The day after an historic verdict was delivered against Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer charged in the tragic May 2020 death of George Floyd, the News-Journal published an Associated Press article on the reaction (April 21).
The AP story noted that the ensuing celebrations were “tempered … with the heavy knowledge that Chauvin’s conviction was just a first, tiny step on the long road to address centuries of racist policing in a nation founded on slavery.”
Without delving into the specifics of the trial itself, which is not my chief concern at this moment, I am struck by how the AP writer has thoroughly imbibed an assumption, that America was “founded on slavery,” that is demonstrably false.
The writer echoes the dogma of the New York Times’ 1619 Project, which promotes the notion that the true founding of America took place in August 1619, when slaves arrived in Jamestown, Virginia, and seeks to reframe the entire understanding of the American story around the twin evils of racism and slavery. The project’s initiator, Nikole Hannah-Jones, has crafted an extremely tendentious approach to history, mixing some facts with baseless assertions.
Since launching the project a year-and-a-half ago, the nation’s presumed “paper of record” has launched an aggressive campaign to inculcate this narrative in the public schools. Truth and integrity require that we should not let this narrative go unchallenged.
For one thing, slavery existed in some form in every corner of the globe, among a wide range of peoples and societies, so we should note well that it was an evil hardly unique to America alone. But it is also true that Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in North America, had been established without slaves in 1607, 12 years before the Angolans arrived.
Moreover, it would be several decades before anything resembling slave codes would be enacted. In those earlier times, bondage did not appear to be permanent, and some who overcame it acquired much property and, in some cases, even intermarried with whites. One of the early arrivals, who would call himself Anthony Johnson, would be freed, would marry and raise a family, and himself became a plantation owner. Johnson even brought a successful suit against one of his white neighbors. It would be awhile before the screws would tighten.
Meanwhile, the Separatists who landed at Plymouth, Massachusetts, in late 1620, would inaugurate a society decidedly more egalitarian in form.
By the late 18th century, numerous movements calling for abolition of the slave trade and/or slavery sprang up in both Britain and America; Ben Franklin became president of the Abolition Society in Philadelphia.
An early draft of the Declaration of Independence, penned by the slave-owning Thomas Jefferson, blamed King George III, fairly or not, for enabling the slave trade. Later on, Jefferson would write regarding the persistence of the slave system, “Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that His justice cannot sleep forever.” Several of the other slave-owning founders expressed a similarly deep unease with the “peculiar institution.” George Washington himself, in his last will and testament, provided for the emancipation of his slaves upon his death or upon the death of his wife. In 1787, the Northwest Ordinance was introduced, Article 6 of which prohibited slavery and involuntary servitude in the western territories.
Space will not permit me here to embark upon a complete history of the ways America has struggled with the problems of race and slavery, but suffice it to say that throughout our national story, all kinds of Americans have sought to bridge the gap between our ideals and our practice. But Hannah-Jones and company are less concerned with producing responsible history than with crafting finely-tuned propaganda. It was not long after the 1619 Project was launched that several prominent historians, including Gordon Wood and James McPherson, sent an open letter to the Times pleading with the editors to correct several blatant factual errors in that enterprise. Hannah-Jones’ colleague, Jake Silverstein, dismissed their concerns, stating in typical postmodernist fashion that it is all a matter of interpretation.
Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, notes, “The opposites of gratitude are envy and resentment …. Valorizing a sense of perpetual victimization can serve, like gratitude, as a social charter of sorts, but it is a charter for endless conflict and bottomless demands for reparations.” Thoughtful parents ought to remember this as they consider who should be educating their children.