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History, the present condition

Historians critique the 1619 project

The New York Times‘s “1619” project, which attempts to “reframe” (in its words) American history as being always and everywhere about racism has received a great deal of discussion. The World Socialist Website — of all places — has produced some of the most interesting responses, interviewing a number of prominent historians about their views on the matter. The verdict is highly critical, ultimately judging the 1619-approach as reductive, simplistic and parochial.

Of the interviews that have appeared so far, I found the one by Gordon Wood most compelling, probably in part because back in the mists of time when I was a grad student in the mid-1990s I had Colonial America as a minor field and read rather a lot of stuff from him.

But beyond inducing some warm nostalgia, Wood’s interview is full of some of the things that history at its best does: pointing out the complexity and contradiction of actual social and cultural developments while also drawing some clear conclusions about what was, overall, going on.

For example:

We should understand that slavery in the colonial period seemed to be simply the most base status in a whole hierarchy of dependencies and degrees of unfreedom. Indentured servitude was prevalent everywhere. Half the population that came to the colonies in the 18th century came as bonded servants. Servitude, of course, was not slavery, but it was a form of dependency and unfreedom that tended to obscure the uniqueness of racial slavery. Servants were bound over to masters for five or seven years. They couldn’t marry. They couldn’t own property. They belonged to their masters, who could sell them. Servitude was not life-time and was not racially-based, but it was a form of dependency and unfreedom. The Revolution attacked bonded servitude and by 1800 it scarcely existed anywhere in the US.

The elimination of servitude suddenly made slavery more conspicuous than it had been in a world of degrees of unfreedom. The antislavery movements arose out of these circumstances. As far as most northerners were concerned, this most base and despicable form of unfreedom must be eliminated along with all the other forms of unfreedom. These dependencies were simply incompatible with the meaning of the Revolution.

This section on work and attitudes toward it is also insightful:

Q. How it is that the American Revolution raises the dignity of labor? Because it seems to me that this concept certainly becomes a burning issue by the time of the Civil War.

A. It’s a good question. Central to the middle class revolution was an unprecedented celebration of work, especially manual labor, including the working for money. For centuries going back to the ancient Greeks, work with one’s hands had been held in contempt. Aristotle had said that those who worked with their hands and especially those who worked for money lacked the capacity for virtue. This remained the common view until the American Revolution changed everything.
The northern celebration of work made the slaveholding South seem even more anomalous than it was. Assuming that work was despicable and mean was what justified slavery. Scorn for work and slavery were two sides of the same coin. Now the middle-class northerners—clerks, petty merchants, farmers, etc.—began attacking the leisured gentry as parasites living off the work of others. That was the gist of the writings of William Manning, the obscure Massachusetts farmer, writing in the 1790s. This celebration of work, of course, forced the slaveholding planters to be even more defensive and they began celebrating leisure as the source of high culture in contrast with the money-grubbing North.
Slavery required a culture that held labor in contempt. The North, with its celebration of labor, especially working for money, became even more different from the lazy, slaveholding South. By the 1850s, the two sections, though both American, possessed two different cultures.

The doubtful political messages encoded in the 1619 project are addressed by another historian, James Oakes, who finds “there’s nothing remotely radical about it”.

Responding to various questions, he outlines why this is so:

Q. And a point we made in our response to the 1619 Project, is that it dovetails also with the major political thrust of the Democratic Party, identity politics. And the claim that is made, and I think it’s almost become a commonplace, is that slavery is the uniquely American “original sin.”

A. Yes. “Original sin,” that’s one of them. The other is that slavery or racism is built into the DNA of America. These are really dangerous tropes. They’re not only ahistorical, they’re actually anti-historical. The function of those tropes is to deny change over time. It goes back to those analogies. They say, “look at how terribly black people were treated under slavery. And look at the incarceration rate for black people today. It’s the same thing.” Nothing changes. There has been no industrialization. There has been no Great Migration. We’re all in the same boat we were back then. And that’s what original sin is. It’s passed down. Every single generation is born with the same original sin. And the worst thing about it is that it leads to political paralysis. It’s always been here. There’s nothing we can do to get out of it. If it’s the DNA, there’s nothing you can do. What do you do? Alter your DNA?

And this:

Q. The formulation that behind debates over race are struggles over power struck me in relationship to the present as well, and in particular the promotion by the 1619 Project of racialist politics, which is certainly once again a cornerstone of the Democratic Party.

A. Here I agree with my friend Adolph Reed [political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania — JCW]. Identity is very much the ideology of the professional-managerial class. They prefer to talk about identity over capitalism and the inequities of capitalism. We have an atrocious wealth gap in this country. It’s not a black-white wealth gap. It’s a wealth gap. But if you keep rephrasing it as black-white, and shift it off to a racial argument, you undermine the possibility of building a working-class coalition, which by definition would be disproportionately black, disproportionately female, disproportionately Latino, and still probably majority white. That’s the kind of working-class coalition that identity politics tends to erase.

This latter point has been made recently and cogently by Adam Gopnik in A Thousand Small Sanities or Mark Lilla in The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics. But it is good to see some expert historical commentary addressing related topics.

Sort of takes me back to university and graduate school, when I remember that it was left-wing and labour historians (focused on class) who were engaged in intellectual wars with the various “post-” theories.

Seems like ages ago now.

Kudos to the World Socialist Website for an enlightening series of interviews, I hope more are on the way.

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