I don’t remember how I got into this. I was wrestling with Adolph Reed’s bracing critique of anti-racism. I picked up “The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic” by Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker (‘LR’), who propose a radically different way of understanding U.S. history and racism in particular. That got me into Edmund S. Morgan’s “American Slavery, American Freedom,” and from there to Nell Painter’s “The History of White People.”
The contrast I have in mind regarding LR is to the 1619 project. In LR we have a competing origin story. Both are polemical, promoting alternative political viewpoints. In view of my previous scribbling, it will not surprise readers to learn that I think LR blows 1619 out of the water. I am further persuaded of this after reading Morgan.
1619 has become synonymous with an anti-racist, liberal political project, so discussing pros and cons is often conflated with liberal vs. reactionary politics. If you disapprove of the project, you have some kind of problem with the promotion of anti-racism. That is not my purpose at all. There is a legitimate left critique of 1619, fully compatible with anti-racism.
Veracity in both cases is an issue, as both frameworks have been assailed by eminent persons in the field. I’m in no position to settle the factual questions, but I do suggest that LR’s tableau, even if exaggerated, as David Brion Davis charged in a NYRB review, is still compelling for the inexpert among us.
LR focuses on the history of slavery in the three-cornered trade between Great Britain, West Africa, and the Americas (Caribbean and North especially). Cheap labor founded on slavery produced commodities in American colonies that sent profits to Europe. The Caribbean colonies were more important than I had appreciated. Santo Domingo (later Haiti and the Dominican Republic) was France’s cash cow, as Jamaica and Barbados were for England.
One of three crucial points is that not until after the end of the 18th Century was the Atlantic trade from the U.S. dominated by cotton and black slavery, nor was it centered in North America. The outputs of value to Europe from the colonies were sugar, molasses, furs, and tobacco. From the colonies that eventually became the U.S., tobacco, rice, salted fish, wheat, and grain. The cotton gin is not invented until 1793. In 1800, U.S. cotton output was 156,000 bales. By 1860, it was four million.
This is confirmed by Morgan. African slavery in Virginia, among the richest of the original colonies, was not a thing until after 1700. Before that, most labor was taken up by indentured Europeans and enslaved Indians. The principal cash crop was tobacco. The indentured served limited terms but while serving fared little better than outright slaves. It is true that the one thing that protected them from casual murder without legal consequences at the hands of their masters was their race.
Cotton became huge for the U.S. in the first half of the 19th century. The explosion of that industry had to be decisive for the entire gamut of economic life, as slavery has been for social life ever since. This fulcrum of time provides the strongest grounding for the 1619 perspective, but from 1619 to 1800, the main story was not chattel slavery of Africans and cotton.
The second crucial point, as noted above, is that the toilers in these industries, chattel slaves or indentured servants, were not uniformly of African origin. Included was a legion of ethnicities, not least England’s own population made surplus by enclosure, and Indian survivors of European colonization. Morgan confirms that the influx of European labor contained the rejects (“the scum and scruff,” in the lingo of the period) of their home countries, especially England, not excluding literal felons. (Though in the England of those days it was not difficult to pick up a felony conviction. “Law enforcement” was a device to dragoon otherwise idle persons for forced labor in America.)
Third, the cultures of abolitionism and democracy evolved importantly from English insurgencies of the 17th Century, including the Levelers, the Diggers, and antinomians of all types, as well as Indian and African communalism. Here, Morgan is better at laying out the contradictions of aspirations for liberty among white people and the burgeoning institution of slavery. The conjuncture wherein slavery becomes racialized is a tricky period of development. This too tends to support the 1619 perspective.
At any rate, the 1619 story is race-essentialist. In economic terms, we could also say it is cotton-essentialist, market-essentialist, and U.S.-centric. Western Hemispheric slavery is multiracial and did not originate in cotton production.
A related book that impressed me is Cedric Robinson’s “Black Marxism,” which elevates the obvious point that slavery existed for millennia before capitalism. So how could any slavery be founded on anti-black racism? For Nell Painter as well, the history of whiteness begins to unfold well before U.S. enslavement of Africans and the cotton boom. In fact, it could be said to go all the way back to the Greeks, and it wasn’t mostly about Africans.
Of course, as others like Morgan have said, racism could be said to have resulted from the need to establish slavery in the U.S., and not incidentally, preclude the united resistance of the multiracial proletariat elaborated by LR and acknowledged by Morgan. Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia revealed the potential for class revolt and concentrated the minds of the state’s elites. Capitalism for Robinson is not founded on race. It is racial in the sense that the changing forms of race are embedded in economic development and the historical evolution of racism.
1619 is presented as the Big Bang of U.S. history. There can be little doubt of the Atlantic context of 1619. Racialization of the U.S. working class does not happen all at once. Going by Morgan, it takes until about 1800 for it to be fully realized, supporting the production of tobacco in the U.S. and sugar in the Caribbean.
The principal establishment objection to 1619 was in defense of an overtly political interest – to glorify the roots of the U.S. as an embryonic resistance to tyranny of all types. The Constitution is interpreted as a nascent argument against slavery, which requires some close and subtle reading. I can’t adjudicate this claim, but its political roots in defensive, liberal mainstream politics are obvious. Its champion is one Sean Wilentz, a long-standing enemy of the left for whom even Barack Obama was a bridge too far.
The 1619 series on Hulu showcased the journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones and essayed the counterintuitive argument that African-Americans are the true carriers of U.S. patriotism who, more than anybody, embody the promises of the American revolution. As she writes, “ . . . [B]lack Americans, as much as those men cast in alabaster in the nation’s capital, are this nation’s true founding fathers. And that no people has a greater claim to that flag than us.”
There is something to the idea surfaced in the text that the contribution of African-Americans to progressive politics was decisive in bringing out such freedoms and social welfare provision as we enjoy today. But this linkage is mostly lost in the rest of the story-telling, except in the reduced form of the Obama Administration as the opposite pole of entrenched racism. I would add that Hannah-Jones fails to appreciate the role of African-Americans in the wider evolution of social progress. They were not alone; they were a vanguard.
By contrast, the LR framework is rooted in political economy and intellectual history. Its economic setting is properly Atlantic, especially including the Caribbean colonies. Its working-class societies are multinational and multicultural. 1619 is a profoundly cynical, defensive politics dedicated to the least-bad (e.g., Hillary Clinton) of unappealing options. Its rejection of progressive politics as an impossibility is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Trotskyist “World Socialist Web Site” (sic) has a point in marrying 1619 to establishment Democratic Party politics. In their haste to reject any sort of non-sectarian politics, they too have lost the thread of social-democratic possibility.
Each north american nation must assert its valid claims to patriotic status we all are of the same country
With equal national rights liberals
refuse national rights for obvious historically obvious
Uneven Exploitation must continue
While oppression a l8beral no no
Must be camouflage
All north american nations are equal
From first nations to last
Each has a unique heritage and legacy
Each strives for liberation
Spontaneously both righteously and wrongheaded
Even us settler pale faces
Have a place here
First nations to last
We are all north Americans now