August 21, 2019
By Timothy Sandefur
The New York Times is getting attention for a series of articles called “The 1619 Project,” which argues that that slavery is the source of “nearly everything that has truly made America exceptional.” Some of the articles are excellent—Khalil Gibran Muhammad’s piece on the Louisiana sugar industry, for example—and the series accomplishes a worthy goal in that many Americans are, alas, largely ignorant about slavery, and even more so about what came after: its virtual reinstitution in the decades after the Civil War.
Yet as I contend in an article on Reason.com today—and in a conversation I had this morning with radio hosts Jack Armstrong and Joe Getty—the series makes a profound error in claiming that the United States itself is premised upon slavery; that the authors of the Declaration of Independence didn’t actually mean “all men” when they said “all men are created equal,” but only meant white men; and that the Constitution protected slavery, and that the United States was, in the words of one Times writer, “founded…as a slavocracy.” These things are utterly false.
In fact, the nation’s founders recognized the evil of slavery and said repeatedly that it could not be reconciled with their principles. It was the generation that followed who, in the 1830s, manufactured the myth that the America was founded as a whites-only nation. People like John C. Calhoun, Stephen Douglas, and Roger Taney, advanced this idea, in disregard of the facts—and they were challenged every step of the way by leaders such as John Quincy Adams, Abraham Lincoln, Charles Sumner, and Frederick Douglass.
John Quincy Adams is a pivotal figure in this story. He knew all of the founders personally, and became the intellectual godfather of the antislavery movement. In February 1842, when his outspoken hostility to slavery led to a battle on the floor of the House of Representatives, Adams had a few words to say on the subject:
Mr. A…went at some length into the history of his past life, his intercourse and friendship with, and the confidence he had enjoyed of Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe…. In all the intercourse he had had with these men, from Washington down to Monroe, never, in the course of his life, was there a question between them and him on the subject of slavery. He knew that they all abhorred slavery, and he could prove it, if it was denied now, from the testimony of Jefferson, of Madison, and of Washington themselves. There was not an Abolitionist of the wildest character in the Northern States but might find in the writings of Jefferson, at the time of the Declaration of Independence, and during his whole life down to this very last year, a justification for everything they say on the subject of slavery, and a description of the horrors of slavery greater than he had the power to express.
Adams was not a minor figure; not only had he been president, but he became the mentor to a generation of antislavery leaders that included Sumner, Joshua Giddings, and William Seward. Yet their work goes unmentioned in the Times articles.
Thus when Taney claimed in the Dred Scott case that it was a matter of historical fact that the founding fathers meant America to be forever a white nation, with blacks either enslaved or deported, he asserted what was factually untrue—and his arguments were systematically demolished by Lincoln and Douglass. The founders deserved blame for not doing more to eradicate slavery, said Douglass, but the notion that they were white supremacists was “a slander upon their memory.” It meant that they “were the veriest imposters that ever practiced on mankind.” But that was simply not true.
Adams, Lincoln, Douglass, and their allies sought to vindicate the founders against the white supremacist spin doctors of the 1830s—yet their efforts are never mentioned in the Times articles. It’s astonishing, shameful, and dangerous, that the Times agrees with Roger Taney. Thank goodness that Americans—both before the Civil War and after—have proven wiser.
Timothy Sandefur is the Vice President for Litigation at the Goldwater Institute.