The American Project

You’ve probably heard of the “1619 Project”, even if you’ve never read it. I have a subscription to The New York Times but avoid the weekly magazine section. That’s where a series of articles was published last year to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the first Black slaves being brought to Virginia in August 1619. The Project’s other purpose was to show the many ways slavery has affected this country up to the present day.

The 1619 Project has been celebrated and criticized and used by Republicans for their usual nefarious purposes. The Washington Post has an interesting article called “How the 1619 Project Took Over 2020”. The title is an exaggeration but the article nicely summarizes how a series in the Times Sunday magazine became a big deal.

Americans, being citizens of a forward-looking country, are relatively ignorant of our history, so any significant effort to inform us about our nation’s proud but checkered past, like the 1619 Project, is a positive development. 

What went wrong in this case is that the Times writer, Nikole Hannah-Jones, who initiated the project and won a Pulitzer Price for her efforts, wrote this:

One of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery” [at a time when] “Britain had grown deeply conflicted over its role in the barbaric institution.

A well-known Princeton historian, Sean Wilentz, strongly objected to this characterization. From the Washington Post article: 

This, Wilentz argues, is patently false: Other than a few lonely voices, England remained committed to the slave trade in 1776. The abolitionist movement didn’t take hold in London for more than a decade — and then it was inspired by anti-slavery opinions emerging from America.

Professor Wilentz and three other historians wrote a letter to the Times and the controversy took off from there, exacerbated as usual by right-wingers, including, of course, our Controversialist-In-Chief. The controversy could probably have been short-circuited early on except for the actions of an egotistical Times editor, who overreacted to the historians’ letter, viewing it as an attack on the entire project instead of acknowledging the error. (Egotism and refusal to admit error are defining characteristics of Times editors.)

The Times has a statement saying “the 1619 Project is an ongoing initiative from The New York Times Magazine . . . [that] aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative”. It’s hard to overestimate the importance of those consequences and contributions. I remember reading Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul On Ice in college and being shocked when he said the relationship between Black and White Americans was central to this country’s history. The more I’ve learned about America, the more I’ve agreed with him. (I wish I could find his exact words. Is it predictable that there is no Kindle edition of Soul On Ice?). 

Yet the language that upset the historians, including the statement that “we may never have revolted against Britain if some of the founders had not . . . believed that independence was required in order to ensure that slavery would continue” remains. That’s odd for what the Times says is “an ongoing initiative” (see “egotism and refusal to admit error”).  Meanwhile, Republicans claim Democrats all believe the United States began in 1619, not 1776.

Reading about the 1619 Project today got me thinking about America’s founding. That led me to a site run by the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, “an educational agency of the Commonwealth of Virginia”. Although Spanish explorers founded our longest lasting city, St. Augustine, Florida, in 1565, it’s generally agreed that the arrival of the English in Virginia’s Jamestown marked the beginning of what became the United States. Here’s some of the chronology from the Jamestown-Yorktown site:

1570-1  Spanish Jesuits set up a mission on the York River . . . Within six months, the Spaniards were killed by local Indians.

1585-7  Three separate voyages sent English explorers and settlers to the coast of what is now North Carolina, then known as Virginia. John White, who . . . had gone back to England for supplies, returned in 1590 and found no trace of the settlers.

1607  On May 13, nearly five months after departing from England, an expedition of 104 colonists arrived at a site on the James River selected for settlement. . . . The group named their settlement for King James I.

1608  Captain Christopher Newport, . . . who had sailed back to England, returned to Virginia in January with settlers and goods. It was the first of a series of regular arrivals in the colony.

1613  Pocahontas, a daughter of Powhatan, powerful leader of 30-some Indian tribes in coastal Virginia, was kidnapped by the English.

1619  The first representative legislative assembly in British America met at Jamestown on July 30. The first documented people of African origin in Virginia arrived in late summer aboard an English ship flying Dutch colors.

Wow. Notice that last sentence? The Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation is missing something, or maybe these “people of African origin” arrived in Virginia because they’d heard about the so-called “New World” and wanted to check it out for themselves.

Putting aside the racists in charge of the Jamestown chronology, or rather taking note of their attempt to whitewash history, I wondered how we should remember America’s founding. Although we tend to think it was an event, it was actually a process. In fact, we might say the process continues.

1607  An English expedition settled in Jamestown.

1619  The first African slaves were brought to America.

1620  The Plymouth colony was established in Massachusetts.

1763  The French and Indian War ended.

1776  The Declaration of Independence was adopted in Philadelphia.

1781  The British surrendered at Yorktown, ending the Revolutionary War 

1788  The Constitution was ratified, taking effect in 1789.

1791  The Bill of Rights was ratified.

1803  The United States and France agreed to the Louisiana Purchase.

1830  The Indian Removal Act became law (leading to, among other things, the Trail of Tears)

1865  The Civil War ended.

1868  The 14th Amendment, guaranteeing citizenship and equal protection under the law to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States”, was adopted.

1869  The transcontinental railroad was completed.

1920 The 19th Amendment, allowing women to vote, was adopted.

1924  The Indian Citizenship Act was passed (because the 14th Amendment wasn’t enough).

1933-1939  The New Deal was enacted.

1964 The Civil Rights Act, prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin, became law.

1965 The Voting Rights Act was passed (although Republicans on the Supreme Court improperly declared it unnecessary in 2013)

2016 A Black American was elected president.

Other milestones along our path to becoming the United States of America are yet to occur. (It’s 19 days until the first Tuesday in November.)

Relevant Comments from the Last Century

Ken Makin of the Christian Science Monitor says that, at times like this, it’s too easy to quote the final words of Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, when King looked forward to the day “all of God’s children … will be able to join hands and sing … Free at last! Thank God almighty, we’re free at last!” Mr. Makin suggests we remember some of Dr. King’s other, more specific words.

From his last book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?:

Ever since the birth of our nation, white America has had a schizophrenic personality on the question of race. She has been torn between selves – a self in which she proudly professed the great principles of democracy and a self in which she sadly practiced the antithesis of democracy. This tragic duality has produced a strange indecisiveness and ambivalence toward the Negro, causing America to take a step backward simultaneously with every step forward on the question of racial justice, to be at once attracted to the Negro and repelled by him, to love and to hate him. There has never been a solid, unified, and determined thrust to make justice a reality for Afro-Americans.

From his final speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”, delivered in Memphis, Tennessee, the day before he was shot:

Let us keep the issues where they are. The issue is injustice. The issue is the refusal of Memphis to be fair and honest in its dealings with its public servants, who happen to be sanitation workers. Now, we’ve got to keep attention on that. That’s always the problem with a little violence. You know what happened the other day, and the press dealt only with the window-breaking. I read the articles. They very seldom got around to mentioning the fact that one thousand, three hundred sanitation workers were on strike, and that Memphis is not being fair to them, and that Mayor Loeb is in dire need of a doctor [the mayor being one of our “sick white brothers”]. They didn’t get around to that.

And from the “I Have a Dream” speech five years earlier:

It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. And those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. And there will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.

Understanding Identity Politics

If you’ve heard the phrase “identity politics” and think maybe liberals and progressives engage in it too often, this long article by Sarah Churchwell, a professor at the University of London, will put your mind at ease. She shows how identity has been key to American politics since colonial times:

We hear a great deal these days about how the right’s hostility to “identity politics” . . . enabled the rise of Donald Trump. In this framing, the election of 2016 was a populist backlash of ordinary voters against an increasingly aberrant left that has allowed itself to be distracted by narrow questions about groups whose niche concerns do not rightly pertain to the proper functioning of democracy. Their identity-based complaints are marginalizing the left, leaving it out of touch with the troubles of Middle Americans, who primarily worry about how to pay the bills….

This argument is made not only on the right. Liberal academics . . . have recently chided progressives for championing causes like Black Lives Matter and transgender rights, thus provoking . . . the “left-behind” Trump voters. The counterblast from these left-behind Americans will, they argue, defeat progressivism, which needs to get practical and focus on regaining power through calls to commonality, rather than difference . . . because identity politics “absolves liberals of not recognizing how their own obsession with diversity has encouraged white, rural, religious Americans to think of themselves as a disadvantaged group whose identity is being threatened or ignored…. they are reacting against the omnipresent rhetoric of identity, which is what they mean by ‘political correctness’. . .”

The good news for anyone feeling perturbed is that it simply isn’t true that identity politics represents the end of America or of liberal democracy. Nor is it true that identity politics began on the left … The United States was founded on identity politics, per The Economist’s description: political positions based on ethnicity, race, sexuality, and religion. There are no pre-identity politics, just as there are no pre-identity economics, in a country in which political, economic, and legal rights were only ever granted to some identity groups and not to others. The only thing new about “the omnipresent rhetoric of identity” is the voices that have been added to it, reshaping it in ways that alarm and affront those who used to be its sole authors. But it was always omnipresent.

Virtually every major event in the long and troubled history of the United States was a direct consequence of identity politics. Start whenever you think America begins, and power struggles based on identity will be staring you in the face, starting with the genocide and forced resettlement of indigenous peoples by European migrants. A handful of those migrants, traveling on the Mayflower, called themselves “Separatists” and decided to start a new society based on their religious beliefs, in which church membership would be a requirement of political representation. That’s identity politics.

Black people were enslaved, white people were free: it takes a colossal set of blinders to keep from seeing that as identity politics. Political judgments and legal decisions based on identity underwrote white supremacy from the start: measuring African Americans as three-fifths of a human is identity politics, a logic that led to the one-drop rule, the Dred Scott decision, Jim Crow segregation, and the Birther movement, to name just a few of the most consequential instances. Electoral colleges were established in order to solve the “problem of the Negroes,” as James Madison put it, rigging the number of electors a state received in order to put a white supremacist thumb on the constitutional scale. Insofar as identity politics helped elect Donald Trump, electoral colleges seem a more proximate cause than debates over gender-neutral bathrooms.

That The Economist did not even notice that its checklist of identity politics skipped gender altogether is both ironic and typical. In 1776, Abigail Adams famously pleaded with her husband to “Remember the Ladies” in drafting the nation’s new code of laws. [She warned him] against putting “unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands” because “all Men would be tyrants if they could”…. John Adams replied by telling her thanks, but he preferred male privilege: “We know better than to repeal our masculine systems.” The masculine systems established by the framers meant that women didn’t get the vote until 1920, still earn a fraction of what men earn, and remain subject to a state asserting control over their bodies that it doesn’t assert over male bodies. That is identity politics.

Prof. Churchwell goes on to examine the history of populism and anti-elitism in America, and the notion of the “common man”:

From Jefferson’s ideal of the yeoman farmer to Jackson’s resourceful frontiersman, from the rugged individualist cowboy to the blue-collar steel worker, this was the nation’s backbone, the salt of the earth: national identity forged through a mythic conceptualization of the “common man” as a “real American” who lived in the “heartland” or, as time went on, “Middle America.” These rhetorical associations continually cemented the idea that there was something central to American life about this particular identity, while other identities were marginal, fringe, extreme, or alien.

By the twenty-first century, . . . [two Republican] candidates in a row were elected in part because they successfully deployed the populist stylings and demeanor of the “common man,” despite their inherited wealth and elite education.

Her conclusion:

Difference is a fact of life, to which divisiveness is only one response. Inclusiveness is another: not just tolerating but celebrating difference, fighting for the rights of all, not just the few. To be a truly representative democracy, America will need to stop thinking in terms of the representative common man.

She recommends thinking in terms of common decency instead.

Personal Memoirs by Ulysses S. Grant

Ulysses S. Grant (1822 – 1885) rose to become the commanding general of the Union forces in the Civil War. In 1865, after defeating Robert E. Lee, he accepted Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House. In 1869, he became the 18th president of the United States. He served two terms. In 1884, he was diagnosed with cancer. To provide for his family, he immediately began writing this memoir. He died a few days after finishing it. From Wikipedia:

Grant’s memoirs treat his early life and time in the Mexican–American War briefly and are inclusive of his life up to the end of the Civil War. The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, was a critical and commercial success. [His wife] Julia Grant received about $450,000 in royalties….The memoir has been highly regarded by the public, military historians, and literary critics…. He candidly depicted his battles against both the Confederates and internal army foes. Twain called the Memoirs a “literary masterpiece.” Given over a century of favorable literary analysis, reviewer Mark Perry states that the Memoirs are “the most significant work” of American non-fiction.

 

Grant was a wonderful writer. His language is elegant but easy to understand. The book should be of interest to anyone who wants to learn about the Civil War, but also to anyone who wants to appreciate the complexities involved in leading a massive army. Grant’s comments on the nature of the Southern rebellion are especially interesting. He appreciated the skill and bravery of his opponents, but makes it clear that they were fighting for a terrible cause.

The only problem I had with the book is that there are lengthy descriptions of large and small-scale troop movements. Grant describes how troops were deployed in individual battles as well as the movement of armies containing as many as 80,000 soldiers. The problem is that it’s hard to understand what’s happening without being familiar with the geography of both individual battles and the Southern states. The maps in this edition were useless. I would have loved to hear Grant’s words while watching an animated video showing what he was describing.

Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America by Richard Rorty

This short book from 1998 by the philosopher Richard Rorty gained attention recently because of this passage:

… members of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers — themselves desperately afraid of being downsized — are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.

At that point, something will crack. The non-suburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for — someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots. …

One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past 40 years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion. … All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet [89-90].

Given our recent election, that sounds right in some respects. I’d make a few points, however. Democratic politicians have tried to increase wages for the working class and keep more jobs at home but have run into strong Republican opposition; it’s unlikely that 40 years of gains for various minorities (and for women) are unlikely to be wiped out any time soon; and the “strong man” we currently have isn’t actually strong, was rejected by most voters and is already highly unpopular. 

But the real focus of Rorty’s book is leftist thought in the 20th century. He draws a distinction between the “reformist” left and the “cultural” left. America’s left wing was dedicated to reform from the 19th century up until the 1960s.  Left-wing politicians, labor leaders, activists and intellectuals saw the United States as a land of promise. Rorty cites Walt Whitman and John Dewey as two proponents of this basically pro-American point of view. They were aware of many problems but believed those problems could be addressed through incremental reforms, eventually resulting in a country that lived up to its ideals. In Rorty’s words, they were dedicated to “achieving our country”. 

Rorty argues that the left lost its faith in America’s promise in reaction to the Vietnam War. Incremental reform was no longer enough. It was wasted effort, because America was too far gone. American culture needed to be remade. “The people” needed to take control in revolutionary fashion. Rorty says left-wing intellectuals began to focus on “the system” instead of fighting for specific reforms. In addition, too much emphasis was put on what’s now called “identity” politics:

To take pride in being black or gay is an entirely reasonable response to the sadistic humiliation to which one has been subjected. But insofar as this pride prevents someone from also taking pride in being an American citizen, from thinking of his or her country as capable of reform, or from being able to join with straights or whites in reformist initiatives, it is a political disaster. 

Rorty concludes that we should admit America’s faults but see ourselves as agents rather than spectators:

Our national character is still in the making. Few in 1897 would have predicted the Progressive Movement, the forty-hour work week, Women’s Suffrage, the New Deal, the Civil Rights Movement…. Nobody in 1997 can know that America will not, in the course of the next century, witness even greater moral progress.

Whitman and Dewey … wanted to put shared utopian dreams – dreams of an ideally decent and civilized society – in the place of knowledge of God’s Will, Moral Law, the Laws of History, or the Facts of Science. Their party, the party of hope, made twentieth-century America more than just an economic and military giant. Without the American Left, we might still be strong and brave, but nobody would have suggested that we were good. As long as we have a functioning political left, we still have a chance to achieve our country, to make it the country of Whitman’s and Dewey’s dreams.

I think that Rorty, spending his days in academia, over-emphasized the intellectual left-wing at the expense of the politicians and activists who continued to fight for reform in the late 20th century and continue fighting today. But the book was still worth reading for its analysis of Whitman’s and Dewey’s political ideals and the distinction Rorty draws between the reformist and the cultural left.