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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."


Rich said...

This post leaves me wondering; if slavery had been abolished in this country before the invention of the cotton gin, how would the economic growth have been affected and how would this countries station be effected on the world stage?

Louis A. DeCaro, Jr. . . said...

Hi Rich,

That's an interesting question. Counterfactual reflection is always interesting and while some alternate outcomes might seem clear, we don't know. I suppose that John Brown would have drawn the conclusion that it would be better if the USA's place on the world stage was weaker in the long run rather than enslaving four millions of people and stealing their labor. We might not have been a wealthier nation, but we most certainly would have been a more ethical society. I sometimes wonder if, as far as the continuum of slavery-Jim Crow-racism-systemic injustice goes, we might have been better had we lost the Revolution of 1776, remained a British colony, had slavery abolished, and later gained independence as a nation absent all that ugly history that has so informed our present condition. What if?

James said...

"Yes! It cannot be denied -- the slaveholding lords of the South prescribed, as a condition of the assent to the Constitution, three special provisions to secure the perpetuity of their dominion over their slaves. The first was the immunity, for twenty years, of preserving the African slave trade; the second was the stipulation to surrender fugitive slaves -- an engagement positively prohibited by the laws of God, delivered from Sinai; and, thirdly, the exaction, fatal to the principles of popular representation, of a representation for slaves -- for articles of merchandise, under the names of persons . . . . . in fact, the oppressor representing the oppressed! . . . To call government thus constituted a democracy, is to insult the understanding of mankind. It is doubly tainted with the infection of riches and slavery. Its reciprocal operation upon the government of the nation is to establish an artificial majority in the slave representation over that of the free people, in the American Congress; and thereby to make the preservation, propagation and perpetuation of slavery the vital and animating spirit of the national government." -- John Quincy Adams

It's difficult to get more divisive than that!