Jonathan P. Baird: The 1619 Project and a more informed view of slavery

For the Monitor
Published: 10/10/2019 7:30:16 AM

Possibly some readers have followed the controversy over the New York Times’ 1619 Project, an effort to take a new look at the history of slavery in America. 1619 refers to the date the first black slaves were brought to the shores of America.

After the Times launched the project in August, conservatives freaked out. Among others, former congressman and Fox News contributor Newt Gingrich argued the project was a “lie” and propaganda. National Review editor Rich Lowry stated that the essays presented an “odious and reductive lie” that “racism is the essence of America.” The general criticism raised by conservatives was that the 1619 Project was attempting to divide and delegitimize America.

The conservatives seem deeply uneasy about looking under the rock that is American slavery. Accompanying a fear of this history is the desire to maintain an innocence about the American past. We all grew up with the triumphalist narrative that focuses on heroic American moments. From the Founding Fathers to Abraham Lincoln to defeating fascism in World War II, there are undeniable heroics.

However, fear of history is dangerous and can lead to the promotion of illusions. It is past time that we, as a society, look harder into the history of slavery because that experience still shapes our world. Investigating slavery is like staring into the heart of darkness. There is a desire to look away.

The truth is that there has been an unwillingness to examine the history. In schools I attended, the subject of slavery was largely passed over. I don’t think that is too different from the experience of most Americans.

Let me put out some ideas about slavery that I have gleaned from my own exploration. Much of my thinking has been shaped by a brilliant book, The American Slave Coast, written by historians Ned and Constance Sublette.

The Sublettes argue an alternative view of slavery in the United States. Rather than seeing slavery simply as a source of unpaid labor, they see slavery in the United States as a slave-breeding system. They write: “The story of national expansion premised on the reproduction of captive humans who were labor, merchandise and collateral, all at once, is horrific, and it’s basic to the story of our development as a nation. It’s not a sidebar to American history, it’s central. It’s particularly important, because despite the best work of scholars, American history has always come up against a disinformation process that has sanitized it. But sanitized history won’t explain how we got to the mess we have today.”

Slave-breeding was a commercial enterprise to expand slavery westward. The Sublettes see the struggle that went on between Virginia and South Carolina as a central conflict. Slaveowners in Virginia competed with South Carolina over African importation of slaves.

South Carolina slaveholders obtained their slaves from Africa via the Middle Passage. Virginia bred slaves for the domestic market and aimed to supply high-priced slaves throughout the South. Both states favored the expansion of slavery into western territories as that was seen as essential to the growth potential of the industry and its profits.

The Sublettes argue that the 1808 abolition of the transatlantic slave trade was a huge protectionist victory for Thomas Jefferson and the Virginia slaveholders. By stopping the African importation, Jefferson crippled South Carolina’s ability to compete against Virginia.

W.E.B. Dubois described it: “Slaves without the African slave trade became more valuable; with cotton culture their value rose still further, so that they were fed adequately and their breeding systematically encouraged.”

Jefferson had bragged to George Washington that the birth of black children increased Virginia’s capital stock by 4% annually. Jefferson owned over 600 slaves during his lifetime. Washington owned over 300. They were the two presidents who owned the most slaves.

Slaves were the equivalent of money. They also were the basis for increased Southern political representation due to the three-fifths clause in the U.S. Constitution.

The Sublettes show how Native Americans had to be cleared out of the Southeastern United States to pave the way for the creation of cotton plantations. Andrew Jackson was key to that effort. More generally, they show how many presidents before Lincoln accommodated slavery. With the exception of John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Millard Fillmore and Franklin Pierce, all the presidents before Lincoln owned slaves.

Some of the stories the Sublettes tell are shocking.

President James K. Polk fought the Mexican War, in part, to annex Texas and extend slavery there. He bought slaves in secret while in the White House to feather his post-presidential nest. Polk was the absentee owner of a slave plantation in Mississippi. The overseer of his plantation had a reputation for cruelty and merciless whippings. Polk’s slaves ran away much more than the norm of that time.

Maybe most shocking in the Sublettes’ account was the treatment of African American women. There was no such thing as rape of an enslaved woman. It wasn’t considered possible that rape could be committed against a slave. Rape was, however, a virtual industry in the South. The historian Kellie Carter Jackson writes: “Enslaved women had no right to their bodies, no right to their children and no right to refuse enforced breeding.”

The slave-breeding industry is an example of how far human beings will go in the unrestrained pursuit of profit. A much deeper exploration of the history of slavery is needed, and the conservatives’ fear of untold history is misplaced. We do not have that many slave narratives, but we need a bottom-up view of the institution. Shallowness of understanding is a much bigger problem than potential bias in telling the story.

In American history, it does not lessen the positives to be honest about negatives. The 1619 Project and other efforts to tell the slavery story should be welcomed.

(Jonathan P. Baird lives in Wilmot and blogs at jonathanpbaird.com.)

(Correction: An earlier version of this column omitted Millard Fillmore and Franklin Pierce when citing presidents before Abraham Lincoln who did not own slaves.)


Jobs



Support Local Journalism

Subscribe to the Concord Monitor, recently named the best paper of its size in New England.


Concord Monitor Office

1 Monitor Drive
Concord,NH 03301
603-224-5301

 

© 2021 Concord Monitor
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy