The New York Times’ “1619 Project” asserts that slavery has contaminated every aspect of American life from the beginning, which “The Gray Lady” proclaims as 1619, when the first Negro slaves landed in America and a year before the Puritans came to what is now Massachusetts, proclaiming their desire to build “a city on a hill” to light the way for the old world.
The New York Times has devoted huge resources to its 1619 Project—an extremely ambitious attempt to “reframe the country’s history by placing slavery at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.” The media outlet is not only wrong in reassigning the year of America’s birth, but also in stating that slavery defines every aspect of our nation from the beginning. This is an absurd and dangerous claim.
Why the commitment to such an endeavor? The New York Times believes that slavery was far more than America’s original sin; “It is the country’s very origin.” Therefore, they conclude, “out of slavery grew nearly everything that has truly made America exceptional.” Certainly, slavery and the terrible aftermath of Jim Crow segregation have powerfully impacted America and Americans—black Americans most of all—and they still impact us.
As William Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” However, The New York Times is engaging in revisionist history of the worst sort. Slavery was not at the very center of the American project from the beginning, and it is not foundational to every aspect of American life. Slavery has never defined the country, and its vision of itself, as it morphed from the “city on a hill” to the “last best hope of earth.” In fact, America is the first nation in world history not based on race or ethnicity, but on the belief “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” We are still trying to live out that vision and fulfill that promise. That is why so many people from all around the world still want to come here so badly.
The Washington Examiner’s Byron York observes, “the basic thrust of the 1619 project is that everything in American history is explained by slavery and race.” One example from The Times: “If you want to understand the brutality of American capitalism, you have to start on the plantation.” One can acknowledge, as I do, that every plantation should be viewed as a slave labor camp and still not believe it defined American capitalism, which is the envy of the world and has produced more wealth for more people than any other system ever devised on this planet.
America did not begin in 1619. American civilization developed along the Atlantic seaboard of North America with the Puritans in New England; the Dutch, the British and the Quakers in the middle colonies; and the British and French Huguenots in the South—as well as Native-Americans, Jews, and African-Americans (slave and free) in all three regions. By 1776, a distinct English-speaking civilization had developed in what was to become America. And while it was certainly impacted in terrible ways by the evil of slavery and the racism slavery required, they were not the defining character of this new, unique country. Our American founders envisioned a nation where “all men are created equal”—an ideal we are still striving to completely realize today and tomorrow.
Even as Englishmen bound by the blind spots of their time and place in history, these forefathers envisioned a new kind of nation where “all men were created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these were Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Even in their time, many of them knew that slavery was wrong. The Declaration’s chief author, Thomas Jefferson, himself a slaveholder, declared in words carved into the marble of the Jefferson Memorial, “God who gave us life gave us liberty. … I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that His justice cannot sleep forever. Commerce between master and slave is despotism. Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free.”
In the darkest days of the Civil War, when over 300,000 young American men were sacrificing all their tomorrows to end the evil of slavery, President Lincoln declared, “We hope that the mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled up by the bondsman’s 250 years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword … the judgements of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
Lincoln understood. In his Annual Message to Congress in 1862 he declared, “In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free. … We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.”
Yes, slavery and racism have been terrible serpents in our midst from the beginning, but they have never defined who we are. The great American film director Billy Wilder—an Austrian immigrant who fled the Nazis—once said, “You’re only as good as the best thing you’ve ever done.” Our founders’ vision, proclaimed in 1776 and solidified in 1787, is the best thing any nation has ever done, as we commenced the long journey toward implementing that vision, fulfilling those promises and inspiring much of the world to follow our lead.
That vision of “all men are created equal” has inspired untold millions from around the globe for more than two centuries, including a former slave, Frederick Douglass, the descendants of former slaves, such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Justice Clarence Thomas, and multitudes of people of all ethnicities to make America truly the “land of the free and the home of the brave.” John C. Calhoun, George Wallace, and Lester Maddox are in America’s rearview mirror. Millions of us, Anglo-American, Hispanic-American, Asian-American, and African-American, will never abandon our pursuit of the full realization of Dr. King’s dream of a country, and a world, where we are “not judged by the color of our skin but by the content of our character.”
While we are informed by the ghosts that haunt our history, never let us be distracted from our ultimate goal of fully achieving the American dream.
Dr. Richard Land is president of Southern Evangelical Seminary, serves on President Donald Trump’s faith advisory board, and wrote his Princeton thesis on the subject of slavery in America (1840-1865).