This essay is part of RealClearPublicAffairs's 1776 Series, which explains the major themes that define the American mind. It is republished here with the permission of RealClearPolitics.

Started in Slavery, Founded in Freedom: 1619 vs. 1776

Now that everyone with a computer and an opinion has had his or her say on the merits and shortcomings of the “1619 Project,” we are now in a position to step back and ask ourselves: What is really at stake here?

The most controversial aspect of the project has not been its content—apart from one important, mistaken historical claim in Nikole Hannah-Jones’s introductory essay, which has since been corrected—but its framing. No one is talking about the excellent and inspiring articles on Howard Law School graduates, black music, or the “pecan pioneer” (yes, it’s in there!). Even Hannah-Jones’s essay hasn’t been subjected to comprehensive commentary and analysis in the manner that it deserves. Instead, the focus of critics has been concentrated on the title page of Hannah-Jones’s essay—“Our founding ideals of liberty and equality were false when they were written”—and Jake Silverstein’s “editor’s note” introducing the project. And then, of course, there is the title: 1619.

. . . as Bob Woodson and others have pointed out, subtracting 1776 from 1619 renders the American story depressing and perhaps irredeemable.

What do these parts of the project jointly convey? That American identity—stated in terms of “true birth date” or “origin”—is an either/or and that 1776 must be rejected as a legitimate competitor to 1619 in this determination. The year 1619, in other words, preempts and nullifies 1776. Critics have, after all, complained not so much about the addition of 1619 as the explicit subtraction of 1776 in Silverstein’s (and, to a lesser extent, Hannah-Jones’s) framing. And as anyone with a calculator can work out, 1619 minus 1776 is a negative number; as Bob Woodson and others have pointed out, subtracting 1776 from 1619 renders the American story depressing and perhaps irredeemable. According to John McWhorter, this operation makes American civic education into an education “in studied despair over events far in the past, and a sense that it is more enlightened to think of yourself as a victim than as an actor.”

If we have to jettison 1776 to take 1619 on board, the question famously raised by Martin Luther King, Jr., and quoted by Clarence Page in a recent article for the 1776 Project, “Where do we go from here?” seems difficult to answer. It is certainly important to know where we’ve been in order to understand where we are now, and it is certainly important to understand where we are now in order to determine where we should go from here, but we can’t chart a course for the future based only on where we’ve been in the past. We have to have a goal in mind, something to shoot for, a target at which to aim. We have to have somewhere we are going to, not just somewhere we are coming from.

The question is whether the undeniable historical fact of the preexistence of American slavery tainted or invalidated entirely the ideas and arguments about natural human rights that motivated and justified the American Revolution . . .

So what’s really at stake in the 1619 vs. 1776 debate is whether the revolutionary principles of 1776 are capable of providing such a goal or target. The question is whether the undeniable historical fact of the preexistence of American slavery tainted or invalidated entirely the ideas and arguments about natural human rights that motivated and justified the American Revolution—and that, presumably, have continued to motivate and justify the American experiment in self-government from that time to ours. The question is not about what happened in 1619 but about what happened in 1776.

So what happened in 1776? In the main quad at the University of Missouri, just outside the building where Jefferson’s tombstone is currently housed, there is a statue of Jefferson sitting at a writing desk, pen in hand, and the Declaration of Independence on the paper in front of him. This expresses much of the significance of 1776 in the popular imagination: not unlike Moses going up Mount Sinai and coming back with the Ten Commandments, Thomas Jefferson went into his study and emerged with the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson himself helps solidify this view by literally etching his authorship of the Declaration of Independence in a stone tablet (his tombstone). The man, the moment, and the document are forever conjoined.

If this is what really happened in 1776, Silverstein’s either/or sounds plausible. We know that Jefferson lived far downstream of 1619. His livelihood and self-image depended squarely on his status as a slaveholder. In his well-known 1820 letter to John Holmes, Jefferson almost makes Silverstein’s either/or argument for him, saying about the predicament of Southern slaveholders such as himself: “Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.” Though many of us would like to think that 1776 weighs on the justice side of this scale, it is not clear whether Jefferson would agree. According to the author of the Declaration, 1776’s promise of “self-government and happiness” for himself and those like him was under threat during the Missouri crisis by devotees of the “abstract principle” dictating the geographic restriction of slavery.

If 1776 is inextricably bound up with the historical Thomas Jefferson, and the historical Thomas Jefferson is hopelessly bound up with the consequences of 1619, Silverstein’s argument seems right. The year 1776 is not a true alternative to 1619 but a mere diversion from an acknowledgment of the latter’s unjust and harmful effects. The either/or falls away as the antislavery Jefferson of the Declaration collapses into the apparently pro-slavery Jefferson of the Missouri Compromise and 1776 collapses into 1619. American history, as Wilfred McClay put it in a recent article, becomes “little more than the lengthened shadow of slavery.”

The more one reads of the public documents, pamphlets, sermons, and letters of the decades preceding and the years immediately following the Declaration of Independence, the more one realizes that Jefferson was really more stenographer than author.

This is not, however, what happened in 1776. Contrary to Jefferson’s proud claim on his tombstone, there were many joint authors of the Declaration of Independence. It was adopted (after alteration) by the entire Continental Congress and largely expressed what Thomas Paine had called the American “common sense” and what Jefferson would later call “the American mind.” The more one reads of the public documents, pamphlets, sermons, and letters of the decades preceding and the years immediately following the Declaration of Independence, the more one realizes that Jefferson was really more stenographer than author. Jefferson was an original thinker, but the later accusation that he had plagiarized the Declaration contained more than a grain of truth.

The candidacy of 1776 as a meaningful and valuable constituent of American identity cannot, then, be buried along with Jefferson himself. The ideas of 1776 that were expressed in the Declaration—natural human rights, limited government by consent, the right of revolution—were shared equally by Jefferson and countless other individuals at his time, many of whom were not as clearly implicated by association with the evils really and symbolically unleashed in 1619. These ideas are something apart from any of the individuals at the time who espoused them.

But are the ideas of 1776 themselves vitiated by their embeddedness in a time and place affected so deeply by 1619? Can these ideas provide enlightenment despite being spoken under the shadow of the terrible injustice of slavery and by some of its most famous beneficiaries? And are the ideas of 1776 merely one of the “multiple traditions” out of which the tapestry of American identity has been woven since?

These are not easy questions to answer, but they are answerable. There is, first, the historical fact that ideas of natural human rights, limited government, and the right of revolution were not invented by American colonists. The scholarly consensus of at least the last thirty years has been that early American political ideas were outgrowths of much earlier political and religious ideas, forming a distinctive “amalgam” of these preexisting materials. The political thought of John Locke, Scottish Enlightenment thinkers, and others was combined with Protestant theology in Europe, as well as in the New England colonies, in order to form the basis of what would become the revolutionary ideas of 1776. According to eminent intellectual historians like Brian Tierney and Richard Tuck, the roots of these ideas extend all the way back to medieval times, some 500 years before 1619. These ideas may be mistaken or undesirable for other reasons, but it is safe to say that their origins are innocent of entanglement with the practice of enslavement.

There is also the fact that the core revolutionary idea that “all men are created equal” does not in any conceivable way support the interests of slaveholders, or even the interests of the non-slaveholding American revolutionaries at the time.

There is also the fact that the core revolutionary idea that “all men are created equal” does not in any conceivable way support the interests of slaveholders, or even the interests of the non-slaveholding American revolutionaries at the time. While it is true that the progress of equality among whites has long been supported by a parallel dynamic of inequality between whites and nonwhites, a clear declaration of human (or even of male) equality could only run counter to this dynamic of reinforcement. A declaration that “all white men are created equal” or, better yet, that “white men are created superior to nonwhite men,” would have fit the bill much better.

Then there is Lincoln’s point in his speech on the Dred Scott decision in 1857: “The assertion that ‘all men are created equal’ was of no practical use in effecting our separation from Great Britain.” This idea of equality in natural human rights did not, in other words, even support the general interests of the American colonists in their argument for independence at the time. While the related ideas of government by consent and the right of revolution did clearly support the cause of American political independence, these could have been derived from narrower, more conservative, starting points than human equality. There was, for example, the long-standing “rights of Englishmen” argument that had been widely used by the American colonists throughout the 1760s and early 1770s. But this was not the argument that the colonists used in 1776. Just as the argument of 1776 could not conceivably support the interests of slaveholders, so it was not well tailored to the material interests of the American colonists in their conflict with Great Britain.

The United States of America was indeed started in slavery, but it was founded in freedom.

If the ideas of 1776 were neither a mere feature of the historical moment, nor supportive of the concrete, material interests of those who held them, why were they “held to be self-evident” at all? The shocking answer is that they were held simply because they were believed to be “truths.” And this distinguishes them in a crucial way from most of the other “traditions” that were held at the time, such as white supremacy, patriarchy, xenophobia, or class distinctions. Most, if not all, of these other traditions supported the status quo and those in positions of power in society. Though they were often buttressed by rational and religious arguments as well, these arguments were, in most cases, recognizable as weak rationalizations of material interest—like the “positive good” argument that would later be given in support of race-based enslavement. The ideas of 1776, by contrast, were justified by the force of a logic that defied the needs of the immediate moment and the concrete interests of those who enunciated them. As much as any human ideas could, they leaped off their page in history.

The men of 1776 should be considered “founders” not because of any personal greatness that they may have exhibited but because they embraced ideas worthy of serving as a foundation for political society. The personal reputations of the American founders are not what’s at stake in the 1619 vs. 1776 debate; the reputations of these ideas are. American identity is not an either/or, as Silverstein would have us believe. It is a both/and, deeply troubling in its contradictions but equally illuminating in its promise to overcome them. The United States of America was indeed started in slavery, but it was founded in freedom.

About S. Adam Seagrave

S. Adam Seagrave writes and teaches about American political principles in the dual contexts of the history of political philosophy and American political history. He is the co-founder and co-director of the Race and the American Story Project, and the Associate Director of the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University. He is the author of The Accessible Federalist and editor of Liberty and Equality: The American Conversation.

Photo: Getty Images

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