On 18 August 2019, the New York Times devoted its Sunday magazine to rolling out a deftly orchestrated initiative to rewrite American history through the distorting prism of Critical Race Theory. Nikole Hannah-Jones, an activist journalist with the newspaper, orchestrated the 1619 Project and furnished it with its “intellectual framework.” Her emotive introduction to this 100-page “reimagining” of the past denounced the founders and framers as rank hypocrites. Unlike Frederick Douglass, who spoke admiringly of the founders in his most famous speech as passing down eternal principles worthy of respect, Hannah-Jones punched back at any notion of American greatness by attributing “nearly everything that has truly made America exceptional” as having been grounded in slavery and racism. Prosecuting against July 4, 1776 as the nation’s “true birth date,” she argued instead for August 20, 1619 as an appropriate commemorative replacement, for it was then, she observed—with a certainty that belies the evidence—that a cargo of several dozen Africans landed in colonial Virginia, thereby stamping the land for the first time with the “original sin” of slavery.
Oblivious or regardless of her own biases, Hannah-Jones recruited to her plan of demolition more than thirty writers, the overwhelming majority of whom were a curious assortment of left-leaning journalists and writers of poetry and fiction. The mix included four historians, only one of whom could be fairly said to have made her mark in the burgeoning field of slavery studies. None of the writers can claim any demonstrated accomplishment in the field of eighteenth-century political and intellectual history. In pronouncing on the past, Hannah-Jones and other contributors, in fact, disburdened themselves from the discipline of history by cherry-picking materials, as activists are wont to do, to make the past useable in advancing a political agenda. Harsh judgments of events and actors flutter out with little sensitivity to historical context and appropriate standards of comparison. Key words remain undefined. The absence of a scholarly apparatus in the issue makes tracking down sources for crucial statements in essay after essay onerous if not impossible.
The subversive ambitiousness of the Project’s destructive caricatures appears in full display near the end of the issue. Without waiting for any public airing of the accuracy of the claims made by the project, the Pulitzer Center, a well-heeled progressive non-profit, announced that it had partnered with the Times prior to the publication of the special issue and now stood hot and ready with “curriculums [sic], guides, and activities” to mainline the 1619 Project’s concoctions into the veins of the educational system. Far from attempting to pursue the truth according to the time-tested standards and methods of a discipline, the Pulitzer Center played eager accomplices to the naked attempt by Hannah-Jones and the New York Times to have educators substitute ideology for scholarship in the schools. For her new-testament tidings, she received the Pulitzer Prize in commentary. Devastating criticism from major historians and the discovery of Hannah-Jones’s own shadiness in handling it have led to demands that her Pulitzer be rescinded. They seem not to have slowed the insinuation of the 1619 Project into American classrooms, however. Little wonder that the study of history in higher education is suffering a steep decline.
“Our founding ideals of liberty and equality,” Hannah-Jones insisted, “were false when they were written.” But the founders and framers did not imagine these words in abstract perfection with only one meaning. One great historian of the Constitution uncovered five meanings of equality prevalent in 1787, none of which “necessarily imply a conflict with the institution of slavery.” The Constitution championed negative liberty, a freedom from the exercise of arbitrary power by the state. But before the Fourteenth Amendment the text contains nary a word about individual equality. That liberty and equality, in fact, live not in wedded bliss together but in eternal tension, one with the other, the grim history of modern revolutions need only be consulted. For that very reason, the practice of social justice with all of its screened premises about redistribution, the desirability of state centralization, and the malleability of human beings proves dangerous to the very survival of a free society.
Hannah-Jones has no doubts that the Constitution was proslavery in content. Indeed, the framers “carefully constructed” it, she declared, to protect slavery without ever deploying the word. In truth, United States abolitionists themselves proved divided on this very issue. William Lloyd Garrison differed from Gerrit Smith. Frederick Douglass changed his mind. John Quincy Adams claimed the Constitution was neutral on the subject. Although the framing of the Constitution preceded the first stirrings in Great Britain of a national campaign that would eventually evolve into the world’s first global crusade against slavery, by 1787, seven of the thirteen original states had either ended slavery or were on the road to ending it. Of the fifty-five delegates who attended the Philadelphia convention, more than thirty owned slaves. Of this number, most would have considered themselves antislavery in sentiment or in theory. That the delegates chose not to sully the document with the word, substituting euphemisms like “all other persons” or “such persons” speaks to the point. The framers saw slavery as a blot on the Union; blamed (unpersuasively) its origins in the colonies on the British; and hoped the institution would somehow in time wither on the vine. Some saw republican government as inconsistent with slavery; others did not, even if they wanted to be rid of it.
Although no delegate would have denied that the protection of property ranked as one of the primary goals of republican self-government, slavery took a backseat to what were considered more pressing issues in the convention’s debates. While slavery surely entered the minds of delegates more than was recorded, one can still be surprised at how infrequently slavery surfaces in the record of the convention. When slavery was directly discussed by the delegates, only one delegate, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney of South Carolina, edged toward the idea of slavery as a positive good by reminding the delegates, quite correctly, that if slavery were an evil, then it had been justified nonetheless by the experience of the world. In 1787, as the framers fully understood—and Hannah-Jones needs to be reminded—the overwhelming majority of people on the planet lived in abject servitude of one sort or another. A religious man, Pinckney could have added that at this time, slavery was also justified by all the world’s great religions. Only a minority of Christians in 1787, given the Bible’s own verses pertaining to the subject, regarded slavery as sinful. If slavery were an evil, then some evils, as good Christians knew, must be born, at least for the time being, as necessary to preempt even greater ills. Immediate abolition, which came decades later, should not be confused with antislavery. Antislavery delegates envisioned a gradual, probably compensated, end to slavery in some misty future when the conditions were right.
Three provisions in the Constitution spoke directly to slavery, without mentioning its name: the Three-Fifths Clause (Article I, section 2, clause 3), the Migration Clause (Article I, section 9, clause 1), and the Fugitive Slave Clause (Article 4, section 2, clause 3). Two others bore slavery in mind: the Militia Clause (Article I, section 8, clause 15) and Article V, which prohibited amendments to the Migration Clause until 1808. A broad consensus existed in Philadelphia that the Atlantic slave trade was an abomination and should end a quickly as possible. Although the Constitution in Article I, section 9, prohibited a federal ban on the foreign slave trade for twenty years, nothing prevented allegedly sovereign states from acting on their own. Most states already had abolished it, including South Carolina, beginning in 1787, which only by narrow vote reopened the traffic in 1804. Thomas Jefferson, to his great credit, never wavered publicly or privately in his hatred of the Atlantic slave trade. Accordingly, he moved as president at the first possible moment permitted under the Constitution to move Congress to pass prohibitory legislation in 1807. Of the more than ten million enslaved Africans imported into the Americas, the United States or what became the United States received directly from Africa less than four percent of the total, 100,000 slaves fewer, in fact, than debarked on the tiny British Caribbean island of Barbados.
In the ferocious debates that attended ratification of the Constitution in special state conventions, the issue of slavery crops up in some states more than others. The relative quiet on the subject in the Georgia and South Carolina conventions suggests that the delegates there rested comfortably in the thought that the Constitution protected the institution in their sovereign states from federal interference. That does not necessarily mean, however, that the institution was protected from any thought of emancipation. Over time, the future of slavery in the United States became inextricably intertwined with the meaning and locus of sovereignty. Was the great experiment in republican self-government the creation of the people in aggregate? Or was it a compact entered into by the people through their sovereign states? Purposive ambiguity on certain issues enabled the delegates to exit the convention with a finished product and without clear answers to these and many other pregnant questions. At the time of the framing of the Constitution, the idea that sovereignty could be divided, as between states and the “general government” confronted a newer understanding, associated with the rise of the absolutist state, of a supreme governmental power or final judge capable of exercising its will on any subject. The Constitution enshrined a popular form of government composed of liberty-loving citizens. Clever statesmen could punt the question of sovereignty by saying in a republic the sovereign power lay with the people. But how, precisely, was majoritarian rule to be institutionalized?
James Madison memorably muddled the question of sovereignty in Federalist #39 in trying to explain how the Constitution comported with republican principles. In the run-up to the Civil War, southern statesmen staked out a position, derived from the once widely held notion of the Constitution as a compact between the states, that the powers of sovereignty resided not in referenda, nor federal legislatures, nor supreme courts. The final judge, the ultimate authority, the locus of the sovereign power, existed with the delegates of popularly elected state conventions. Why? Because they were the instruments that had ratified the Constitution in the first place.
Seeing the Constitution as framing a great experiment in popular rule places the burden of whether slavery would rise or fall after 1787 on the will and spirit of the people. After that date, slavery rose in some states and declined in others. Was the Constitution proslavery or antislavery? It was neither, and it was both.
Robert L. Paquette received his PhD in history with honors in 1982 from the University of Rochester. In 2007, he co-founded The Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization and now serves as its president and executive director. He taught at Hamilton College for thirty-seven years. There he held the Publius Virgilius Rogers Chair in American History for seventeen years until January 2011, when he resigned the title in protest of the educational direction of the College. In 2012, the American Freedom Alliance awarded him the Heroes of Conscience Award. In 2014, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation and the American Conservative Union Foundation awarded him the Jeane Jordan Kirkpatrick Prize for Academic Freedom.
Paquette has published extensively on the history of slavery. His Sugar Is Made with Blood (1988) won the Elsa Goveia Prize for the best book in Caribbean history. He co-edited the Oxford Handbook of Slavery in the Americas (2010). His most recent book, The Denmark Vesey Affair: A Documentary History (2017), coauthored with Douglas Egerton, received a Choice Outstanding Title Award.