The Truth About America's Founding and Slavery

Daniel Davis

The New York Times’ 1619 Project is the latest attempt from the left to retell history. But Allen Guelzo thinks the Times made some key errors. “The hope of many members of the Constitutional Convention, that slavery could be abolished, was linked to their conviction that the abolition of slavery was simply one more step that needed to be taken to free us from the inheritance of British colonialism and British imperialism,” Guelzo, a research scholar at Princeton University, says. “The 1619 Project tends to invert that.”

During this in-depth interview, Guelzo also talks about reparations, capitalism and its role in our history, and more. Read the lightly edited interview, posted below, or listen on the podcast:

Daniel Davis: I’m joined now by Dr. Allen Guelzo, who serves as senior research scholar in the Council of the Humanities at Princeton University, where he also serves as director of the James Madison Program’s Initiative on Politics and Statesmanship. Dr. Guelzo, thanks for your time today.

Allen Guelzo: It’s wonderful to be here.

Davis: This year The New York Times launched a project that marks the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first African slaves in America. It’s called The 1619 Project and, for our listeners who aren’t familiar, it’s basically a … collection of essays and poems and other writing that is aimed at giving a certain version of America’s early history.

Now, this is something that you, Dr. Guelzo, have been very vocal about, you’ve commented on it. When something like this comes up, I think we would all like to say, “OK, this is a genuine attempt to get at the truth and to educate all of us.” Is that what this is, or is there something different going on?

Guelzo: I’m going to say yes and no on that. To a certain degree, yes, The 1619 Project is a healthy contribution, in the sense that it redirects our attention to the fact that running through American history there has been a very ugly current, and an ugly current linked to race and linked to slavery. And there are many ways in which the American experience has been more dependent on that ugly current than we’ve often wanted to admit.

If The 1619 Project does have a positive outcome, it will be this, it will compel Americans to come to grips with one of the more, if not the most, unpleasant and difficult aspects of our history.

Now, having said that, the question is, does The 1619 Project, and everything that lies behind it, also commit its own follies? And I think it does. Largely follies of overreach and sometimes follies of naiveté.

It’s also not exactly an immediate discovery in the sense that The 1619 Project is itself the reflection of a number of years of historical work that is done previously on its behalf by a number of historians, sometimes called the new historians of capitalism.

And among these new historians is a determined effort to link the rise of capitalism with the rise of slavery, as if to say that capitalism itself is a form of slavery, slavery is a form of capitalism. The ultimate goal there is, fundamentally, to tarnish capitalism.

Davis: Right.

Guelzo: That is not all that discreet and it has to be said that it’s asking us to believe something that no one at the time believed, that no one at the time saw, and yet which has given credibility today because if people can say, “Well, slavery is a terrible thing and yet capitalism was somehow connected to it,” if we can say that, then somehow we can apparently apply that tarnish to capitalism.

As I say, there’s an element, though, of naiveté, which enters into that scholarship and also enters into The 1619 Project, which depends on it. And I think the naiveté lies largely in how capitalism is defined because these are people who define capitalism in a way that no one has really defined capitalism before. Certainly not any way that even Karl Marx defined capitalism.

It also depends on a naiveté that says if capitalism had any kind of use, any kind of employment, any kind of connection whatsoever with slavery, it’s therefore somehow tainted with slavery and is slavery, and a moment’s reflection will show the naiveté of that.

The Soviet Union, for instance, no one would accuse that of being a capitalist enterprise, anything but, and yet the Soviet Union traded on world markets for goods and services.

It sold resources, it sold manufactured goods, it bought resources, it bought manufactured goods, all of them very capitalistic sorts of behaviors. And yet no one would accuse the Soviet Union of having somehow sold out to capitalism.

I mean, there might be a few, a very perishing few, who would insist that somehow the Soviet Union did sell out the store. But I don’t think anyone seriously believes that.

Why did that take place? Because the Soviet Union lived in a world surrounded by capitalists. It was in the capitalist world, but not of it.

Well, the same thing really is true of slavery. Slavery was in the capitalist world, but slavery was not of it. And people who observed the operation of slavery in those times saw that very clearly.

Nobody, and even if we limit ourselves to talking about America between 1776 and 1861, nobody, North or South, ever made any kind of connection that said, “Well, slavery is a function of capitalism and capitalism just couldn’t do without slavery.” To the contrary, both North and South continually insisted that slavery and capitalism were mortal enemies, that the two were radically opposed to each other.

Southerners, for instance, always talked about their society as something being apart from capitalism. As being, well, especially if you were a white slave owner, something nobler and more chivalrous and more like the middle ages than Northern money-grubbing, bank-loving Calvinism, or capitalism.

So what you find with Southerners is this constant insistence that what they are doing with slavery is not in fact a part of a capitalist network, even though it’s true.

They were selling, they were growing, and then they were selling a commodity, largely cotton, which was one of the hottest commodities in the international capitalist world of the 19th century. They were in it, but they were not of it. They resisted entirely the idea that they had any connection with resemblance to capitalism.

You see that particularly in the most prominent pro-slavery apologists for the South, before the Civil War, and that was the Virginian George Fitzhugh.

Fitzhugh, in his books “Sociology for the South” and “Cannibals All!”, over and over again insisted that the slave system of the South not only was superior to the capitalist system of the North, but in fact the slave system of the South was really, frankly, kin to what was being proposed in his day as socialism in Europe.

And he was actually rather proud of the fact that Southern slavery was on the intellectual cutting edge of the world by having such a resemblance to socialism.

If you turn your attention to Northerners, Northerners see no continuity between capitalism and slavery. To the contrary, they’re constantly pointing out the differences between the two.

If you look at the economic system of the North, the economic system of the North is very largely a small farm system. We sometimes make the mistake of thinking that the North, before the Civil War, was turning into some kind of industrial powerhouse. It really wasn’t.

The industrial powerhouse that the United States does eventually become is much more a product of the post-Civil War decades, the 1880s, the 1890s. The United States, and especially in the Northern states before the Civil War, are still overwhelmingly an agricultural nation. Something like 75 out of a 118 Northern congressional districts are really rural districts.

So what governs the North before the Civil War is not some kind of industrial juggernaut, but rather it is the free labor family farm, of say 110 to 150 acres, as opposed to the Southern slave population plantation of a thousand acres, or in some cases in Louisiana, 2,000 acres, which is organized according to a slave labor system.

That’s the real antagonism. It’s an antagonism between a Northern family farm capitalism and Southern plantation slavery and The 1619 Project misses that entirely.

It imagines the North, and therefore by extrapolation the United States as a whole, to be a kind of economic world that it was not yet, which is to say an industrial world. And what’s more, it misses entirely the distinctions drawn, by Northerners and Southerners alike, between their economic systems in which there was no sense of any kind of comity between the Southern slave system and Northern free labor capitalism.

No one saw this clearer, by the way, than the antislavery president, in this case Abraham Lincoln, because Lincoln always advertised himself as an apostle of free labor. Free labor in this case being a phrase that is almost coterminous with capitalism.

The word capitalism, by the way, is not yet an invention of the 1850s. When people talked about capitalism in the 1850s, what they really used was the term free labor.

Lincoln is an apostle of free labor. He holds up free labor as the model of growth. It is what the United States is supposed to be. And it has nothing, it shares no ground whatsoever with slavery.

If you consult the people who were living then the ways they lived, the ways they produced, then a great chasm opens up beneath The 1619 Project because the world, the real world that existed then, simply does not look like the world described by The 1619 Project.

Davis: It sounds like, by what you’re saying, that slavery was really a relic of the Old World that was brought over to the New World, but really wasn’t part of the DNA of America and what it was growing into.

Guelzo: Well, I mean, in the most literal terms, slavery is an inheritance that the American Republic has from British colonial days. Slavery takes its roots in America under British colonial rule and with British colonial connivance, and many were the voices, at the time of independence and the Constitutional Convention, which complained of how the presence of slavery in America was really one more evidence of British imposition on Americans.

The hope of many members of the Constitutional Convention, that slavery could be abolished, was linked to their conviction that the abolition of slavery was simply one more step that needed to be taken to free us from the inheritance of British colonialism and British imperialism. Again, The 1619 Project tends to invert that.

The 1619 Project and those others who stand in its overall circle, in seeing slavery and capitalism as being integral to the American experience, these are people who are looking away from what was said at the time. And at the time Americans really believed that slavery was an ancient practice that had been, unfortunately, fastened onto Americans by the British colonial regime, and which now was an opportunity for Americans to deal with. … deal with directly by getting rid of it.

This is what Gouverneur Morris at the Constitutional Convention was urging upon people. He said, “The system of slavery is nefarious. It has the curse of heaven in any of the states where it is operating.”

But there were other voices which then opposed that, from South Carolina and Georgia in particular, and they objected that this was going to disrupt their economic systems.

At which point, voices from the North, not the South, the voices from the North, especially from Connecticut, interposed and said, “Well, look, slavery is a dying institution.” Roger Sherman says, “Slavery is on its way out.” Oliver Ellsworth says, “Slavery is on its way out. Let’s not kick the sleeping dog. There’s soon going to be a time in America when slavery will be simply a memory, and we can let things go and let slavery die out on its own.” And so the Constitution does not in fact take direct action against slavery.

What it’ll do is it will decline to mention slavery. The word slavery doesn’t occur anywhere in the Constitution, and those points at which the Constitution might have pointed toward it, the authors of the Constitution, want to employ euphemisms. Well, that’s not a mistake.

They wanted to employ the euphemisms so that years later when people read the Constitution and slavery was gone, no one would know that there ever had been slavery in the United States and that’s what they wanted.

This of course was the argument that Lincoln makes, when Lincoln in 1860 delivers his famous Cooper Institute speech. The reason slavery isn’t mentioned there is because there was going to come a time when there would be no slavery and the whole memory of it could be effectively erased.

Now the difficulty for The 1619 Project is that it prefers not to see any of this, it prefers instead to see slavery as central. And I have to grant this one thing, and I think anyone who is candid enough will also grant this. Despite the expectation of the Founders that slavery was a disappearing institution, two major events brought it back to life.

One was the Industrial Revolution in Britain. The Industrial Revolution in Britain is largely built around the production of cotton textiles. Well, Britain doesn’t grow cotton naturally. Where are you going to get cotton? Oh, dear. The single spot on the face of the earth most congenial in its soil and its climate to growing cotton was the American South.

Up until 1800, cotton growing in the American South had been pretty much a secondary kind of agricultural pursuit. After 1800, it takes off as the hunger of Britain’s textile mills demand more and more and more and more cotton, to the point that by 1860, cotton accounts for more than a quarter of all American commodity exports.

Cotton is one of the chief items of consumption internationally. It is the white gold of the transatlantic economy by the middle of the 19th century. And that’s largely because of British demand for it. And this suddenly puts profitability back behind cotton growing and the slave labor that was used for it.

And when you have profitability, sometimes, what you get is excuse mongering and that is exactly what Southerners did. They made excuses for what they were doing. It was wrong, it was an evil, and it was an evil that was part of this being in the capitalist system, although not of it, because what makes cotton profitable is the ability to sell cotton on foreign markets, in Birmingham, in Manchester, in Liverpool.

That piece of things, The 1619 Project has right, but only that piece. From that, you cannot extrapolate the idea that slavery is a capitalistic system. Slavery took advantage of capitalism and then once it pocketed the profits, like the old Soviet Union, it turned around and went its merry, uncapitalistic way.

Davis: So if The 1619 Project is successful in what it’s trying to do in the narrative it’s giving, what effect do you think that would have on our country as a republic?

Guelzo: If I were to take The 1619 Project purely at its word, with no qualifications, then I would have to assume that the American experiment from the very start was a hideously flawed mistake. That the American republic was guilty of a crime, or crimes, so infamous that the only thing worse than that would have been outright genocide.

Well, if that is the case, that taints everything that was done by the American republic, it taints the Constitution, it taints the laws, it taints the history. It even taints the history of what we did to get rid of slavery in the Civil War, because it means … we would have to say that the purpose of the Civil War somehow was something other than dealing with slavery. There are some people who would say that, too.

We have to work our way around all of these things, and somehow come up with the idea that because everything that is now successful in America is somehow built upon the bones of slavery, we must therefore see that everything that we have done is an act of guilt, an act worthy of guilt, for which we should utter apologies rather than taking a kind of pride or satisfaction, much less hold up as some kind of example, democratic example, to other nations. That completely inverts the purpose of what we’re doing.

By that logic, we would have had no right to complain of imperial Germany in World War I. We would’ve had no right to complain of Nazi Germany in World War II. Because by the logic of The 1619 Project, what was the United States built upon except the very same things that Nazi Germany was doing? Except they were doing it based upon a different definition of race than we were doing it, but still doing very much the same thing.

It converts the entire history of the United States into an exercise in hypocrisy. Some people may be confident and very happy with that. I think that it marches directly opposite to the realities of that history, and certainly suggests that today we are in a position, internationally, where we should have nothing to say to anyone about anything, but perhaps fold up on our own and just go very quietly into a corner and make no testimony whatsoever about right or justice or democracy. I’m not sure that we should do that.

And what’s more, I think The 1619 Project is asking us to assume a burden of guilt, which is not only unjustified but which in fact would be toxic, both for those on whom it sits as a burden but also for those who have put it forward. Because at the end of the day, there is really no end to the manufacture of guilt.

You can create historical guilt out of some very feeble materials, provided you have enough energy and enough assertion to make the case. The 1619 Project abounds in energy and assertion, I give them all the credit they deserve on that score, but whether what they are promoting reflects historical reality is on the ground, that it seems to me is another point entirely.

What they begin to resemble is not so much a theory of American history as a conspiracy theory, and like conspiracy theories, The 1619 Project, which does resemble, ironically, the structure of conspiracy theories.

The 1619 Project would have us to believe that the explanation to American history really only lies in one thing. Well, that’s a typical mark of a conspiracy theory, you know, one thing explains everything.

As soon as you say that you begin to feel the ridicule rising in your throat because you know very well that theories which use one thing to explain everything usually wind up explaining nothing. But The 1619 Project has one thing which it wants to use to explain everything. That’s a conspiracy theory.

Like conspiracy theories, the grassy knoll, the blood libel, these are the kinds of things which attract a great deal of attention at first because they make an aggrieved audience feel satisfied that now, at last, they have the real key to understanding everything that they’re suffering. Well, yes, but it’s still a conspiracy theory.

And the problem about conspiracy theories is that while they immediately meet that need of the aggrieved for an explanation of everything, the problem is they also are very short-lived and they usually collapse in ridicule. And if The 1619 Project wants to reflect seriously on what its future impact is liable to be, it needs to reflect seriously on what the future of conspiracy theories has usually turned out to be.

Davis: Well, a few years ago, Ta-Nehisi Coates put forward a widely shared case for racial reparations, and that’s got a lot of talk, especially on the political left, and we’re starting to see Congress even have hearings now talking about this, exploring, setting up a committee to explore the history here and consider this as a policy initiative.

Do you think The 1619 Project is setting itself up to try to present an account that underwrites that kind of policy initiative?

Guelzo: Well, I can’t be a prophet on behalf of The 1619 Project, but I would not be surprised if a demand for reparations does eventually unfold from the overall trajectory of The 1619 Project. But on the other hand, I have seen campaigns about reparations for slavery up here fairly regularly. They tend to come in 15-year cycles, and I’m not sure that a new cycle of this kind of demand is going to meet with more success than earlier ones have.

Which is not to say that reparations are not significant. We have seen in our lifetimes a a number of reparations programs which meet a meaningful demand.

We have seen this, for instance, in the case of Germany dealing with reparations for the families of Jews who suffered in the hands of the Holocaust. We have seen others for reparations programs that are put in place.

Although, usually, what you have in any kind of workable reparations environment is you have a body of people who are still alive who have suffered harms and who can be recompensed for those harms, harms which can be calculated in some reasonable fashion.

Among the problems that we face in terms of slave reparations is that we are now 155 years or so away from slavery. We are generations away from slavery. And trying to calculate what those reparations should be becomes simply an exercise in imaginative fiction. We just don’t know.

Another problem that is posed for reparations concerning slavery is the question of who is going to be held responsible? Who is going to pay for this? Well, should, for instance, the federal government assume the responsibility of paying slave reparations?

Well, the question then becomes, why? The federal government never enslaved people. Slavery was always a matter of state law and state regulations, so the federal government didn’t have a slave code. The federal government didn’t have slave laws. The federal government therefore was not an owner of slaves. Why then should the federal government be held responsible?

All right, then, let’s shift. Maybe we should hold the states responsible, and what jumps to mind right away is a parallel, for instance, to the tobacco settlement. Let’s hold some states … that were responsible for slavery … to account for reparations. All right, fine. The difficulty there is that you will find that the state of Pennsylvania actually legalized slavery for a longer period of time than the state of Alabama.

So we would be in the well-nigh ludicrous situation of assessing Pennsylvania, which was otherwise, as we understand it, a free state. We will end up assessing Pennsylvania more for slave reparations than we would Alabama, which attempted to destroy the Union in the defense of slavery. All right, so there is a conundrum.

All right, well, if not the federal government and the states, maybe the individuals who owned slaves or their descendants. Well, you have two problems there. One is tracking down the descendants, and assuming that those descendants, the descendants of slave owners, actually have the means to pay those reparations. There’s no guarantee of that.

The other problem is in the DNA of the slaves themselves because on average an ordinary African American is actually about 20% white. And this is because of the peculiar twist of history of slavery itself, which involved rape, miscegenation, all kinds of horrors this way.

The power of white male slave owners over female black slaves produced large populations of mixed race people whose parents, of course, one was a slave, but the other was a slave owner. Well, that means, … and I’m speaking on an average basis here, your average African American is a descendant of both slaves and slave owners.

If we are going to assess the descendants of slave owners for reparations, then we would end up having to assess many people who are also the descendants of slaves. And what kind of a situation is that?

So reparations for slavery resemble a plank 10-feet-long placed over a chasm 10-feet-wide. I mean, it looks good, but the moment you try to put a foot on it, down it goes.

It also forgets, and this I think is the final thing, … the thing that in a sense, this country did pay reparations, and it paid them in the coinage of blood in the Civil War. The Civil War cost, when you reckon all the totalities of death, something like 750,000 American lives, including the life of Abraham Lincoln.

When you ask about reparations, when you ask about payment for slavery, there’s a very real sense in which the Civil War itself was such a payment, in blood.

Lincoln himself saw it that way in his second inaugural, when he talked about how the Civil War was a visitation of God’s judgment on the nation so that, as he put it, “Every drop of blood drawn by the lash should be paid for by a drop of blood drawn by the sword.”

One thing which I find absent from Ta-Nehisi Coates, one thing which I find absent from The 1619 Project, and for many others who have been involved in these calls over the years for reparations, is a remarkable sense of blindness to the costs of the Civil War, and the costs that were paid in the Civil War to end slavery.

If that is not a form of reparation, then Lincoln was wrong, then those who fought for the Union side against slavery were wrong. Then the Republicans in Congress who pushed forward the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery, they were wrong.

As soon as you have begun toting up the number of people that you are going to set down as being wrong, then the questions tend to swivel back to you and maybe there is a problem with the question you are posing in terms of slave reparations.

Davis: Such an important discussion. Dr. Guelzo, thank you so much for your time today.

Guelzo: OK, thank you.


This article was originally published by The Daily Signal.

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Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia. Historic Landmark in city by Philip Goldsberry // Upsplash License.

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