Offending a Defender of the Laughable “1619 Project”

by Don Boudreaux on May 8, 2022

in History, Myths and Fallacies

Here’s a letter to a college student who has “become persuaded of the 1619 Project’s veracity”:

Mr. K__:

Thanks for sharing the tweet, with which you agree, from a “1619 Project” defender. This person, responding to this recent post of mine, thinks that John and Abigail Adams’s hostility to slavery does nothing to discredit the 1619 Project’s thesis that a major motive for the American revolution was the protection of slavery.

Of course, it’s true that the conclusion that the revolution was not meant to protect slavery does not logically follow from the fact that Adams and some other revolutionaries opposed slavery. Yet it’s equally true that the conclusion that the revolution was meant to protect slavery does not logically follow from the fact that some revolutionaries supported that vile institution.

The determining factors must be empirical realities. One such significant empirical reality was the subject of my blog post, namely, that among the revolutionaries who opposed slavery were John Adams and his influential wife.

Adams was not just any random revolutionary. He was a leader of – arguably, the single most fervent champion in Congress in 1775-1776 for – the cause of American independence. It was Adams who, with Richard Henry Lee, in May of 1776 proposed a resolution for the colonies to become self-governing. This resolution was quickly adopted unanimously by the Second Continental Congress. And it was Adams who alone drafted the radical Preamble to this Resolution – a document that David McCullough describes as having “put aside any possibility of reconciliation and all but declared the colonies immediately independent.”*

If the revolution was meant to protect slavery, it’s nearly impossible to explain why Adams and other anti-slavery New Englanders, such as Roger Sherman and Robert Treat Paine, along with anti-slavery revolutionaries from mid-Atlantic colonies, such as Pennsylvania’s Benjamin Rush, would have risked their lives and fortunes by signing the Declaration of Independence. Also nearly impossible to explain is the fervor for the revolutionary cause exhibited by men and women who opposed slavery yet, while not signers of the Declaration, played prominent roles in furthering the cause of independence – persons such as Abigail Adams, Samuel Adams, the Marquis de Lafayette, Thomas Paine, William Prescott, and Mercy Otis Warren.

Also relevant is participation in the revolutionary cause by notable persons who never held humans in bondage. Why would men such as Paul Revere, Henry Knox, John Paul Jones, and Nathan Hale have risked so much to protect an institution that was of no obvious benefit to them?

In stark contrast to the difficulty of explaining why persons opposed to slavery would have participated in a cause meant to protect that institution, it’s not at all difficult to explain why Americans who supported, or who did not oppose, slavery joined the revolutionary cause. This explanation is rooted in the reality that the benefits to Americans of independence from Britain were general rather than tied to the practice of chattel slavery. What these benefits were believed to be can be found in the writings, not only of slaveholders such as Jefferson, but of ardent opponents of slavery such as Adams and Thomas Paine.

A final thought: If the war of independence was indeed fought to maintain slavery in the United States, it’s surprising that some prominent victorious revolutionaries who cannot be confidently said to have been anti-slavery in 1776 became anti-slavery after their victory. Yet in 1787 Benjamin Franklin became president of the Philadelphia Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage – an abolitionist group formed by Quakers – while another Declaration signer, the Virginian George Wythe, who died in 1806, grew increasingly opposed to slavery and emancipated his slaves before he died. These actions, of course, don’t prove the claim that the revolution was not fought to protect slavery, but they certainly lend much credence to this claim.

There’s no denying that many American revolutionaries owned slaves. Nor can it be denied that this hypocrisy is a deep, ugly stain on American history. But this reality does not mean that a major purpose of the revolution was to perpetuate slavery. The evidence against the 1619 Project’s thesis is simply too overwhelming for that thesis to be treated as anything other than, as George Will describes it, “malicious” and “historically illiterate.” It is, at best, a jejune piece of woke propaganda that no serious thinker takes seriously. And so nor should you.

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA 22030

* David McCullough, John Adams (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001), page 108.

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