As 2020 starts, a PC propaganda campaign called the “1619 Project” is taking hold in American news media, university faculties, and K-12 public school curricula. The New York Times Magazine published the original batch of articles on August 14 of last year, and the ramrod of the project was a reporter named Nikole Hannah-Jones. A Times writer named Mara Gay characterized the campaign this way: “In the days and weeks to come, we will publish essays demonstrating that nearly everything that made America exceptional grew out of slavery.”
The central claim of the “Project” is that United States, uniquely among all the nations on Earth, was founded on, and shaped by, the evil of slavery. The name comes from the claim that the first black slaves to arrive in North America were brought in August of the year 1619, exactly 400 years before the publication of the first “Project” articles. As a result, says Hannah-Jones, “Anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country,” with the implication that such deep racism does not stain any other nation the way it stains the US. The Times wants us to identify the United States so strongly with slavery that 1619, rather than 1776, will be viewed as the year of the nation’s true founding.
Jake Silverstein, the Editor-in-Chief of the magazine, in an article titled “Why We Published the 1619 Project,” said that the arrival of slavery in the North American colonies in 1619 was “the country’s very origin,” because “Out of slavery — and the anti-black racism it required — grew nearly everything that has truly made America exceptional: its economic might, its industrial power, its electoral system…”
The writers who are participating in the project are right about at least two things. Slavery and its Jim Crow aftermath certainly were cruel and unjust. And the growth of America’s economic stature, from poor third world backwater in 1776 to the world’s sole economic superpower by the early Twentieth Century, has certainly been “exceptional.” Where the Times writers go very badly wrong is in claiming that the slavery created the prosperity.
Having researched and written a book specifically about the United States’ amazing economic growth during that period, I believe I’m in a pretty good position refute the claim that slavery built the economy. In fact, contrary to what people might want to assume, the exact opposite was true. Leaving aside the obvious immorality of the system, the South’s dependence on slave labor actually impaired economic progress in the US. To paraphrase a famous quotation from Talleyrand, American slavery was both a crime and a blunder.
The black Americans who made significant contributions to the nation’s economic growth prior to 1865 were not the four million held in slavery, but rather the few exceptionally brave and resourceful black citizens who escaped from slavery and overcame its legacy in their lives; people like the parents of Elijah McCoy, the brilliant engineer who revolutionized the transportation industry by radically improving the effective speed of railroad trains. McCoy’s parents escaped their Kentucky plantation in 1837 and made their way to Canada, then worked tirelessly to give their children the educational opportunities that had been denied them in the antebellum South, where the laws against a slave learning to read were ruthlessly enforced. Similarly Frederick Douglass overcame daunting obstacles to self-educate and escape slavery, and went on to make important contributions to the nation’s development.
The problem with the slave-owning culture in the South was that no one, white or black, contributed much real human capital to the development of the region, much less of the nation. The white residents, rich and poor, contributed next to nothing. I describe the problems of the system in detail in the fifth chapter of my book A Self-Made Nation, but the short version is that the Southern whites of that era regarded hard work as degrading, and put very little value on literacy and learning; and the black slaves who did virtually all the work that ever got done in the South were kept illiterate by the aforementioned laws. Educated and ambitious entrepreneurs of the type that made the North so dynamic were sorely lacking in the South.
Also, it needs to be pointed out that while America’s fantastic technological and economic development were unique in all the world, slavery and the brutal treatment of slaves were far from unique. Despite what the authors of the 1619 Project would have you believe, there was nothing unusual about the institution of slavery in the pre-1865 world.
Here, in no particular order, are a few questions that the authors of the 1619 Project should answer before we accept their central claim. If illiterate slave labor is the key to economic growth, then:
Why didn’t the great “Robber Barons” own slaves?
John Jacob Astor, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Andrew Carnegie, and John D. Rockefeller each took a turn at being acclaimed the wealthiest man in America. Carnegie and Rockefeller went beyond that, each in his turn being recognized as the richest man in the entire world. Left-leaning historians describe these men as cruel and heartless “Robber Barons” who would do anything, and hurt anyone, to enlarge their fortunes.
While I might disagree with the cruel-and-heartless characterization, it cannot be denied that these men were ruthless competitors, nor that they were very shrewd when it comes to evaluating and exploiting every opportunity to enlarge their power and profits.
Each of these men overcame childhood poverty to achieve his remarkable success, each of them is described in detail in a chapter in my book, and they had at least one other interesting thing in common: They never owned any slaves.
This is true despite the fact that Astor’s entire career was conducted when slavery was legal, as was most of Vanderbilt’s. Aster died at the age of eighty-four in 1848, seventeen years before American slavery was banned. When the Thirteenth Amendment banned slavery in December of 1865, Vanderbilt was seventy-one years old.
That these economic giants made their fortunes entirely without slave labor is something they had in common not only with each other, but with virtually every other super-successful businessman in Nineteenth Century America. Virtually all the great fortunes of that era were built up by men who never owned slaves; men who paid the lowest wages for unskilled labor that free laborers would accept, and paid whatever they had to pay, sometimes to exorbitant levels, to employ and motivate the highly skilled workers who really made their companies succeed.
Why isn’t Brazil wealthier than the United States?
In her keynote article Hannah-Jones points out that around four hundred thousand enslaved Africans were brought to the colonies that became US states, before the slave trade was banned by federal law in 1808. What she doesn’t say is that ten times as many were dragged in their chains to Brazil, where they were treated even more brutally than in the US. In Brazil, and indeed in most of Latin America, slaves were routinely worked and starved to death while still young, then simply replaced with new slaves. 1
Slavery was not banned in Brazil until 1888; twenty-three years after it was banned in the US. If slave labor is the key to prosperity, why isn’t Brazil ten times as rich as the United States?
Why aren’t nations where slavery is still legal today wealthier than the US?
Slavery is still legal today in a handful of nations; all of them poor and backward. Millions of people are still held as slaves in Eritrea, Burundi, Central African Republic, Nigeria, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. America gave up the supposed advantage of slave labor in 1865, over a hundred and fifty years ago. If slave labor is an important economic advantage, why haven’t these nations pulled ahead during all this time?
Why aren’t the Middle Eastern nations wealthier than America?
As Dr. Thomas Sowell points out in his book Race and Culture,2 some fourteen million black African slaves were dragged into North Africa and the Middle East by the end of the Nineteenth Century. America only imported four hundred thousand before the slave trade was banned. Why is America wealthier?
Why was the South always so much poorer than the North through the slavery and Jim Crow eras, and why did that change so radically when Jim Crow ended?
Today, when America’s Southern states are leading the nation in job creation and economic growth, it might be hard to envision a time when the Southern states were the poor ones, but that was the case for about the first two hundred years of the nation’s history. The change came in the 1960’s when the Federal Government, on Constitutional grounds, overturned the segregation laws on the books in those states, which in turn unleased the entrepreneurial spirit that had been powering growth in the North for two centuries.
In 1970 only twenty-nine companies in the eleven states of the old Confederacy were on the Fortune 500 list of America’s largest companies. By 2014 a hundred-forty-one companies, a disproportionate number, had their headquarters in Dixie, including five of the top ten. If mistreating black citizens is the path to economic growth, why did the growth only start in the South when the mistreatment ended?
The 1619 Project should be seen as what it is: pure propaganda.
For a much more accurate and PC-free view of America’s economic development, please feel free to purchase a copy of A Self-Made Nation on Amazon.
1 Thomas Sewell, The Economics and Politics of Race, paperback, pp. 95-96
2 Thomas Sewell, Race and Culture, paperback, p. 188