Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

From What Foundation

The New York Times has been successfully generating talk with a series of articles they're calling The 1619 Project, referencing the bringing of the first African slaves into North America in 1619. Their stated purpose with the project is ambitious and goes well beyond simply documenting the many ways that slavery and its aftermath shaped the United States:
The 1619 Project is a major initiative from The New York Times observing the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery. It aims to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.
You can read the entire 1619 Project edition of the NY Times Magazine in PDF format here. (Which is handy, since reading it piecemeal on the NY Times site would deplete one's free articles for the month.)

Thinking about it, and participating in several social media discussions of the series, it seems to me that there are broadly two aspects to the project. The first is to convey historical events, and in this sense it is doing a valuable job. For too long, the evils of slavery and their extensive reach through the world economy during that era was not widely conveyed in popular histories. The second aspect, however, is interpretive: an attempt to interpret the meaning of the US and its history. Here I think it is rather more problematic, and it's in that respect that I'd like to write a bit more here.

As their purpose statement explains, the goal of the editors is to "reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding", making the selling of enslaved Africans to the Jamestown colonists the true moment at which the US became the country it is today -- not the moment at which the US defined itself as independent from Britain in the Declaration of Independence in 1776, nor the moment in which it defined its systems of government in the US Constitution in 1787.

What does it mean to say that a country's founding is to be found in a particular event? Let's think about two countries which celebrate clear founding events. France celebrates Bastille Day, seeing the storming of the Bastille by an angry crowd as the moment at the modern sequence of republics with their values of democracy, secularism, etc. can be seen as marking their origin in contrast to the older monarchy they displaced. The United States celebrates the 4th of July as its origin, taking as its birth the point at which the Continental Congress voted as a representative body to endorse the Declaration of Independence from the British monarchy.

What seems to make these clear origin points for the nations that celebrate them is that they contain values which the countries to point to as their central values, and also that they represent an event which sets the country apart from other countries. The US does not consider the signing of the Magna Carta as its origin, because although that document might be seen as a more distant origin of the principles of government which it holds today, that origin point is not unique to the US but is shared to varying degrees with the entire Anglosphere: Britain, Canada, Australia, South Africa, India, New Zealand, etc. Similarly, France does not mark as its founding the coming of the Franks into Western Europe, because although some of the modern French could trace their ancestry to them the Franks were also the progenitors of many other modern countries with the Frankish empire near its peak encompassing modern France, Belgium, Germany, Austria, northern Italy, Switzerland, etc.

So, is the purchase of slaves by English colonists in 1619 something which distinguishes the US from other countries? Does it represent core values which the US identifies with to this day?

Both of these seem to me deserve a resounding "no".

Let's start with the first. Was this purchase of enslaved Africans something which set the Jamestown colonists apart from other peoples, making them clearly proto-Americans rather than Englishmen or more broadly Europeans? No. Indeed, the slaves purchased by the Virginia colonists were not the first slaves held in what is now the United States. The Spanish had long been exploiting slave labor in the Americas, both enslaved natives and imported enslaved Africans. Indeed, the slaves sold to the Virginia colonists by English pirates had in turn captured the slaves from a Portuguese ship which had been transporting them for their own uses. As a piece in the Federalist mentions, the Spanish had taken enslaved Africans with them to found a colony in what is now South Carolina in 1526 (some of which slaves proceeded to carry out the first slave rebellion in North America.) Slaves were also held by the Spanish in Georgia and Florida prior to 1619, and the British had slaves in their Caribbean colonies prior to 1619 as well. Indeed, far from the slavery in the colonies that would become the US being unique, it was all too usual. The Spanish, Portuguese, French, and British all used slaves in their New World colonies. Nor was their use of them peripheral to their economies. The French considered the slave-run plantations of the sugar islands of Guadeloupe to be so valuable that in the Treaty of Paris which ended the Seven Years War in 1763, France ceded all of Canada to the British in return for keeping Guadeloupe because they considered Guadeloupe to be clearly more valuable. As a side note, reading about Guadeloupe, which is still a part of France to this day and thus a part of the EU despite being in the Americas, is fascinating. It went through multiple rounds of freedom, and re-enslavement as a result of the French Revolution until slavery was officially abolished in 1848. However, the French then brought in indentured labor from their colony of Pondicherry in India. The descendents of those Indians were not granted full citizenship and voting rights until 1923.

So it's incorrect to see the Jamestown colonists as acting in some unique way that sets them apart from other countries as being clearly American. They were not the first people to enslave Africans in the territory of what is now the United States, and in using slaves they acted exactly as many other Europeans of many nationalities were doing in the Americas from the 1500s to the 1800s.

But if they were not unique in having slaves, did the Jamestown colonists act in a way that points to the core values of the United States, acting in a way which modern Americans would point to and identify with? Clearly not. Indeed, the very point of the 1619 Project is to try to convince modern Americans that they should see their origin in this 1619 purchase of slaves by the Jamestown colonists despite the fact that this behavior is something that modern American loathe. It's significant that the two pivotal presidents in American iconography are George Washington, the first president who led the Continental Army in the fight for independence yet participated in the contradiction of fighting for liberty while owning slaves, and Abraham Lincoln, who led our country though the Civil War and abolished slavery.  In a real way we cannot see our national project as becoming the country we are today until the Civil War.

Indeed, choosing to see 1619 as the "true founding" of America would seem, at least to conservative eyes, as being a statement that the United States is an evil country which should be rejected or destroyed. In that sense, it seems like a confirmation that those on the left hate our country. That was certainly my own first reaction at first. Yet I'm not sure it's entirely accurate. After all, this idea is being pushed by progressives, who have in their way a salvific concept of politics. I expect that many who wrote for the 1619 project or who find themselves nodding as they read its mission statement would not in fact say that they hate the United States. Rather, they see themselves as offering salvation to the rest of us. If we endorse them and their "woke" views, we purify ourselves of the stain of racism with which all others are fouled from birth into "the system" which the 1619 Project tries hard to prove is tainted by slavery in every respect.

In the end, however, I think the whole interpretive framework simply fails. It's not correct to see 1619 as the founding of the United States. Rather, it's right to see the US like virtually all Western countries as having had deep historical and economic ties to slavery. What distinguishes the US from France or Britain is that rather than being able to wink at slavery as something they only did in their overseas colonies, which were either shed or became of far less importance as the slave economy was sidelined and replaced by the industrial economy, the US lives with the land and the peoples who were enmeshed in slavery, while European countries drew back to their own continent. Dealing with these echoes through our history is important, and in no way should we flinch from the facts about the role of slavery and repression in our history. But to see this as the uniquely American phenomenon which defines us as apart from all others is wrong.  Our founding was not in 1619.  It was in 1776, but arguably not complete until 1865.

1 comment:

Christopher Blosser said...

"Our founding was not in 1619. It was in 1776, but arguably not complete until 1865." -- I'm certainly not averse to the education of how deep the evils of slavery had penetrated the United States socially-culturally-economically (I think it's true that as a general topic in school it's sometimes conveniently dismissed as something relegated and confined to "The South", without acknowledging the ways in which the North was also complicit as well. In that I view the project as having a potentially useful remedy. At the same time, when it comes to the question of the founding and an understanding of core principles, I had a similar reaction.

I'm reminded of this passage from Paul Johnson's History of the American People:

"... there was one point on which [the "American republican moral consensus"] broke down completely—slavery. One sees why St Paul was not anxious to tackle the subject directly: once slavery takes hold, religious injunctions tend to fit its needs, not vice versa. On the other hand, the general thrust of the Judeo—Christian tradition tended to be anti—slavery, and that was why it had slowly disappeared in Europe in the early Middle Ages. In America the moral and political dilemma over slavery had been there right from the start, since by a sinister coincidence 1619 marked the beginning of both slavery and representative government. But it had inevitably become more acute, since the identification of American moral Christianity, its undefined national religion, with democracy made slavery come to seem both an offense against God and an offense against the nation. Ultimately the American religious impulse and slavery were incompatible. Hence the Second Great Awakening, with its huge intensification of religious passion, sounded the death—knell of American slavery just as the First Awakening had sounded the death—knell of British colonialism."