We begin with a general lament by Max Boot.
Kids, don’t become like Donald Trump. Study history. The fact that so many Americans know so little about the past means that we as a society are vulnerable to demagogues. “Don’t know much about history” is a catchy song lyric but a dangerous motto for a democracy.
Historians may not want to admit it, but they bear some blame for the increasing irrelevance of their discipline. As historians Hal Brands and Francis Gavin argue in War on the Rocks, since the 1960s, history professors have retreated from public debate into their own esoteric pursuits. The push to emphasize “cultural, social and gender history,” and to pay “greater attention to the experiences of underrepresented and oppressed groups,” they write, has been a welcome corrective to an older historiography that focused almost entirely on powerful white men. But like many revolutions, this one has gone too far, leading to the neglect of political, diplomatic and military history — subjects that students need to study and, as enrollment figures indicate, students want to study but that universities perversely neglect. Historian Jill Lepore notes that we have ditched an outdated national narrative without creating a new one to take its place, leaving a vacuum to be filled by tribalists.
Put another way, democracy dies in a darkness brought about by, inter alia, writers at influential newspapers. Consider, for instance, the 1619 Project from New York’s Times, which somehow wrote about slavery and secession and emancipation without asking any history professors.
It bemuses The American Conservative‘s Rod Dreher that the World Socialist Website, otherwise understood as the cyberspace home of Leon Trotsky’s followers, located and conducted extensive interviews with such professors.
To be fair, conservative journalists (like me) could have done this, and now that I’ve seen the excellent work Tom Mackaman has produced from his interviews, I’m kicking myself for not coming up with the idea myself. I wonder why no other conservative journalists did? (If they did, then I apologize — I’m not aware of it.) Thinking about this, I suspect there is a certain demoralization here, or, less pejoratively, prudence. If any conservative publications addressed the 1619 Project when it debuted, they denounced it as an identitarian ideological project (I certainly did), but may also have figured that it was pointless to go after it further, as nobody inclined to believe in the Project’s mission and claims would pay the slightest attention to criticism from the Right.
That’s one possibility, although another possibility is that there are voices on the traditional or classical liberal Right who are quite capable of refuting the premises of the 1619 Project. Start with Robert Murphy of the Mises Institute. “Slavery, like war, is a destructive institution that reduces the welfare of most people in society, though a few beneficiaries can profit from the insidious system and thus have an incentive to sing its blessings.” That “reduces the welfare” no doubt comes as a surprise to people who don’t hang around economists, as you’d think compulsory labor would make stuff cheaper to the people not being compelled. Sorry, no.
To understand if slavery is an “efficient” method of economic organization, we have to ask the standard economist question: Compared to what?
There is no doubt that a healthy adult slave in a region with adequate natural resources can produce more than a subsistence amount of output, allowing for the owner to keep the slave alive and keep the surplus for himself, living up to the Marxist vision of how labor markets work in general. So if the question is, “Was US output higher with millions of productive slaves working, than it would be if those slaves suddenly disappeared?” then the answer is, “Yes, of course, slavery was ‘productive’ in this sense.”
But that’s not really the question. The question is, if all of the plantation owners in (say) the year 1850 had suddenly freed all of their slaves and turned them into free laborers, what would that have done to the course of US economic development? Is it really true that this change would have made the country as a whole poorer?
I’ll return to the “Marxist” part of that argument later, as preservation of the dialectic has to distinguish accumulations of surplus value under feudal conditions, including chattel slavery, from such accumulations under market-directed conditions. Simply answer this, dear reader: where were the fleets of ocean-going ironclads to lift the Union blockade and escort the cotton freighters to Liverpool, and the riverine ironclads to shell St. Louis, Minneapolis, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh into submission and isolate Chicago by blocking the Illinois and Michigan Canal? It’s the Mises Institute, they understand the contradictions of feudalism well enough. “Servile labor disappeared because it could not stand the competition of free labor; its unprofitability sealed its doom in the market economy. (Human Action, p. 625)”
Economic historian D. N. McCloskey, a year before the 1619 Project even hit the news-stands, had already deconstructed the notion that slavery led to prosperity. By all means, read the whole thing, but remember the conclusion. “We need to stop using the history of slavery to bolster anti-capitalist ideology.” Again, that’s a “Marxist” part to return to: we will see that the World Socialist Web Site took on the 1619 Project in the service of a correct ideology.
The Declaration of Independence made self-evident the eventual end of chattel slavery. To quote a more recent song, “In a land that’s known as freedom, how can such a thing be fair?” Thus apologists for the survival of feudal ways had to contort logic. Timothy Sandefur, a regular at Reason, counts the ways.
It was these men—the generation after the founding—who manufactured the myth of American white supremacy. They did so against the opposition of such figures as Lincoln, Charles Sumner, Frederick Douglass, and John Quincy Adams. “From the day of the declaration of independence,” wrote Adams, the “wise rulers of the land” had counseled “to repair the injustice” of slavery, not perpetuate it. “Universal emancipation was the lesson which they had urged upon their contemporaries, and held forth as transcendent and irremissible [sic] duties to their children of the present age.” These opponents of the new white supremacist myth were hardly fringe figures. Lincoln and Douglass were national leaders backed by millions who agreed with their opposition to the white supremacist lie. Adams was a former president. Sumner was nearly assassinated in the Senate for opposing white supremacy. Yet their work is never discussed in the Times articles.
Thus, although the conception in Liberty was not immaculate, and the dedication to the proposition that all men were created equal not complete, the work that went on was work building on that conception and expanding the dedication.
The reality is more complex, more dreadful, and, in some ways, more glorious. After all, slavery was abolished, segregation was overturned, and the struggle today is carried on by people ultimately driven by their commitment to the principle that all men are created equal—the principle articulated at the nation’s birth. It was precisely because millions of Americans have never bought the notion that America was built as a slavocracy—and have had historical grounds for that denial—that they were willing to lay their lives on the line, not only in the 1860s but ever since, to make good on the promissory note of the Declaration.
You’d expect National Review editor Rich Lowry to concur. “None of the other societies tainted by slavery produced the Declaration of Independence, a Washington, Jefferson, and Hamilton, the U.S. Constitution, or a tradition of liberty that inspired people around the world for centuries. If we don’t keep that in mind, as well as the broader context of slavery, we aren’t giving this country — or history — its due.”
City Journal found Allen C. Guelzo, no mean Civil War historian himself, to suggest that the 1619 Project was bad scholarship.
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?
There’s even a point on which Rich Lowry and a cadre of World Socialist Web Site writers concur in part. “It was not an accident that the victorious conclusion of the revolutionary war in 1783 was followed just four years later by the famous call of English abolitionist William Wilberforce for the ending of Britain’s slave trade.”
I write “concur in part” as here is where the integrity of the dialectic comes in.
The victory of the American Revolution and the establishment of the United States did not solve the problem of slavery. The economic and political conditions for its abolition had not sufficiently matured. But the economic development of the United States—the simultaneous development of industry in the North and the noxious growth of the cotton-based plantation system in the South (as a consequence of the invention of the cotton gin in 1793)—intensified the contradictions between two increasingly incompatible economic systems—one based on wage labor and the other on slavery.
The United States heaved from crisis to crisis in the seven decades that separated the adoption of the Constitution and the election of President George Washington in 1789 from Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration and the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. None of the repeated compromises which sought to balance the country between slave and free states, from the Missouri Compromise of 1820 to the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, were ever able to finally settle the issue.
It is worth bearing in mind that the 87 years of history invoked by Lincoln when he spoke at Gettysburg in 1863 is the same span of time that separates our present day from the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932. The explosive socio-economic tendencies which would do away with the entire economic system of slavery developed and erupted in this relatively concentrated period of time.
Again, probably not: the emergence of commercial culture took time, and the fragility of feudal institutions was revealed only over time. (Now, if you want to contemplate the collapse of the Great Power Saeculum that began emerging four score and seven years ago …)
Protecting that dialectic comes first, though. Rod Dreher suggested as much. ” If identity politics, and not class conflict (as Marxists say) becomes the standard by which we understand the American founding, then socialism will not get very far in America.” There are complications: read his article to see how many, and how deep, and yet, to a first approximation he’s correct. There is no struggle of bourgeois and proletarians in the Times opus, and that is intolerable to the cadre. “The toxic identity politics that underlies this indifference does not serve the interests of the working class in the United States or anywhere else, which is dependent for its very survival on unifying across racial and national boundaries. It does, however, serve the class interests of privileged sections of the American upper-middle class.”
That idea is in the air in the interview with James McPherson.
It’s hinted at, in a different (and non-Marxian) way in the interview with Gordon Wood.
Central to the middle class revolution was an unprecedented celebration of work, especially manual labor, including the working for money. For centuries going back to the ancient Greeks, work with one’s hands had been held in contempt. Aristotle had said that those who worked with their hands and especially those who worked for money lacked the capacity for virtue. This remained the common view until the American Revolution changed everything.
The northern celebration of work made the slaveholding South seem even more anomalous than it was. Assuming that work was despicable and mean was what justified slavery. Scorn for work and slavery were two sides of the same coin. Now the middle-class northerners—clerks, petty merchants, farmers, etc.—began attacking the leisured gentry as parasites living off the work of others. That was the gist of the writings of William Manning, the obscure Massachusetts farmer, writing in the 1790s. This celebration of work, of course, forced the slaveholding planters to be even more defensive and they began celebrating leisure as the source of high culture in contrast with the money-grubbing North.
Slavery required a culture that held labor in contempt. The North, with its celebration of labor, especially working for money, became even more different from the lazy, slaveholding South. By the 1850s, the two sections, though both American, possessed two different cultures.
The expression “to make money” probably has no equivalent in Aramaic or Latin or perhaps even Middle English.
It’s explicit in the interview with James Oakes.
Identity is very much the ideology of the professional-managerial class. They prefer to talk about identity over capitalism and the inequities of capitalism. We have an atrocious wealth gap in this country. It’s not a black-white wealth gap. It’s a wealth gap. But if you keep rephrasing it as black-white, and shift it off to a racial argument, you undermine the possibility of building a working-class coalition, which by definition would be disproportionately black, disproportionately female, disproportionately Latino, and still probably majority white. That’s the kind of working-class coalition that identity politics tends to erase.
Each of the interviews, as well as several of the other essays I’ve linked, are quite long and will reward careful study.
(Cross-posted to Cold Spring Shops.)