1776, Not 1619

COMMENTARY American History

1776, Not 1619

Oct 31, 2019 5 min read

Former Associate Director, B. Kenneth Simon Center

Arthur Milikh conducted research on America’s founding principles at The Heritage Foundation.
Founding Fathers presenting their draft of Declaration of Independence to Congress, June 28, 1776, by John Trumbull. DEA PICTURE LIBRARY/Getty Images

Key Takeaways

For decades, much of academia, the liberal activist class, and the public school system have operated on the premise that America is fundamentally racist.

The Founders unambiguously saw slavery as evil.

Rather than indulge in recrimination, we should follow Lincoln in seeking “to bind up the nation’s wounds”

For decades, much of academia, the liberal activist class, and the public school system have operated on the premise that America is fundamentally racist. The latest manifestation of this outlook is the 1619 Project, rolled out last month by the New York Times. Claiming that “anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country,” it “aims to reframe the country’s history” by making 1619—the year slavery was first introduced by the British to Virginia—the year of “our true founding.”

This narrative is akin to the Jacobins’ alteration of the calendar to make their revolution the decisive turning point in human history. Just as they would save France from the monarchy, so, too, will the Times save America from white supremacy. The Times encourages public schools to adopt an accompanying curriculum that spreads the 1619 Project’s message to young Americans. Its goal is to brand our founding documents—the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution—as immoral and thus unworthy of our allegiance.

To make America’s Founding contemptible, one must hide, ignore, and distort the Founders’ writings and thoughts. Irresponsibly omitted from this narrative is the fact that not a single major Founder endorsed slavery. On the contrary, the Founders unambiguously saw slavery as evil. George Washington said,“there is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it,” and Thomas Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration of Independence calls the slave trade an “execrable commerce” and an affront “against human nature itself.” Gouverneur Morris called slavery a “nefarious institution” and “the curse of heaven,” and John Jay said, “It is much to be wished that slavery may be abolished. . . . To contend for our own liberty, and to deny that blessing to others, involves an inconsistency not to be excused.”

Franklin, Madison, Adams, and Hamilton spoke strongly against the institution of slavery, too. One could argue that these are merely hypocritical statements that the Founders did not believe, but they faced no pressure to dissimulate, whether in their private or public writing. Nor do any statements exist from the Founders elaborating a defense of human inequality or arguing that natural rights are based on race. Slavery was a prerevolutionary inheritance that the principles of the American Revolution unequivocally condemned. The Founders were self-consciously creating a nation based on natural human equality, a foundation intended to overturn the old world’s supremacist theories—both feudalism and monarchy. The Revolution’s equality principle, they hoped, formed the basis on which America would eventually abolish slavery.

Nevertheless, the Times— without citations, qualifications, or hesitation—claims 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.” Colonial independence from Britain “was required in order to ensure that slavery would continue.”

The Times is apparently referring to the Somerset v. Stewart case—a 1772 British judicial ruling that held that an enslaved person, James Somerset, could not be sold to a plantation in Jamaica against his will. In the decision, Chief Justice Lord Mansfield described slavery as “so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law.” But Mansfield’s ruling did not abolish slavery; it didn’t even have legal standing in the colonies. By this time, colonial resistance against Britain had already begun, and nowhere in the Founders’ writings do they describe the Revolution as being animated by fear that slaves would be taken away. Readers should ask the authors of the 1619 Project: Where in the writings of the leading American revolutionaries do they demand to maintain slavery?

If anything, John Jay notes, the equality principle of the Revolution began to make many Americans antislavery. The most ardently revolutionary region of the country, New England, also led the first abolition movement. Prior to the revolutionary period, few significant public discussions of slavery’s injustice took place. But following the Revolution’s equality principle, eight states—either through their legislatures or their courts—began abolishing slavery after the publication of the Declaration. Vermont did so in 1777, Pennsylvania in 1780, Massachusetts and New Hampshire in 1783, Connecticut and Rhode Island in 1784, New York in 1799, and New Jersey in 1804.

Ample evidence shows that the Founders wished for an end to slavery, contrary to the Times’s assertion that “neither Jefferson nor most of the founders intended to abolish slavery.” John Adams argued,“every measure of prudence, therefore, ought to be assumed for the eventual total extirpation of slavery from the United States.” He hoped that the inequalities of the Old World would eventually disappear. In 1778, Jefferson introduced a bill in the Virginia legislature banning the importation of slavery, which he hoped would lead to the institution’s “final eradication.”

Not only are the Founders evil, the narrative goes—so, too, is their major achievement, the Constitution. As the Times writes, “The framers carefully constructed a document that preserved and protected slavery without ever using the word.” Yet the facts point to the contrary. The Founders laid the constitutional ground for abolishing slavery. One example is Article I, Section 9, Clause 1, which states that Congress could prohibit importation of slaves starting in 1808. On the first day that this clause became operative, Congress passed, and President Thomas Jefferson signed, this prohibition into law. Congress took additional steps to restrict slavery. It passed the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which outlawed slavery in the Northwest Territories. Seven years later, Congress made it illegal to build ships for the purpose of the slave trade.

It is true that, in order to ratify the Constitution, the Founders decided to allow the abhorrent practice of slavery to continue for a limited time. North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia, and possibly other states, would never have ratified the Constitution otherwise. This decision was made, however, on what the Founders considered prudential grounds—better to have union than endless wars among the states.

The Constitution of the Confederacy, by contrast, was truly a proslavery constitution, openly stating that no law shall be passed “impairing the right of property in negro slaves.” Contrary to that impulse, James Madison states that the Framers (including himself) omitted the word “slave” or any classification by race from the Constitution in order to underscore the slaves’ humanity—they are “persons,” not chattel. It was “wrong,” he writes, “to admit in the Constitution the idea that there could be property in men.” Madison wanted the slave to be regarded “as a moral person, not as a mere article or property.”

Fredrick Douglass was right in his belief that the Union was the indispensable condition of abolition. Either northern influence over the South would eventually prevail, as most Founders hoped, or it would end slavery by force in a just war. The South would not have abolished slavery under its own rule.

Another often-ignored fact is that America was home to approximately 60,000 free blacks around the time of the Founding; this number tripled in just 20 years. Black Americans voted in several states, which appears to make America the first nation in recorded history where both races voted side by side. Those free and freed persons represented the beginning of our long and strenuous path toward justice.

Black Americans have been treated in a grossly unjust fashion throughout our history. But the Declaration and the Constitution themselves, according to the Founders’ intentions, contain the principles through which justice would come, as Fredrick Douglass and, later, Martin Luther King, Jr. believed. These countervailing facts and statements, should produce a more balanced view of America’s Founding. Why, then, are they so thoroughly and carefully avoided by today’s narrative-creators, who intend to persuade through distortion?

Rather than indulge in recrimination, we should follow Lincoln in seeking “to bind up the nation’s wounds” and “to achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves.” Manipulating the next generation to disdain the American Founding will not accomplish this.

This piece originally appeared in City Journal