from National Review, 1619 and The Narrative of Despair by Allen Guelzo:
I have been a teacher of American history virtually all my life, and if there is one lesson I have learned from all that, it’s to beware of historical explanations that come down to one single cause. Human events and motivations, like human relationships, are always more complicated than that, and a cause that claims to explain everything usually winds up explaining nothing. In the Middle Ages, people tried to explain the movement of the stars and the planets by putting the earth at the center. When the stars and the planets didn’t behave according to that, they invented more and more elaborate explanations of why the earth had to be the center, until finally all the elaborate explanations broke down of their own weight, and we were ready for Copernicus. Of course, not every all-purpose explanation ends with a whimper. In 1903, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion offered a similar one-cause anti-Semitic explanation for global misery, and that, as the history of the 20th century attests, ended very, very badly.
The experience of slavery explains a number of things about American life; it doesn’t explain everything, because no one thing could. Take The 1619 Project’s contentions one by one, put them under the microscope, and watch them, like every hoarse-voiced conspiracy theory, fall to pieces. Was the Revolution really fought to preserve slavery? Hannah-Jones insists that “Britain had grown deeply conflicted over its role in the barbaric institution,” leading American slaveholders to dread “growing calls to abolish the slave trade” and resort to revolution to save it. (This was an assertion so absurd that even one of the historians Hannah-Jones did consult, Leslie M. Harris of Northwestern University, objected to including it in The 1619 Project, only to be dismissed; Harris went public with her objection, and the New York Times issued a grudging “update.”)
But Hannah-Jones’s follies are not the only ones on display. Sociologist Matthew Desmond’s essay “American Capitalism Is Brutal. You Can Trace That to the Plantation” (on the slavery-based roots of American capitalism) declares that “the cotton houses and slave auction blocks” are “the birth-place of America’s low-road approach to capitalism.” And the proof? Slave plantations used “vertical reporting systems, double-entry record-keeping and precise quantification” to extract the maximum ounce of profit from slave labor; and they were so successful that “New Orleans boasted a denser concentration of banking capital than New York City.”
Except, of course, that double-entry bookkeeping was an innovation of the Italian Renaissance, long before there was any economic system we could call capitalism. Except, of course, that the banking capital of the entire slaveholding South was smaller than that of New York City in 1858. Except, of course, that it was Southern slaveholders who were capitalism’s most energetic critics, declaring in the 1850s that “the unrestricted exploitation of so-called free society is more oppressive to the laborer than domestic slavery.” After all, reasoned the pro-slavery propagandist George Fitzhugh, “the subsistence of a slave is safe; he cannot suffer from insufficient wages, or from want of employment; he has not to save for sickness or old age; he has not to provide for his family.” On those terms, Fitzhugh could boast that “a Southern farm is the beau ideal of Communism,” not capitalism, “where each” in good Marxist fashion “receives not according to his labor, but according to his wants.”
Simplistic theories are worse than worthless. For such a distorted history to win a pulitzer prize only shames the award. Redefining capitalism to include slavery is so absurd on its surface that it makes rebuttal foolish. Free markets include the market for labor.
Capitalism has become a bucket for political fools to hold everything they detest about America. Now they have rewritten history as well.
Slavery in the American experience is worthy of study and analysis; it is a smear on our historical and political culture and is detestable enough in its incontestable reality. There is no need to distort the reality, disregard accuracy and fabricate facts unless your purpose is an agenda other than truth and understanding.