Three years late, I’ve decided to wade into the controversy over the New York Times’s 1619 Project, whose goal is to “reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of the United States’ national narrative.” Sometimes it takes me that long — or longer — to think these things through.
The 1619 Project provides a valuable reminder that the United States did not begin in 1776, or 1783, or 1789. It began in the first two decades of the 1600s, more than 150 years before the Declaration of Independence. That century and a half — equivalent to everything that’s happened from Reconstruction to today — was barely noted in my high school history classes. After close attention to the English settlements at Plymouth Rock and Jamestown, the narrative paused a moment at the Salem witch trials and the French and Indian War before plunging into the causes of the Revolution. As the novelist Marilynne Robinson has observed, “The first third of our national life is a virtual blank.”
But that doesn’t mean 1619, when the first Africans were enslaved in Virginia, therefore marks the “true founding” of the United States, as the 1619 Project originally claimed (and the Times has since retracted), or that slavery and African-American contributions were at the “very center” of the national narrative. The center of the national narrative — America’s DNA, if you will — starts with those two English colonies, Plymouth Rock and Jamestown.
In school we were told the founders of Plymouth Rock were called Puritans, and they came to America to practice their religion freely. But we weren’t told why they were called Puritans. It’s because they were so extremely anti-Catholic they deemed the Church of England corrupt for not completely purifying itself of “Popish” rituals and beliefs. England had been engulfed in decades of sectarian persecution and violence (which got worse and culminated in the Civil War of 1642–51). King James did not look favorably on the Puritans’ criticism of his church, so off they sailed. But the Puritans were no more tolerant than the tyrant they fled; within years doctrinal disputes led to (among other things) establishment of the breakaway colony of Rhode Island.
We were told Jamestown was an agricultural project. Not true, at least initially; the first settlers included few experienced farmers. The Jamestown colony was actually a joint venture between King James and wealthy cronies to collect precious metals. The cronies were granted title to the land (as if it were James’s to give) in exchange for “the fifth part only of all the same gold and silver, and the fifteenth part of all the same copper” the colonists found on it. Africans were forcibly shipped to Virginia only after the colonists learned there was no gold, silver, or copper, but there was a fortune to be made cultivating tobacco — and not enough hands to do the work.
So the double helix shaping American identity is composed of Christian fanaticism and greed. Slavery is a consequence of the latter — a primary consequence whose evil can scarcely be exaggerated, but not the “very center” of the country’s founding as asserted by the 1619 Project.
As the English colonies grew and thrived, men of wealth and intellect (many of whom benefitted from slavery) acquainted themselves with Enlightenment thought, which aimed to solve Europe’s religious violence through tolerance and government neutrality and greed through schemas such as those in Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. The nation the Declaration’s signers created is built on those Enlightenment values.
But nurture doesn’t eliminate nature. America’s pre-Enlightenment DNA persists. It underlies what many Americans consider the country’s most egregious faults. And there’s only so much we can do about it. The 150 years since Reconstruction were taught in my history classes. America is not nearly as racist as it was after the Civil War. It’s not nearly as racist as when I was born and Jim Crow still existed. But as we know from our own lives, we can dig and dig to the root of our faults, but there’s no ripping them out entirely. America’s original sins — pre-Enlightenment religious fanaticism and greed — are with us for the long haul. As is racism, no matter how we taxonomize it.