Editor’s Note: This essay is part of a Law & Liberty symposium on the 1619 Project.
For several years now, I’ve devoted substantial attention in my introductory university classes on “America to 1877” to the year 1619. By coincidence, the central elements of the history of colonial Virginia, and thus America, were in place by that year’s end. Let us consider them.
When “Columbus sailed the ocean blue,” there was no parliamentary government in the Western Hemisphere. There were no representative assemblies at all. Yes, many native peoples such as the Pueblo and Iroquois did have institutions in which, say, all of the warriors might participate in making particular types of decisions for the entire society, and there were some allied groups of discrete peoples that had delegates meet on special occasions, but there was nothing like the Parliament at Westminster in the Americas.
In 1619, that changed. The Virginia General Assembly met for the first time. This body included the colonial governor, a Council of State, and elected burgesses. From 1642, the House of Burgesses met separately. Renamed the “House of Delegates” under George Mason’s Virginia Constitution of 1776, that body meets still. With this development, eventually replicated in the other English/British colonies, entire societies with then-unimaginable populations would be able to have regular republican government.
By the time that the 1619 session of the General Assembly adjourned, it had taken an important step. Contrary to today’s ambient myth, Virginia’s elected rulers did not migrate to North America in search of religious freedom. Rather, they decided that King James I’s church (though not King James VI’s church), the Church of England, would be Virginia’s church as well. The regular rites of Anglican Christianity would mark the passage of time in what eventually would be called the Old Dominion, and they would mark the passage of individual parishioners’ lives. It remained the Virginia church until the American Revolution, but its influence on Virginia, particularly on the distinctive culture of the Old Dominion’s political and social elite, was still felt long after.
When John Kennedy was president, he made a public statement about the significance of the First Thanksgiving. Massachusettsian in upbringing and a Harvard man, Kennedy was referring to the famous Plymouth Colony tableau involving a common meal, Squanto, and thanks to God.
From James City County, Virginia came a correction: there had been a formal Thanksgiving ceremony on what is now Berkeley Plantation, home or ancestral seat of the Harrison family (including signer of the Declaration of Independence Governor Benjamin Harrison, his son President William Henry Harrison, and William Henry’s grandson President Benjamin Harrison), in 1619. JFK’s Virginia correspondent noted that 1619 came one year before the first Pilgrim debarked on Plymouth Rock. Visit America’s oldest working farm—Berkeley Plantation—today and you will find on a mansion wall a letter from Kennedy’s close aide, the historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. (another Harvard man), conceding that yes, pride of place goes to the Virginia Colony: the First Thanksgiving in Anglophone North America did indeed occur at Berkeley Plantation.
By 1619, largely through the efforts of planter John Rolfe, Virginians had also identified and begun to cultivate what for centuries would be their staple crop: tobacco. Shortly, the entire life of the colony would revolve around the calendar of tobacco cultivation and production. The intensity of Europeans’ desire for tobacco ultimately made Virginia the most populous of His Majesty’s North American colonies, not to mention the most prosperous.
The first Africans recorded in Virginia arrived in 1619 as well. Although the New York Times has in its 1619 Project run several pieces referring to them as slaves, we do not know what those first Africans’ status was. (Recent archival research has established that John Rolfe’s famous letter referring to the arrival of “20. and odd Negroes” may well not have referred to the first blacks in the colony.) Interestingly, T.H. Breen and Stephen Innes tell the story of litigation a few decades later in which one African resident of the colony insisted another African man was not his indentured servant, but his slave. Thus prompted, the Virginia court for the first time recognized slavery as legal in the colony.
This seems to have been the basis on which UCLA history professor Roger McGrath called slavery “the only significant African institution ever imported into the United States.” But this too fails to capture the nuance: Europeans happily enslaved both Native Americans and Africans in Europe. By contrast, films like Roots suggest that most slaves were captured in Africa by whites, then brought to America, but the real story is a more complicated one. African kingdoms were a driving force in the trade, a fact well-known there to this day. Thus, when President Bill Clinton, in Africa on a state visit, publicly apologized to Africans for slavery on behalf of the United States, the Ugandan president, Yoweri Museveni, pointed the finger at “black traitors,” saying, “African chiefs were the ones waging war on each other and capturing their own people and selling them. If anyone should apologize, it should be the African chiefs.” This display reflects certain truths but it also involves a bit of theater: American politicians take responsibility for things they themselves played no part in; African leaders have an incentive to minimize the role Americans historically played in the slave trade—and this remains our historical inheritance, one for which nobody alive today bears responsibility. The 1619 Project’s morality play, void of nuance in assigning blame, is shot through with political calculation.
By the end of 1619, then, Virginia had its staple crop, its democratic legislative body, its state church, and, along with a majority of whites, African laborers. In time, this matrix of institutions and commitments, somewhat altered by time and experience, would spill over into northeastern North Carolina, coastal Maryland, and Kentucky, so that we might refer to the Antebellum Upper South as “Greater Virginia.”
The New York Times’ series assumes that everything significant about today’s America descends from the advent of slavery in Virginia. “The goal of the 1619 Project,” the paper explained, “is to reframe American history.” One would hope that New York Times readers would be sufficiently thoughtful to realize that, say, the Super Bowl, the iPhone, and the polio vaccine did not come to us courtesy of slavery, or to think that Christianity, parliamentary democracy, and other factors had contributed to making America an attractive destination for immigrants from every continent, but it seems likely that many will accept the Times’ premise.
Perhaps they will also accept contributor Nikole Hannah-Jones’ assertion that
The United States is a nation founded on both an ideal and a lie. Our Declaration of Independence, approved on July 4, 1776, proclaims that ‘all men are created equal’ and ‘endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.’ But the white men who drafted those words did not believe them to be true for the hundreds of thousands of black people in their midst. ‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’ did not apply to fully one-fifth of the country.
Leaving aside the question whether the Declaration founded the nation, not simply declared and justified independence, I take issue with the balance of Hannah-Jones’ assertion. The men who drafted the Declaration of Independence did not believe their words to be inapplicable to slaves. As we do not have space to consider the views of each of the members of the Continental Congress which adopted that Declaration as its own, I will consider the five-man committee that drafted the Declaration. Though Robert R. Livingston of New York seems to have left no record on the subject besides his signature on the Declaration, we can say of the others that:
- John Adams of Massachusetts drafted the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780, which within a handful of years a Massachusetts court held had abolished slavery in Massachusetts;
- Roger Sherman of Connecticut drafted the law that abolished slavery in Connecticut;
- Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania was the president of an abolition society that submitted an abolition petition to the first session of the United States Congress;
- Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, the Declaration’s chief draftsman, co-sponsored a bill that would have ended slavery in Virginia, wrote the first draft of the bill that banned slavery from the Northwest Territory (today’s Midwest), drafted a bill to do the same in all of the western states (which failed by one vote in Congress), wrote the most influential antislavery book of his age, hired the first black man ever to be employed by the Federal Government (a surveyor), as president called on Congress to pass and himself signed the bill that ended all slave importations at the earliest constitutionally permissible moment, and wrote “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal….” He also told a Quaker education reformer that his Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge could be read as applying to Virginia’s black children, even to slave children.
I think it fair to say that Nikole Hannah-Jones is mistaken. The men who drafted the Declaration of Independence believed what they said. In 1776, slavery was common. The American Revolution put it on a road to extinction, here and abroad. The principles to which Americans were committed led to this outcome.
Not soon enough, and not without horrible residual effects, some say. One does have the feeling sometimes that there is a tendency to overestimate the degree to which, and the alacrity with which, politicians are capable of changing society—especially when the changes demanded come at a significant cost. The Congress that drafted the Declaration of Independence was not omnipotent (Adams said it was merely a meeting place of ambassadors, not a legislature), nor was any other political institution in slavery-era America. Yes, there was slavery in much of America when the Revolution ended, and even when the Revolutionaries died. Yes, it was more difficult to be rid of it where it was most firmly entrenched, and far more so once Mr. Whitney invented his cotton gin. Does that really mean that the stated principles of the men who broke with Britain were, as Hannah-Jones says, “false when they were written”? No. Non sequitur.
Besides that, surely there is more to America than residual effects of slavery. The institution has been dead throughout the United States for 154 years and was abolished in much of the country up to four generations before that. Virtually as soon as independence came, the abolition of slavery began. True, the attitudes associated with slave-owning outlived the institution itself. Yes, racial egalitarianism has taken further decades to inculcate in people. Doing so remains an important civic obligation. Yet, as the generations pass, the old ways seem foreign.
A leading 2020 presidential candidate, long a U.S. senator and even vice president of the United States, provoked a fiery public controversy weeks ago with the off-the-cuff observation that in the 1970s and 1980s, he routinely and productively cooperated with ex-segregationist U.S. senators. Many younger people found this hard to believe. That Congress was so recently spangled with extremely powerful actual racists seemed unimaginable.
The disbelief symbolizes how far we have come, even in so short a time as one political career. People of good will have changed America for the better. Race relations can continue to improve, if we want them to. The way to spur them to do so is to accentuate the positive, to cultivate fellow feeling, to see fellow citizens as precisely that—not to wallow in identity politics, constantly picking the scabs of half-healed wounds.
The people who made the American Revolution began the process, slow and halting as it has been. It was republicanism based on respect for humanity that spurred this development—republicanism such as has been practiced in Virginia since 1619.
Essay updated in light of a correction from James H. McCall of the Jamestowne Society.