The great abolitionist Frederick Douglass began his career as a speaker on the abolition circuit by relating his experiences as a slave, sometimes revealing to shocked audiences his whip-scarred back. A large photograph of such a back of a slave is featured in The 1619 Project, a special issue of The New York Times Magazine, published on August 18, 2019, to mark the 400th anniversary of the arrival of an estimated twenty Africans in Jamestown. As stated, the Project is a “reframing” of American history intended to replace 1776, the year of our founding, with the year 1619, and to replace the founders, such as Thomas Jefferson, who are cast as “enslavers” legally torturing slaves, with slaves and their descendants. It is claimed that they built the nation’s wealth and provided the guiding star that led the nation from a “slavocracy” to a “democracy” (with yet more work to be done).
The 1619 Project has catapulted its architect, Nikole Hannah-Jones, who won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize in commentary for her lead essay, into wealth and stardom. Students in over 4500 schools across the country now are being subjected to the Project’s gross distortions of history in its essays, short articles, photographs, and “literary works” through curriculum distribution by the Pulitzer Center. Book publishers and film producers (including Oprah) are pushing out multiple spin-off products in response to consumer and institutional demand prompted by last summer’s “1619 riots.”
The photograph of the slave’s back is indeed awful. One flinches to imagine the whippings that could have made human flesh into such a topography of deep, crisscrossed welts. The editor’s introduction even warns readers about such “gruesome material” (“to show how inhuman and immoral the treatment of black Americans has been”).
But the photograph, contrary to the editorial claims about “finally” telling “our story truthfully,” is hardly new. It is featured on the Wikipedia page for “Slavery in the United States,” which identifies the slave as “Peter or Gordon” from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 1863. The article tells us that the guilty overseer was fired.
Decades ago, before the invention of Wikipedia, the same photograph had been blown up gigantically, framed, and displayed prominently in the African American Studies Department on the campus of the University of Georgia, where I earned a Ph.D. in English in 2002. I had to meet a committee member there. This and other poster-sized photos of slaves gazed down at us accusingly. The purpose, given all the other lessons from African American literature (to which so many of my white fellow graduate students gravitated as they prepared for the job market), was to send the message: You did this to us. This is also the message of The 1619 Project, which falsely presents American slavery as unique and unparalleled in cruelty in human history.
The 1619 Project is a marketing phenomenon in the guise of history. Just as it does with a photograph that has been in wide circulation for decades, it presents long-known history as a recent discovery, claiming that only a “tiny fraction” of Americans familiar with the meaning of 1776 recognize 1619 as a “notable” date. This is patently false as anyone familiar with African American history knows. It is also false for Americans who have been reading about 1619 in textbooks. The 1619 Project pushes the myth that slavery was practiced only by white Americans, with slaves “kidnapped” from Africa by Europeans. Actually, the Africans were captured by warring chiefs (as they had been long before the first Europeans, the Portuguese, first came to African shores in the mid-fifteenth century) and then sold to African or Muslim middlemen, who then sold them to Europeans waiting on the coast (excepting the rare Portuguese who made suicidal forays into the hinterland or who allied with African chiefs against their rivals). Whipping, and worse, was used to discipline slaves around the world since time immemorial, which is how far back slavery goes. Whipping also was a customary practice used on prisoners, soldiers, schoolboys, and sometimes wives. It was practiced by some of the thousands of American black slaveowners on the black slaves they owned, as well.
Douglass (who publicly condemned the Africans who sold slaves), however, became frustrated with being relegated as Exhibit A to illustrate the evil of slavery with his scarred back and stories about his slave years. White abolitionists, namely his mentor, Massachusetts radical William Lloyd Garrison, whose activism on behalf of slave abolitionism was part of a larger social justice crusade, wanted him as evidence that the American form of government was irredeemable. To Garrison, the Constitution, a “pro-slavery document,” reeked as “a covenant with death and agreement with hell.
Garrison in his first major statement on abolition—a speech on July 4, 1829, in Boston—mocked the founders and belittled their grievances as “trifling.” On the patriotic holiday, he declared, “I am ashamed of my country” and suggested Independence Day should be one of “fasting and prayer” and “great lamentation.” He even urged abolitionists to forego participation in civic life, such as voting, as a protest—to the chagrin of free blacks in New York State who sought to restore their voting rights.
In 1845, Frederick Douglass published his first autobiography that included names, such as the master Hugh Auld, from whom he had fled as a young man. He fled again—to the safety of Britain, where he went on a lecture tour and received enough in donations to purchase his freedom. Returning in 1847, he moved to Rochester, New York, to begin his own abolitionist newspaper, North Star. This was when his split with Garrison, who learned of Douglass’s activities secondhand, began. He and other Boston abolitionists considered Douglass an apostate, accusing him of compromising abolitionist principles in the purchase of his freedom. And many of them also considered it “absurd” for an ex-slave to think he could become an editor. As John Stauffer, points out, “A fugitive orator who bared his back to shocked audiences was one thing; an editor who enlightened educated readers in the principles of liberty, justice, and humanity was something else entirely.”
Douglass had studied for himself the documents of the American founding, and considered the arguments of Lysander Spooner, William Goodell, and Liberty Party presidential candidate Gerrit Smith. He came to disagree with Garrison’s interpretation of the Constitution—a document deliberately filled with euphemisms for slavery and ratified by men who for the most part hoped the institution would become extinct. Douglass made his announcement about his conversion in his newspaper, North Star, in 1851, and then in his Independence Day address in Rochester, New York, the following year. In what has become his most famous speech, Douglass declared the Constitution a “GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT.”
That statement set in all capitals, however, does not come until the second half of the speech. First, Douglass described the honor of the invitation and his admiration for the founders. But he was separated from his largely white audience: their “demonstrations of joyous enthusiasm,” on the “nation’s jubilee,” the “ear-piercing fife and the stirring drum” led him to feel “the immeasurable distance between us.” He pointed out, “The rich inheritance . . . bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine.” His subject was “AMERICAN SLAVERY,” and he accusingly declared, “America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future.”
Indeed, the invitation proved to be “inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony.” Seeking to rouse the “conscience of the nation,” he demanded, “What to the American slave is your 4th of July?” It is “a day that reveals . . . the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim,” “your celebration,” “a sham; your boast liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; . . . your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery . . . mere bombast, fraud deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.” These crimes included the internal slave trade: “the sad procession” of captives, an “old man, with locks thinned and gray,” a “young mother, whose shoulders are bare to the scorching sun, her briny tears falling on the babe in her arms,” the thirteen-year-old girl separated from her mother, and all being led by the “inhuman wretch,” who utters “savage yells and blood-chilling oaths.”
Douglass is known for his “reversals,” a technique he picked up from reading The Columbian Orator in his formative years. This reversal, after the provocative and emotionally gripping opening, expresses his faith in the Constitution by emphasizing the words he had deliberately capitalized—that there “is neither warrant, license, nor sanction of the hateful thing; but, interpreted as it ought to be interpreted, the Constitution is a GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT. Read its preamble, consider its purposes. Is slavery among them? Is it at the gateway? Or is it in the temple? It is neither.” In fact, the word slave did not appear anywhere in it. The Constitution, as intended, “in its plain reading,” has not a single “pro-slavery clause,” but contains “principles and purposes, entirely hostile to the existence of slavery.” Slavery violated the Constitution.
In the tradition of the Jeremiad, Douglass ended on a hopeful note with an expression of faith. He did not “despair of this country”: “‘The arm of the Lord is not shortened,’ and the doom of slavery is certain.” He was encouraged by the Declaration of Independence, “the genius of American Institutions,” and “obvious tendencies of the age.”
Douglass was quite adept at painting the horrors of slavery for his audiences and for his readers. The sadistic whippings he had witnessed in Maryland, including of a young disabled slave woman, were described in all their gory horribleness in his autobiography. The display of his back confirmed the sadism that was given free rein by the institution of slavery.
But at a forum on slavery at the Tremont Temple in Boston in 1855, in an address titled, “An Insider’s View of Slavery,” Douglass proclaimed that whipping was not the worst aspect of slavery.
Slavery, indeed, was “a cruel system, because the slave is held by no power but physical force,” which was needed because a slave “is a man and has the feelings of a man” with a soul in which “is planted a love of liberty.” The threat of whipping and the sale of loved ones are used to control the slave.
“Whipping is not what constitutes the cruelty of Slavery,” said Douglass. “To me the thought that I am a slave is more terrible than any lash, than any chain.” Slavery is “manhood denied, ignored, despised.” Take away the whip and treat the slave benevolently, but you will never “appease” his “mental agony.”
Indeed, as he described in his first autobiography, reading The Columbian Orator, a luxury few slaves had, only made him more dissatisfied with his lot. Douglass had masters who were both cruel and benevolent. At age eight, he was sent by his owner Thomas Auld to live with his brother and his wife, Hugh and Sophia Auld, where he was treated with relative gentleness. Then at the age of fifteen, he was sent back to Thomas Auld, who soon placed Douglass in the hands of Edward Covey, a sadistic slave-breaker. After multiple whippings, Douglass rose up and overpowered Covey, and in the process provided protection from the slave-breaker who feared the strength of Douglass, and more, his own reputation. Douglass was then hired out to Mr. Freeland, who never whipped him.
In his autobiographies and speeches, Douglass acknowledged that it was the exposure to signs of freedom around him that made him dissatisfied with his lot. Seeing and talking to free boys and men made his enslaved status all the more unbearable. Unlike other societies that truly are “slavocracies,” where the enslaved resign themselves to their fate as the natural order of things (for example, in Mauritania today), the contrast between the free and enslaved becomes glaring.
As Douglass wrote in his autobiography, “I will give Mr. Freeland the credit of being the best master I ever had, till I became my own master.” But he wanted “to live upon free land as well as with Freeland,” and Douglass was caught as he attempted to lead an escape with several other slaves. After a year of working in a shipyard for Mr. Gardner and getting attacked by the workmen, Douglass found himself in jail and then sent back to Hugh Auld who treated him kindly. Auld then sent him to train to work as a calker, which eventually garnered Douglass some independence. He found jobs where he worked unmolested. But when he could get no calking jobs and was at leisure, the
old notions about freedom would steal over me again. When in Mr. Gardner’s employment I was kept in such a perpetual whirl of excitement [when he had been the helper of about 75 carpenters], I could think of nothing, scarcely, but my life; and in thinking of my life, I almost forgot my liberty. I have observed this in my experience of slavery—that whenever my condition was improved, instead of it increasing my contentment, it only increased my desire to be free, and set me to thinking of plans to gain my freedom. I have found that, to make a contented slave, it is necessary to make a thoughtless one. It is necessary to darken his moral and mental vision, and, as far as possible, to annihilate the power of reason. . . . he must be made to feel that slavery is right; and he can be brought to that only when he ceases to be a man.
Ten years later, in 1855, at Boston’s Tremont Temple, Douglass again described the powerful pull of liberty:
To feed the body with bread does not satisfy the gnawing hunger for Liberty. Kindness is no substitute for justice. Care for the slave as property is no compensation for a denial of his personality. You may surround the slave with luxuries, place him in a genial climate, and under a smiling and cloudless sky, and these shall only enhance his torment, and deepen his anguish.
To be sure, not all slaves felt as Douglass did. Some had been satisfied with their lives under benevolent masters, as some accounts recorded by the Depression-era Federal Writers Project indicate. Many, who were born free or were manumitted, had no problem in then buying other human beings and exploiting them for their labor, in the same manner as white men.
Douglass’s spirit and his fight for freedom offer a stark contrast to such men and to those who advocate for a subjection to the State, as the writers of The 1619 Project do. One of them, Matthew Desmond, in his essay “In order to understand the brutality of American capitalism, you have to start on the plantation,” makes the absurd claim that the modern workplace (because of such things as drug testing, surveillance, and record-keeping) is a recreation of the plantation. Furthermore, freedom in America has been an illusion because freedom “became broadly defined as the opposite of bondage. It was . . . a malnourished and mean kind of freedom that kept you out of chains but did not provide bread or shelter.” Desmond echoes the far-left views of Hannah-Jones, expressed on Twitter, forums on campuses, and MSNBC. Her pronouncements are full of anti-Republican slander that casts all conservatives as white supremacists, and advocacy for big government programs and redistribution, such as universal healthcare and reparations.
But for Douglass life under “a smiling and cloudless sky”—Desmond’s proverbial “bread and shelter”—but as another man’s “property” was unbearable. “Property in one man vested in another!” he exclaimed to the 3,000 people gathered in the Tremont Temple. “Is it not strange that any men, religious or irreligious, divines or not, can be found to argue in defense of a system that makes property in man, and annihilates his personality, breaks down his manhood, scourges him beyond the range of human society. . . . ?”
The 1619 Project quotes only two sentences from Douglass. They are plucked from his speech at the dedication of the Freedmen’s Monument on April 14, 1876, in Lincoln Park in Washington, D.C., with not so much as the title, Oration: In Memory of President Lincoln, to provide context. Presented as they are, the sentences indicate Douglass’s happiness at hearing the news about the Emancipation Proclamation—as if it had dropped from the sky.
The distortion of Douglass continues in one of the spin-off products of The 1619 Project, a collection of essays and poems titled Four Hundred Souls. Hannah-Jones in her lead essay, “Arrival,” repeats the charges from her 1619 essay about the “elemental contradictions” between Thomas Jefferson’s “words declaring the inalienable and universal rights of men for a new country that would hold one-fifth of its population . . . in absolute bondage” and the “fiery words” of Frederick Douglass, “one of the founders of American democracy” from his Independence Day speech in 1852. Hannah-Jones quotes an extended passage from the first half that ends “America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future.” There is nothing about the “GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT,” which was Douglass’s main message. But again, Hannah-Jones is not original. Such truncation had become common in the anthologies I used as a college instructor and in the “exemplar” for eleventh-grade language arts under the Common Core State Standards, implemented under the Obama administration.
Ironically, on the day of the White House Conference on American History—Constitution Day, 2020—Hannah-Jones tweeted out a disparaging comment about the fact that the panelists (yours truly included) were all white (ignoring moderator Ben Carson). She also posted articles that attacked President Trump’s 1776 Commission as a “whitewashing” of history, dedicated to “white heroes.”
That is odd, coming from a woman who selectively edits a speech to make Douglass appear to be ranting victim. In contrast, Douglass was to be one of the “heroes” in Donald Trump’s proposed National Garden of American Heroes. His 1776 Commission, in its report, advocated teaching Douglass’s July 4 speech. It is The 1619 Project, Hannah-Jones, and similar purveyors of neo-Marxism who strip the former slave of the manhood he struggled to attain. Were his words to be taught in their entirety students might be able to recognize a new kind of bondage—to the State. Instead, in the latest frightening development, proposals for new rules for grants in federal American History and Civics Education programs cite and praise The 1619 Project and promise to lead to a national civics curriculum along its lines. Frederick Douglass would not approve.