December 2, 2019


An interview with historian Gordon Wood on the New York Times' 1619 Project (Tom Mackaman, 28 November 2019, World Socialist web Site)

Gordon Wood is professor emeritus at Brown University and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Radicalism of the American Revolution, as well as Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815, and dozens of other books and articles on the colonial period, the American Revolution and the early republic.

Historian Gordan Wood speaks with WSWS about American Revolution and the NYT 1619 Project

Q. The claim made by Nikole Hannah-Jones in the 1619 Project that the Revolution was really about founding a slavocracy seems to be coming from arguments made elsewhere that it was really Great Britain that was the progressive contestant in the conflict, and that the American Revolution was, in fact, a counterrevolution, basically a conspiracy to defend slavery.

A. It's been argued by some historians, people other than Hannah-Jones, that some planters in colonial Virginia were worried about what the British might do about slavery. Certainly, Dunmore's proclamation in 1775, which promised the slaves freedom if they joined the Crown's cause, provoked many hesitant Virginia planters to become patriots. There may have been individuals who were worried about their slaves in 1776, but to see the whole revolution in those terms is to miss the complexity.

In 1776, Britain, despite the Somerset decision, was certainly not the great champion of antislavery that the Project 1619 suggests. Indeed, it is the northern states in 1776 that are the world's leaders in the antislavery cause. The first anti-slavery meeting in the history of the world takes place in Philadelphia in 1775. That coincidence I think is important. I would have liked to have asked Hannah-Jones, how would she explain the fact that in 1791 in Virginia at the College of William and Mary, the Board of Visitors, the board of trustees, who were big slaveholding planters, awarded an honorary degree to Granville Sharp, who was the leading British abolitionist of the day. That's the kind of question that should provoke historical curiosity. You ask yourself what were these slaveholding planters thinking? It's the kind of question, the kind of seeming anomaly, that should provoke a historian into research.

The idea that the Revolution occurred as a means of protecting slavery--I just don't think there is much evidence for it, and in fact the contrary is more true to what happened. The Revolution unleashed antislavery sentiments that led to the first abolition movements in the history of the world.

Posted by at December 2, 2019 2:31 PM