Acton Institute Powerblog

The 1619 Projection: 3 lies Pulitzer should not reward

The 1619 Project’s introductory essay, written by Nikole Hannah-Jones, won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary—and, notably, not for history or public service. That distinction is illuminating. The 1619 Project makes unfounded assertions about the role of slavery in American political and economic history, and it inverts reality to portray slave owners as the embodiment of free-market principles.

The New York Times project believes America’s true founding should be dated to the arrival of the first African slaves on our shores in 1619. “Out of slavery grew nearly everything that has truly made America exceptional: its economic might, its industrial power, its electoral system,” the project asserts—a view it shares with Karl Marx. However, even socialist outlets like Jacobin magazine and the World Socialist Website have demonstrated their history is erroneous.

Repeating the racist myth of “King Cotton”

Politics makes strange bedfellows. Nowhere is this more obvious that in the 1619 Project. Its authors, motivated by identity politics, find themselves agreeing with the classical Southern view that U.S. prosperity was built on chattel slavery. Cotton, both say, fueled America’s rise to a global superpower.

The 1619 Project’s credibility rests on the veracity of the New History of Capitalism which, in turn, rests upon shifting sands. One unreliable pillar is historian Ed Baptist, who attributed half of all antebellum U.S. GDP to cotton. But Baptist made a rudimentary accounting error that overstated cotton’s contribution to the economy by 779%.

“It’s true that cotton was among the world’s most widely traded commodities, and that it was America’s principal antebellum export,” wrote John J. Clegg, assistant professor and at the University of Chicago, who specializes in “the comparative political economy of slavery and emancipation” in the transatlantic space. “But it’s also true that exports constituted a small share of American GDP (typically less than 10 percent) and that the total value of cotton was therefore small by comparison with the overall American economy (less than 5 percent, lower than the value of corn).”

America’s economic dynamism came from the industrialized North. Southern states represented 60% of U.S. income in 1774, but their share fell to half that amount by 1860. On paper, the slaveholding South had nearly as much wealth as the North, but much of that “wealth” consisted of the slaves themselves. “The net effect [of slavery] on real accumulation,” Clegg wrote, “was probably negative.” Liberation destroyed even this pyrrhic wealth. The Emancipation Proclamation eradicated slaves’ appraised worth on ledger books and restored their intrinsic value.

Abolitionists had long observed the stagnation of slave societies. In 1835, William H. Seward, the antislavery Whig who would become Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of State, wrote:

It was necessary that I should travel in Virginia to have any ideas of a slave State … An exhausted soil, old decaying towns, wretchedly-neglected roads, and, in every respect, an absence of enterprise and improvement, distinguish the region through which we have come, in contrast to that in which we live.

Such has been the effect of slavery.

Eleven years later, he wrote that New Orleans had failed to take its place in the “ascendancy” of the United States, because “[c]ommerce and political power, as well as military strength, can never permanently reside, on this continent, in a community where slavery exists.”

Economics reflected this moral reality. Harvard University economics professor Nathan Nunn surveyed the data and found that “slave use is negatively correlated with subsequent economic development”: States with slaves in 1860 were poorer than non-slave states all the way to the year 2000. Slavery inflicted other, immeasurably profound losses on the U.S. As historians Alan L. Olmstead and Paul W. Rhode concluded, slavery “inhibited economic growth over the long run and created social and racial divisions that still haunt the nation.”

The 1619 Project deepens, rather than heals, those divisions.

Slaveholders hated capitalism

The 1619 Project uses this argument to attack the foundations of America’s constitutional order and free market system. But it fundamentally misleads its readers about the nature of slavery. The project blames the peculiar institution for everything from the alleged “brutality of American capitalism” to the fact that the U.S. lacks a single-payer healthcare system. However, the slave-owning class saw itself as the promulgators of a different economic order.

“Slavery is a form, and the very best form, of socialism,” wrote slavery apologist George Fitzhugh in his Sociology for the South.

Not only did slavers not parrot free-market principles, but they savaged capitalism in terms similar to modern class warfare. Desperate to defend the indefensible, slave owners decried the lot of the Yankee proletariat as “wage slavery.” Fitzhugh called industrial employees “slaves without the rights of slaves.” The current rhetorical counterpart is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez upbraiding “billionaires” for paying “modern-day slave wages.”

Vice President John C. Calhoun stated that capitalism’s record “in distributing the wealth of society among the several classes” has been “to make the poor poorer, and the rich richer.” Fitzhugh praised one European leader for a litany of social welfare programs that would not be out of place in any democratic socialist’s stump speech:

His first step in socialism was to take the money of the rich to buy wheat for all. The measure was well-timed, necessary and just. He is now building houses on the social plan for working men, and his Queen is providing nurseries and nurses for the children of the working women, just as we Southerners do for our negro women and children. It is a great economy.

Socialism, Fitzhugh wrote, would also remove “the evil of excessive population”—a concern of socialists to this day.

Curiously, Hannah-Jones chose not to trace how anti-capitalist, population control rhetoric has its own roots in slavery.

Slavery: The reason for the American Revolution?

That oversight is the more pronounced, as she frequently artificed connections that do not exist. Among these is slavery’s purported role in instigating the War of Independence. “Conveniently left out of our founding mythology is the fact that one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery,” Hannah-Jones wrote.

One example would be sufficient to disprove this. In an early draft of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote that King George III was “[d]etermined to keep open a market where men should be bought and sold” and busied himself “suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or restrain this execrable commerce.” The fact that Jefferson could even contemplate including such a passage in the revolution’s raison d’être demonstrates how Hannah-Jones inverted reality.

Her assertion is so ahistorical that it did not get past the project’s fact-checkers. Leslie M. Harris, a professor of history at Northwestern University, wrote in Politico that when members of the 1619 Project asked her to vet this assessment, she “vigorously disputed the claim. Although slavery was certainly an issue in the American Revolution, the protection of slavery was not one of the main reasons the 13 Colonies went to war.” Furthermore, “Far from being fought to preserve slavery, the Revolutionary War became a primary disrupter of slavery in the North American Colonies.”

After Harris went public, the project confessed that “our original language could be read to suggest that protecting slavery was a primary motivation for all of the colonists” and amended the sentence to indict only “some of the colonists.” However, as Phil Magness noted, suggestion had nothing to do with it. The article used “unambiguous language that Hannah-Jones subsequently doubled down upon and, until the correction, showed few signs of ever relaxing or qualifying.”

For her intransigence, she received a $15,000 prize, her industry’s most prestigious award, and the Pulitzer Center’s assistance in teaching these errors to “tens of thousands” of public schoolchildren.

Her errors “cannot be described as” mere disagreements over “interpretation or ‘framing,’” wrote five U.S. history scholars to the New York Times. “They are matters of verifiable fact, which are the foundation of both honest scholarship and honest journalism.” Their existence, and Hannah-Jones’ ad hominem responses to her critics, “suggest a displacement of historical understanding by ideology.”

The Acton Institute exists to connect good intentions with sound economics. If the 1619 Project faltered because of the latter, a proper grasp of economics could show how slavery hinders material well-being. If it sacrificed the former on the altar of collectivist ideology, the undertaking needs a remedial education in morality. Neither case merits a Pulitzer Prize.

(Photo credit: Associated Press.)

Rev. Ben Johnson

Rev. Ben Johnson is Executive Editor of the Acton Institute's flagship journal Religion & Liberty and edits its transatlantic website.