The following essay is part of The Federalist’s 1620 Project, a symposium exploring the connections and contributions of the early Pilgrim and Puritan settlers in New England to the uniquely American synthesis of faith, family, freedom, and self-government.
After decades of left-wing academics attacking America, the left finally decided the time had come to simply replace the American story with a new anti-American story. The centerpiece of this new anti-American frenzy is The New York Times’s 1619 Project.
If the 1619 Project had been an argument that slavery, and then segregation, played the defining part of the African-American experience — and an important if often indirect part of the experiences of all Americans — it would be a worthy addition to our nation’s conversation and historical record.
It is fair and accurate to suggest that every American should better understand the effects of slavery and segregation. Furthermore, every American should understand the degree to which his fellow citizens who are African American have had their lives shaped by these realities and the legacy ideas, institutions, and attitudes that grew out of them.
Yet this is not the argument the Times makes. According to its current description, the 1619 Project “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.”
In fact, the original description (which was quietly edited after the project endured much criticism from serious academics and historians) was even more explicit. It claimed that the 400th anniversary of the landing of the first ship carrying African slaves to Jamestown, Virginia, was “our true founding.” In other words, the Times insists that every aspect of American history — good, bad, and benign — is defined by, and evolved from, this first instance of African slavery in what was then a British colony.
Both as a politician concerned for America’s future and as a professional historian concerned about America’s past, I deeply disagree with the Times’s version of America.
If left unchallenged, the Times’s 1619 Project would both distort our understanding of the America that has been and worse, it would warp and cripple our sense of the future America that could be. An American past, present, and future defined by an obsession with slavery as the key definer would be a much poorer and sadder country, filled with guilt, and bereft of hope. This is why The Federalist’s 1620 Project is so important — a timely and necessary counterbalance to the left’s efforts to rewrite American history by eliminating the exceptional and emphasizing the harmful and the negative.
As a point of history, America was founded on July 4, 1776 — the date that Congress designated for our Declaration of Independence from Great Britain, which Congress had decided upon two days earlier.
America was not founded over the slave trade, which was a global institution at the time. It came about during a bitter struggle by a new American people who sought to break free from an oppressive British monarch and live in freedom — with a government that was elected by the people rather than claimed by divine right (or might). These people were ultimately victorious, and the Great Experiment in American self-governance began.
Now, without question, the early American experiment did not guarantee freedom for everyone. There is no doubt that early America failed to immediately live up to its creed that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Further, efforts to subjugate or enslave African Americans, Native Americans, and — at a smaller scale — European, South American, Central American, and Asian immigrants are indelible stains in our nation’s past.
While some states began to abolish slavery during the colonial period, partially or gradually, most of early America went along with a world that had been deeply invested in the African slave trade and the institution of slavery itself. This deserves to be studied as an example of the profound shortcomings of humankind. It also reminds us that true freedom requires constant vigilance and self-reflection. But it does not mean, as the 1619 Project asserts, “our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written.”
If the ideals enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and other founding documents were false, then it would have had no meaning when President Abraham Lincoln, on Nov. 19, 1863, at the battlefield of Gettysburg, invoked the effort of the Founders to create “a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
In a way, the 1619 Project’s insistence that our founding ideals were false is a repudiation of Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg, where he urged those who had just survived a brutal battle in opposition to slavery:
It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. also understood perfectly that our ideals were true, but they had been unjustly withheld — first through slavery, and later through segregation and discrimination:
When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the ‘unalienable Rights’ of ‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’ It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’
… But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice …
… And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
… I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’
Now, I am open to accepting arguments that America as we know it began before our official founding on a practical level. For instance, I would accept that America’s de facto start could be when local militiamen battled hundreds of trained British soldiers who were coming to disarm them at Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775.
I can accept points of view that there are other instances of our history that serve as a sort of spiritual beginnings for America. In some ways, Benjamin Franklin’s assignment to lobby Parliament for the colony of Pennsylvania convinced him that he would never be accepted by the British aristocracy. It has been said Franklin left America as an English subject and returned as an American.
Another plausible date for beginning the move toward independence was March 5, 1770, the date of the Boston Massacre, in which British troops killed five colonists including Crispus Attucks, an African American who became a key figure for abolitionists in the 19th century.
Before the political and military events, there was more than a century of cultural development which was leading Americans to grow more and more distant from their British overlords. It is this cultural evolution that is at the heart of the argument over whether 1619 or 1620 did more to shape America.
For African Americans who are the descendants of African slaves, the landing of the first British-controlled slave ship in British-controlled Virginia perhaps qualifies as a spiritual beginning for the American experience. There was another ship landing one year later, however, that had a far larger impact on many more future Americans — including African Americans. Its passengers brought with them the glimmerings of the principles which have helped make America the freest, strongest, most prosperous county the world has ever seen.
The Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620 because religious pilgrims and other British citizens had fled to the New World. The pilgrims as we know them (41 of the 102 passengers on the Mayflower) had come to escape the rule of the Church of England so they could practice their faith without intervention. The remaining passengers were people looking to find better, more prosperous lives in the colonies — and some were trying to leave old lives behind. In other words, they were in pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness.
Having landed in Plymouth, far from their intended destination of Virginia, these people landed in an unknown, largely untamed wilderness. There was no colonial governor or magistrate to report to and no other colonists to help them acclimate. They had to learn to survive or they would simply perish — indeed, about half of them did not survive the first winter. Those who survived did so only because they were helped by the native people who lived there.
So these English colonists had to decide what to do. In the absence of the rule of King James — or any other royal agent — as they awaited permission from the crown to remain there, they agreed:
[to] Covenant and Combine ourselves together in a Civil Body Politic, for our better ordering and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute and frame such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions, and Offices from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the Colony, unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.
The Mayflower Compact was less than 200 words long. It may seem minor to the modern perspective, but at the time it was vitally important. It was unheard of for a group of people (without the rule of a king or monarch) to organize, create a government, and agree upon a rule of law.
Roughly 156 years before the American Revolution, this small group of settlers laid a foundation of governance by the consent of the governed, in what would become the United States of America, which has permeated all of our history and affected every American, and the world. This agreement provided a framework of authority for the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and indeed the entire notion of an elected government of, by, and for the people.
A few decades after America’s founding, John Quincy Adams referred to the compact as “perhaps the only instance, in human history, of that positive, original social compact, which speculative philosophers have imagined as the only legitimate source of government.” Ultimately, it is the landing of the Mayflower — far more than the landing of the first slave ship — that has largely defined America.
The pilgrim’s quiet act of peaceful assembly and self-governance combined with a religiously inspired sense of reformism helped lead to America’s freedom from England, the freeing of American slaves, the success of the Civil Rights Act, and the continued prosperity of the American people.
The New York Times’s 1619 Project has only helped to divide us, undermine the sincere progress of freedom, sever our sacred social compacts, and replace our founding ideals with something truly false.