The 1619 Project: A Critique – Phillip W. Magness

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The New York Times recently attempted to engage its readers in an invigorating intellectual deliberation and discourse that had at its epicenter, the history of slavery in the United States and its continuing impact on the societal fabric. This initiative was named Project 1619, after first slave ship’s arrival in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619. However, as Phillip W. Magness, a Senior Research Fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research explains in his short work, “The 1619 Project, A Critique”, many essayists ‘appropriated’ this opportunity to link slavery with notions such as progressive activism and many other similar ‘causes’, and in the process diluting the very purpose of the original initiative. In fact, some of the essayists, as Magness illustrates, equated slavery with capitalism and free market principles and vehemently postulated that modern capitalism embedded within its confines the taint of slavery. 

A classic example was an essay penned by Princeton sociologist Matthew Desmond. Railing against the ‘horrors’ of the plantation system, he argued that modern capitalism was still accompanied by the apparitions of the slave economy. The brilliant and erudite journalist and best-selling author Ta-Nehisi Coates also seems to have towed the Project 1619 line when in a congressional hearing on reparations, he expounded – stunningly – that, by 1836, more than $600 million worth of economic activity in the United States was the direct or indirect outcome of the cotton produced, courtesy a million odd slaves. For the unsuspecting, this whopping number was representative of more than half of the economic activity in the nation!

The inspiration for both Desmond and Coates was a book imaginatively titled “The Half Has Never Been Told” penned by Cornell Historian Ed Baptist. While Baptist himself initially opined that the total value of economic activity that derived from cotton production, was around $77 million, comprising, approximately, 5 percent of the estimated gross domestic product (GDP) of the United States, he then, “proceeded to double and even triple count intermediate transactions involved in cotton production—things like land purchases for plantations, tools used for cotton production, transportation, insurance, and credit instruments used in each. Eventually that $77 million became $600 million in Baptist’s accounting, or almost half of the entire antebellum economy of the United States.” As Magness informs his readers, economists, Alan Olmstead and Paul Rhode came up with a scathing rebuke of Baptist’s work, emphatically and empirically demonstrating that “cotton-picking yields tended to follow daily variations across the crop season, not Baptist’s posited use of a torture-enforced quota system. In addition to his faulty GDP statistics, they showed that Baptist severely overstated the amount of wealth tied up in slavery.”

Mr. Magness reserves his harshest criticism for the school of thought that goes by the moniker, New History of Capitalism (“NHC”). Terming it an anti-capitalist clique which neither brooks alternative thoughts and opinions nor encourages dissent, he posits that NHC is an embodiment of insularity. According to Magness, the output churned out by the NHC is an unfortunate amalgam of “shoddy economic analysis”, and “documented misuse of historical evidence.” The NHC also seems to adopt peculiar methodologies when it comes to addressing dissent. The two alternatives that form the twin arrows in its quiver are personal attacks and brazen cold shouldering. Noted critics and historians James McPherson, Gordon Wood, Victoria Bynum, James Oakes, and Sean Wilentz all found this out the hard way when upon attempting to fact check and convey their concerns to the NHC, they were met with a combination of personal diatribes and strategic neglect. The proponents of this school also dismiss their critics as being “old white males.” The exquisite irony here being, by contrast, the only black voices that find amplification in the piece by Matthew Desmond belong to those who are long gone scholars such as W.E.B. Du Bois. This prompts Magness to conclude that the NHC itself suffers from a “whiteness” problem.

Magness opines that by positing theories about the American revolution being a cause against British emancipation, and thus a struggle for the preservation of slavery, and complementing this seemingly ludicrous proposition with yet another one that encourages the logic that capitalism and free market principles are symbolisms for slavery, the NHC is shooting itself firmly in its foot. A fundamental research into the antebellum economy would reveal the fact that pro-slavery proponents were rabidly anti-capitalists who detested the functioning of free markets. George Fitzhugh, one of the most renowned, if not the most renowned pro-slavery advocate, thundered in one fiery speech that “the South must “throw Adam Smith, Say, Ricardo & Co., in the fire.” His book  “Sociology for the South”, first published in 1854, emphatically and unashamedly states, “Political economy is the science of free society. Its theory and its history alike establish this position. Its fundamental maxim Laissez-faire and “Pas trop gouverner,” are at war with all kinds of slavery, for they in fact assert that individuals and peoples prosper most when governed least.”

Magness alleges that the NHC is thus a novel historiographical body of scholars that is comfortably ensconced in its personal echo chamber, perpetuating and self-perpetuating views that find endorsement and approval from the inmates resident within such a cloistered echo chamber. This echo chamber “misrepresent(s) or completely neglect(s) scholarly works from outside of that echo chamber, and recklessly dismisses their critics on account of a racial demography that has an even more pronounced presence in their own ranks. Furthermore, in doing so, they (the NHC) lay mistaken claim to a competing black radical historiographic tradition, essentially botching its most famous arguments in the process through a careless and politicized reading.”

Leslie M. Harris, a professor of history at Northwestern University, and author of “In the Shadow of Slavery: African Americans in New York City, 1626-1863” and “Slavery and the University: Histories and Legacies” was approached by the New York Times editor prior to the publication of the essay that inter alia asserted, “One critical reason that the colonists declared their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery in the colonies, which had produced tremendous wealth. At the time there were growing calls to abolish slavery throughout the British Empire, which would have badly damaged the economies of colonies in both North and South.” Being an expert in the subject of African American life and slavery, Ms. Harris was asked to verify the facts as contained within the essay. She vehemently disputed the aforementioned sentence and reiterated that notwithstanding the fact that slavery was definitely a key factor in the American Revolution, its preservation was NOT one of the primary reasons the 13 colonies waged war. Despite such authoritative and informed advice from the historian, the Times went ahead with the twisted statement. A reluctant “update”, and not an errata was published much later, amending the original offending passage to clarify that slavery was a primary motivation for some of the colonists.”    

Till such time the NHC “mends” its ways, and nurtures an environment of informed deliberation and decent dissent, the voices of criticism are not going to abate.