"We’ll never get anything done, or ever feel good about ourselves, if we can’t suppress all the rotten things we’ve done in the past" — writes Frank Buckley
COUNTRIES THAT OBSESS over their history are seldom happy. That’s a lesson we should have taken from Ireland, where historical amnesia was a blessing. “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake,” said James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus.
One might therefore have expected the 1619 Project to collapse of its own weight, by the tendency of hatreds to dissipate over time. The Project asks people to cherish their resentments, and as philosopher Philippa Foot noted, a person “consumed by Ressentiment lives a wretched life.”
However, the demand that the worst moments in American history be ever brought to mind lives on, even after the recent Virginia election shows how voters want to move on. “You’re racists, now vote for us” turned out to be a less than successful campaign strategy. Oddly enough, voters don’t want to be told how hateful they are. But that won’t put paid to the 1619 Project, in which the Democratic left has invested so much of its energy and to which donors have invested so much of their money.
Expect therefore to see a renewed effort to promote a racialized version of American history. If you want to forget the past, they’ll say, you’re simply in denial and that’s not healthy. I think that’s exactly backwards, however. We’ll never get anything done, or ever feel good about ourselves, if we can’t suppress all the rotten things we’ve done in the past, and what is true of people is true of nations as well.
Then they’ll tell us that by forgetting the past, you’re opposed to truth, and how can that ever be good. But historical truths are often highly contested, and that’s especially true of American history. Still, in some cases Henry Ford was right: history was bunk. The 1619 project claimed that, “out of slavery grew nearly everything that has truly made America exceptional: its economic might, its industrial power, its electoral system.” The New York Times printed it, and it wasn’t just false. It was also mind-numbingly stupid.
Everything, everything you loved is dirty, said the Times. Nikole Hannah-Jones, who wrote the Pulitzer-winning essay kicking off the Project, took pride in how she might have encouraged the 2020 riots. She approvingly retweeted a New York Post op-ed entitled “Call them the 1619 Riots.” I’d be honored if that’s what they’re called, she said. But if that’s her idea of America, one might wonder why she would choose to live in so infamous a country. She does have other choices, after all. In the midst of the 2021 protests in Cuba, she described that country as “the most equal multiracial country in our hemisphere.” In case you were wondering, she said this was largely due to socialism.
NEVERTHELESS, THERE WAS one charge that stuck, and ignited a debate amongst the historians. Was the American Revolution fought over slavery, as the 1619 Project claimed? Some Canadian readers will recall that this was also the Canadian version of the Revolution, and there is something to it.
The Revolution would have failed had the Virginia planters not thrown their lot in with the hotheads in Massachusetts. Historically the most loyal of colonies, and certainly the most Anglican, Virginia is the last place where you’d expect to see a rebellion. And yet there it was. The Old Dominion supplied the delegate who moved that America declare itself free, the author of the Declaration of Independence, and the General of the Continental army. Without Virginia, the Revolution would have failed. And all the support came from the slave-owning planter class. The settlers in the western part of the state didn’t own slaves and were more likely to remain loyal to the Crown.
Was slavery threatened, then? Four years before, Lord Mansfield held in Somerset’s case that slavery was illegal in England. The decision did not purport to trench on the institution in Virginia, but word of the case had spread throughout the colony, and what worried the Patriots was the thought that the Imperial Parliament might legislate over internal American affairs. Then the last Royal Governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, offered freedom to the slaves who joined the Loyalist cause. When the war was lost and the British planned to evacuate New York City, the British commander, Sir Guy Carleton (later Lord Dorchester), turned aside George Washington’s angry demand that the 3,000 ex-slaves in the British army be returned to their slavemasters. Delivering them up to possible severe punishment would be dishonorable, said Carleton, and with the rest of the loyalists they sailed to Nova Scotia. Thereafter, the terminus of the Underground Railway was Windsor, Ontario, not Detroit; and Canada’s early settlers included Harriet Tubman and Josiah Henson, the model for the title character in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
The problem, however, is that the Revolution was overdetermined. There were other reasons why the Patriots rebelled, and any one of them might have explained what happened. The Patriots really did subscribe to the idea that good government required a body of disinterested and virtuous citizens, and that they could only be found in a republic. Monarchies, by contrast, were necessarily corrupt. Those were ideas that Machiavelli had expressed in his Discourses on Livy, and historian J.G.A. Pocock called the Revolution a “Machiavellian Moment.”
Third, there was the 1774 Quebec Act, which among other things gave Britain the property right to all the land on the other side of the Alleghenies. Many of the planters had speculated on land in the Ohio valley, and unless America became independent these were now worthless.
Fourth was the debt crisis in Virginia. The crop-rich planters had indebted themselves by borrowing against future crops and could not pay their creditors when their crops failed. Planter private debt amounted to just under half of all American private debt, and the Revolution took the form of a bankruptcy petition. Until the 1795 Treaty of Paris, the creditors lacked the right to collect of the moneys owed them, and they were repaid in devalued dollars.
Fifth was what amounted to a Virginian civil war, fought by the planters in the House of Delegates against Lord Dunmore. The governor had dismissed the House, and the colony which had been the last to recognize Oliver Cromwell now found itself cast in the role of Roundhead parliamentarians. It’s no accident that Virginia’s Hampden-Sidney College was founded in 1775.
Finally, the Virginians had discovered that they were capable of self-government, along with the rest of the Americans. The population of the Thirteen Colonies was 4 million in 1776. That was the population of the four Canadian colonies in 1867 and of Australia in 1901. As colonies grow, there’s a tipping point when complete self-government seems in the normal course of events. It didn’t help, when the royal governors were imperial popinjays such as Dunmore or Upper Canada’s Sir Francis Bond Head.
It’s therefore highly tendentious to say that slavery was the sole cause of the Revolution. On the other hand, the claim that slavery might have played a minor role can’t be entirely dismissed either. But even if so, what follows from that? That was 245 years ago, and we’re not about to undo the Declaration of Independence. At most, the 1619 Project promotes civil discord and weakens ordinary decent impulses and the sense of fraternity we might feel with our fellow citizens.
With all that counting against it, what is amusing is how Canadians on the left embrace self-loathing, American style. AntiAmerican in his ideology, the Canadian leftist always aspires to become American in spirit. In the 19th century he was an annexationist and an anti-monarchist. In the 1960s he expressed solidarity with the Freedom Riders in Mississippi, while forgetting the cause of Native Canadians closer to home. Today he’s a Critical Race Theorist. They Americans tear down statues? We’ll do the same. While purporting to despise America, no one is more sincerely American or opposed to anything which distinguishes Canada from the United States.
Printed in the Autumn-Winter 2021 edition of The Dorchester Review, pp. 9 - 11.
Frank Buckley teaches at Scalia Law School. His most recent books are American Secession: The Looming Threat of a National Breakup (Encounter Books, 2022) and Curiosity—and Its Twelve Rules for Life, published by Encounter Books, 2021. He is a contributing editor to The Dorchester Review.