In recent years, Americans are paying renewed attention and having new discussions on race, racism, and discrimination. Some of those discussions have been positive and constructive, but some have been divisive and political. One of the more academic and historical aspects of that discussion has come from a project by The New York Times called The 1619 Project. In short, The 1619 Project is a series of articles and essays exploring America through the lens of slavery. The project has been controversial for many reasons, and it has contributed to many of the political angles of the ongoing conversations about racism and slavery.
Phillip W. Magness is a senior research fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research. His work encompasses the economic history of the United States, with a focus on the history of slavery and taxation in the 19th century. Magness recently wrote a book titled The 1619 Project, A Critique, exploring the arguments and positions that The 1619 Project takes, and pointing out what it gets right and what it gets (sometimes very) wrong.
PLF interviewed Magness to discuss The 1619 Project, and learn more constructive ways of viewing—and talking about—slavery and racism in America.
Let’s start at the beginning. What was The 1619 Project and what was it trying to do?
The 1619 Project was an issue of The New York Times Magazine that came out in August of 2019. It was packaged as a part-historical, part-editorial take on slavery’s role and legacy throughout the United States’ history. As the title suggests, the year 1619 is when the first slave ship arrived off the coast of Virginia. The project’s contributors are trying to reorient our understanding of American history around that event as something of a starting point, and then tracing the legacy of slavery all the way through the present day.
Broadening the perspective of slavery’s legacy is a worthwhile avenue of historical research. The standard U.S. history textbook looks at slavery just before the Civil War, and The 1619 Project’s narrative covers 400 years. The fact that slavery persisted on this continent for basically a century and a half before American independence ever occurred is something that’s not readily discussed in most of the history books.
But where The 1619 project goes wrong is The New York Times used this topic as a pretext to launch into some very ideological work more connected to the 21st-century progressive political agenda than actual historical investigations.
The lead essay opens with the claim that “Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written.” What’s your evaluation of this?
The 1619 Project opens with a bold declaration, that they’re trying to reorient or reframe American history around the year 1619 instead of 1776. The project’s director, Nikole Hannah-Jones, very famously now, put on her Twitter page an image of the year 1776 crossed out and replaced by 1619. And in several public interviews around the time, she said that 1619 was the true founding of the United States.
The project tries to tie our nation’s origin story more explicitly to the concept of slavery, which taints that origin. The idea here is that America is basically conceived in sin, and this horrific institution should be seen as the dominant theme of American history. But I believe The 1619 Project goes too far in making that link, because if you take the position that the country is born out of slavery, it displaces those positive ideals that we associate more readily with 1776, like the notion that all men are created equal, the success of constitutional order, and an orientation toward the preservation and expansion of liberty.
Why do you think a narrative of the country’s founding based on individual liberty and the Declaration of Independence is a better one than one based on slavery and 1619?
The notion of an American founding based on liberty is always aspirational. We very clearly know that slavery was a significant and substantial problem in our constitutional order. As soon as independence was declared, as soon as the ink is dry on the Declaration of Independence, there are people in that era who immediately recognize that slavery is inconsistent with the course that this new country was charting. But you can’t get to a point of abolishing slavery if you don’t have a philosophical grounding that allows you to make that case.
And here, The 1619 Project is trying to displace that philosophical grounding by claiming the only true constitutional order that emerged after the American Revolution was the pro-slavery one. But that sounds an awful lot like some of the legal arguments that were put forth in the infamous Dred Scott Supreme Court decision in 1857, which asserted that the American founding and the constitutional order that emerged from it were pro-slavery.
Yet even when it was decided, a majority of the country saw this as a noxious legal theory. It was inconsistent with the philosophical moorings of the founding, which was rooted in a liberty-minded egalitarianism and a rights-minded understanding of constitutional law.
My own take would be to view American history as an ongoing conflict of competing visions. Because there are obviously pro-slavery figures that emerged from the Revolutionary Era. But at the same time, there were also many anti-slavery views that emerged from the same period. And for the 80 years or so from the founding to the Civil War, there’s a continuous fight between those two sides over who gets to claim the mantle of American constitutionalism.
A proper framing of America’s founding needs to recognize that the Anti-Slavery Movement is very much a part of the original constitutional order. You can trace it from the Founding Era all the way up until the Civil War and—as we know now—the anti-slavery perspective ultimately won the day in the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments.
A lot of the 1619 writers talk about how the founders owned slaves themselves, so in their view, the nice-sounding words the founders wrote in the Declaration of Independence are worthless because of their hypocrisy. What would your response be to that argument?
Well, it ignores the complexity of the figures of that generation. George Washington, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson were all slave owners; even some of the founders who were more on the anti-slavery side, such as Alexander Hamilton, had their fingers in the slave trade. But even though many of the founders were slave owners, their writings and arguments in speeches show their continuous moral struggle over the institution. Thomas Jefferson very famously recognizes how terrible the institution of slavery is in one of his letters, where he says he trembles when he thinks about what the institution of slavery is going to do to the country.
They’re all grappling with the problem of slavery because they know it cannot last. They know it cannot become a permanent institution of American constitutional order, and they are constantly asking themselves the question, “How do we wean ourselves off this institution? How do we set ourselves on the path to where the future United States is not dependent on it?”
Another aspect of The 1619 Project is their critique of capitalism, where they try to place the origins of contemporary capitalism in the system of plantation slavery. How do they make that leap?
I think the 1619 writers make a fallacy of assigning political outcomes, including political harms, to economic events. They try to associate very real political legacies of slavery and institutionalized discrimination with capitalism. But if you probe beneath the surface of many 1619 articles, you start to find a through line of ideological anti-capitalism that’s primarily motivated by current-day politics.
What’s left out is the entire intellectual history of free-market capitalism. In fact, free-market capitalists throughout the 18th and 19th century, including Adam Smith himself, were incredibly outspoken abolitionists. Smith aggressively attacked slavery and made a moral case against slavery in several of his books and lectures. He made a political case against slavery that basically treated slave owners as an interest group that corrupted the legislative process to prop themselves up at the expense of the rest of society and at the expense of slaves themselves.
Abolitionists themselves tended to be aggressive free-market advocates compared to their pro-slavery foils in the South. Most slavery advocates considered themselves anti-capitalists.
So The 1619 Project completely inverted the intellectual history of where capitalism comes from.
For example, on the eve of the Civil War, there’s a figure by the name of George Fitzhugh who’s considered probably the most prominent pro-slavery theorist in the United States. Fitzhugh opens his book, not by attacking the abolitionists outright, but by attacking the doctrine of free trade and laissez-faire economics. Fitzhugh declares that free-market capitalism is “at war with slavery” by introducing a free-labor system and styles of production that he sees as unsuited to the agrarian slave economy.
So American capitalism isn’t infused with the brutality of slavery. American capitalism, or at least the free-market variant that we see coming out of the tradition of Adam Smith, was in fact infused with abolition and at war with slavery. American capitalism was a major reason that abolitionism became a viable political and economic force.
One big thing that has come out of 2020 is the idea that we should see people much more through the lens of race. Do you have any comment on that related to your work on The 1619 Project?
Race is unavoidably wrapped up in the historical issues raised by The 1619 Project. And with reason. Racialized slavery is a dominant issue of our nation’s historical narrative.
Anti-racism as a moral principle enjoys widespread resonance, and for good reason. I see that as a positive development in the American political ethos that may not have been true even as recently as 40 or 50 years ago.
On the other hand, I think there are ideologically loaded versions of anti-racism that move away from the basic principle of equality, the basic principle of treating other people with dignity and respect, with adhering to a legal system that respects and honors their rights, and moving more into an anti-racism defined as an ideological proposition aligned with progressive and far-left causes.
Many of the ideas coming from 1619 writers are not just principles of equality and equal treatment. They include far-flung attacks on capitalism, saying capitalism is inherently a racist institution, and to be anti-racist, one must also be anti-capitalist.
So when we address anti-racism as a topic, we need to be careful to distinguish between a moral commitment to equality, and the political version of anti-racism that has become tied to unrelated topics that resonate with the far left.
Many of the anti-racist writers try to reframe how we talk about race and around the idea of “You are your group. You are your race.” What are some better ways that we should be looking at race today?
Broadly speaking, the political discourse around race, which comes from a very far-left perspective, has an unfortunate effect of crowding out other forms of anti-discriminatory thinking, including the individualist form. The notion of individual rights and the dignity of the human person. The notion that people should not face persecution or discrimination based on their skin color, based on their religion, based on their ethnicity. These are all stories rooted in the rights and liberties of an individual.
There is an aspirational legal theory dating back to the American founding that is premised upon upholding the dignity of the individual. We’ve often fallen far short of that promise, but at least as an aspiration, it was stressed in the writings and speeches of Frederick Douglass. This is something that has persisted across the abolitionist literature before the Civil War, and it’s something that persisted into the 20th century with parts of the Civil Rights Movement, stressing the dignity of the individual as the basis for combating institutionalized racism and institutionalized discrimination.
Unfortunately, when you try and discuss those topics today, race is seen through the progressive left political lens, which squeezes out and deflects attention away from that longer tradition of individual liberty. In other words, you’re basically jettisoning a significant portion of the successes of the Abolitionist Movement and the successes of the Civil Rights Movement when you jettison the individualist perspective from the discussion.
So a reorientation of that discussion back to the precepts of rights, back to the precepts of personal liberties, and back to the precepts of the individual dignity of the human person is a way to move forward from this conversation.
We should be discussing and learning more about slavery’s history in America. But a critical part of that discussion also means reviving the old classical liberal, free-market tradition that imbued itself into the Abolitionist Movement. The more we can revive and refocus our historical attention upon the importance of individualism, the more we can actually embrace the positive legacy of successfully abolishing a genuine evil from the world.
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2020 edition of Sword&Scales