Preaching a Conspiracy Theory about America's Founding

The 1619 Project offers Bitterness, Fragility, and Intellectual Corruption - Not History.


Preaching a Conspiracy Theory: The 1619 Project offers bitterness, fragility, and intellectual corruption -- not history.

by Allen C. Guelzo

There is one sense in which the 1619 Project's attempt to rewrite U.S. history in the image of slavery is right: America's founding was like nothing else seen in the history of human societies. But not because of slavery. Instead, it was because the American republic modeled itself on the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century by trying to find a natural order in human politics, rather than fall back upon the artificial and irrational hierarchies that governed how the ancients had understood both the physical and political universes. Our Declaration of Independence stated as a self-evident truth of nature that "all men are created equal"; our Constitution prohibited all titles of nobility and required virtually all offices to be matters of public election rather than inheritance or class. The American republic would be a theater of those who, like Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, could be "self-made men," and the solutions to the problems of their day would be generated by a host of voluntary associations, working from the bottom up, rather than through government, from the top down.

Yet, nature is not always kind or predictable, and neither is the path of the republic. The temptation has always existed to slide back into the comfortable abyss of hierarchy, whether it be the racial hierarchy of slaveholders in the Civil War or the newer hierarchies of bureaucracy and socialism. It is that temptation to backsliding which the 1619 Project wants to insist is the real story; but this is like taking the stage crew out from behind the curtain and insisting that they're the real musical.

So, let us speak of slavery. The American republic inherited slavery from the British empire, in much the same way that it inherited its fiscal poverty, its lack of manufacturing capability, and its primitive infrastructure. We expected to overcome all of these in time. And we would have dealt the same way with slavery, too. At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Gouverneur Morris attacked slavery wholesale as "a nefarious institution" which had "the curse of heaven . . . where it prevailed." But the expectation of the Founders was that slavery was a dying institution. So, the Convention turned a blind eye to slavery, even as it insisted that turning that blind eye was not meant, as James Madison said, "to admit in the Constitution the idea that there could be property in men."

They were, of course, wrong. The explosion of Britain's Industrial Revolution, built on the production of cotton textiles and the invention of the cotton gin, turned slave-based cotton agriculture into a roaring inferno of profitability. Profitability first erased shame and then stimulated angry self-justifications; and instead of painlessly winking out, slavery had to be exterminated by the force of civil war before it could strangle the life of the republic itself. Even then, we botched the eradication of slavery's racial legacy through a badly designed Reconstruction. We have paid the price for that ever since.

This is not, however, the story told by the so-called 1619 Project. Designed largely by journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones and members of the New York Times editorial staff, the 1619 Project aspires -- through essays, poems, and short fiction -- to rewrite entirely the narrative of American slavery, not as an unwilling inheritance of British colonialism but as the love-object of American capitalism from its very origins. It reviews slavery not as a blemish that the Founders grudgingly tolerated with the understanding that it must soon evaporate, but as the prize that the Constitution went out of its way to secure and protect. The Times presents slavery not as a regrettable chapter in the distant past, but as the living, breathing pattern upon which all American social life is based, world without end.

The 1619 Project is not history: it is polemic, born in the imaginations of those whose primary target is capitalism itself and who hope to tarnish capitalism by associating it with slavery. Slavery made cotton profitable; but profitability is not capitalism. Profit-seeking has been around since Abraham bought the cave at Machpelah in the book of Genesis. If profitability were capitalism, then the Soviet Union's highly profitable sales of natural gas and other commodities would surely make it one of the great success stories of capitalism -- which, of course, it was not. Ask any worthwhile Marxist: capitalism is about the creation of class, and especially the bourgeoisie. And one thing the South never developed was a bourgeoisie. Which is why no single American, North or South, before 1861 ever imagined that slavery and capitalism were anything but mortal enemies. The proslavery apologist, George Fitzhugh, frankly declared that slavery was a form, not of capitalism, but feudal socialism; the antislavery president, Abraham Lincoln, explained the war on slavery as a war on behalf of free labor.

The 1619 Project commits, moreover, the Supply Chain Fallacy -- that slavery was necessary for capitalism and as a result inhabits every level of capitalism's subsequent development. This is the same reasoning that suggests that if a scientist receives a grant from the National Science Foundation for research, the result of the research is a production of the government. As economic historian Deirdre McCloskey comments, "It's a legal way of thinking, not economic." And not much in the way of historical thinking, either.

Again: the 1619 Project is not history; it is conspiracy theory. And like all conspiracy theories, the 1619 Project announces with a eureka! that it has acquired the explanation to everything, and thus gives an aggrieved audience a sense that finally it is in control, through its understanding of the real cause of its unhappiness. But historians -- and most journalists -- know that human experience is multivalent, contingent, and contradictory. And it bodes ill for the 1619 Project that while conspiracy theories arouse tidal waves of attention in their first unveiling, they also -- like the Grassy Knoll or the Blood Libel -- wear out quickly, because their ability to explain everything usually ends up explaining nothing.

And again: the 1619 Project is not history; it is ignorance. It claims that the American Revolution was staged to protect slavery, though it never once occurs to the Project to ask, in that case, why the British West Indies (which had a far larger and infinitely more malignant slave system than the 13 American colonies) never joined us in that revolution. It claims that the Constitution's three-fifths clause was designed by the Founders as the keystone that would keep the slave states in power, though the 1619 Project seems not to have noticed that at the time of the Constitutional Convention, all of the states were slave states (save only Massachusetts), so that the three-fifths clause could not have been intended to confer such a mysterious power on slavery unless the Founders had come to the Convention equipped with crystal balls. It behaves as though the Civil War never happened, that the slaves somehow freed themselves, and that a white president never put weapons into the hands of black men and bid them kill rebels who had taken up arms in defense of bondage. The 1619 Project forgets, in other words, that there was an 1863 Project, and that its name was emancipation.

Finally: the 1619 Project is not history; it is evangelism, but evangelism for a gospel of disenchantment whose ultimate purpose is the hollowing out of the meaning of freedom, so that every defense of freedom drops nervously from the hands of people who have been made too ashamed to defend it. No nation can live without a history, and no free nation can flourish without a history that affirms -- in Ralph Waldo Emerson's words in 1856 -- "that the evil eye can wither, that the heart's blessing can heal; that love can exalt talent" and "overcome all odds."

What the 1619 Project offers instead is bitterness, fragility, and intellectual corruption -- not history.

It is the bitterest of ironies that the 1619 Project dispenses this malediction from the chair of ultimate cultural privilege in America, because in no human society has an enslaved people suddenly found itself vaulted into positions of such privilege, and with the consent -- even the approbation -- of those who were once the enslavers. The 156 years since emancipation are less than a second on human history's long clock, so that such a transformation is more in the nature of a miracle to be celebrated than a failure to be deplored for any seeming slowness. It is a miracle Frederick Douglass celebrated; it is a miracle Sergeant William Carney celebrated on the ramparts of Fort Wagner; it is a miracle Dorie Miller and the Tuskegee Airmen celebrated; and it is a miracle Colin Powell and Ben Carson have celebrated. Why not the 1619 Project?

Allen C. Guelzo is the Senior Research Scholar in the Council of the Humanities and Director of the James Madison Program's Initiative in Politics and Statesmanship at Princeton University and the author of Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President and other books.


Declaration of Independence: A Transcription

Note: The following text is a transcription of the Stone Engraving of the parchment Declaration of Independence
-- the document on display in the Rotunda at the National Archives Museum. The spelling and punctuation reflects the original.

The Declaration of Independence - July 4, 1776In Congress, July 4, 1776

The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America, When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.--Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

  • He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.

  • He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
  • He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.
  • He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.
  • He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.
  • He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.
  • He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.
  • He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.
  • He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.
  • He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.
  • He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.
  • He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.
  • He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:
  • For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:
  • For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:
  • For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:
  • For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:
  • For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:
  • For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences
  • For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies:
  • For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:
  • For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.
  • He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.
  • He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
  • He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.
  • He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.
  • He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our Brittish brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.


Georgia

  • Button Gwinnett
  • Lyman Hall
  • George Walton

 

North Carolina

  • William Hooper
  • Joseph Hewes
  • John Penn

 

South Carolina

  • Edward Rutledge
  • Thomas Heyward, Jr.
  • Thomas Lynch, Jr.
  • Arthur Middleton

 

Massachusetts

  • John Hancock

 

Maryland

  • Samuel Chase
  • William Paca
  • Thomas Stone
  • Charles Carroll of Carrollton

 

Virginia

  • George Wythe
  • Richard Henry Lee
  • Thomas Jefferson
  • Benjamin Harrison
  • Thomas Nelson, Jr.
  • Francis Lightfoot Lee
  • Carter Braxton

 

Pennsylvania

  • Robert Morris
  • Benjamin Rush
  • Benjamin Franklin
  • John Morton
  • George Clymer
  • James Smith
  • George Taylor
  • James Wilson
  • George Ross

 

Delaware

  • Caesar Rodney
  • George Read
  • Thomas McKean

 

New York

  • William Floyd
  • Philip Livingston
  • Francis Lewis
  • Lewis Morris

 

New Jersey

  • Richard Stockton
  • John Witherspoon
  • Francis Hopkinson
  • John Hart
  • Abraham Clark

 

New Hampshire

  • Josiah Bartlett
  • William Whipple

 

Massachusetts

  • Samuel Adams
  • John Adams
  • Robert Treat Paine
  • Elbridge Gerry

 

Rhode Island

  • Stephen Hopkins
  • William Ellery

 

Connecticut

  • Roger Sherman
  • Samuel Huntington
  • William Williams
  • Oliver Wolcott

 

New Hampshire

  • Matthew Thornton

 

1620: A Critical Response to the 1619 Project by Peter W. WoodImportant books on an accurate history of slavery, emancipation, and the founding of America:

American Negro Slavery: A Modern Reader
edited by Allen Weinstein, Frank Otto Gatell, David Sarasohn (Oxford Univ Press, 1979 Third Edition)

Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President
by Allen C. Guelzo (Eerdmans, 2002) 

1620: A Critical Response to the 1619 Project
by Peter W. Wood (Encounter Books, 2020)


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