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 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.)