The following piece is an excerpt from Debunking the 1619 Project: Exposing the Plan to Divide America by Mary Grabar, which is available now from Regnery.
Within the context of the events taking place during his lifetime, Thomas Jefferson comes off as the prudent voice of reason and statesmanship. Given the situation as it was, Monticello could have been a worse place. Certainly the slaves “rescued” by Fanny Wright did not benefit from her radical idealism. Even the free blacks who emigrated to black-run Haiti found themselves denied political rights and facing hunger and forced labor on plantations.
Jefferson had predicted what would happen in Haiti, and he had good reason to fear the same happening in his own country. The founder understood that governing was a balancing act. He cannot be reduced to an “enslaver”—the label with which The 1619 Project has smeared him. His “lived experience” (to use a term popular among his detractors) was that of a member of the gentry in the founding generation. Born and raised on a Virginia plantation, his first memory was of being carried in the arms of a black man—a slave, true, but one trusted with a three-year-old boy on horseback, hardly the picture one gets from The 1619 Project.
Jefferson deserves to retain the title “Apostle of Liberty.”
And Abraham Lincoln deserves to retain the title “Great Emancipator.”
[Lincoln] took a very public stand against slavery—particularly in the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, when he ran for the Senate.
Abraham Lincoln’s story is very different from Jefferson’s. His hard-scrabble upbringing caused him to reject the “spirit that says, ‘You work and toil and earn bread, and I’ll eat it.’” He took a very public stand against slavery—particularly in the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, when he ran for the Senate. Lincoln argued against the pro-slavery senator Stephen Douglas: “He contends that whatever community wants slaves has a right to have them. So they have, if it is not a wrong. But if it is a wrong, he cannot say people have a right to do wrong.” Lincoln’s principles were so well known that seven Southern states seceded from the Union out of fear that his election as the first Republican president was a mortal threat to the institution of slavery.
It is a measure of Nikole Hannah-Jones’s utter lack of historical perspective that in her telling both Jefferson and Lincoln are simply evil white men representing a racist America. Her “Idea of America” essay goes from discrediting the Apostle of Liberty to discrediting the Great Emancipator.
In The 1619 Project, the broad brushstrokes used to paint a picture of Jefferson and “most of the founders” as racists are applied to “white Americans” generally, as history merges with dubious psychological theorizing. With independence, supposedly, America could no longer transfer guilt to Britain and thus was forced to claim the “sin” of slavery as her own: “The shameful paradox of continuing chattel slavery in a nation founded on individual freedom, scholars today assert, led to a hardening of the racial caste system.” The cultural belief that “black people were subhuman...allowed white Americans to live with their betrayal.” Hannah-Jones bolsters the diagnosis of a national white guilt complex by citing Leland B. Ware, Robert J. Cottroll, and Raymond T. Diamond, who claim in their book Brown v. Board of Education that “white Americans, whether they engaged in slavery or not, ‘had a considerable psychological as well as economic investment in the doctrine of black inferiority.’”
This leads to Hannah-Jones’s discussion of the 1857 Dred Scott decision, which declared any attempt to prohibit the spread of slavery unconstitutional. Hannah-Jones quotes Chief Justice Roger Taney’s words, from the majority opinion in the case, that blacks “were so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that [all blacks] might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery.” Taney, however, was not expressing his own opinion in this statement. As Charles Warren explains in his multivolume history of the U.S. Supreme Court, Taney was “recit[ing] it historically as the view held by men in general, in the eighteenth century.” Taney, who sympathized with the plight of blacks, was nonetheless a states-rightist and Constitutionalist. To be sure, Taney’s words have been misrepresented for over 160 years, including by abolitionists. But Hannah-Jones goes further, claiming on the basis of this well-known quotation that this Supreme Court decision “enshrined” the thinking that “black people” were a “slave race”—a “caste” not entitled to the rights of “We the People.” “This belief, that black people were not merely enslaved but were a slave race,” she declares, “became the root of the endemic racism we still cannot purge from this nation to this day.”
Actually, no. Far from enshrining racism in America, the Dred Scott decision solidified and energized opposition to slavery—so much so that we had a civil war and ended it.
Far from enshrining racism in America, the Dred Scott decision solidified and energized opposition to slavery—so much so that we had a civil war and ended it.
Frederick Douglass, the famous abolitionist who had escaped from slavery, was actually “thrilled” with the Dred Scott decision because it won people over to the abolitionist cause. It also inspired Illinois Senate candidate Abraham Lincoln to change his outlook: he went from regarding the Supreme Court as “the nation’s supreme authority” to putting his “faith in natural law” as expressed in the Declaration of Independence. Dred Scott came on the heels of the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, which had made Lincoln lose hope in the demise of slavery by natural extinction. Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech “appealed to the court of public opinion” and was a “smashing success,” launching Lincoln onto the national stage. It also won enthusiastic praise from Frederick Douglass, who had adopted the same position in 1851. Lincoln’s speech inspired the abolitionist zealot John Brown.
There is no mention in The 1619 Project of the “House Divided” speech. In fact, Hannah-Jones chooses to skip over not only the “House Divided” speech but such other significant events as the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Lincoln’s election as the first Republican president, the secession of the Southern states, and the outbreak of Civil War, and to focus instead on another, much later and relatively insignificant event. She leaps over all those, going straight from her commentary on the 1857 Dred Scott decision to August 14, 1862, “a mere five years after the nation’s highest courts declared that no black person could be an American citizen.” And what is the significance of that momentous date? On August 14, 1862, “President Abraham Lincoln called a group of five esteemed free black men to the White House for a meeting. It was one of the few times that black people had ever been invited to the White House as guests. The Civil War had been raging for more than a year, and black abolitionists, who had been increasingly pressuring Lincoln to end slavery, must have felt a sense of great anticipation and pride.”
Indeed, this event “was the first time a group of blacks met with a president on a ‘matter of public interest.’” The meeting had been arranged by Reverend James Mitchell, the Lincoln-appointed commissioner of emigration, who had been active in Midwestern colonization societies along with Lincoln. Hannah-Jones’s wording implies that the men invited were prominent leaders well known in the black community. However, according to John Stauffer, the author of Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, “four of the five men were recently freed slaves and probably illiterate.”
Hannah-Jones says, “The president was weighing a proclamation that threatened to emancipate all enslaved people in the states that had seceded from the Union if the states did not end the rebellion. The proclamation would also allow the formerly enslaved to join the Union army and fight against their former ‘masters.’ But Lincoln was worried about what the consequences of this radical step would be. Like many white Americans, he opposed slavery as a cruel system at odds with American ideals, but he also opposed black equality.”
Then she quotes two sentences by Lincoln—without identifying the source: “Free them, and make them politically and socially our equals? My own feelings will not admit of this; and if mine would, we well know that those of the great mass of white people will not.” Abraham Lincoln did say those words. But when did he say them, and in what context? Not at the 1862 meeting at the White House. In fact, not as President Lincoln at all. The quotation is plucked out of Lincoln’s first debate with Stephen Douglas, on August 21, 1858, when Lincoln criticized Douglas for his unwillingness to challenge court decisions such as Dred Scott—the one Hannah-Jones claims “enshrined” the “doctrine of black inferiority.”
The year before, in Springfield, Illinois, in his speech about the decision, Lincoln had already called it “erroneous.” He had charged that while Douglas and Taney both “argue that the authors of [the Declaration of Independence] did not intend to include negroes, by the fact that they did not at once, actually place them on an equality with the whites,” the founders also did not “place all white people on an equality with one or another.... [T]he authors of that notable instrument intended to include all men, but they did not intend to declare all equal in all respects.” The statement that “all men are created equal” being “of no practical use in effecting our separation from Great Britain,” it was placed there “for future use,” as “a stumbling block to those who in after times might seek to turn a free people back into the hateful paths of despotism.” In that same speech Lincoln had delineated the difference between the Republican and Democratic parties: “The Republicans inculcate...that the negro is a man; that his bondage is cruelly wrong, and that the field of his oppression ought not to be enlarged. The Democrats deny his manhood; deny, or dwarf to insignificance, the wrong of his bondage; so far as possible, crush all sympathy for him, and cultivate and excite hatred and disgust against him.”
In the first of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Lincoln had said that anybody who, like Douglas, agreed with “the Dred Scott decision” was essentially endorsing “in advance” a “second Dred Scott decision” which would nationalize slavery: “It is merely for the Supreme Court to decide that no State under the Constitution can exclude it....” Lincoln had said the same thing even earlier, in his “House Divided” speech in Springfield, in which he had argued, “Either the opponents of slavery, will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new—North as well as South.”
Hannah-Jones dishonestly highlights one statement from the Lincoln-Douglas debates while ignoring the sum total of other speeches that clearly spell out Lincoln’s belief that the Declaration includes blacks, his goal of the “ultimate extinction” of slavery, and his assertion of black personhood.
Lincoln took his stand firmly on the opposing side. He made politic concessions to the racial prejudice of his day. But he refused to budge an inch on the fundamental rights of blacks: “[T]here is no reason...why the negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence, the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I agree with Judge Douglas he is not my equal in many respects—certainly not in color, perhaps not in moral or intellectual endowment. But in the right to eat the bread, without leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every living man” [emphasis in the original].
Hannah-Jones dishonestly highlights one statement from the Lincoln-Douglas debates while ignoring the sum total of other speeches that clearly spell out Lincoln’s belief that the Declaration includes blacks, his goal of the “ultimate extinction” of slavery, and his assertion of black personhood. And she follows up this distorted picture of President Lincoln’s stance on black Americans with a distorted picture of the White House meeting: “That August day, as the men arrived at the White House, they were greeted by the towering Lincoln and a man named James Mitchell, who eight days before had been given the title of a newly created position called the commissioner of emigration.... After exchanging a few niceties, Lincoln got right to it. He informed his guests that he had gotten Congress to appropriate funds to ship black people, once freed, to another country.”
And he told them the reason why: that both races “suffer” by living together.
Lincoln’s height—six feet, four inches—is given an ominous spin: he is described as “towering,” as if standing over the black men in an intimidating manner. This is a very different picture of the meeting from that in even left-leaning histories whose authors do not shy from criticizing Lincoln—neither John Stauffer’s Giants nor David Blight’s Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, for example, imply that Lincoln’s posture was menacing in any way. And Hannah-Jones infuses more dark drama: “You can imagine the heavy silence in that room, as the weight of what the president said momentarily stole the breath of these five black men.” She inserts yet another reminder about 1619: “It was 243 years to the month since the first of their ancestors had arrived on these shores, before Lincoln’s family, long before most of the white people insisting that this was not their country.”
Actually, it is doubtful that any of the men meeting with Lincoln that day were descendants of the twenty or so Africans from the White Lion. Hannah-Jones’s statement implies that all four and a half million blacks (four million slaves and half a million free) living in the United States in 1862 had as their “ancestors” the people who came aboard the White Lion. This would be like claiming that the Mayflower Pilgrims are the “ancestors” of all white Americans. Recall that even in 1649, thirty years after the arrival of the White Lion, blacks made up only 2 percent of Virginia’s population.
But Hannah-Jones continues her narrative of good in the face of oppression, recounting American history literally in black-and-white terms. She claims that in spite of such treatment and the fact that the “Union had not entered the war to end slavery but to keep the South from splitting off,” “black men had signed up to fight” and “[e]nslaved people were fleeing their forced-labor camps...trying to join the effort, serving as spies, sabotaging confederates, taking up arms for his cause as well as their own. And now Lincoln was blaming them for the war.” He even said that “without the institution of slavery and the colored race as a basis, the war could not have an existence....” Edward Thomas, the chairman of the delegation, “informed the president, perhaps curtly, that they would consult on his proposition. ‘Take your full time,’ Lincoln said. ‘No hurry at all.’”
Hannah-Jones then jumps ahead again, to Lee’s surrender at Appomattox three years later. “Contrary to Lincoln’s view,” she informs us, “most [black Americans] were not inclined to leave, agreeing with the sentiment of a resolution against black colonization put forward at a convention of black leaders some decades before: ‘This is our home, and this our country. Beneath its sod lie the bones of our fathers.... Here we were born, and here we will die.”
Mary Grabar earned her Ph.D. in English from the University of Georgia in 2002, after working in advertising and as a free-lance writer. While holding a series of positions as an instructor, the last in the Program in American Democracy and Citizenship at Emory University, she wrote articles about the corruption of education, including by Howard Zinn, and founded the nonprofit Dissident Prof Education Project (dissidentprof.com). In 2014, she became a resident fellow at the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization in Clinton, New York, where she continued her research on a biography of the late black conservative writer, George Schuyler. Her previous book, Debunking Howard Zinn: Exposing the Fake History That Turned a Generation against America, was published in 2019.