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"The world needed John Brown and John Brown came, and time will do him justice." Frederick Douglass (1886)

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Saturday, March 27, 2021

Responding to a "1619" critic who says, "Don't create resentment"

A letter to the editor appeared yesterday in the Quad City Times, published in Davenport, Iowa, under the title, "Don't create resentment."  It reveals the thinking of a conservative who considers truth-telling about racial injustice in US history as being unnecessarily divisive and "creating resentment."  In particular, the writer is critical of the controversial New York Times "1619 Project."  I am quite aware that the 1619 Project has faced some legitimate historical criticism, and that while many of these criticisms have been answered, there remains disagreement among historians, some of the harshest criticism coming -- to no surprise -- from some historians who represent the "top-down" reading of US history, including the Lincoln priesthood.

As Leslie Harris of Northwestern University has written in Politico (6 Mar. 20), the best-known of the scholarly critics of the 1619 Project actually "built their careers on an older style of American history—one that largely ignored the new currents that had begun to bubble up among their contemporaries."  Harris acknowledges that one of the central claims of the Project is questionable--that the American Revolution was driven by proslavery interest.  However, Harris is concerned that in challenging the errors of the 1619 Project, a flawed perspective will find opportunity to persist among historians "that consistently ignores and distorts the role of African Americans and race in our history." In other words, the fault-finding critics are still invested in presenting "white people as all powerful and solely in possession to the keys of equality, freedom and democracy."  At least, "the corrective history" of the Project may be imperfect, Harris concludes, but it is moving in the right direction--a direction that its dignified opponents refuse to take.

As a John Brown biographer, I cannot help but sympathize with the 1619 Project, even though it is apparently flawed in some of its notable claims.  Like Harris, I have no problem scoring the journalists of the Project for their errors.  As historians, we need criticism and critical evaluation if we are indeed interested in truth-telling about history.  However, I have seen how some of these same critics of the 1619 Project have misrepresented and maligned John Brown, revealing to me that even dignified Princeton historians can be grossly incorrect, and even use their "gatekeeper" status in order to embed bias and error in the historical record. 

Worse, hostility toward the 1619 Project has become associated with the right-wing and reactionary MAGA mentality toward "American history." It is bad enough that critics in the academy cannot separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to the Project, but as objections trickle down to the larger population, it further depreciates the important direction that the 1619 Project has taken in order to reinforce simplistic, rightwing notions of history that exist in the public, such as the following letter to the Quad City editor charging that the 1619 Project creates "resentment."

I am writing to voice concerns about treating the 1619 Project as "history." It is based on the premise that American prosperity was built on the back of slavery. The historical record states differently.

Early in the formation of the United States, slavery was rejected by the northern states. For decades, Congress tried to maintain a delicate balance between free and slave states. The balance was so tight that a free state could not come into the union without a slave state. This is evidenced by the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The Mason-Dixon line divided these two ideologies. Bloody Kansas and John Brown’s attack on Harpers Ferry unraveled the political balancing act.

What has this to do with the 1619 Project? By the start of the American Civil War the free North held overwhelming advantages in population, industrial capacity and railroads. Investment and immigration favored the North because there opportunity was to be found. The North used these advantages to march into the South and crush the Confederacy. With this advantage the North invaded the South with an edge in warships, cannon, logistics, troops, and the ability to move them. Had slavery been the foundation of American prosperity, these conditions would have been reversed.

We can enhance the history of Americans of color without fabrication. There are great heroes from before the Revolution to our astronaut corps today. Let’s add examples that we should all look up to rather than creating resentment and division.

The author of this letter probably thinks he is saying something of a corrective nature, but unfortunately he is reflecting how resistance to the 1619 Project is more than just a matter of historical criticism, but rather is reactionary and determined to sustain a view of US history that does not offend his sensibilities.  This is what he means by saying, "don't create resentment."  This is very typical of rightwing and conservative complaints, which accuse anyone who is critical of the political and social status quo as being divisive or as creating resentment.  It does not seem to occur to such people that for many years, the narrative of history that they embraced has created a great deal of resentment for people of color and for any people wishing to tell the truth about the racist priorities of the US in historical terms.

The writer's objection to the idea that the US was built upon slavery is an incredible denial.  It is a matter of great historical consideration, for instance, that the US in the antebellum era was built upon the backs of slaves.  As Eugene Dattel writes in Cotton and Race in the Making of America, cotton--picked by enslaved Africans from 1803 until the end of slavery, "stimulated economic growth more decisively than any other single industry or crop." Even setting aside the fact that the cheap, oppressed labor of black people after Reconstruction further enriched the US, the point is that cotton was the foundation of the industrial revolution.  In other words, contrary to the letter writer, "American prosperity" was indeed built "on the back of slavery." The centrality of slavery in the building of the US is not a point missed by the 1619 Project, but it is a point that will not be widely appreciated if its opponents are given the final word.

The letter-writer goes on, in retrospective Pollyanna, appreciating "the delicate balance" that existed between free and slave states, and then blames John Brown for "unraveling" the "political balancing act." This is a revealing statement.  The writer seems to credit the compromise that prevailed in this nation, which kept four millions of Africans enslaved, as "delicate balance."  Conversely, the writer is resentful of Old John Brown, for allegedly destroying that "delicate balance." The question is, what kind of mind would have such a retrospective view of the US, to speak of the hellish compromise of the antebellum era in such precious terms?

The letter-writer clearly is dealing in a kind of self-serving naivete, writing about the contrasting economies of the North and South as if they were competing--the strong industrial North versus the inferior slave-based South.  But this is simply not true.  The truth is far more complicated and unpleasant because while the North was based on industrial growth, that growth was premised on cotton and other "slave crops."  Northern factories produced cotton goods and northern banks and insurance companies grew prosperous on slaveholder wealth.  The wealthy sons of the South came North for education and specialized training. In the antebellum era, the North had deep connections to the South, and when John Brown did strike, it was the business community and their workers who protested most loudly against him because they understood what this letter-writer does not.  They understood that the economic condition of the North was bound to the operations of the South.  Indeed, this was one of the features of northern conservatism before the Civil War.

The letter-writer reflects an insular mentality, one that prefers to believe that US history is about "delicate balances" and "great heroes."  To suggest anything else is to--as he concludes--"create resentment and division."  But the division has been there all along--the division between white supremacy and its victims; the division between "top down" readings of US history and grassroots narratives that reveal a nation steeped in racism and injustice; the division between privileged white people and those who see this nation's history as anything but exceptional and "great."

John Brown Today, "Letters and Friends" Feature: John Brown to Mary Brown, Jan. 30, 1858


In "John Brown Today" (Season 2, Episode 6),  I speak with Dr. Margaret Washington of Cornell University, my first guest for the new segment, "Letters and Friends."  Here is a complete transcription of the letter we are discussing.

-------

John Brown, Rochester, N.Y., to Mary Brown, North Elba, N.Y., 01-30-58
Transcribed by Louis A. DeCaro, Jr.

Rochester N Y, 30,th Jany, 1858, My Dear Wife & Children every one

I am (praised be God) once more in [New] York State. Whether I shall be permitted to visit you or not this Winter or Spring I cannot now say; but it is some relief of mind to feel that I am again so near you Possibly; if I cannot go to see you; that I may be able to devise some way for some one, or more of you to meet meet me some -where. The anxiety I feel to see my Wife; & children once more; I (^ am) unable to describe. I want exceedingly to see my big Baby; & “Mums Baby”: & to see how that little company of Sheep look about this time. The cries of my poor sorrow stricken despairing children whoose [sic] “tears on their cheeks” are ever in my Eye; & whose sighs are ever in my Ears, may (^ however) prevent my enjoying the happiness I so much desire But courage Courage Courage the great work of my life * (: the unseen Hand that “girded me; & who has indeed holden my right hand; (^ may hold it still) though I have not known Him”; at all as I ought;) *I may yet see (^ it) accomplished; (God helping;) & be permitted to return, & rest; (^ at) Evening.” O my Daughter Ruth could any plan be devised whereby you could let Henry go “to School” (as you expressed it in your letter to him while in Kansas;) I would rather now have him “for another term”; than to have a Hundred average sc(^h)ollars [sic]. I have a particular (^ & very important; (but not dangerous( place for him to fill; in the “school”; & I know of no man living; so well adapted to fill it. I am quite confident some way can be devised; so that you; & your children could be with him; & be quite happy even; & safe but “God forbid” me to flatter you into trouble. I did not do it before.

[page 2]
My dear child could you face such music: if on a full explanation Henry could be satisfyed [sic] that his family might be safe? I would make a similar enquiry of (^ my) own dear Wife; but I have kept her tumbling “here & there”; over a stormy & tempestus [sic] sea for so many years that I cannot ask her such a question. The natural ingenuity of Salmon: in connection with some experience he, & Oliver have both had; would point him out as the next best man I could now select; but I (^ am) dumb in his case; as also in the case of Watson, & all my other sons. Jason[’]s qualifications are some of them like Henry[’]s also.  I want to hear from you all if possible before I leave this neighborhood. Do not noise it about; that I am in these parts; & direct to N Hawkins; Care of Fredk Douglas Esqr Rochester NY. I want to hear how you all are supplied with Winter clothing, Boots, &c. God bless you all
Your Affectionate Husband & Father 

[postscript in the hand of Frederick Douglass:] My dear Friends:

Your brave husband and father is now my guest-and has been since Thursday of this week. Gladly indeed we hailed him, and joyfully we entertain him. It does not seem safe-or desirable for him to come to you just now-though he could most gladly do so. I shall retain him here as long as he desires to remain and would be glad for yo you to meet him here.

[vertically along left fold]
I remember with pleasure the pleasant moments spent under your roof-and take know no small satisfaction
in the thought of your Friendship

[vertically along right fold]
I shall be truly glad to see either of you or both of you at my house-at any time during Capt Brown’s stay-
Fred. Douglass-