The 1619 Project is back in the news with the release of the six-part Hulu series built around its claim that “nearly everything that has made America exceptional grew out of slavery.” The 1619 Project, championed by Nikole Hannah-Jones of The New York Times, has been canonized by progressives and is now being taught in more than 4,500 American classrooms. Vice President Kamala Harris jumped on the bandwagon last June when she told school children “black people in America” suffered “400 years of slavery.” Harris did not specify when she expunged the Civil War and Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation from the history books.
African-American slavery was a profound injustice, and we should not downplay that abhorrent part of our nation’s past. But the 1619 Project is riddled with errors that have been debunked across the ideological spectrum by economic historian Phil Magness (who has done the best debunking), Professor Gordon Wood, the World Socialist Web Site, and many other respectable critics. The 1619 Project’s most harebrained idea is that the American Revolution was fought to preserve slavery. This notion is impossible to reconcile with the fact that the conflict erupted in northern colonies with few slaves. The 1619 storyline could not have passed the laugh test unless many Americans were clueless on the British brutality that sparked the war.
Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., President John F. Kennedy’s court historian and a revered liberal intellectual, declared in 2004, “Historians today conclude that the colonists were driven to revolt in 1776 because of a false conviction that they faced a British conspiracy to destroy their freedom.” Was the British imposition of martial law, suspension of habeas corpus, and censorship not simply deranged fantasies of Thomas Jefferson? Apparently, it was paranoid to suspect the British unless King George III issued a proclamation announcing, “We will destroy your freedom.”
Slavery did help spark the Revolution, but it was “slavery by Parliament”—a common derisive phrase in the founding era. The Declaratory Act of 1766 announced that Parliament “had, hath, and of right ought to have, full power and authority to make laws and statutes of sufficient force and validity to bind the colonies and people of America, subjects of the crown of Great Britain, in all cases whatsoever.” That meant Parliament could never do an injustice to the Americans, since Parliament had the right to use and abuse colonists as it pleased.
Law after law trumpeted Americans’ legal inferiority to their foreign masters. The Sugar Act of 1764 resulted in British officials confiscating hundreds of American ships, based on mere allegations that the shipowners or captains were involved in smuggling. To retain their ships, Americans had to somehow prove that they had never been involved in smuggling—a near-impossible burden.
Britain imposed heavy taxes on imports and issued “writs of assistance” entitling British soldiers to search any home for evidence that tariffs on tea or whiskey had been shirked. Massachusetts lawyer James Otis denounced those writs for conferring “a power that places the liberty of every man in the hands of every petty officer.” (Judges in Virginia refused to issue writs of assistance.) Britain prohibited Americans from erecting any mill for rolling or slitting iron; British statesman William Pitt exclaimed, “It is forbidden to make even a nail for a horseshoe.” The Declaration of Independence denounced King George for “cutting off our trade with all parts of the world.”
Vermont patriots marched in 1775 against the British Army under a flag depicting a pine tree—a symbol of British tyranny. Because pine was an excellent material for building ships, Parliament banned cutting down any white pine trees and claimed them all for the British crown without compensation. Historian Jonathan Sewall, writing in 1846, claimed that the conflict with Britain “began in the forests of Maine in the contests of her lumbermen with the King’s surveyor, as to the right to cut, and the property in white pine trees.”
Firearm crackdowns proved the Brits could not be trusted. “By 1774, the British were routinely conducting warrantless searches and seizures of firearms in the Boston area…King George III ordered the seizure of any firearms imported into the colonies,” noted author Stephen Halbrook. The first major clashes of the Revolution occurred at Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts, after British troops sought to confiscate colonial firearms. After British regulars were cut to pieces at the 1775 Battle of Bunker Hill, General Thomas Gage decreed that “anyone found in possession of arms would be deemed guilty of treason,” as Professor David Kopel noted. Britain planned to confiscate almost all the firearms in the colonies after suppressing the revolt. If they had succeeded, colonists could have been subjugated to London for generations.
Perhaps contemporary activists are blindfolded to the causes of our Revolution because they perceive government as benevolent—if not an avenging angel. In contrast, it was a common saying in the 1770s: “The Restraint of Government is the True Liberty and Freedom of the People.” Americans took their lodestar from British political philosopher John Locke, who warned, “Nobody can desire to have me in his Absolute Power, unless it be to compel me by force to that which is against the Right of my Freedom, i.e., make me a slave.”
The same spirit permeated colonial rhetoric before the Revolution. The Boston Gazette proclaimed: “Power unlimited would be absolute slavery.” Law Professor John Phillip Reid, author of The Concept of Liberty in the Age of the American Revolution, noted that “most commentators of the Eighteenth Century thought slavery the opposite of liberty without equating it with chattel slavery.” Bernard Bailyn, author of The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, wrote, “‘Slavery’ was a central concept in eighteen-century political discourse. As the absolute political evil, it appears in every statement of political principle…in every exhortation to resistance.”
The “Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms” issued by the Second Continental Congress on July 6, 1775, proclaimed that “the legislature of Great-Britain, stimulated by an inordinate passion for power…attempted to effect their cruel and impolitic purpose of enslaving these colonies by violence.” As Reid wrote, “The word ‘slavery’ did outstanding service during the revolutionary controversy…because it summarized so many political, legal and constitutional ideas and permitted a writer to say so much about liberty.”
The 1619 Project exemplifies the table-pounding revered by contemporary journalists. Former Washington Post editor Leonard Downie recently announced that “truth-seeking news media must move beyond whatever ‘objectivity’ once meant to produce more trustworthy news.” Downie noted that many “media leaders” believe that “pursuing objectivity…negates many of their own identities, life experiences and cultural contexts, keeping them from pursuing truth in their work.” But no one has revealed how readers can “fact-check” the moral superiority of “media leaders” hectoring them on what they should believe.
In lieu of hard facts, journalists are hellbent on uplift. Stanford journalism professor Ted Glasser declared, “Journalists need to be overt and candid advocates for social justice, and it’s hard to do that under the constraints of objectivity.” Social justice is a philosophical concept and most journalists have the intellectual savvy of lottery ticket buyers. But clear definitions are irrelevant once collective guilt is invoked. NBC News aptly summarized the message of the Hulu series: “Nikole Hannah-Jones makes a case for reparations with ‘The 1619 Project’ series.”
The myopia of missionary journalists makes a mockery of their message. As Reid explained, “Eighteenth century constitutional theory could not contemplate the use of government to work for equality in the form of social or economic justice, because it could not trust government.” Many of the activists clamoring for federal decrees to inflict social justice recently spent several years denouncing the prior U.S. president as Satan, or maybe only as Hitler. Do these people think that their own transcendent goodness will magically vanquish the depravity that perpetually permeates politics? And if they don’t think their own innate purity will suffice, what other magic trick will they perform to make governments trustworthy? The alternative is to concede that politicians are mostly swine but insist that vesting them with boundless power to suppress some groups and enrich other groups will create paradise on earth.
Perhaps the starkest difference between political thought nowadays and in the Revolutionary era was on arbitrary power. The Founding Fathers dreaded arbitrary power by British ministers and agents. Contemporary cluelessness on this core value is exemplified by the people who cheered the lawless COVID lockdowns and vaccine mandates. As long as politicians promised to protect people from a virus, most progressives supported permitting the rulers to seize all the power they claimed to need. Similarly, any alleged injustice in the distant past justifies increasing arbitrary power today to settle accounts. But taking historical “lessons” from people clueless on the nature of government will be the death of liberty.
Americans should never forget that their nation was forged in resistance to political slavery—to the claims by distant masters of unlimited power. The federal government is committing many of the same abuses now that spurred our ancestors to go to the barricades to defend their rights and liberties. Will “Slavery by Elective Dictator” become as inflammatory as “Slavery by Parliament” was in the 1770s?