The 1619 Argument Continues: The Revolution

Historian Sean Wilentz of Princeton University contributes another article in the continuing battle over the 1619 Project.

He once again takes on the lead essay’s take on history, beginning with the American Revolution: “The project’s lead essay, written by the Times staff writer Nikole Hannah-Jones, includes early on a discussion of the Revolution. Although that discussion is brief, its conclusions are central to the essay’s overarching contention that slavery and racism are the foundations of American history. The essay argues 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.’ That is a striking claim built on three false assertions. ‘By 1776, Britain had grown deeply conflicted over its role in the barbaric institution that had reshaped the Western Hemisphere,’ Hannah-Jones wrote. But apart from the activity of the pioneering abolitionist Granville Sharp, Britain was hardly conflicted at all in 1776 over its involvement in the slave system. Sharp played a key role in securing the 1772 Somerset v. Stewart ruling, which declared that chattel slavery was not recognized in English common law. That ruling did little, however, to reverse Britain’s devotion to human bondage, which lay almost entirely in its colonial slavery and its heavy involvement in the Atlantic slave trade. Nor did it generate a movement inside Britain in opposition to either slavery or the slave trade. As the historian Christopher Leslie Brown writes in his authoritative study of British abolitionism, Moral Capital, Sharp ‘worked tirelessly against the institution of slavery everywhere within the British Empire after 1772, but for many years in England he would stand nearly alone.’ What Hannah-Jones described as a perceptible British threat to American slavery in 1776 in fact did not exist. ‘In London, there were growing calls to abolish the slave trade,’ Hannah-Jones continued. But the movement in London to abolish the slave trade formed only in 1787, largely inspired, as Brown demonstrates in great detail, by American antislavery opinion that had arisen in the 1760s and ’70s. There were no ‘growing calls’ in London to abolish the trade as early as 1776. ‘This would have upended the economy of the colonies, in both the North and the South,’ Hannah-Jones wrote. But the colonists had themselves taken decisive steps to end the Atlantic slave trade from 1769 to 1774. During that time, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Rhode Island either outlawed the trade or imposed prohibitive duties on it. Measures to abolish the trade also won approval in Massachusetts, Delaware, New York, and Virginia, but were denied by royal officials. The colonials’ motives were not always humanitarian: Virginia, for example, had more enslaved black people than it needed to sustain its economy and saw the further importation of Africans as a threat to social order. But the Americans who attempted to end the trade did not believe that they were committing economic suicide.”

He continues, “Assertions that a primary reason the Revolution was fought was to protect slavery are as inaccurate as the assertions, still current, that southern secession and the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery. In his reply to our letter, though, Silverstein ignored the errors we had specified and then imputed to the essay a very different claim. In place of Hannah-Jones’s statement that ‘the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain … because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery,’ Silverstein substituted ‘that uneasiness among slaveholders in the colonies about growing antislavery sentiment in Britain and increasing imperial regulation helped motivate the Revolution.’ Silverstein makes a large concession here about the errors in Hannah-Jones’s essay without acknowledging that he has done so. There is a notable gap between the claim that the defense of slavery was a chief reason behind the colonists’ drive for independence and the claim that concerns about slavery among a particular group, the slaveholders, ‘helped motivate the Revolution.’ But even the evidence proffered in support of this more restricted claim—which implicitly cedes the problem with the original assertion—fails to hold up to scrutiny. Silverstein pointed to the Somerset case, in which, as I’ve noted, a British high court ruled that English common law did not support chattel slavery. Even though the decision did not legally threaten slavery in the colonies, Silverstein wrote, it caused a ‘sensation’ when reported in colonial newspapers and ‘slavery joined other issues in helping to gradually drive apart the patriots and their colonial governments.’ In fact, the Somerset ruling caused no such sensation. In the entire slaveholding South, a total of six newspapers—one in Maryland, two in Virginia, and three in South Carolina—published only 15 reports about Somerset, virtually all of them very brief. Coverage was spotty: The two South Carolina newspapers that devoted the most space to the case didn’t even report its outcome. American newspaper readers learned far more about the doings of the queen of Denmark, George III’s sister Caroline, whom Danish rebels had charged with having an affair with the court physician and plotting the death of her husband. A pair of Boston newspapers gave the Somerset decision prominent play; otherwise, most of the coverage appeared in the tiny-font foreign dispatches placed on the second or third page of a four- or six-page issue. Above all, the reportage was almost entirely matter-of-fact, betraying no fear of incipient tyranny. A London correspondent for one New York newspaper did predict, months in advance of the actual ruling, that the case ‘will occasion a greater ferment in America (particularly in the islands) than the Stamp Act,’ but that forecast fell flat. Some recent studies have conjectured that the Somerset ruling must have intensely riled southern slaveholders, and word of the decision may well have encouraged enslaved Virginians about the prospects of their gaining freedom, which could have added to slaveholders’ constant fears of insurrection. Actual evidence, however, that the Somerset decision jolted the slaveholders into fearing an abolitionist Britain—let alone to the extent that it can be considered a leading impetus to declaring independence—is less than scant.”

Additionally, Professor Wilentz writes, “Slaveholders and their defenders in the West Indies, to be sure, were more exercised, producing a few proslavery pamphlets that strongly denounced the decision. Even so, as Trevor Burnard’s comprehensive study of Jamaica in the age of the American Revolution observes, ‘Somerset had less impact in the West Indies than might have been expected.’ Which is not to say that the Somerset ruling had no effect at all in the British colonies, including those that would become the United States. In the South, it may have contributed, over time, to amplifying the slaveholders’ mistrust of overweening imperial power, although the mistrust dated back to the Stamp Act crisis in 1765. In the North, meanwhile, where newspaper coverage of Somerset was far more plentiful than in the South, the ruling’s principles became a reference point for antislavery lawyers and lawmakers, an important development in the history of early antislavery politics. In addition to the Somerset ruling, Silverstein referred to a proclamation from 1775 by John Murray, the fourth earl of Dunmore and royal governor of Virginia, as further evidence that fears about British antislavery sentiment pushed the slaveholders to support independence. Unfortunately, his reference was inaccurate: Dunmore’s proclamation pointedly did not offer freedom ‘to any enslaved person who fled his plantation,’ as Silverstein claimed. In declaring martial law in Virginia, the proclamation offered freedom only to those held by rebel slaveholders. Tory slaveholders could keep their enslaved people. This was a cold and calculated political move. The proclamation, far from fomenting an American rebellion, presumed a rebellion had already begun. Dunmore, himself an unapologetic slaveholder—he would end his career as the royal governor of the Bahamas, overseeing an attempt to establish a cotton slavery regime on the islands—aimed to alarm and disrupt the patriots, free their human property to bolster his army, and incite fears of a wider uprising by enslaved people. His proclamation was intended as an act of war, not a blow against the institution of slavery, and everyone understood it as such. Dunmore’s proclamation (unlike the Somerset decision three years earlier) certainly touched off an intense panic among Virginia slaveholders, Tory and patriot alike, who were horror-struck that it might spark a general insurrection, as the groundbreaking historian Benjamin Quarles showed many years ago. To the hundreds of enslaved men, women, and children who escaped to Dunmore’s lines, the governor was unquestionably, as Richard Henry Lee disparagingly remarked, the ‘African hero.’ To the 300 formerly enslaved black men who joined what the governor called Lord Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment, outfitted with uniforms emblazoned with the slogan ‘Liberty to slaves,’ he was a redeemer. The spectacle likely stiffened the resolve for independence among the rebel patriots whom Dunmore singled out, but they were already rebels. The proclamation may conceivably have persuaded some Tory slaveholders to switch sides, or some who remained on the fence. It would have done so, however, because Dunmore, exploiting the Achilles’ heel of any slaveholding society, posed a direct and immediate threat to lives and property (which included, under Virginia law, enslaved persons), not because he affirmed slaveholders’ fears of ‘growing antislavery sentiment in Britain.’ The offer of freedom in a single colony to persons enslaved by men who had already joined the patriots’ ranks—after a decade of mounting sentiment for independence, and after the American rebellion had commenced—cannot be held up as evidence that the slaveholder colonists wanted to separate from Britain to protect the institution of slavery. To back up his argument that Dunmore’s proclamation, against the backdrop of a supposed British antislavery outpouring, was a catalyst for the Revolution, Silverstein seized upon a quotation not from a Virginian, but from a South Carolinian, Edward Rutledge, who was observing the events at a distance, from Philadelphia. ‘A member of South Carolina’s delegation to the Continental Congress wrote that this act did more to sever the ties between Britain and its colonies ‘than any other expedient which could possibly have been thought of,’ ‘ Silverstein wrote. Although he would become the youngest signer of the Declaration of Independence, Rutledge, a hyper-cautious patriot, was torn, late in 1775, about whether the time was yet ripe to move forward with a formal separation from Britain. By early December, while serving his state in the Continental Congress, he had moved toward finally declaring independence, in response to various events that had expanded the Americans’ rebellion, including the American invasion of Canada; news of George III’s refusal to consider the Continental Congress’s petition for reconciliation; the British burning of the town of Falmouth, Maine; and, most recently, Dunmore’s proclamation, full news of which was only just reaching Philadelphia. In a private letter explaining his evolving thoughts, Rutledge described the proclamation as ‘tending in my judgment, more effectively to work an eternal separation’ between Britain and America ‘than any other expedient which could possibly have been thought of.’ By quoting only the second half of that statement, Silverstein altered its meaning, turning Rutledge’s personal and speculative observation into conclusive proof of a sweeping claim. This is not the only flaw in Silverstein’s discussion. He seems unaware that, in the end, Rutledge himself was not sufficiently moved by Dunmore’s proclamation to support independence, and he rather notoriously led the opposition inside the Congress before switching at the last minute on July 1, 1776. Moreover, a man whom John Adams had earlier described as ‘a Swallow—a Sparrow—a Peacock; excessively vain, excessively weak, and excessively variable and unsteady—jejune, inane, & puerile’ may not be the most reliable source.”

He ends his section by writing, “To buttress his case, Silverstein also quoted the historian Jill Lepore: ‘Not the taxes and the tea, not the shots at Lexington and Concord, not the siege of Boston: rather, it was this act, Dunmore’s offer of freedom to slaves, that tipped the scales in favor of American independence.’ But Silverstein’s claim about Dunmore’s proclamation and the coming of independence is no more convincing when it turns up, almost identically, in a book by a distinguished authority; Lepore also relies on a foreshortened version of the Rutledge quote, presenting it as evidence of what the proclamation actually did, rather than as one man’s expectation as to what it would do. As for Silverstein’s main contention, meanwhile, neither Lepore nor Rutledge said anything about the colonists’ fear of growing antislavery sentiment in Britain.”

Some historians have responded. Professor Joseph Adelman of Framingham State University wrote this article in the online publication, The Junto. He bores in directly on Professor Wilentz’s claim about colonial newspaper coverage of the Somerset Decision. “Wilentz’s essay is flawed in the precise area of my expertise—Revolutionary-era newspapers—in ways that diminish the credence of his claims. Critiques of the 1619 Project have tended to obscure the practice of historical research and writing, but there is nonetheless an opportunity to illuminate how we locate, contextualize, and interrogate sources. In making that clear, we can understand better the debate about interpretations of the American Revolution. In the Atlantic essay, Wilentz focuses on the Somerset case, the 1772 decision in which an enslaved man was freed because, judge Lord Mansfield determined, his master could not legally hold him in bondage in England. Here’s what he writes about how American newspapers responded: ‘In the entire slaveholding South, a total of six newspapers—one in Maryland, two in Virginia, and three in South Carolina—published only 15 reports about Somerset, virtually all of them very brief. Coverage was spotty: The two South Carolina newspapers that devoted the most space to the case didn’t even report its outcome. American newspaper readers learned far more about the doings of the queen of Denmark, George III’s sister Caroline, whom Danish rebels had charged with having an affair with the court physician and plotting the death of her husband. A pair of Boston newspapers gave the Somerset decision prominent play; otherwise, most of the coverage appeared in the tiny-font foreign dispatches placed on the second or third page of a four- to six-page issue.’ There’s a lot going on here. The information Wilentz provided was so precise that it had me wondering at its source. The only scholar he refers to in the essay is Christopher L. Brown, so I went back to Brown’s Moral Capital and the sections he wrote about the Somerset case. There was no reference to newspaper coverage, but Brown in turn cites journalism scholar Patricia Bradley, who published Slavery, Propaganda, and the American Revolution in 1998. Her book includes an entire chapter on the Somerset decision and its coverage in the American colonies, but not the numbers that Wilentz cited. For that, it seems we need to go back to a 1984 paper that Bradley presented at the annual meeting of the Association for Education in Journalism—or at least, this is the only place I could locate these figures. I’d also mention that Bradley’s 1984 paper seems the most likely source because she includes the very specific anecdote about Princess Caroline in her essay. But between my own knowledge and Bradley’s paper and chapter, it is clear that Wilentz’s statistics are misleading. First, there are two problems with the number of newspapers he cites. Bradley’s research involved taking a sample of newspapers, and she did not include newspapers from North Carolina or Georgia because too few issues existed. So we’re missing two colonies which boasted three newspapers (two in North Carolina and one in Georgia). The other problem is that those six newspapers are the sum total of those published in those colonies in 1772. In other words, we could easily re-phrase his first sentence to say that ‘every newspaper in Maryland, Virginia, and South Carolina reported on the Somerset decision,’ which makes the evidence seem far more significant than Wilentz would allow. Second, as to the number of times the case was mentioned, the significance of the number fifteen isn’t clear. Fifteen mentions doesn’t suggest complete ignorance of the case, but it’s not clear from Bradley’s paper or book chapter how exactly she defined a ‘mention.’ She includes some fascinating information about the extent of coverage in Boston’s Loyalist newspaper, the Massachusetts Gazette … but that’s a complex issue that would require a separate post for a full discussion. The third issue in Wilentz’s paragraph is his dismissal of the news items about Somerset as appearing in the middle of the newspaper in a ‘tiny-font.’ It sounds clever but does not reflect how newspapers were organized in the eighteenth century. Any mention of the case appeared where it did (on pages 2 and 3) because that was the obvious place to put it. Newspapers were not organized by the importance of the news (with a few notable exceptions). Instead editors organized the paragraphs they collected by function and geography. Long essays and some advertising would appear on the first page, followed by news from London and Europe continuing onto the second page. Then printers would include news from other colonies, usually working their way closer to their own town’s news at the end of page 2 or somewhere on page 3. The rest of the newspaper would then include advertising. News was published by paragraphs with no headlines; the only way to determine what news was important was to read all of it. Understanding the circulation of news about the case in this way undercuts Wilentz’s claim. It’s actually rather significant that every newspaper published (and available!) in the Southern colonies in 1772 mentioned Somerset, even if only in passing. Further, it’s important to remember that newspapers were less central to the news culture of Southern colonies than they were further north. Elite Southerners did little to support local newspapers, but they would have had access to news about the decision from London newspapers and magazines which, as Bradley and Brown note, reported extensively on the trial and decision. They also would have had access to news through their correspondents in London because letters were a key source of news traveling across the Atlantic. This is not a specific event I’ve researched, to be fair, but my point is that there is very likely more to the story than these newspapers can tell.”

I’m not sure, but it seems to me he’s committing the same sin of which he accuses Professor Wilentz. If Professor Wilentz is guilty of minimizing reaction by not mentioning that [as it appears from Professor Adelman’s article] it was covered by every extant newspaper in today’s archives, equally Professor Adelman seems to be guilty of inflating what the evidence shows by ignoring Professor Wilentz’s observation that many southern newspapers only remarked on the case in passing. Instead, he makes assumptions that because planters normally read British rather than colonial papers they must have received more coverage and must have had strong reactions to that coverage. Yet, if the case were such a controversial one in the South, one should expect much more coverage than “in passing.”

Professor David Waldstreicher of the City University of New York wrote this article for the Boston Review. He writes, “It is no coincidence, though, that the first claim, about the American Revolution, has proved the most controversial. This dispute reflects deep fault lines in the field of U.S. history over interpretations of the Revolution, particularly in terms of its relationship to slavery and the status of African Americans. Though it rarely spills out into public view in quite the way it has recently, there is a longstanding debate within the academy over just how revolutionary the American Revolution really was. Some historians, espousing what we might call the establishment view, insist that it is anachronistic to see slavery as central to our understanding of the decades-long revolutionary period. According to this view, the Revolution was in fact fundamentally antislavery, since it led to what Bernard Bailyn called in his 1967 study The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution a ‘contagion of liberty’ that made it possible for Americans to think critically about ending the institution. Such accounts emphasize that various Northern states restricted the slave trade and began to institute gradual emancipation during and after the Revolutionary war, and that enslaved people used the ideals of equality voiced during the Revolution to press their own case for freedom. Although a civil war was fought over what the government could and could not do about slavery, these historians say, Lincoln and other members of the Republican Party envisioned a path to emancipation under the Constitution and made it happen. This is the accepted orthodoxy underwriting the contention, made in the letter sent to the Times, that it is just wrong—as well as bad politics—to tell schoolchildren that some or many or even any American revolutionaries fought to defend their property in slaves from a powerful imperial government. Hannah-Jones wrote that defending slavery was a primary motivation for independence in 1776, but the pushback from Wood and Wilentz was far more absolute. This was not surprising to academics who have followed the work of these historians. Wilentz argues in his latest book, No Property in Man: Slavery and Antislavery at the Nation’s Founding (2018), that the Constitution was antislavery in its essence and most of its subsequent workings, and has repeatedly gone out of his way to attack those who emphasize the proslavery politics of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Andrew Jackson. And for his part, Wood, a student of Bailyn, called talk of slavery and the Constitution in Staughton Lynd’s pathbreaking work ‘anachronistic’ in his 1969 book The Creation of the American Republic and has never let up. According to his view, the founders belonged to a ‘premodern’ society and didn’t talk or think about slavery or black people. In response to Silverstein’s response, he wrote, ‘I don’t know of any colonist who said that they wanted independence in order to preserve their slaves. No colonist expressed alarm that the mother country was out to abolish slavery in 1776.’ On the other side of this debate is a growing number of scholars—Woody Holton, Annette Gordon-Reed, Michael McDonnell, Gerald Horne, and myself, among others—who question the establishment view of the Revolution and the founders. These historians, most of them younger than Wood or Wilentz, see a multi-sided struggle in an American Revolution that was about colonizing and winning power and authority. They see slavery as more than a peripheral matter. They do not take for granted that the story is primarily one of uncovering the motives and beliefs of the founders. Their work has considerably undercut the glass-half-full version of the narrative, which sees the end of slavery as a long-term consequence of American idealism and independence. In ambitious works that explore the ‘unknown’ revolutions that contributed to the independence movement, for example, books such as Gary Nash’s The Unknown American Revolution (2005) and Alan Taylor’s American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750–1804 (2016) have challenged Wood’s sunnier version of events. In their hands the story loses some of its traditional romance but gains a deeper sense of realism. Other scholars, such as Robert Parkinson in his book The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution (2016), have shown just how concerned the revolutionaries were, in both the North and the South, with slaves as an internal enemy. Perhaps most important of all, newer histories show how Africans and their children themselves forced the issue onto the agenda of the revolutionaries and the empires competing for dominion, especially in wartime. If we were talking about any other revolution or civil war, we wouldn’t be surprised that enslaved people fought on both sides, depending on which side seemed more likely to improve their condition. The resistance to this new scholarship by the deans of the establishment bears some similarities to the denunciations leveled at Charles Beard and the Progressive historians a hundred years ago when they began to develop the argument that perhaps the Constitution benefited the wealthy more than it helped ordinary (white) people. The newspaper editor—and later corrupt twenty-ninth president—Warren Harding heaped shame on Beard for desecrating the image of the Revolution. A few years later he started using the term ‘founding fathers’ in his stump speeches. This time around, historians who emphasize slavery and reaction, including the reaction against antislavery, are accused by the doyens of U.S. history (and now a few of their somewhat younger successors, such as Wilentz) of being ideological purveyors of identity politics—as if Pulitzer and Bancroft prize–winning scholars such as Holton, Gordon-Reed, and Taylor are not, in fact, extending and enriching the field. The split between these two camps is hinted at in Adam Serwer’s fine recap of the 1619 Project controversy for The Atlantic, ‘The Fight over the 1619 Project Is Not About the Facts,’ published in late December as the debate was still heating up. Serwer writes: ‘The clash between the Times authors and their historian critics represents a fundamental disagreement over the trajectory of American society. Was America founded as a slavocracy, and are current racial inequities the natural outgrowth of that? Or was America conceived in liberty, a nation haltingly redeeming itself through its founding principles?’ What Serwer misses is that this is not simply a clash between the Times authors and a group of historians: it is also a pre-existing argument between historians themselves. (Wilentz, in his subsequent reply to Serwer in The Atlantic this week, tries to perform a magician’s act and render invisible the very existence of that debate, much as he ignores the scholarship when he is not mischaracterizing its substance.) The arguments made by the 1619 Project are largely based on the work of scholars such as Horne, Holton, Taylor, myself, and others (indeed, Hannah-Jones and Silverstein have acknowledged as much). By bringing the critical ideas of these scholars to a wide audience, the 1619 Project essentially drew back the curtain on a vital debate within the field of U.S. history. By responding with such force, critics of the project have helped define the contours of this debate. It is an important one for us to have, in part because this is an argument that goes all the way back to the founding itself.”

Professor Waldstreicher continues, “In the years leading up to the Revolution, the politics of slavery proved polarizing, and the most deeply committed patriots, including John Adams and Jefferson, sought to control it and usually to tamp it down. Their private papers amply demonstrate their knowledge that the enslavement of Africans was tyranny of the most extreme sort. But they mostly kept such thoughts to themselves and their antislavery friends abroad, saving their loudest protests for what they described as their own enslavement—by the British. This questionable rhetorical tactic met with mixed results. By 1767 American protesters who claimed that unfair taxes amounted to a form of enslavement were being called out for their hypocrisy, even by their friends. ‘Oh! ye sons of Liberty, pause a moment, give me your ear,’ asked Boston merchant Nathan Appleton. ‘Is your conduct consistent? can you review our late struggles for liberty, and think of the slave-trade at the same time, and not blush?’ He also mocked racial justifications for slavery: ‘Methinks were you an African, I could see you blush.’ Ending slavery was the only way to ‘shew all the world, that we are true sons of Liberty.’ A transatlantic battle of the pundits and politicians raged. Pioneering antislavery activist Granville Sharp quoted from ads for fugitive slaves in New York newspapers and opined that the colony deserved ‘the name of New Barbary, instead of New York.’ Liberals such as colonial agent Benjamin Franklin were in the best position to justify those increasingly referred to on both sides of the Atlantic as ‘the Americans.’ He wrote in London newspapers that slavery on the continent didn’t amount to much and was the fault of the English merchants who controlled the trade. Franklin also blamed the West Indies planters,whose lobbyists argued that simple racial inferiority explained slavery. When Gordon Wood complains that no American founders said they were declaring independence in order to keep their slaves, he neglects the fact that most revolutionaries who tried to explain American protest were embarrassed about slavery. Long before anyone stated why they chose sides in ’76, they all learned that saying that they wanted to protect that property would have undermined their claims against the British by exposing them as hypocrites. It wasn’t a selling point in the pamphlet war; it was something to be defensive and quiet about. That changed decisively in 1775, after Lord Dunmore, royal governor of Virginia, followed through on his threats to arm slaves—threats that had earlier been voiced on the floor of Parliament. Then suddenly the patriots spoke openly and often about slaves—as the enemy. No one ever had to say, ‘let’s rebel to keep our slaves’ because they could say, and did say in Boston as well as in Virginia—at the very same time as the more famous battles of Lexington and Concord—let’s rebel because slaves are being armed against us. All this culminated in Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence, in which he penned a tortured, now often mocked paragraph that tried elaborately to suggest that the British were in league with ‘African corsairs’ (slave traders) to make war against innocent Africans, who the British now were attempting to turn against the Americans. Jefferson had tried out this blame of the British for the slave trade in his much-praised Summary View of the Rights of British America (1774); the hysterical, baldly hypocritical wartime version made it past Adams and Franklin on the Declaration committee, but not the Continental Congress, where, according to Jefferson in his memoirs, deep Southerners and New Englanders alike balked at the antislavery precedent that it would have set. (Franklin, however, had suggested adding that the King had ‘incited domestic insurrections among us’ into the Declaration’s culminating complaint against the King for setting ‘the merciless Indian savages’ against the colonists. The final Declaration of Independence, in other words, didn’t mention slavery explicitly, but the liberation of slaves by the British provides its ultimate justification.) To give the revolutionary ideology or movement all the credit for antislavery is essentially to echo without acknowledgment Franklin and Jefferson’s spin. It’s politics, and all the more dangerous when it claims to have all the ‘facts,’ as Wilentz and Wood do.”

Again, it seems to me this is a weak argument. Dunmore, as Professor Wilentz told us, issued his proclamation because he saw a rebellion in existence, not one being fomented, and the way to keep slaves under that proclamation was to remain loyal to Britain, not to further the rebellion. The fact that colonial Patriots were embarrassed by slavery argues against the proposition that slavery was a main driver of the rebellion, rather than for it.

Those defending the 1619 Project’s assertion regarding the Revolution need to step up their game. Their entire case appears to be based on assuming there was a strong reaction and then assuming that assumption was a fact. They have no hard evidence at all, at least none they’ve presented, to support the claim. Professor Waldstreicher even admitted there was no hard evidence of Patriots saying or writing they were acting to protect slavery.

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