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Bernard Bailyn’s History and the “1619 Project”

Although I’m sure that more than one historian who devoted time to exposing the fallacies that infect the “1619 Project” mentioned the following passages from Bernard Bailyn’s monumental 1967 book, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, I offer these passages here at Café Hayek.

On page 232 Bailyn observes that

No one had set out to question the institution of chattel slavery, but by 1776 it had come under severe attack by writers following out the logic of Revolutionary thought.

It’s possible, of course, that the American revolutionaries adopted the language of liberty simply as a ruse to cover a despicable obsession with protecting slavery in North America from what they believed to be imminent abolition imposed by the British government. But these revolutionaries were intelligent men and women. Surely if their main goal was to protect slavery they would have couched their case for independence instead in language less at obvious odds with the holding of slaves. Surely the revolutionaries, were one of their chief goals the avoidance of abolition, would have realized what Bailyn above describes – namely, that the logic of Revolutionary thought, as these revolutionaries chose to express it, would sow additional, rather than kill looming, seeds of abolition in America.

I quote now from page 235 of Bailyn:

The identification between the cause of the colonies and the cause of the Negroes bound in chattel slavery – an identification built into the very language of politics – became inescapable.

It was not grasped by all at once, nor did it become effective evenly through the colonies. But gradually the contradiction between the proclaimed principles of freedom and the facts of life in America became generally recognized.

Yet even as the undeniable incompatibility between slavery and the revolutionaries’ language of liberty grew more prominent and advertised, the revolutionaries do not seem to have trimmed their language of liberty. Many of them (especially from southern colonies) undoubtedly attempted to explain away the evident inconsistency, likely – and ironically – with legerdemain and fallacy-filled cunning comparable to the attempts by supporters of the 1619 Project to explain away its inconsistency with the historical record.

The revolutionaries’ embrace of bourgeois liberalism, although in many cases in terrible tension with their support of slavery, seems to have been genuine enough that they did not abandon it even as accusations of hypocrisy became more frequent and biting.


Some other interesting facts reported by Bailyn include this one found on page 236 [bracket original to Bailyn]:

Few even of the more enlightened Virginians were willing to declare, as Jefferson did in the instructions he wrote for his colony’s delegation to the first Continental Congress, that “the rights of human nature [are] deeply wounded by this infamous practice” and that “the abolition of domestic slavery is the great object of desire in those colonies where it was unhappily introduced in their infant state.”

Of note in this quotation immediately above is not that few enlightened Virginians argued as Jefferson did; that’s hardly surprising. Instead what’s of note is that Jefferson argued as Jefferson did. Even more relevant is the fact that Jefferson’s words were part of his instructions to Virginia’s delegation to the first Continental Congress.

It’s easy – yet nevertheless valid – to point out Jefferson’s hypocrisy. What’s not easy is to reconcile these instructions of Jefferson to Virginia’s Continental Congress delegation with the assertion that a chief motive for the American Revolution was to preserve chattel slavery in North America.


There are a few more passages from Bailyn’s book that are relevant in light of the absurd thesis of the 1619 Project. I’ll share these passages in a later post.