense and should be taken seriously.

On the wall behind me, as I sit at my writing desk, is a copy of the Declaration of Independence (seems appropriate for freethinkers to have one on display).  The copy bears the signatures of 56 white male landholders.

image

There seems to be strong evidence that reveals a majority of our Founders, the “Sons of Liberty,” were slaveowners.  While owning other human beings, they could sign a document that claimed “All men are created equal” and their rights include “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

We can honor and respect these people for their revolutionary actions. . .while at the same time we can, and must, “hold these truths to be self-evident”. . .that they were far from perfect, they had major blind spots and they were personally involved in dehumanizing other human beings including Native Americans, African-Americans and their own wives.  

Of the American Founders, 34 were slaveholders:

Josiah Bartlett, Charles Carroll, Samuel Chase, Abraham Clark, George Clinton, John Dickinson, William Floyd, Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, Benjamin Harrison, Joseph Hewes, Thomas Heyward Jr., William Hooper, Stephen Hopkins, Francis Hopkinson, Thomas Jefferson, Richard Henry Lee.  Francis Lewis, Philip Livingston, Robert R. Livingston, Thomas Lynch, Arthur Middleton, Lewis Morris, Robert Morris, William Paca, George Read, Benjamin Rush, Edward Rutledge, Richard Stockton, William Whipple, Thomas Willing, John Witherspoon, Oliver Wolcott and George Wythe.

The ones who apparently did not own slaves:

John Adams, Samuel Adams, George Clymer, William Ellery, Elbridge Gerry, Samuel Huntington, Thomas McKean, Robert Treat Paine, Roger Sherman, Charles Thomson, George Walton, William Williams and James Willson.

“Princeton University history professor Sean Wilentz noted that at least four men in the painting, including Franklin, were or later became abolitionists.

Also, in 1776, slavery was legal in all 13 of the new states and was “condoned by the entire West,” including Britain and France, he said.

“As the men who drafted and signed the Declaration were mostly gentlemen of standing and property, it’s not at all surprising that this would be the case,” Wilentz added.

Source:  The Chicago Sun-Times and Polifact

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As Nikole Hannah-Jones writes in her essay on “Democracy”:

“[One] of the primary reasons some of the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery.”

“White sons of Virginia initiated the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.  The primary authors were all enslavers.  For the first fifty years of our nation, Southerners served as president for all but twelve years …”

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To be a truly freethinking, educated American, I think it’s essential we face the racism inherent in the founding of this country, and open our eyes to address the continuing effects of white supremacy.  If some find that troubling, it’s an American kind of trouble that agitates for change.

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Lastly, for white folks who may want to challenge these historical viewpoints, I would ask:

-Have you read The 1619 Project?

-Have you read Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Jacobs, Harriet Tubman, or listened to other Black voices including W.E.B. Du Bois, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Martin Luther King, Jr, etc.?

-Are you aware of what happened in Reconstruction, or during Jim Crow, or the segregationist decades that led to the Civil Rights movement and legislation?

-And, perhaps most importantly, have you asked your Black friends or colleagues what they think and feel about this more honest and accurate view of American History?

Categories: American HistoryTags: , , , ,

15 comments

  1. I still find the idea that the colonists wanted to split from Britain to protect slavery hard to believe as Britain was not abolishing slavery. How does splitting from Britain protect slavery? And to look at the whole story, the US abolished the slave trade way before the rest of the world. To be feee thinking, you must look at all points.

    • Yes, Ellen, looking at various views is integral to freethinking. Some ideas we may find “hard to believe” even when the evidence is presented. Some British officials were encouraging slaves to revolt against the colonists whose economy depended on forced labor (they were afraid of more revolts). As for “the whole story,” please note that Spain, France, Sweden, Denmark, Mexico, Haiti and yes, Britain (1834), all abolished slavery or the slave trade before the U.S. (though the U.S. did pass a law outlawing the slave trade in 1808–after Britain did the same in 1807–, it obviously did not stop, or end slavery).
      I urge reading some of the voices I cite in the post.

  2. While the 1619 Project has she me good points, it is the naccurate. Slavery existed in America long before 1619. I taught American lit and history for years.

    • So, Daniel, you’ve read the project? Even if true that Native peoples sometimes enslaved members of other tribes, this doesn’t negate the fact that the institution of slavery in America began in Jamestown (I went there a few years ago. Quite enlightening).

      • Chris, well our study of history is different then. Based on the scholorly histories I’ve read, other nations such as Spain practiced slavery in north America in the area of New Mexico, etc. (and also South America) long before 1619. I don’t recall the exact date, but it was sometime in the 1500’s. At this point, I’ve read criticisms by historians of The 1619 Project, though not yet gotten to that particular volume, though I hope to read it soon after I finish, a double volume biography of Langston Hughes. I will take your criticism seriously and read more of the early period. My knowedge of slavery is primarily in the period fromf about 1688 to the 1800’s.

        • Daniel, no one is disputing there was slavery in North America (and Africa and elsewhere in the world) prior to 1619. The issue is the introduction of African slavery into the British colonies in America that became integral to the founding of the new nation. Thanks for engaging the subject.

  3. Thank you Chris for this thoughtful blog post, encouraging me and others to read the 1619 Project. Another essential part of the whole story about the U.S.

  4. It is good to have measured our own biases through the lens of another. These were some pretty astute men regarding human nature, yet failed for some time to see their own hypocrisy. Good lesson for me…

  5. This is one of the most popular, “banned” books recently. I have not read it, but have read a lot of reviews and heard interviews of it’s authors. Isn’t the history described in this book what the CRT proponents want included in curriculums in our schools? What’s wrong with that?

    On Thu, Mar 10, 2022, 12:22 PM Friendly Freethinker wrote:

    > Chris Highland posted: “I’m reading The 1619 Project. I’d heard some of > the controversy about the NYT project and saw the authors had made several > corrections, so wanted to read it for myself. Based on what history I’ve > read, I find The 1619 Project an enlightening historical ” >

    • Yes, Rob, it’s great to read banned books, isn’t it! Those who yell and scream and stomp their feet about anything that honestly teaches history (esp. “sacred” American history) need to calm down and actually read, as well as talk with those who are still living with the repercussions of enslavement and segregation. White Christian Nationalism is getting louder. Only reason, education and firm legislation can counter their fears.

  6. An incredible addition to US history scholarship

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