I often cover historical subjects in my posts, but I feel compelled to comment on a contemporary development as in August, The New York Times announced the release of The 1619 Project, by one of its editors, Nikole Hanna-Jones. This is a series of essays with the overall message purporting that the true founding of the United States was in August 1619, when the first slave ship arrived on the territory we now know as the United States. Hanna-Jones states, “Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written. Black Americans have fought to make them true” (New York Times). I feel compelled to write against the intent of this project as it is my view that the 1619 Project is spearheaded by a radical with essays by radicals whose purpose is to present a narrative to convince the American public that the founding principles of this country are tainted beyond repair and require a complete political revolution, including ending capitalism. Although to some leftists this will come off as weak evidence for Hanna-Jones’ radical politics, I find it hard to believe that anyone that lacked socialist intent would go to communist Cuba to study their healthcare and educational system. Additionally, on the NYT page promoting the project, there are some choice quotes from the essays in the project:
“If you want to understand the brutality of American capitalism, you have to start on the plantation.” – Matthew Desmond
“Why doesn’t the United States have universal health care? The answer begins with policies enacted after the Civil War.” – Jeneen Interlandi
There is a leftist intent with this project, an effort to redefine and reconstitute America in a collectivist, anti-capitalist, and yes, Marxist framework. I don’t object to publicizing accounts of slavery as I support inquiry and the discovery of new information, but I harbor no delusions about the purposes of this project. For Hannah-Jones and her ideological kin, racial injustice is inextricably tied to the values the United States was founded on and is the root of continued injustices today. Thus, it logically follows that such a system must be undone. The problem with this narrative is that it flies in the face of history.
There are seven men who are identified as the major Founding Fathers of the United States: George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Ben Franklin, and John Jay. Of these men, four were not slave owners and opposed the institution. Washington, Jefferson, and Madison did own slaves until the end of their lives and had a complicated and contradictory relationship with the institution in thought and practice, but all agreed that slavery should be gradually phased out as they recognized the inconsistency of the practice from the principles of the founding of the nation. Washington freed all of his slaves in his will (upon the death of his wife, that is) and Jefferson himself proposed legislation while the U.S. was a confederation in 1784 to gradually abolish the practice with Madison in support, a proposal which lost by one vote. What is clear is that one of the purposes behind the Constitution was to gradually phase out the practice of slavery. On December 2, 1806, President Thomas Jefferson, in support of prohibiting the importation of slaves, denounced the international slave trade for human rights violations, stating “I congratulate you, fellow-citizens, on the approach of the period at which you may interpose your authority constitutionally, to withdraw the citizens of the United States from all further participation in those violations of human rights which have been so long continued on the unoffending inhabitants of Africa, and which the morality, the reputation, and the best interests of our country, have long been eager to proscribe” (Sixth Annual Message to Congress). While this language is curious from a man who owned over 600 slaves yet only freed seven, it illustrates Jefferson’s conflicted attitudes on the institution of slavery.
While in the Northern states the practice was indeed phased out after the federal prohibition on importing slaves, in the Southern states the institution grew stronger. By his final years, Jefferson acknowledged that slavery was not headed in the trajectory he had hoped for. These men harbored no delusions about the suitability of slavery to the principles of freedom they advocated. James Madison, for instance, found he could not penalize one of his slaves for taking such a deep interest in the freedoms he was advocating, and arranged a servitude deal with him in which he was eventually freed and became a merchant who maintained close ties with the Madison family. However, there were also some people in American politics who instead of thinking slavery a necessary evil they came to think of it as a positive good and actively resisted the intent of the Founding Fathers. This group was led by the highly influential Vice President and Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, a preacher of nullification and secession who held the founding principles of the United States to be both a mistake and a lie. This is in comport with the statement, “Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written” (New York Times). Although Hannah-Jones and the supporters of the aims of this project don’t share the aims or racial theories of Calhoun, they agree with his premise. In truth, although some of the Founders were contradictory on slavery, they did have a clear aim to eventually abolish it. It was Calhoun and his supporters who sought a radical revision of the direction of the United States, aided and abetted by Northern doughface politicians like Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan.
I write what I have written today out of love for my country and its ideals. I write to defend against the indictment against the individualistic principles of the country as well as the capitalism by extension Hannah-Jones and her fellow essayists aim to indict. I write to defend the intent of the Founding Fathers, who were not blind to the contradiction that the continued existence of slavery presented for the principles and ideals behind America’s founding. It is true that they didn’t always live up to said principles and ideals, but they had plan and intent to gradually abolish slavery. Unfortunately, their plan didn’t work and required the Civil War and the 13th Amendment for their aim to be realized. It is also true that since then we haven’t always followed through on the classical liberal values, but I hold they are the right ones to pursue. When we stay true to the values presented in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, we grow our country and the standard of living of our people.
Clark, K.M. (2000). James Madison and Slavery. James Madison Museum.
Davidson, J.D. (2019, August 20). The Ghost of John C. Calhoun Haunts Today’s American Left. The Federalist.
Merkel, W.G. (2008). Jefferson’s Failed Anti-Slavery Proviso of 1784 and the Nascence of Free Soil Constitutionalism. Seton Hall Law Review, 38(555).
The 1619 Project. The New York Times Magazine.
Thomas Jefferson: Sixth Annual Message to Congress (1806). The Avalon Project.