Prominent Historians and New York Times Official’s Comments About The 1619 Project    

As explained in a prior post, in August 2019, the New York Times Magazine published what it called “The 1619 Project” to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the first slaves brought to the British Colonies in North America and to “reframe American  history by considering . . . 1619 as our nation’s birth year . . . when a ship arrived . . . in the British colony of Virginia, bearing a cargo of 20 to 30 enslaved Africans [and inaugurating] a barbaric system of chattel slavery that would last for the next 250 years. . . . Out of slavery—and the anti-black racism it required—grew nearly everything that has truly made America exceptional.” It also claimed, “One of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery.”[1]

Historians’ Letter to Times[2]

Sean Wilentz (the George Henry Davis 1886 professor of American history, Princeton University) and four other prominent American historians[3] in a letter to the New York Times Magazine applauded “all efforts to address the enduring centrality of slavery and racism in our history” while saying The 1619 Project raised “profound, unsettling questions about slavery and the nation’s past and present” and was “a praiseworthy and urgent public service.”

Nevertheless, these historians expressed “strong reservations about important aspects” of the Project, including its intent “to offer a new version of American history in which slavery and white supremacy become the dominant organizing themes.”

These historians also were “dismayed at some of the factual errors in the project and the closed processes behind it.” Moreover, they asserted, “these errors, which concern major events, cannot be described as interpretation or ‘framing.’ They are matters of verifiable fact, which are the foundation of both honest scholarship and honest journalism. They suggest a displacement of historical understanding by ideology.”

This critique continued. “On the American Revolution, pivotal to any account of our history, the project asserts that the founders declared the colonies’ independence of Britain ‘in order to ensure slavery would continue.’ This is not true. If supportable, the allegation would be astounding — yet every statement offered by the project to validate it is false. Some of the other material in the project is distorted, including the claim that “for the most part, black Americans have fought their freedom struggles ‘alone.’”

“Still other material [in the Project] is misleading. The project criticizes Abraham Lincoln’s views on racial equality but ignores his conviction that the Declaration of Independence proclaimed universal equality, for blacks as well as whites, a view he upheld repeatedly against powerful white supremacists who opposed him. The project also ignores Lincoln’s agreement with Frederick Douglass that the Constitution was, in Douglass’s words, ‘a GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT.’ Instead, the project asserts that the United States was founded on racial slavery, an argument rejected by a majority of abolitionists . . . [while being] proclaimed by champions of slavery like John C. Calhoun.”

“The 1619 Project has not been presented as the views of individual writers — views that in some cases, as on the supposed direct connections between slavery and modern corporate practices, have so far failed to establish any empirical veracity or reliability and have been seriously challenged by other historians. Instead, the project is offered as an authoritative account that bears the imprimatur and credibility of The New York Times. Those connected with the project have assured the public that its materials were shaped by a panel of historians and have been scrupulously fact-checked. Yet the process remains opaque. The names of only some of the historians involved have been released, and the extent of their involvement as ‘consultants’ and fact checkers remains vague. The selective transparency deepens our concern.”

“We ask that The Times, according to its own high standards of accuracy and truth, issue prominent corrections of all the errors and distortions presented in The 1619 Project. We also ask for the removal of these mistakes from any materials destined for use in schools, as well as in all further publications, including books bearing the name of The New York Times. We ask finally that The Times reveal fully the process through which the historical materials were and continue to be assembled, checked and authenticated.”

Response by the Magazine’s Editor-in-Chief[4]

Jake Silverstein, Editor in Chief of the Magazine, disagreed “with . . .  [these historians’] claim that our project contains significant factual errors and is driven by ideology rather than historical understanding. While we welcome criticism, we don’t believe that the request for corrections to The 1619 Project is warranted.”

“The project was intended to address the marginalization of African-American history in the telling of our national story and examine the legacy of slavery in contemporary American life.” In so doing, the Times “consulted with numerous scholars of African-American history and related fields” plus independent research by the authors of the articles in the Project and more consultation with “subject-area experts.” In addition, “as the five letter-writers well know, there are often debates, even among subject-area experts, about how to see the past.”

For example, other historians support “the contention that uneasiness among slaveholders in the colonies about growing antislavery sentiment in Britain and increasing imperial regulation helped motivate the [American] Revolution.” One main reason for this uneasiness was the 1772 decision of the British high court that slavery was unlawful because it was not supported by English common law. Although this case “did not legally threaten slavery in the colonies,” it along with the 1775 Dunmore Proclamation by the colonial governor of Virginia offering freedom to any enslaved person who fled and joined the British Army were major reasons for slave owners to support the Revolution.

The Times believes that it is important to have a wide-ranging discussion of the many issues around slavery and its continuing impact on America, involving “academics with differing perspectives,” and the Times will be pursuing such discussions.

Conclusion

We now have two recent articles about slavery and antislavery forces involved in creating the U.S. Constitution and Government by Sean Wilentz, who was one of the five historians who wrote the above letter about The 1619 Project.[5] They provide some of the historians’ reasons for their criticism of The Project.

Foremost was Wilentz’ assertion that although slavery is important, if not central, to American history, the United States was defined, from the start, neither by American slavery alone or by American antislavery but in their conflict” and “few things if any in modern history were more unexpected than the eradication of human bondage in the Atlantic world.”

Wilentz focuses on the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and the conflicts between the small states and big states, between the states-rights proponents and the strong national government supporters and between the slavery and anti-slavery advocates and the resulting necessity for compromises prompted by their mutual belief that all of the colonies needed to be in one national government under a Constitution that was endorsed by the Convention for submittal to the states for ratification.

Some of those compromises favored the slave-holding states: no abolition of slavery in the document and an implicit bar on the new national government’s direct interference with slavery where it already existed; counting 3/5th of the slaves for representation in the House of Representative and Electoral College; a fugitive slave clause; and prevention of abolition of foreign slave trade until 1808.

Other compromises favored the anti-slavery forces: refusal to recognize slavery in national law; the national power to regulate or ban slavery in territories under national purview; and the right to ban foreign slave trade after 1808.

The Project, however, focuses in part on the causes for the Revolutionary War of 1775-83 and its claim “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.” Wilentz flatly says this is “simply untrue. Neither the British government nor the British people were ‘deeply conflicted’ over slavery” in this period. Yes, a British court in 1772 did hold slavery illegal in Britain, but this decision did not affect many slaves in that country and had no effect on the country’s foreign slave trade.[6]

The arguments of Wilentz are persuasive, but The 1619 Project should continue by encouraging scholarly and citizen debate over slavery and racism in the U.S.

============================================

[1] Evaluation of the Report of the U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights and Its Endorsement by Secretary Pompeo, dwkcommentaries.com (Aug. 3, 2020).

[2] Bynum, McPherson, Oakes, Wilentz & Wood, We Respond to the Historians Who Critiqued The 1619 Project, N.Y. Times Magazine (Dec. 29, 2019; updated Jan. 4, 2020).

[3] The other authors of the letter were Victoria Bynum, distinguished emerita professor of history, Texas State University; James M. McPherson, George Henry Davis 1886 emeritus professor of American history, Princeton University; James Oakes, distinguished professor, the Graduate Center, the City University of New York; and Gordon S. Wood, Alva O. Wade University emeritus professor and emeritus professor of history, Brown University.

[4] Editor’s Response, N.Y. Times Magazine (Dec. 29, 2019).

[5] See Historian Wilentz’ Response to Senator Tom Cotton on the Issue of Slavery, dwkcommentaries.com (Aug. 11, 2020).

[6] Wilentz, American Slavery and ‘the Relentless Unforeseen,’ N.Y. Review of Books (Nov. 19, 2019).

 

Historian Wilentz’ Response to Senator Tom Cotton on the Issue of Slavery 

U.S. Senator Tom Cotton (Rep., AR) recently has been criticizing The 1619 Project ‘of the New York Times. The Project, he said, was “a racially divisive, revisionist account . . . that denies the noble principles of freedom and equality on which the nation was founded” although slavery “was the necessary evil upon which the union was built.”[1] The latter comment was made by the Senator in a recent interview by Tucker Carlson of FoxNews, in which Cotton claimed to draw support from prominent American historians, one of whom was Sean Wilentz of Princeton University.

Wilentz’ Response to Cotton[2]

Although four other American historians and I have “fundamental publicized objections to the project, . . . these in no way mitigate Cotton’s serious misrepresentations of the historical record for evident political gain.”

“Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, has introduced a bill in Congress that would punish school districts that use The New York Times’s 1619 Project in their curriculum by withholding federal funding. In so doing, he announced in a newspaper interview that America’s schoolchildren need to learn that the nation’s Founders said slavery ‘was the necessary evil upon which the union was built.’ His statement is as preposterous as it is false: presuming to clarify American history, Cotton has grievously distorted it.”

“None of the delegates who framed the Constitution in 1787 called slavery a ‘necessary evil.’ Some of them called slavery an evil, but not a necessary one. Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania, for example, declared to the Constitutional Convention that he would ‘never concur in upholding domestic slavery,’ that ‘nefarious institution’ based on ‘the most cruel bondages’—’the curse of heaven on the states where it prevailed.’ The great majority of the Framers joined Morris in fighting to ensure that slavery would be excluded from national law.”

“James Madison, the most influential delegate at the convention, explicitly repudiated the idea of building the union on slavery, stating that it would be ‘wrong to admit in the Constitution the idea that there could be property in men.’ Though himself a slaveholder, Madison wanted to guarantee that the Constitution, while it might tolerate slavery in the states where it existed, would neither enshrine human bondage in national law nor recognize it as legitimate.”

“A minority of the Framers, from the lower South, disagreed, but they believed slavery was no evil at all. ‘If slavery be wrong,’ Charles Pinckney of South Carolina declared, ‘it is justified by the example of all the world.’ Far from a necessary evil, Pinckney thought slavery was a necessary good, as it had been for time immemorial. ‘In all ages,’ he claimed, ‘one half of mankind have been slaves.’”

“There was, to be sure, one delegate who resembled Senator Cotton’s description: Pinckney’s cousin, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, also from South Carolina. At one point in the convention debates, a perturbed Cotesworth Pinckney registered a complaint, seeming to desire, Madison noted, ‘that some provision should be included in favor of property in slaves.’ That would have based the Union firmly on the constitutional right of slavery. And Cotesworth Pinckney did come close to calling slavery a necessary evil, noting that without it the Carolina economy could not survive (which was technically correct). But the convention majority, far from agreeing with anything he said, dismissed his objection out of hand.”

“The Constitution was hardly an antislavery document. Through fierce debates and by means of backroom deals, the lower South slaveholders managed to win compromises that offered some protection to slavery in the states: the notorious three-fifths clause giving an allotment of House seats and Electoral College votes based on a partial counting of enslaved persons; a twenty-year delay in authorizing Congress to abolish the nation’s involvement in the Atlantic slave trade; and a fugitive slave clause. Most importantly, the Constitution by implication barred the new federal government from directly interfering with slavery in the states where it already existed.”

“But neither did the Constitution, as Senator Cotton wrongly claims, establish slavery as necessary to the Union. It’s true that a few proslavery delegates threatened that their states would refuse to join the Union unless their demands were met. This occurred with particular force with regard to the Atlantic slave trade. A majority of convention delegates wanted to empower the national government to abolish the horrific trade, striking the first blow against it anywhere in the Atlantic world in the name of a sovereign state. Appalled, the lower South delegates, led by South Carolina’s oligarchs, threatened to bolt if the convention touched the slave trade in any way, but the majority called their bluff.”

“In the end, the proslavery delegates carved out the compromise that prevented abolishing the trade until 1808, salvaging a significant concession, though there could be little doubt that the trade was doomed. Even with this compromise, the leading Pennsylvania abolitionist Benjamin Rush hailed the slave trade clause as ‘a great point obtained from the Southern States.’ His fellow Pennsylvanian and a delegate to convention, James Wilson, went so far as to say that the Constitution laid ‘the foundation for banishing slavery out of this country.’”

“History, of course, proved Wilson wrong—but not completely wrong. With the rise of the cotton economy, based on the invention of the cotton gin, which Wilson could not have foreseen, American slavery was far from stymied, but grew to become the mightiest and most expansive slavery regime on earth, engulfing further territories—including Cotton’s own Arkansas.”

“The Framers’ compromises over slavery had little to do with it, however. The problem was not primarily constitutional but political: so long as a substantial number of Northerners remained either complacent about slavery’s future, indifferent to the institution’s oppression, or complicit in the growth of the new cotton kingdom, the Constitution would permit the spread of human bondage.”

“Even so, in fact, the Constitution contained powerful antislavery potential. By refusing to recognize slavery in national law, the Framers gave the national government the power to regulate or ban slavery in areas under its purview, notably the national territories not yet constituted as separate states. The same year that the Framers met, the existing Congress banned slavery from the existing territories north of the Ohio River under the Northwest Ordinance, a measure reflected in the Constitution, which the new Congress quickly affirmed when it met in 1789. Later antislavery champions, including Abraham Lincoln, always considered the Northwest Ordinance to be organic to the Constitution; proslavery advocates came to regard it as an illegitimate nullity.”

“In time, as antislavery sentiment built in the North, the condition of slavery in the territories and in connection with the admission of new states became the major flashpoint of conflict, from the Missouri crisis of 1819–1821 to the guerrilla warfare of ‘Bleeding Kansas.’ Proslavery champions like John C. Calhoun of South Carolina invented an argument that denied the Congress any power over slavery in the territories; Lincoln and his fellow Republicans refuted that argument. And upon Lincoln’s election as president in 1860, this constitutional issue was enough to spark the secession that led to the Civil War and Emancipation.”

Senator Cotton has some mistaken things to say about that history, too. The Framers, he asserts, built the Constitution ‘in a way, as Lincoln said, to put slavery on the course to its ultimate extinction.’ This absurdly imputes to the Framers powers of clairvoyance. Although Lincoln sometimes suggested that the Framers had purposefully designed slavery’s abolition—even Lincoln could wishfully exaggerate—the Constitution hardly ensured slavery’s doom. It took Lincoln’s and the antislavery Republicans’ concerted political efforts to vindicate the Constitution’s antislavery elements that set the stage for what Lincoln in his ‘House Divided’ speech of 1858 called ‘ultimate extinction.’”

“Far from establishing a Union based on what Senator Cotton calls the ‘necessary evil’ of slavery, the Founders fought bitterly over human enslavement, producing a document that gave slavery some protection even as it denied slavery national status and gave the federal government the power to restrict its growth—and so hasten its demise. The slaveholders, unable to abide that power, eventually seceded in an effort to form a new slaveholders’ republic, with a new Constitution built entirely on slavery: its cornerstone, as the Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens declaimed, was ‘the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery—subordination to the superior race—is his natural and normal condition.’”

“As far as a Union founded on the ‘necessary evil’ of slavery is concerned, Cotton appears unaware of how profoundly the Constitution of the United States of America differed from that of the Confederate States of America.”

Wilentz’ Longer Account of the U.S. History of Slavery[3]

In November 2019, Wilentz, delivering the fourth annual Lecture in honor of Philip Roth, drew upon the novelist’s insight that history was “the relentless unfolding of the unforeseen” or “where everything unexpected in its own time is chronicled on the page [of history] as inevitable.” For “the centrality of slavery to American history,” Wilentz says, “the United States was defined, from the start, neither by American slavery alone or by American antislavery but in their conflict” and “few things if any in modern history were more unexpected than the eradication of human bondage in the Atlantic world.”

This was so even though “the ideals that propelled the American Revolution shared crucial origins with the ideals that propelled antislavery. Yet American slavery did not die out as most expected” with “revolutionary America” as a “hotbed of antislavery politics.” In fact, slavery “expanded, turning the American South into the most dynamic and ambitious slavery regime in the world” with “slaveowners [stiffening ] their resolve to affirm their property rights in human beings” and coming “perilously close to establishing an American empire of slavery.”

Conclusion

These ideas of Wilentz help us understand why he and the other four prominent American historians dissented from at least one of the major premises of The Project of 1619, which will be discussed in a future post.[4]

Although I was a history major many years ago at Grinnell College, I do not have the intimate knowledge of the slavery and antislavery conflicts that are discussed by Professor Welentz. Nevertheless, I wonder whether he is overreacting to Senator Cotton’s comment.

The Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia convened in 1787 to consider whether and how to amend the existing Articles of Confederation after Alexander Hamilton’s report on the  unsuccessful attempt to do so at the Annapolis Conference of 1786 coupled with his forceful criticism of those Articles and recommendation of the calling of a convention to “render the constitution of the federal government adequate to the exigencies of the union.”[5]

For the first two months or so of the Constitutional Convention there were debates between delegates from large and small states, between those favoring states-rights and those wanting a strong national government. “By the end of June the convention seemed in danger of dissolving, with nothing accomplished.” That, however, was prevented when the Convention accepted a proposal by Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut (“the Great Compromise”) for equal representation of the states in the Senate and proportional representation by population in the House. Thereafter other compromises were reached, including counting three-fifths of the slaves for representation in the House.[6]

In other words, many compromises were necessary in order to obtain agreement on the new Constitution before it could be submitted to the states for ratification. Some of those compromises accommodated slavery while others did not. As Wilentz said, the Constitution “gave slavery some protection even as it denied slavery national status and gave the federal government the power to restrict its growth—and so hasten its demise.” In short, compromises with the evil of slavery were necessary in order to create the new Constitution.

=============================

[1] Evaluation of the Report of the U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights and Its Endorsement by Secretary Pompeo, dwkcommentaries.com (Aug. 3, 2020);  Senator Cotton Continues Criticism of The 1619 Project, dwkcommenataries.com (Aug. 10, 2020).

[2] Wilentz, What Tom Cotton Gets So Wrong About Slavery and the Constitution, N.Y. Review of Books (Aug. 3, 2020).

[3] Wilentz, American Slavery and ‘the Relentless Unforeseen,’ N.Y. Review of Books (Nov. 19, 2019).

[4]  See Historian Wilentz and New York Times Editor Exchange Views About The 1619 Project, dwkcommentaries.com (forthcoming Aug. –, 2020).

[5] Williams, Current & Freidel, A History of the United States [To 1876], pp. 170-72  (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1959.) (This is my book from college and comments from others with more detailed knowledge of the Constitutional Convention are solicited.)

[6] Id. at 172-77.

Senator Cotton Continues Criticism of the 1619 Project 

In a July 30th interview by Tucker Carlson of Fox News, U.S. Senator Tom Cotton (Rep., AR) reiterated his attack on The 1619 Project of the New York Times. [1]

The Senator told Carlson, “The 1619 Project is a radical work of historical revisionism aiming to indoctrinate our kids to hate America. To teach them that America was founded not on the natural equality of mankind and the freedom that flows from that as the [Declaration of Independence] . . . says but rather founded on racism. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Cotton added, “The 1619 Project debunked by leading historians of the era like Sean Wilentz, and Gordon Wood, and James McPherson. . . . And some of those are liberals. Even the lead author recently admitted in response to my legislation that The 1619 Project is not a work of history, it’s a work of journalism. I would say it’s a work activism. But your tax dollars should not be going to fund an effort to teach our kids to hate America. ‘The New York Times’ should not teach American history to our kids.”

Conclusion

These comments by the Senator  have prompted objections by one of the referenced historians, Sean Wilentz, which will be examined in a future post while yet another future post will examine  previous criticisms of the Project by Wilentz and four other leading American historians and the response thereto by the Times’ editor of the Project.

========================

[1] Schwartz, Sen. Cotton: “The 1619 Project” A Radical Work of Historical Revisionism That Aims To Indoctrinate Kids, RealClear Politics (July 30, 2020). Senator Cotton’s previous criticism of The 1619 Project and his proposed legislation to prevent its being used in U.S. public schools  is discussed in a prior post. (Evaluation of the Report of the U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights and Its Endorsement by Secretary Pompeo, dwkcommenbtaries.com (Aug. 3, 2020).)

 

 

 

Evaluation of the Report of the U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights and Its Endorsement by Secretary Pompeo  

The Draft Report of the U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights and its immediate endorsement by Secretary Pompeo raise many issues.[1]

Here is an evaluation of three of those issues: (1)  property rights and religious freedom as the alleged paramount human rights; (2) the report’s skepticism of new and additional rights; and (3) Pompeo’s exceedingly hostile criticism of the New York Times’ “The 1619 Project.”

 Property Rights and Religious Freedom[2]

Looking at the Commission’s Report for the first time, I was shocked to read, “Foremost among the unalienable rights that government is established to secure, from the founders’ point of view, are property rights and religious liberty,” neither of which is specifically mentioned in the U.S. Declaration of Independence as an inalienable right. Moreover, the Report did not purport to document the bases for this conclusion other than inserting these unconvincing statements:

  • “For the founders, property refers not only to physical goods and the fruit of one’s labor but also encompasses life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. They assumed, following philosopher John Locke, that the protection of property rights benefits all by increasing the incentive for producing goods and delivering services desired by others.”
  • “‘The benefits of property rights, though, are not only pecuniary. Protection of property rights is also central to the effective exercise of positive rights and to the pursuit of happiness in family, community, and worship. Without the ability to maintain control over one’s labor, goods, land, home, and other material possessions, one can neither enjoy individual rights nor can society build a common life. Moreover, the choices we make about what and how to produce, exchange, distribute, and consume can be tightly bound up with the kinds of human beings we wish to become. Not least, the right of private property sustains a sphere generally off limits to government, a sphere in which individuals, their families, and the communities they form can pursue happiness in peace and prosperity.”

The Report then immediately and properly admits the inconsistency between the purported status of property rights as a “foremost inalienable right” and the existence of slavery when the Declaration of Independence was adopted in 1776.  Here is that admission: “The importance that the founders attached to private property only compounds the affront to unalienable rights involved at America’s founding in treating fellow human beings as property.”

In addition, the concept of property rights is not mentioned in the Report’s earlier assertions about the origins of the American concept of unalienable rights from three traditions: “Protestant Christianity, widely practiced by the citizenry at the time, was infused with the beautiful Biblical teachings that every human being is imbued with dignity and bears responsibilities toward fellow human beings, because each is made in the image of God. The civic republican ideal, rooted in classical Rome, stressed that freedom and equality under law depend on an ethical citizenry that embraces the obligations of self-government. And classical liberalism put at the front and center of politics the moral premise that human beings are by nature free and equal, which strengthened the political conviction that legitimate government derives from the consent of the governed.”

The shock of this designation of alleged “foremost” human rights makes one wonder whether it was a last-minute insertion, perhaps by Secretary Pompeo himself, who said in his speech immediately after the presentation of the Commission Report, ““The report emphasizes foremost among these rights are property rights and religious liberty. No one can enjoy the pursuit of happiness if you cannot own the fruits of your own labor, and no society – no society can retain its legitimacy or a virtuous character without religious freedom. (Emphasis added.)

Many commentators have attacked the contention that property rights and religious freedom were the “foremost” rights.

Daniel W. Drezner, a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, asserts that “there are obvious elements of liberty  . . that are disconnected from any conventional understanding of property rights concept. The First Amendment right to peaceably assemble, for example, seems like a core aspect of liberty and yet does not quite work as a property right per se.” In addition, when the Report refers to rights that are “fundamental” and “core concept” and “absolute or nearly so” rights, it refers to the right to vote, human dignity and the prohibition against genocide and makes no connection to property rights or religious rights.

Another critique came from Akila Radhakrishnan, the president of the Global Justice Center, an international human rights organization. He said, “You’re seeing the rise of autocrats across the world. You’re giving a gift to those people, and not only taking away U.S. leadership, but giving them and feeding them arguments they’ve long been making as well.”

U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (Dem., NJ), criticized Pompeo’s designation of property rights and religious liberty as “foremost” rights while other rights were less important. This argument, the Senator said, purports to justify “the  rollback of hard-won advances for the rights of women, girls, and LGBTQ persons” and “does not  call on the U.S. Government to champion greater protections for all human rights abroad, but may in fact narrow the scope of U.S. human rights obligations and further erode America’s moral and global leadership.”  This Report, therefore, “will undermine long-standing, internationally-recognized human rights principles and a human rights framework which prior U.S. presidents and administrations have championed for decades, regardless of party.”

The Report’s elevation of religious freedom presented problems to Rori Kramer, the director of U.S. advocacy for American Jewish World Service and a former deputy assistant secretary of state and a senior foreign policy adviser in the U.S. Senate.  This decision “purposefully [confuses] the individual freedom to worship with a state license to advance a particular religious agenda [and] is a gross misreading of the United States’ founding document.”

Kramer added, the Report and Pompeo do not reveal the promotion of Pompeo’s own religious agenda that  “downplays threats to the human rights of the world’s most vulnerable groups, such as women and LGBTQI+ people.” Indeed, Pompeo’s State Department already has removed “references to sexual and reproductive health from international resolutions and statements, as well as from the work of the department itself. And he has dramatically expanded the global gag rule, the draconian policy which prohibits foreign organizations receiving U.S. funding from providing any kind of information, referrals or services about abortion.”

Tarah Demant, director of the gender, sexuality and identity program at Amnesty International USA, said: “The US government cannot unilaterally redefine which human rights will be respected and which will be ignored. The U.S. State Department’s effort to cherry-pick rights in order to deny some their human rights is a dangerous political stunt that could spark a race to the bottom by human rights-abusing governments around the world.”

A more general critique of the idea of too many subgroups demanding rights came from Elisa Massimino, the 2019-2020 Robert F. Drinan, S.J., Chair in Human Rights at Georgetown University Law Center and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress., and  Alexandra Schmitt, a policy analyst at the Center for American Progress. They say the UDHR’s preamble expressly recognizes the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights” of all humans and makes clear that all of them are interrelated and must be treated as indivisible in order to fulfill the promise of human dignity. It is a simple and radical document — a Magna Carta for all humankind.”

Therefore, Massimino and Schmitt say, “What the global human rights movement needs right now is for the United States to fully embrace the universality and indivisibility of human rights as set out in the Universal Declaration, provide a full-throated defense of human rights abroad and engage in an honest effort to address deep and persistent rights violations at home. It’s clear that Pompeo has no intention of leading such an effort; to the contrary, he is actively undermining it. To the extent that he tries to leverage the commission’s report as cover for his campaign to “prioritize” freedom of religion over other universal rights, American officials — and Congress, in particular — must be prepared to push back.”

Skepticism of Additional Rights[3]

The Report and Pompeo are skeptical of claims for additional rights, both domestically in U.S. law and in international treaties.

The Report puts it in this manner: “The effort to shut down legitimate debate by recasting contestable policy preferences as fixed and unquestionable human rights imperatives promotes intolerance, impedes reconciliation, devalues core rights, and denies rights in the name of rights. In sum, the [U.S.] should be open to, but cautious in, endorsing new claims of human rights.”  Who could be against caution?

Pompeo also was indirect. He said, “Our dedication to unalienable rights doesn’t mean we have the capacity to tackle all human rights violations everywhere and at all times. Indeed, our pursuit of justice may clash with hard political realities that thwart effective action.” And “Americans have . . . positive rights, rights granted by governments, courts, multilateral bodies. Many are worth defending in light of our founding; others aren’t. . . . Prioritizing which rights to defend is also hard.. That’s a lot of rights. And the proliferation of rights is part of the reason why this report is so important.”

In so doing, the Report and Pompeo forget or ignore the Declaration of Independence, which does not have the force of law and which  immediately after mentioning  “certain unalienable rights” (life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness) states, “to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” In other words, the U.S. Declaration expressly contemplates, if not requires, that the U.S. government under the subsequent U.S. Constitution, will enact statutes to secure these unalienable rights and thereby create additional rights.

The UDHR, which also does not have the force of law, has the same contemplation and requirement when in its Preamble, it states, “it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law” and in its Proclamation states, “every individual and every organ of society . . . shall strive . . . by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition  and observance.” In other words, the UDHR expressly contemplates, if not requires, that individual governments and international organizations will adopt subsequent statues and treaties to secure the rights  of the UDHR.

The Report nevertheless favorably and correctly refers to the many “positive rights,” which “are created by, and can only exist in, civil society. Positive rights owe their existence to custom, tradition, and to positive law, which is the law created by human beings” and which “may evolve over centuries, may be legislated at a distinct moment, and may be revised or repealed.”

The Report emphasized this fact by quoting James Madison’s June 1789 speech to Congress in favor of a Bill of Rights [which was adopted in 1791). He stressed that despite different origins , “freedom is a function of positive rights elaborated in various legal codes as well as rights that belong to all human beings.” The Report also mentions that “American legislatures in the late 19th and early 20th centuries . . . began to enact protections for workers that were framed in the language of rights . . . . that entail difficult judgments about the allocation of material resources . . .[and that primarily are the tasks for legislatures.]”

Time has not stood still since 1776 when the U.S. Declaration was adopted or 1789 when the U.S. Constitution was ratified and the U.S. Government was established. The same is true with respect to the international organizations and treaties established after the adoption of the UDHR in 1948. Therefore, it is not surprising to have additional rights created over time in statutes and treaties.

Fourth, numerous commentators have criticized the Report and Pompeo on this issue.

As Molly Bangs in Truthout notes, the Report does not endorse protections against discrimination on the basis of gender, race or sexual orientation and instead asserts that “abortion, affirmative action, and same-sex marriage [are] divisive social and political controversies in the [U.S.]” This is “a signal of how the Commission and Pompeo intend to weaponize religious freedom at the expense of other human rights.”

A similar criticism came from Amnesty International, saying, the U.S. “has disgracefully sought to abandon its obligations to uphold the human rights to health and freedom from discrimination, among others. The US government is not legally allowed to unilaterally redefine its obligations under international human rights treaties, which almost all countries in the world have agreed to uphold.” According to Amnesty, the U.S. “now is seeking to deny reproductive rights, LGBTI rights and socio-economic rights, among others – which it frames as ‘divisive social and political controversies’ – by unilaterally redefining what ‘human rights’ mean.”

The Council on Foreign Relations’ Senior Fellow on Global Governance, Stewart M. Patrick, said Pompeo’s ideas, “if successful, would undermine the cause of freedom, equality and justice, both at home and abroad.” Indeed, the Report “reflects a conservative desire to roll back recent progressive advances” and it alleges, without any evidence, that “the prodigious expansion of human rights has weakened rather than strengthened the claims of human rights and left the most disadvantaged more vulnerable.” Stewart also points out the Report’s “utter disconnect from the Trump administration’s hypocritical human rights policy,” including  “the president’s curious affinity for illiberal leaders ranging from Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping, to Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman, the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonar.”

Human Rights Watch had similar thoughts. While the Report expresses “concern” about a “proliferation” of human rights claims, it should have focused more on “the growing number of autocratic, authoritarian governments that brazenly cast them aside.” Therefore, this organization has submitted a formal comment to the Commission before it revises, if at all, the draft Report.

The most strident critique of the Report comes from Robert Blitt, a professor at the University of Tennessee College of Law, who says it “will only strengthen the Kremlin’s longstanding effort to undercut the international human rights system.” While the U.S.recently resigned from the U.N. Human Rights Council, Russia is campaigning for a seat on that body by promising to prevent the use of human rights issues as pretexts for interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states.

Criticism of the 1619 Project[4]

In his speech commending the Commission Report, Pompeo said, “The New York Times’s 1619 Project – so named for the year that the first slaves were transported to America – wants you to believe that our country was founded for human bondage, that America’s institutions continue to reflect the country’s acceptance of slavery at our founding. . . [and] that Marxist ideology [correctly says] America is only the oppressors and the oppressed. [This 1619 Project] is a slander on our great people. Nothing could be further from the truth of our founding and the rights about which this report speaks.”[5]

Yes, the 1619 Project sets forth important and troubling facts about the introduction of slavery into the American colonies in 1619 that are not well known or taught, that should be known by all Americans and that should not be met with Pompeo’s unjustified ad homonyms of “Marxist ideology” and “a slander on our great people.”

The Times’ introduction of this project stated its goal was “to reframe American history by considering . . .  1619 as our nation’s birth year . . . when a ship arrived  . . . in the British colony of Virginia , bearing a cargo of 20 to 30 enslaved Africans [and inaugurating] a barbaric system of chattel slavery that would last for the next 250 years. . . . Out of slavery—and the anti-black racism it required –grew nearly everything that has truly made America exceptional: its economic might, its industrial power, its electoral system, diet and popular music, the inequities of its public health and education, its astonishing penchant for violence, its income inequality, the example it sets for the world as a land of freedom and equality, its slang, its legal system and the endemic fears and hatreds that continue to plague it to this day.”

More details of this early history were provided in The 1619 Project by Nikole Hannah-Jones, a MacArthur “Genius” fellow and a Times staff writer, who authored “The Idea of America.” Here are a few of those details:

  • “Before the abolishment of the international slave trade, 400,000 enslaved Africans would be sold into America.”
  • “Chattel slavery . . . was heritable and permanent, . . ., meaning generations of black people were born into it and passed their enslaved status onto their children. Enslaved people were not recognized as human beings but as property that could be mortgaged, traded, bought, sold, used as collateral, given as a gift and disposed of violently.”
  • “Enslaved people could not legally marry. They were barred from learning to read and restricted from meeting privately in groups. They had no claim to their own children, who could be bought, sold and traded away from them on auction blocks. Enslavers and the courts did not honor kinship ties to mothers, siblings, cousins.”
  • “In most courts, they had no legal standing.”
  • “One of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery.”
  • Although the Declaration of Independence, did not apply to them, “black Americans believed fervently in the American creed” and “through centuries of black resistance and protest, we have helped the country to live up to its founding ideals.”
  • Six of the U.S. Constitution’s 84 clauses deal directly with the enslaved and their enslavement and another five clauses have implications for slavery.
  • Through their labor, they helped build “vast fortunes for white people North and South.”

Although the Commission Report does not mention these facts about 1619 and slavery, it does confess the evils of slavery in America:

  • “Respect for unalienable rights requires forthright acknowledgement of not only where the United States has fallen short of its principles but also special recognition of the sin of slavery — an institution as old as human civilization and our nation’s deepest violation of unalienable rights. The legally protected and institutionally entrenched slavery that disfigured the United States at its birth reduced fellow human beings to property to be bought, sold, and used as a means for their owners’ benefit. Many slave-owning founders, not least Thomas Jefferson, recognized that in the light of unalienable rights, slavery could only be seen as a cruel and indefensible institution. In contemplating slavery in his Notes on the State of Virginia, he wrote, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.” Nevertheless, it would take a grievous civil war, costing more American lives by far than any other conflict in the nation’s history, to enable the federal government to declare slavery unlawful. It would take another century of struggle to incorporate into the laws of the land protections to guarantee African Americans their civil and political rights. Our nation still works to secure, in its laws and culture, the respect for all persons our founding convictions require.” (Emphasis added.)

Even today, the Report admits, “the nation must be humble in light of the work that remains to be done.”  The Report also confesses, “the brutal killing of an African-American man [George Floyd] in the late spring of 2020 and the subsequent civic unrest that swept the country underscore that much still must be accomplished.”

But the Report does not trace the history of slavery in America back to its founding in 1619 or admit that for the first 157 years of that history African-American slaves had no legal basis to challenge their being held in slavery. The Report only indirectly alleges that after 1776 the slaves had an inchoate right to argue that the unalienable rights mentioned in the U.S. Declaration of Independence were contrary to slavery, but admits that it was only after the bloody Civil War and the 1865 adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment that slavery was legally abolished. The Report also admits that even that was not enough to abolish the discrimination against African-Americans with the subsequent Jim Crow laws, lynching and other discriminations.

The Times’ initial publication of the 1619 Project in August 2019 has many articles and has prompted publication of many other articles on this subject. Perhaps there are errors of fact or interpretation in these many articles, but the appropriate way to counter such errors is by dispassionate fact-based scholarly articles and books, not by wild-eyed accusations of Marxism and slander. Take note, Secretary Pompeo.

In direct response to Pompeo’s criticism of the 1619 Project, Eileen Murphy of the Times said, ““The 1619 Project, based on decades of recent historical scholarship that has deepened our understanding of the country’s founding, is one of the most impactful works of journalism published last year. We’re proud that it continues to spark a dialogue that allows us to re-examine our assumptions about the past.”

Pompeo’s Political Motives for the Report[6]

Pompeo, a former Kansas GOP congressman, is known to be eyeing a potential future presidential run, and his critics immediately pointed out that the speech endorsing the Commission report had plenty of fodder for the electoral base of the Republican Party, including the media-bashing.

There was additional fodder for that possible presidential run the very next day when Pompeo and his wife went to Iowa (an important presidential nominating state) for a speech (reprinted on the State Department website) before a gathering of a conservative Christian group opposed to divorce, abortion and other sexual orientations. There Pompeo bragged that under his leadership the State Department has a “pro-religious freedom foreign policy . . . . [and] a 100 percent pro-life foreign policy. Our administration has defended the rights of unborn like no other administration in history. Abortion quite simply isn’t a human right. . . . So we’ve reinstated the Mexico City Policy, so that not a single dime of American taxpayer money will ever go to a foreign NGO that performs active abortions anywhere in the world. In the fall of last year. . . we mobilized 20 countries to deliver a joint statement at the UN criticizing pro-abortion language in UN documents.”[7]

Conclusion

The Commission invited comments through July 30/31 on their draft report, and its website has so far posted 133 pages of such comments, which will be discussed in a future post. Thus, we and others need to wait to see if any of these comments prompt changes to the report.[8]

==========================

[1] See U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights Report, dwkcommentaries.com (July 27, 2020); Secretary Pompeo’s Reactions to U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights’ Report, dwkcommentaries.com (July 29, 2020).

[2] Verma, Pompeo Says Human Rights Policy Must Prioritize Property Rights and Religion, N.Y. Times (July 16, 2020); Toosi, Pompeo rolls out a selective vision of human rights, Politico.com (July 16, 2020); Borger, Pompeo claims private property and religious freedom are ‘foremost’ human rights, Guardian (July 16, 2020); Massimino & Schmitt, Pompeo’s new commission undermines universal human rights—just as planned, Wash, Post (July 17, 2020); Drezner, Let’s grade the Commission on Unalienable Rights!, Wash. Post (July 20, 2020); Senator Menendez, Menendez on Trump Administration’s Launch of Controversial Commission on Unalienable Rights’ Report (July 16, 2020).

[3] Bangs, Pompeo’s Commission on “Unalienable Rights” Prioritizes Property Over People, truthout.org (July 28, 2020); Amnesty Int’l, USA: State Department’s flawed ‘unalienable rights’ report undermines international law, amnesty.org (July 16, 2020); Rubin, The Trump administration rejects human rights principles at home and aboard, Philadelphia Inquirer (July 21, 2020); Patrick, U.S. Effort to ‘Nationalize’ Human rights Undermines Them at Home and Aboard, World Policy Review (July 27, 2020); Thoreson, US Should Focus on Rights for All, Not Rights for Some, Human Rights Watch (July 30, 2020); Human Rights Watch, Comment [on Draft Report] to Commission on Unalienable Rights (July 2020); Blitt, To Russia, With Love, Jurist (July 30, 2020).

[4] Silverstein, Introduction to 1619 Project, N.Y. Times Magazine (pp. 4-5)  (Aug. 18, 2019); “The 1619 Project” Commemorates the Arrival of Slavery in the U.S., dwkcommentaries.com (Oct. 20, 2019); Hannah-Jones, The Idea of America, N.Y. Times Magazine (pp. 14-26) (Aug. 18, 2019); We Respond to the Historians Who Critiqued The 1619 Project, N.Y. Times (Dec. 20, 2020); List of Times’ references to “1619 Project” , N.Y. Times (as of 8/2/20).

[5] Pompeo’s attack on The 1619 Project may have been precipitated or suggested by U.S. Senator Tom Cotton (Rep., AR), who has been engaged in a feud with the New York Times over its controversial publishing of his op-ed  about the use of U.S. military troops in cases of insurrection or obstruction of the laws in U.S. cities. (Tom Cotton: Send in the Troops, N.Y. Times (June 3, 2020).) One week after publication of the Commission Report, a Cotton press release said, “The . . . 1619 Project is a racially divisive, revisionist account of history that denies the noble principles of freedom and equality on which the nation was founded” as the purported justification for his introducing the Saving American History Act of 2020 to prohibit the use of federal funds to teach the 1619 Project by K-12 schools. (Cotton, Press Release: Cotton Bill to Defund 1619 Curriculum (July 23, 2020).) Soon thereafter Cotton in an interview by an Arkansas newspaper said, “As the Founding Fathers said, [slavery] was the necessary evil upon which the union was built.” (Reuters, Republican Senator Cotton Criticized for “Necessary Evil” Slavery Comment, N.Y. Times (July 27, 2020).)

[6] State Dep’t, Pompeo Speech: My Faith, My Work, My Country (July 17, 2020); Secretary Pompeo’s Reactions to the Commission on Unalienable Rights’ Report, dwkcommentaries.com (July 29, 2020).

[7] See U.S. at U.N. Global Call To Protect Religious Freedom, dwkcommentaries.com (Sept. 24, 2019); U.S. Opposition to “Abortion” and “Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights” at U.N. High-Level Meeting, dwkcommentaries.com (Sept. 25, 2019).

[8] State Dep’t, Draft Report of the Commission on Unalienable Rights: Public Comments.

 

“The 1619 Project” Commemorates the Arrival of Slavery in the U.S.

On August 18, 2019, the Sunday New York Times commemorated the arrival of the first slaves in what became in the Colony of Virginia with its Sunday Magazine totally devoted to slavery in the U.S. (“The 1619 Project”). [1] The Project “aims to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contribution of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.” That issue of the Magazine contained the following articles:

Title Pages
Introduction 4-7, 10-11
The Idea of America 14-22, 24, 26
Chained Migration: How Slavery Made Its Way West 22
August 1619 (Poem) 28
Crispus Attucks (Poem) 29
Capitalism 30-35, 36-38, 40
Good as Gold: In Lincoln’s wartime “greenbacks,” a preview of the 20th-century rise of fiat currency 35
Fabric of Modernity: How Southern cotton became the cornerstone of a new global commodities trade 36
Municipal Bonds: How Slavery Built Wall Street 40
Phillis Wheatley (Poem) 42
Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 (redacted) 43
A Broken Health Care System 44-45
Gabriel’s Rebellion (Aug. 30, 1800) 46
Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves (Jan. 1, 1808) 47
Traffic 48-49
Undemocratic Democracy 50-55
Medical Inequality 56-57
American Attack on Negro Fort (July 27, 1816) 58
Emancipation Proclamation (Jan. 1, 1863) 59
Attack on Abolitionist Convention (July 30, 1866) 59
American Popular Music 60-67
Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in Negro Male (1932) 68
Attack on Isaac Woodard (Feb. 12, 1946) 69
Sugar 70-76, 77
Pecan Pioneer: The Enslaved Man Who Cultivated the South’s Favorite Nut 76
Bombing of 17th Street Baptist Church, Birmingham, AL (Sept. 15, 1963)(Poem) 78
Creation of Black Panther Party (Oct. 15, 1966) (Poem) 79
Mass Incarceration (Bryan Stevenson) 80-81
The Wealth Gap 82-83
Hip-Hop 84
Rev. Jesse Jackson Speech (July 17, 1984) 84-85
Louisiana Superdome, Hurricane Katrina (August 2005) 85
Graduates of Howard University Law School (Photos) 86-93
The 1619 Project in Schools (resources for teachers) Inside back cover
Statement by Lonnie G. Bunch III (Sec. of Smithsonian) Back cover

In addition, that issue of the Sunday Times had a special section on the history of U.S. education about slavery, entitled, “We’ve Got To Tell the Unvarnished Truth” with the following contents:

Title Page
Public notice of slave auction (Mar. 25, 1858) 1
“We  are committing educational malpractice” 2
“Why Can’t We Teach This?” 3
Introduction 4
No. 1/ Slavery, Power and the Human Cost 5-9
No. 2/ The Limits of Freedom 10-11
No. 3/ A Slave Nation Fights for Freedom 12-15

Many other articles about this Project have appeared in the Times, the Washington Post and other periodicals. Here are some of those articles:

Negative views of this Project have been expressed in the following:

=================================

[1] The articles in the August 18th Magazine may be found separately in the website for the Magazine (https://www.nytimes.com/section/magazine). This issue of the Magazine has been sold out and has not been reprinted or published as a paperback book.