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.
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.
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 …”
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.
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?