The Left’s cultural revolution is in one of its periodic Jacobin phases: statues defaced, beheaded, burned, and torn down; streets and schools and other things renamed; public spaces occupied by gun-wielding thugs. The iconoclasm has spread from attacks on Confederate monuments to statues of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Christopher Columbus, Ulysses S. Grant, Catholic saints, and even white abolitionists. New York’s American Museum of Natural History is taking down its famous Teddy Roosevelt statue.
New York’s mayor, Bill de Blasio—a man (born Warren Wilhelm, Jr.) who knows something about name changes—is reviewing the racist and/or slave connections of street names. He has already mentioned the avenue named for Robert E. Lee, and is looking for others. Columbus Avenue, Columbia University, the Washington Bridge, maybe even Madison Avenue and Washington Square are not long for this world. Meanwhile, Princeton University intends to rename its Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs because of Wilson’s notorious racism, and several elementary and high schools named for Jefferson are contemplating a re-branding because of his racism and slave ownership. Activists make similar attacks on Washington. There is talk of renaming James Madison College at Michigan State University. Consistency demands that Yale University, named after the slave trader who endowed the institution, also change its name. Perhaps the University of Pennsylvania and Brown University will be renamed, too, since William Penn also owned slaves, and, although the Brown for whom the school is named was an abolitionist, his family had been involved with the slave trade.
If we really wish to remove names associated with slavery, one obvious candidate, and I am hardly the first to mention this, is New York City itself. It was named for James, Duke of York, brother of King Charles II of England. Together, they attacked the Dutch outpost of New Netherland and, after its capture, rechristened it “New York.” Like his brother, James was a would-be tyrant, particularly where the colonies were concerned. After having seen Parliament execute his father, he and his brother had little taste for the growing representative assemblies in the colonies, and tried their best to do away with them. More important for contemporary debates, as the Daily Caller’s Thomas Phippen has noted in his discussion of New York’s name, James masterminded the newly created “Royal African Company” that set out to take the African slave trade from the Dutch.
Ignoring the Possibilities
History is, of course, more complicated than partisans would like it to be. And those complexities have much to teach about today’s “1619 riots,” as Charles R. Kesler called them recently in the New York Post. He notes that the New York Times seized upon 1619 as the year for their rewrite of U.S. history because that’s the year the first slaves arrived in Virginia. Racism is, in the words of Nikole Hannah-Jones, the reporter the Times put in charge of the 1619 Project, “in the very DNA of this country.” But DNA, Kesler notes, is something that cannot be changed. Hence the rhetoric of the 1619 Project is rhetoric of futility. Like bringing democracy to Iraq or a sense of humor to Presbyterians, ending racism in the U.S., from this point of view, is impossible.
Yet the 1619 story rests on false history. For starters, it is not, in fact, clear that the slaves the Dutch brought to Virginia in 1619 were, after their sale, treated as slaves. Slavery did not yet exist in colonial law. Some may very well have been treated as slaves as the term came to be defined, but others probably were not. Good scholars, like Princeton’s Nell Irvin Painter, have argued that they were all servants. The Times, reflecting its ever-growing devotion to “narrative” over facts, simply ignores such possibilities.
That simplification sets up the Times’s account of the American Revolution. The 1619 Project originally asserted that “one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery.” That follows from the “racist DNA” line—the U.S. was created to save slavery from Britain. But it’s fake news. After months of criticism by historians of all political persuasions, a Times update stated: “We recognize that our original language could be read to suggest that protecting slavery was a primary motivation for all of the colonists. The passage has been changed to make clear that this was a primary motivation for some of the colonists.” Since “some” could mean anything from 0.1% to 99.9%, the Times has retreated from a dubious but bold assertion to an unfalsifiable, meaningless one. “We stand behind the basic point,” the Times insisted, either dishonestly or ignorantly. Logically, the Times’s small verbal tweak masks a huge concession, one that shatters a central contention of the 1619 Project.
So what actually happened in 1619? We don’t have enough evidence for there to be a definitive answer. Ditto how slavery grew in the British colonies. It is important to remember the context. In 17th-century Virginia it was common to have lengthy terms of indenture, often much longer than terms would have been in England. And servants were punished with the lash in the same way slaves were. It’s not clear blacks received more brutal punishments than whites in the 1620s. On the other hand, conversion to Christianity probably would void the status of a “slave,” if there was any legal question. (Again, in many cases we simply don’t have clear records to be certain how regularly that rule applied.) Race in our sense of the term did not yet exist. Even in the 18th century, Jill Lepore notes in These Truths: A History of the United States (2018), the English regarded Germans, Italians, Swedes, and others as “swarthy.” If that’s the case, then it’s wildly anachronistic to call Western civilization “white.”
It’s worth remembering that slavery was common across the globe in the 17th century and long after. Even today millions are enslaved. In the same era as the transatlantic slave trade, scholars like Robert Davis (in his Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters, 2003) estimate that between 1,000,000 and 1,250,000 Christians from such countries as Portugal, Spain, Italy, and Southern France were enslaved by Northern African Muslim states (often the infamous Barbary states that Jefferson would attack as president), who worked almost all of them to death on ships. Davis estimates that one fourth had to be replaced each year. Our records being imperfect, Davis’s numbers are not definitive. The key point is that slavery was no minor institution outside of the Americas. But it was somewhat different. For the Muslim states, as for tribes like the Ashanti in Africa that captured and sold thousands of slaves, the justification was not race. Slavery in Africa and the Arab world, like slavery in the ancient world, was evil, though not so pernicious as modern slavery, which would come to be based on dehumanizing ideas about permanent racial castes.
In the Americas, racial caste was added to slavery. And not only in British America. Of the 12-15 million Africans sold into slavery and transported to the Americas, according to Harvard’s Henry Louis Gates, Jr., our best estimate is that a bit less than 400,000 slaves were shipped directly from Africa to what is now the United States, and another 50,000 or so came from elsewhere in the Americas. Other scholars set the total number somewhat higher. In other words, less than 5% of the slaves taken to the Americas went to North America and over 95% went to South and Central America and the West Indies. It was much less common to work slaves to death in the British North American colonies, with the partial exception of the rice plantations of South Carolina in the 18th century (and they were not as horrific as the sugar plantations of the Caribbean). Settled as it was from Barbados rather than England, South Carolina always was different than the rest of British America.
In South America and Central America, there tended to be much more race-mixing. To simplify, there developed a racial hierarchy with white on top and mixed-race in the middle. The Latin American colonies, like Spain and Portugal themselves, were hierarchical aristocratic societies, with a range of levels below the Spanish elite. These colonies had no representative government, and there were no elections in the Americas other than in British colonies. That has had an enduring legacy. Even today Mexico’s ruling class is predominantly white. Cuba, too. Fidel Castro was a “white Hispanic.” A New York Times op-ed from earlier this year noted that “Afro-Cubans have long been pushed to the margins.”
In British colonies, the color line was binary. Whites tended to be equals, and a majority of white male adults could vote in most colonies, but non-whites (both blacks and Indians) were excluded from citizenship. In 1619, however, that situation did not yet exist. Equality before the law has deep roots in English history, even amid England’s history of aristocracy and feudalism. What was new in Virginia was that a racial justification for slavery, and what we now call “racism,” developed, mostly in the second half of the 17th century. The great colonial historian Edmund Morgan noted in his book American Slavery, American Freedom (1975) that “before 1660, it might have been difficult to distinguish race prejudice from class prejudice.” (Morgan used the term “might” advisedly. Historians are still debating the point.) Scholars have weighed in since Morgan, but they have not cast his nuanced point into doubt.
Painter, who takes the “servant” side of the 1619 debate, summarized it this way last August in an article for the Guardian:
Enslavement was a process that took place step by step, after the mid-17th century. This process of turning “servants” from Africa into racialized workers enslaved for life occurred in the 1660s to 1680s through a succession of Virginia laws that decreed that a child’s status followed that of its mother and that baptism did not automatically confer emancipation. By the end of the seventeenth century, Africans had indeed been marked off by race in law as chattel to be bought, sold, traded, inherited and serve as collateral for business and debt services. This was not already the case in 1619.
Three things happened after 1660. First, the colony became a much healthier place to be as the colonists settled in and learned how to live well in the climate. They built more fixed houses. They planted orchards to ensure there was something safe to drink. In general the “Wild West” style of life disappeared. Economically speaking, it became more reasonable to buy a slave who would live for many years, as opposed to a servant who was less expensive due to his limited term of service. It’s no surprise then that the number of slaves went up exponentially, from a relative handful in 1660 to a significant portion of the population of Virginia by 1700. Second, the legislatures of the Chesapeake colonies (Virginia and Maryland) passed a host of laws that formalized the racial caste system of America’s South. Virginia banned interracial marriage. In 1669 Virginia’s legislature made it legal for a master to kill a slave when punishing him. (The legal fiction was that no master would do that intentionally. The Northern colonies with slaves, incidentally, did not allow this.) In general, as Painter and Morgan note, in a series of laws enacted after 1660 the colonists formally distinguished between white and non-white, and between servant and slave. As a result, a binary racial hierarchy was established in law and in practice and ultimately entrenched in British America, particularly in the South but also to a great degree in the North.
Maybe the Times should have called its effort the 1669 Project. Pegging a renewed effort to wrestle with America’s racial failings to that year would have reminded us that modern slavery and racism in British America were created by specific acts by specific men. Because racial caste did not arrive in Virginia in 1619, it is not, in that sense, in America’s DNA.
But what about race in the long term? Can what sociologist Gunnar Myrdal called “the American Dilemma” be solved? Jefferson was among the pessimists. He was also among America’s first scientific racists. In his Notes on the State of Virginia (1785) he applied the science of natural history (the precursor of Charles Darwin’s work in many ways) to race and found that blacks were probably intellectually inferior, but not morally inferior, to whites. And he discussed physical differences. It’s truly horrifying stuff. Whatever differences might or might not exist between white and black, they did not and could not justify slavery. Elsewhere in the same book, Jefferson declared slavery a grievous wrong: “Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever…. The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest.” But emancipation, he thought, must lead directly to separation, to sending freed blacks off to live in their own states or colonies. The racial-cultural wound was too deep to ever heal.
It will probably be asked, Why not retain and incorporate the blacks into the state, and thus save the expense of supplying, by importation of white settlers, the vacancies they will leave? Deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained; new provocations; the real distinctions which nature has made; and many other circumstances, will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race.
That was what we might call the Southern progressive view. In his racial prejudice and belief in progress, Woodrow Wilson was arguably Jefferson’s heir. But Wilson seemed to lack Jefferson’s doubts about black inferiority. In Wilson’s day, like Jefferson’s, the latest science was used to justify race prejudice. Recall the racial hierarchy described in the textbook at the heart of the 1925 Scopes Trial:
At the present time there exist upon the earth five races or varieties of man, each very different from the other in instincts, social customs, and, to an extent, in structure. These are the Ethiopian or negro type, originating in Africa; the Malay or brown race, from the islands of the Pacific; the American Indian; the Mongolian or yellow race, including the natives of China, Japan, and the Eskimos; and finally, the highest type of all, the Caucasians, represented by the civilized white inhabitants of Europe and America.
Eugenics was, in many ways, a Progressive project, which reminds us that science is an amoral tool. That only Justice Pierce Butler dissented in Buck v. Bell (1927), which allowed the state to impose compulsory sterilization on the mentally handicapped, shows too that support for eugenics was not confined to Progressives.
To find a different, more hopeful and helpful tradition, one with a more appealing moral philosophy at its heart, we need only return to 1776. From the start Americans wrestled with the problem of bringing the idea of equality into practice. In 1783, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts looked at the “Declaration of Rights” of the recently ratified state Constitution and declared that the language “all men are born free and equal” meant an end to slavery in the state. (The language came from the Virginia Declaration of Rights, drafted by George Mason, one of Jefferson’s sources for the Declaration of Independence. But Virginia would add the qualifier “when they enter into a state of society” to prevent Virginia’s courts from doing what Massachusetts’s court did.) By 1800 all Northern states has passed laws ending slavery. And in 1787 the U.S. government banned slavery in the northwest.
Things were different in the South. No major Founding Fathers defended slavery. Many did not know how to end it in the South without attacking government by consent of the governed. In time more and more anti-slavery advocates grew frustrated. The result was a strange ideological confluence between radical abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison and radical Southern states’ rights/pro-slavery theorists like John C. Calhoun. Both sides thought the Constitution was, fundamentally, a pro-slavery document. On a parallel track, defenders of slavery, or even those like Stephen Douglas who took what we might call the “pro-choice” view of slavery in the territories, argued that the Declaration of Independence proclaimed rights for white men only. Chief Justice Roger Taney took the same view in his infamous Dred Scott v. Sandford opinion (1857). Frederick Douglass, the black abolitionist writer, orator, and former slave, was, at first, allied with Garrison. He soon left Garrison’s camp, declaring “I am sick and tired of arguing on the slaveholders’ side.”
Unlike Garrison, Douglass recognized that the U.S. was not a slaveholding republic, and the Constitution, rightly interpreted, is not a pro-slavery document. So much for slavery being in our DNA. As for the Declaration, Lincoln and Douglass, and later Martin Luther King, Jr., held that the Declaration was, as King put it, a “promissory note.” Not surprisingly, Douglass is virtually absent from the 1619 Project. To make its fatalistic point, the Times has to silence his voice. To recover Douglass’s voice, we must recognize that the Declaration put anti-slavery and anti-racism, not slavery and racism, into the republic’s DNA.
Jefferson knew what he was doing in 1776. In his original draft, as Hillsdale College political scientist Thomas West noted in a 2004 essay, he called the rights “sacred and undeniable.” Then, discussing the slave trade, Jefferson denounced the king because “He has waged cruel War against human Nature itself, violating its most sacred Rights of Life & Liberty.” And at the end he speaks of “our sacred Honor.” In other words, the word “sacred” is the key to the text, beginning, middle, and end. The idea of all men being created equal was to be the “sacred” idea at the heart of the new American Union. Many things Jefferson said about race are, to say the least, deeply problematic, but he was right on the issue of paramount importance. The transcendent truth of human equality is what makes America America. The changes Congress made to Jefferson’s text do not change that in the least.
The Man Who Made New York
That brings us back to New York. It pains the native New Yorker in me to say it, but if names have to keep up with the times, then, surely, the Times has to change its name. New York State, New York City, and the New York Times ought not to glorify James, Duke of York, notorious slave trader that he was. Do woke New York Times reporters really want to work at an institution named for such a man? Isn’t it a trigger just to walk into a building bearing that name? Apparently, New York City is finally going to remove the tiles in the Times Square subway station that may or may not represent a Confederate Flag. Surely it’s time the paper itself followed suit.
What might replace “New York”? One option for New York City would be to adopt the city’s nickname, “Gotham.” As Gotham is an old English term for the village of idiots (the English used to tell humorous stories about “the wise men of Gotham”) there’s a certain logic to that. But perhaps that’s beyond the pale. Why not turn to DeWitt Clinton, the man who truly made New York the “Empire State”? Clinton served as either the city’s mayor or the state’s governor for most of the quarter-century from 1803 to 1828.
Clinton’s vision and skill were crucial to completing the Erie Canal. By connecting New York City with Buffalo and the Great Lakes, it linked America’s East Coast with the Mississippi River. If one single thing made America’s large, republican union functional as a polity it was the Erie Canal. What’s more, it symbolizes what made the North stronger than the South. Thanks to Clinton’s work, slavery was responsible for only 5% (not the 50% some leftists claim) of U.S. economic activity. Clinton’s importance used to be more recognized: in the 19th century, his picture was on our currency (a $1,000 bill). His name is worth honoring again. So let New York State and City be re-christened “Clinton.” Then the New York Times would be known forever by the name it could have adopted during the 2016 presidential campaign: the Clinton Daily.