The main disagreement between Hannah-Jones and Wilentz

Hannah-Jones and Wilentz


Hannah-Jones, p 18.

Yet in making the argument against Britain’s tyranny, one of the colonists’ favorite rhetorical devices was to claim that they were the slaves — to Britain. For this duplicity, they faced burning criticism both at home and abroad. As Samuel Johnson, an English writer and Tory opposed to American independence, quipped, ‘‘How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?’’

Here Hannah-Jones criticizes the 1776 founders for claiming they themselves were slaves to the English king; meanwhile they either held African slaves themselves or allowed others (the Southern planter class) to hold slaves.

Yes, this was hypocritical, and it seems that those in this 1776 period were aware of it.

On the other hand, we can also see that there was no simple way in 1776 the break away colonists could have simply abolished slavery at this point. The southern colonies were committed to this economic method of agricultural production. So what did they do? Were they concerned with the injustice of slavery as the first priority? No. They weren’t. Should they have? Perhaps.

Does this make it true that the U.S. was founded on the basis of racism?

Wilentz says that at the time, the people in 1776 did not know what the future would be. This is the “relentless unforeseen.” His article discusses the abolition movement in the 1776 period. He claims that the U.S. revolutionary period was part of and perhaps the major movement towards abolition of slavery.

More and more in these pessimistic times, we are learning once again, and with a sense of justice, that the United States and its past are rooted in vicious racial slavery and the lasting inequities that are slavery’s legacy. We learn too little or not at all that the United States and its past are also rooted in the struggle against slavery, and in the larger revolutionary transformation of moral perception that produced that struggle. (Wilentz p.3)

the United States was defined, from the start, neither by American slavery alone nor by American antislavery but in their conflict (p.4)


But to those who believe that the United States was based on racism at the beginning and has always been racist and always will be,

Slavery, in this view, wasn’t simply an important part of American society at the founding and after; it defined a nation born in oppression and bad faith. While this view acknowledges the ideals of equality proclaimed by Jefferson and others, it regards them as hollow. Even after slavery ended, the racism that justified slavery persisted, not just as an aspect of American life but at its very core. (Wilentz p.5)

this (view) is vulnerable to an easy cynicism. Once slavery’s enormity is understood, as it should be, not as a temporary flaw but as an essential fact of American history, it can make the birth of the American republic and the subsequent rise of American democracy look as nothing more than the vindication of glittering generalities about freedom and equality founded on the oppression of blacks, enslaved and free, as well as the expropriation and slaughter of Native Americans. It can resemble, ironically, the reactionary proslavery insistence that the egalitarian self-evident truths of the Declaration were self-evident lies. (Wilentz, p.5)

Some of that cynicism is on display in The New York Times Magazine’s recently launched 1619 Project, enough to give ammunition to hostile critics who would discredit or minimize the entire enterprise of understanding America’s history of slavery and antislavery. (Wilentz p.5)

So this is the big difference between Hannah-Jones and Wilentz. Wilentz points out there was a significant anti-slavery mentality in the 1776 period. To just sweep that away, or dismiss it as hypocrisy, is unfair. It also tends to agree with the southern pro-slavery view, later the confederate belief system, which openly argued for slavery of an inferior race. The confederacy claimed that the true United States was a racist one.

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