What ‘The Times’ Got Wrong About Slavery in America

The New York Times recently drew a lot of attention for its “1619 Project” initiative, which has been criticized for misrepresenting the role of the slave trade as the central core to the development of the United States. The Times “aims to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.

The project name purportedly refers to the date the first African slaves were brought to the English colonies that later became the United States. Like much else in the Times’ version of the role of slavery in American history, even the project name is rooted in distortion. Although the institution of slavery is a stain on national history, the true story is much more complex than the Times represents, and the United States plays a role both as a country that exploited the slave trade as well as a leader in the movement to end the African slave trade, and was not the primary instigator or beneficiary of the brutal trade.

1619 was not, in fact, the date of the first African slaves in the English colonies — those Africans were brought in under indenturement contracts, not bought as slaves. They were contracted to a fixed period of labor (typically five years) to pay for the cost charged by the Dutch slavers, at which point they were freed with a payment of a start-up endowment.

Indenturement Contracts, Not Slaves

This was not unusual or limited to Africans – approximately half of the 500,000 European immigrants to the thirteen colonies prior to 1775 paid for their passage with indenturement contracts. Anthony Johnson, a black Angolan, was typical – he entered Virginia as an indentured servant in 1621, became a free man after the term of his contract, acquired land, and became among the first actual slaveholders in the colonies.

[The New York Times Rewrites American History]

The first actual African slave in the colonies was John Punch, an indentured servant sentenced to slavery in 1640 in Virginia by the General Court of the Governor’s Council for having violated his indenturement contract by fleeing to Maryland. In 1641, the Massachusetts Assembly passed the first statutory law allowing slavery of those who were prisoners of war, sold themselves into slavery, or were sentenced to slavery by the courts, but banning it under other circumstances.

Early slavery, like indenturement contracts, was not specifically targeted at those of African descent. The Massachusetts law was primarily intended to allow slavery of captured Indians in the aftermath of King Phillip’s War. The 1705 Virginia Slave Codes, for example, declared as slaves those purchased from abroad who were not Christian. A Christian African entering the colony, for example, would not be a slave — but a captured American Indian who was not a Christian would be.

Black vs. Black

Ironically, a freed black man initiated the court case that moved slavery to a race-based institution. The Angolan immigrant Anthony Johnson was the plaintiff is a key civil case, where the Northampton Court in 1654 declared after the expiration of the indenturement contract of his African servant John Casor that Johnson owned Casor “for life,” nullifying the protections of the contract for the servant and essentially establishing the civil precedent for the enslavement of all African indentured servants by declaring that a contract for such servants extended for life, rather than the fixed term in the contract.

It was not until 1662 that the children of such slaves became legally slaves rather than free men, in a law passed in Virginia. The African slave trade itself was minor until King Charles II established the Royal African Company with a monopoly on the slave trade to the colonies. As late as 1735, the Colony of Georgia passed a law outlawing slavery, which was repealed due to a labor shortage in 1750. The boom in the import of slaves actually began around 1725, with half of all imported slaves arriving between then and the onset of the American Revolution in 1775.

Relatively speaking, the United States was a minor player in the African Slave Trade — only about 5% of the Africans imported to the New World came to the United States. Of the 10.7 million Africans who survived the ocean voyage, a mere 388,000 were shipped directly to North America. The largest recipients of imported African slaves were Brazil, Cuba. Jamaica, and the other Caribbean colonies. The lifespan of those brought into what is now the United States vastly exceeded those of the other 95%, and the United States was the only purchaser of African slaves where the population grew naturally in slavery – the death rate among the rest was higher than the birth rate.

While the institution, even in the United States was a brutal violation of basic human rights, it tended on average to be far more humane than in the rest of the New World.

The World Slave Trade

The Trans-Saharan and Indian Ocean African slave trade, which began by Arabs as early as the 8th Century AD, dwarfed the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and continued up to the 20th Century. Between the start of the Atlantic Slave Trade and 1900, it is estimated that the eastern-bound Arab slave traders sold over 17 million Africans into slavery in the Middle East and India, compared to about 12 million to the new world – and the Eastern-bound slave trade had been ongoing for at least 600 years at the START of that period.

The Western-bound Atlantic slave trade, contrary to the misrepresentation in “Roots,” did not involve the capture of free Africans by Europeans or Arabs, but by the trading of slaves (already a basis for the economy of the local animist or Muslim kingdoms) captured in local wars to Western merchants in exchange for Western goods. The first such slaves brought to the Western Hemisphere were brought by the Spanish to their colonies in Cuba and Hispaniola in 1501, almost a century and a half before the first slave in the English colonies that became the United States.

The last African state to outlaw slavery, Mauritania, did not do so until 2007, and if the institution is illegal on the continent de jure, it still is widespread de facto in Mauritania, Chad, Mali, Niger, and Sudan, as well as parts of Ghana, Benin, Togo Gabon, Angola, South Africa, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, Cameroon, Libya, and Nigeria.

The contradictions slavery posed on the rebel colonies during the Revolution sparked a backlash against slavery and the slave trade. Colonel John Laurens, son of a large South Carolina slaveholder, noted the contradictions in 1776, stating that “I think we Americans at least in the Southern Colonies, cannot contend with a good Grace, for Liberty, until we shall have enfranchised our Slaves. How can we whose Jealousy has been alarm’d more at the Name of Oppression sometimes than at the Reality, reconcile to our spirited Assertions of the Rights of Mankind, the galling abject Slavery of our negroes. . . . If as some pretend, but I am persuaded more thro’ interest, than from Conviction, the Culture of the Ground with us cannot be carried on without African Slaves, Let us fly it as a hateful Country, and say ubi Libertas ibi Patria.”

The US Constitution Leads the World in Banning the Slave Trade 

More shared that sentiment, and the first law in the European world to ban the slave trade was, in fact, the US Constitution, which in 1787 included language allowing the slave trade to be outlawed as of 1808 with the understanding that Congress would act on it at that time. In Massachusetts, a 1783 court decision ended slavery, and all of the Northern States had passed emancipations laws by 1803. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 outlawed slavery in territories north of the Ohio River. Other countries followed suit. Denmark-Norway banned the slave trade in 1803, but not slavery until 1848. Britain passed a law abolishing the slave trade in 1807, and enforced it with the Royal Navy, and abolished slavery itself in 1833.

In 1807, Congress passed legislation making the import of slaves to the United States a federal crime, and in 1820, Congress passed the Law on Slave Trade, which went beyond the British law in declaring slavers as pirates, punishable by death instead of mere fines – and the US Navy joined the Royal Navy in active interdiction of slave ships.

Economically, the institution of slavery, rather than develop the economy of the new nation, stunted its development. Although bonded labor, whether slave or indentured servant, clearly played an important role in developing a labor force in the early colonial days, its role in the advancement of the economy in the newly established country is questionable. Gavin Wright, in his classic book The Political Economy of the Cotton South, shows in fact that slavery hindered the development of the economy in those states where it remained legal. The artisans, tradesmen, and unskilled labor pool necessary for developing a thriving, diverse economy were discouraged by competition from bonded labor, and the slave-owning class showed little interest in such an economy.

How Slavery Stalled the Economy of the New Country

Increasingly, the economy came to be dominated by cotton monoculture, boosted by the invention of the cotton gin, and the value of the capital invested in slaves. In order to maintain the value of this capital investment, demand for slave labor needed to be maintained, which led to the slaveholding states demanding the opening of new lands for slave cultivation. Wright shows that, contrary to the assertions of many modern critics who try to claim that slavery was responsible for the development of the US economy and to the mistaken belief of secessionists prior to the Civil War, cotton was not King, but rather the greatest return from slaveholding was the capital increase from the reproduction of slaves.

Without new lands to be worked by the expanding slave population, the price of slaves would fall, and the wealth of the ruling classes in the Southern states would have plummeted. Thus, issues like the Wilmot Proviso or Kansas-Nebraska Act, which threatened to close off the expansion of lands to be worked by slaves, posed an existential threat to the wealth of the slaveholders. Meanwhile, unencumbered by the institution of slavery, those states that abolished the institution and emancipated existing slaves embraced other forms of generating wealth, including a manufacturing economy that rapidly outpaced that of the slave states. The Civil War was, in large part, won because of the economy of free labor produced at rates that the economy of slave labor could not imagine. In fact, it was not until the abolishment of the Jim Crow laws preserving vestiges of the slave system that the economy of the New South truly began to take off.

While undoubtedly the issue of slavery and conflicts over its contradiction with the ideals of the new Republic shaped the political debates of the new country through the Civil War, it is going too far to assert that the slave trade and slavery were the central core of the development of the United States. Rather, it is more true to state that the ideals of the Anglo-Scottish Enlightenment and political beliefs shaped by the English Civil War and Glorious Revolution created an environment that exposed the immorality of slavery and established the political grounds for ending the slave trade, and eventually the institution of slavery in areas of Western European influence.

It was not a simple process, and required painful conflict to negotiate the conflicts and contradictions between the liberal ideal and the self-interest of those who owned human chattel, but ultimately rather than allow slavery to drive the growth of the nation, the new United States became a leader, along with their cousins in the Anglosphere, in the efforts to end the brutal and illiberal practice of slavery.

The New York Times does a disservice to its readers with the 1619 Project by presenting a simplistic and misleading story of the complex role that the institution of slavery played in the history of the United States, and it largely ignores the role that the underlying values of the Anglo-Scottish Enlightenment that undergird the new nation played in ending slavery and the slave trade.

(This article was updated on October 10, 2019.)

George Avery

George Avery

George Avery is a health policy and economics researcher currently working with a private consulting firm. He earned a Ph.D. in Health Services Research, Policy, and Administration from the University of Minnesota. He was a faculty member at Purdue University and the University of Minnesota at Duluth.

34 thoughts on “What ‘The Times’ Got Wrong About Slavery in America

  1. Wow. Your article is full of half truths and outright omissions that render it useless and distorted. For instance, you mention John Punch as the first slave but completely omit the first slave owner. I’ll help you out with that. It was Hugh Gwyn, a White man. You purposely omit that in order to plant the idea that it was a Black man, Anthony Johnson. This glaring and deliberate omission exemplifies your actual agenda. Also America was no pioneer in ending slavery. Great Britain beat you handily in that endeavor.

    White lies don’t matter.

  2. Many thanks goes to George Avery for writing a factual account of slavery in America. Most Americans who are grounded in reality, will agree that Marxists have bet on the wrong horse, when they chose African Americans as their pet project to garner more mileage out from the traditional duo of guilt & shame. Two of the most poignant emotions, which they rely on to produce hate, discontent and a communist state. Black behavior has probably caused baleful results for leftists, who have sadly misjudged their imagined allies. Thanks again, and kind regards. Keep writing the truth! d. t. hughes

  3. Dr. Avery,
    Thank you for this informative (and much-needed) corrective account. There is, however, one mistake in your own account. The US Constitution did not ban the slave trade beginning in 1808. What the Article I, section 9 clause did was to empower Congress to ban the trade, which Congress did, at the behest of President Jefferson, at the earliest permissible date.

    1. Thanks!

      The error is entirely my own. You are correct that it did not ban it outright, although the intent was to serve as a compromise between the newer plantation states and those that wanted it banned outright, with the understanding that it was only a delay in an inevitable ban. The issue does, however, support my larger argument that the story of slavery is not the black-and-white portrayal in the Times articles, but rather a more complex and interesting story of how the conflict between ideals and the economics of slave labor evolved.

  4. The Times use of 1619 is wrong for another reason: Native Americans had been engaged in holding slaves for centuries before Columbus set foot on North American soil.
    But then again, if you come from a mindset that papers over the sins of dark skinned people who practice slavery in the current era, maybe it really doesn’t matter.

  5. There seems to be an internationally orchestrated movement to falsify history and exploit White-Christian guilt to present the USA, Canada, New Zealand and Australia as illegitimate “settler states”, responsible for genocide and slavery, and the UK, France, Denmark, Germany, Italy and other west European countries, as illegitimate beneficiaries of slavery, colonialism, apartheid and/or genocide. This is a form of racist collectivism, but “only white[skin]s can be racist” because we are ipso facto privileged. It serves the purpose of undermining our national sovereignty and identity, and establishing a false case for “reparations” to and “immigration” by peoples “of color”. There are white people who from various motives collaborate with or even direct this process.

  6. The NYT also neglects to mention how horrific working conditions in the North often were. Something like half of early telephone linemen were electrocuted on the job, railroad workers were routinely run over by trains or killed by exploding boilers, and construction workers routinely fell to their deaths. Etc….

    1. What you mentioned is due to lack of technology. It is no way a reflection on employers. I would be willing to bet that you believe that OSHA is responsible for the decline of injury rates in the U.S., but you would be wrong. Technology is responsible for the decline in injury rates. Employers have always been looking to decrease injuries as they are counter productive to their bottom line.

      1. You remind me of a point I used to make to my public health students – I showed them a graph of the decline of infectious disease mortality in the 20th century with markers indicating vaccine introductions and antibiotic availability. Almost all of the reduction occurred BEFORE the availability of medical interventions – infectious disease mortality fell due to economic improvements, food safety innovations, chlorination of drinking water, and measures taken to reduce exposure to vector-borne diseases like malaria. Medical care had almost nothing to do with reducing infectious disease deaths.

  7. Mr. Avery,

    thank you very much for such a clear exposition of the Truth regarding Slavery in America. We need more voices like your own, to stand up against the neo-Marxist left who constantly use Race to foment division and strife between Americans.

    It’s high time the American Black community turned away from the Sharptons, Jacksons, and Cummings of their current, so-called “leadership” and looked instead to the American leadership (yes, I’ve purposely left the almost ubiquitous “African” hyphenation out) for guidance.

    Men like Thomas Sowell, Clarence Thomas, Walter Williams. Examples like Dr. Ben Carson. Warrior/Leaders like Col. Allen West. And especially, the new young leaders like the incomparable Candace Owens.

    All these aforementioned persons are NOT hyphenated-Americans; they are Americans! They love this country, THEIR country, as do you and I. They love Truth, the Constitution, and the great, unique exceptionalism that marks the American Spirit, and that comes not from the left’s paean to diversity and multiculturalism, but from the core values which as a child, I remember we Americans strove for. As Americans, not as members of subdivisions based on class, color, creed.

    With men and women such as these, I have hope that the constant onslaught by the left against all that is good in America — the banging of the drum for reparations, for re-branding of America’s past, for constantly “keeping Whitey on the Hook”, that serves the hate-America left’s goal to keep us divided — will one day be turned back, defeated, and destroyed. I see the tide turning against the left, Mr. Avery, and your article adds to that sense of hope!

    En Libertad,

    Coguard / Trumbull CT

    1. Thanks. That was my intended point – that while slavery was an undoubted evil, its role in US history is much more complicated and painted with shades of grey than the simplistic black and white political sound bite that they try to portray. This is not a defense of slavery, but a call for a an examination with open eyes and open minds of both the good and evil in history.

  8. Bravo. Thank you for emphasis on the ideas of the Enlightenment, Glorious Revolution and revivals for the background of the American Revolution and English Government and the impact on the institution of slavery. Also Wilberforce and the Abolitionists made slavery a moral issue instead of just an economic or political one.
    The current moral revisionists of history should be celebrating the moral changes that occurred in the US and England that have lead the world in the past 400 years. Instead they bemoan the fact that our ancestors were not morally pure by today’s standards. Humans are never good at moral purity and any expectation of such is a fantasy.

  9. the new York times version the of slave trade will always be whatever suits the new York times political agenda. never expect the truth from a communist, a people that don’t even believe in the concept of truth.

  10. what happen to the story saying that Dutch ship with African people on board was boarded by privateers. The Africans were then “sold” to the Virginians (paid for with food).

    Another story is the first slaves were brought here by the Spanish over 100 years prior to 1619

    I’d like to read what a real History guy has to say on the matter

    1. Not my first history work – I published a paper in a journal 25 years ago on the politics of Ouachita County, Arkansas in the secession crisis of 1860-1861 (the county population consisted of almost 40% slaves and was a center of cotton commerce in the Red River Valley, but voted Unionist), have done a number of talks at meetings on the way that Union Army medical reforms in the Civil War were diffused to the civilian world and modernized healthcare, published a book chapter on how Kaiser-type HMOs played a role in 20th century health policy development, and also published some work on military medical civic action that did a historical review of the implementation and effectiveness of such programs.

  11. Dr. Avery, thank you for this very thoughtful article. Too many have stood back and allowed dishonest academics and activists take over the historical narrative of the nation’s founding. I served as the Historian & Curator of the Alamo for the last 23 years. I counter the white vs brown and stolen land manta by showing that what was happening in Mexico was a result of struggles set off by the Enlightenment’s promise of replacing the monarch/centralist form of government with the republic. As a historian and educator, I believe it is incumbent on me and others to make history both understandable and relevant. Thanks, again.
    Dr. Bruce Winders

  12. Thank you for a very well written and enlightening article which lays out a difficult subject in an informative interesting read. Again I commend you and say thank you. This country needs some true history lessons. I pray this is read by many and more like it will be written. Well done.

  13. Given how politically biased and fraudulent the NY Times has become, I doubt that they got anything remotely right, as all they peddle is democrat propaganda.

  14. What you should bring out is WHY it was changed from indentured servant to slave. The main problem was cultural. Most of the Blacks that ended their Indentured time, went back to living as they did in Africa. All the stereotypes of Blacks seem to stem from that time. The Blacks only worked when they had to, they had little feeling for property (crops in the field, chickens running loose, etc). The GOOD People could not stand these childish people. They needed someone to look after them because they couldn’t stay out of trouble on their own. So the GOOD People came up with a solution Slavery. It was a clash of cultures and the Blacks Lost. Those Black that did change their culture became members of society and prospered. The Slavery only came about because of the clash of cultures.

  15. You conclude this piece by saying that “The New York Times does a disservice to its readers with the 1619 Project by presenting a simplistic and misleading story of the complex role that the institution of slavery played in the history of the United States, and it largely ignores the role that the underlying values of the Anglo-Scottish Enlightenment that undergird the new nation played in ending slavery and the slave trade.”

    You can fill in almost any topic for the “1619 Project” and “the institution of slavery,” and your indictment of the New York Times will remain true.

    The so-called “newspaper of record” and “grey lady” has become the journal of discord and is a senescent lady.

  16. Fantastic and obviously informed article. I learned a few new things as well.

    While it is obviously our moral duty to hate the institution of slavery at all times, the current emphasis of so many on the Left in trying to tie the whole establishment and success of our government and society to that institution is obviously an error of extreme bias and power-seeking at the highest level.

    Yes, we are imperfect. And, yes, our American predecessors on this land were imperfect as well. But, that is no reason to turn around, in Jacobin fashion, and pillory the entire American project that has brought our citizens and the rest of the world unprecedented benefit and the raising of the ideals of political equality (not absolute economic equality) everywhere.

    1. Thank you – and you nailed my intentions with your comments. It is always rewarding to have readers understand what you are trying to say.

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