The New York Times has created a huge stir with its 1619 Project , which claims that the real founding of the United States was not the American Revolution, but rather slavery and racism. One might mistake the concept as one that said America’s political founders did not hold enlightened racial views, but still helped to create a country with the kind of ideals that finally led to the end of slavery and even undercut racism itself. After all, during the Civil Rights Era, Martin Luther King, Jr., himself appealed to founding documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights in urging Americans to “live up to the ideals” of the nation.
Instead, the NYT, using academics that represent the New History of Capitalism viewpoint, is claiming that racism, brutality, and slavery were the basis of the founding of the country. This is not a case of saying that the founders were racist, but rather that the legal, social, and economic foundations of the USA were racism. Capitalism in this country, the NHC and NYT allege, came about because of slavery, and that everything related to capitalism here exists solely from slavery. Without slavery, the United States as we know it would not exist.
Double-entry bookkeeping and modern accounting methods? Forget their origins in late Medieval Italy; they were developed on the slave plantation to further the institution of slavery. Modern human resources management did not come about in the late 1800s as a way improve workplace productivity and improve worker welfare. No, human resources was born on the southern slavery plantation and without the institution of slavery, it never would have existed.
Although a number of economists and historians such as Phil Magness, Robert Murphy, and others have effectively contradicted the NYT accounts, American progressives simply are accepting the slavery-as-fundamental-to-American-capitalism as true on its face. Sojourners, for example, declared that the only reason one could disagree with the NYT narratives was racism on behalf of those taking issue with these accounts. Thus, even people who agree that slavery was immoral but question the NYT narrative do so because they are racists who “fear black power.”
While I have written my own disagreements with the NYT narrative, I propose this time of pursuing something similar to what the NYT is claiming, but changing the time and circumstances. I ask the following question: What if racism really is at the roots of the creation of modern America, and what if the NYT has played a major role in promoting structural racism? That is what I intend to show. Furthermore, I hold that the year 1896 is the founding of the America that exists today, and that includes the legacies of Jim Crow and the modern dystopian urban culture of murder and violence.
To understand the points I am making, one first must understand what we call the Progressive Era and the vast intellectual and social changes that it brought. Thomas Leonard of Princeton University writes :
American economics transformed itself during the Progressive Era. In the three to four decades after 1890, American economics became an expert policy science and academic economists played a leading role in bringing about a vastly more expansive state role in the American economy. By World War I, the U.S. government amended the Constitution to institute a personal income tax, created the Federal Reserve, applied antitrust laws, restricted immigration and began regulation of food and drug safety. State governments, where the reform impulse was stronger still, regulated working conditions, banned child labor, instituted “mothers’ pensions,” capped working hours and set minimum wages.
Academic historians (who mostly fall in the progressive camp) would present these changes as uniformly positive, the general narrative being that before the progressive reformers began to reshape the economic and social landscape, Americans – and especially American workers – lived a near-hellish existence. The historians, however, also tend to ignore the darker side of the so-called reformers, who believed that the application of science could help them do away with “inferior” races of people and transform humanity into some sort of super-race. Writes Leonard:
Less well known is that a crude eugenic sorting of groups into deserving and undeserving classes crucially informed the labor and immigration reform that is the hallmark of the Progressive Era (Leonard, 2003). Reform-minded economists of the Progressive Era defended exclusionary labor and immigration legislation on grounds that the labor force should be rid of unfit workers, whom they labeled “parasites,” “the unemployable,” “low-wage races” and the “industrial residuum.” Removing the unfit, went the argument, would uplift superior, deserving workers.
…the professional economists who wrote on immigration increasingly emphasized not the quantity of immigrants, but their quality. “If we could leave out of account the question of race and eugenics,” Irving Fisher (1921, pp. 226–227) said in his presidential address to the Eugenics Research Association, “I should, as an economist, be inclined to the view that unrestricted immigration . . . is economically advantageous to the country as a whole . . ..” But, cautioned Fisher, “the core of the problem of immigration is . . . one of race and eugenics,” the problem of the Anglo-Saxon racial stock being overwhelmed by racially inferior “defectives, delinquents and dependents.”
While academic historians tend to see the Jim Crow era, which began in the late 1800s and early 1900s, as a logical extension of the racial turmoil of the South following the end of the Civil War and the ending of slavery, history tells a different account. For example, South Carolina, which in later years produced one of the most infamous race-baiting politicians of all time, Ben “Pitchfork” Tillman, for many years was governed by Wade Hampton, a former Confederate general who also was a racial moderate.
While racial discrimination and strife existed in the South (and much of the rest of the country, for that matter) post-Civil War, racial discrimination did not become institutionalized through the vast network of Jim Crow laws until later. For example, in 1898, the Charleston (South Carolina) News and Courier editorialized against a proposed law to segregate railroad passenger cars:
As we have got on fairly well for a third of a century, including a long period of reconstruction . . . we probably can get on as well hereafter without it [the proposed law], and certainly so extreme a measure should not be adopted and enforced without added and urgent cause.
The editorial went on to say that such a law probably would require “Jim Crow eating cars” and the “Jim Crow Bible for colored witnesses to kiss” and so on. In other words, a leading South Carolina newspaper declared such laws ridiculous. Yet, within a short time, there were Jim Crow eating cars on trains, Jim Crow sleeping cars, Jim Crow Bibles, and a host of other measures enforcing racial segregation until well into the 1960s.
Enactment and enforcement of Jim Crow policies were mostly the product of the Democratic Party post-Grover Cleveland, who left the White House in 1897. Cleveland was a racial moderate and one who believed strongly in individual rights, free markets, and individual responsibility , along with “hard” money. He would be the last Democrat president who believed that way, and the Democrats’ rejection of the Founders’ ideals began even before Cleveland left office, as the party in 1896 fully embraced progressivism, nominating free silver advocate William Jennings Bryan , who had electrified party delegates with his “Cross of Gold” speech at the party’s convention that year .
Bryan’s campaign would be the most radical in U.S. History up to that point. His campaign promoted progressive “reforms,” business regulation, and a silver-based monetary inflation. Had he lived long enough, he most likely would have supported Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal just as he supported pretty much every progressive legislative measure in the early 20 th Century. Likewise, the political heirs of Tillman and other southern Democrats that made race the central focus of their legislative policies became the staunchest supporters of the New Deal.
Although Bryan lost the 1896 election to William McKinley, his campaign platform would become America’s future, and it is safe to say that modern America is much more the product of the Democrats’ 1896 progressivism than the southern plantation system that the Civil War destroyed more than three decades before.
In 1896, despite the creeping political centralism that had come with the northern victory in the Civil War, the United States still was a constitutional republic. In 20 years, thanks to progressive governance, the USA was well on its way to becoming a progressive democracy. The Democrats’ wide electoral victory in 1912 gave way to what Thomas DiLorenzo has called the Revolution of 1913 . In that year, the Democrats created the Income Tax, the Federal Reserve System, direct election of U.S. Senators, and a host of legislation that bolstered the Jim Crow system. What began in 1896 began to bear fruit with Woodrow Wilson’s 1912 election to the presidency.
Jim Crow policies and the racial purity theories behind them were at the heart of progressivism, something that few progressives today are willing to acknowledge. Leonard writes that eugenics dominated progressive thinking, and one can seriously doubt that people would impose policies that mysteriously violated their racial beliefs, something that modern progressives want us to believe. Take the minimum wage, for example, for which progressives claim that opposition to it is based in racism . Writes Leonard :
Progressive economists, like their neoclassical critics, believed that binding minimum wages would cause job losses. However, the progressive economists also believed that the job loss induced by minimum wages was a social benefit, as it performed the eugenic service ridding the labor force of the “unemployable.” Sidney and Beatrice Webb put it plainly: “With regard to certain sections of the population [the “unemployable”], this unemployment is not a mark of social disease, but actually of social health.” “[O]f all ways of dealing with these unfortunate parasites,” Sidney Webb opined in the Journal of Political Economy, “the most ruinous to the community is to allow them to unrestrainedly compete as wage earners.” A minimum wage was seen to operate eugenically through two channels: by deterring prospective immigrants (Henderson, 1900) and also by removing from employment the “unemployable,” who, thus identified, could be, for example, segregated in rural communities or sterilized.
For progressives, a legal minimum wage had the useful property of sorting the unfit, who would lose their jobs, from the deserving workers, who would retain their jobs. Royal Meeker, a Princeton economist who served as Woodrow Wilson’s U.S. Commissioner of Labor, opposed a proposal to subsidize the wages of poor workers for this reason. Meeker preferred a wage floor because it would disemploy unfit workers and thereby enable their culling from the work force. “It is much better to enact a minimum-wage law even if it deprives these unfortunates of work,” argued Meeker (1910, p. 554). “Better that the state should support the inefficient wholly and prevent the multiplication of the breed than subsidize incompetence and unthrift, enabling them to bring forth more of their kind.” A. B. Wolfe (1917, p. 278), an American progressive economist who would later become president of the AEA in 1943, also argued for the eugenic virtues of removing from employment those who “are a burden on society.”
A century ago, progressives wanting to push people they deemed “inferior,” such as blacks and Eastern Europeans, to the economic margins enacted policies aimed at accomplishing their dubious goals. Their racial rhetoric is long gone, but the policies remain, and they still enact harm upon the people that progressives now claim are supposed to benefit from them. From the minimum wage to occupational licensing to policies aimed at burying the “gig” economy, progressive policies still increase economic vulnerability of American minorities. Progressives sought to replace black employment with a permanent welfare state for those pushed to the margins.
Progressivism received a massive boost when Democrats in 1896 repudiated Grover Cleveland’s classical liberalism and replaced it with a paved road to socialism. From the acceleration of Jim Crow laws to imposition of a regulatory regime aimed at empowering politically-connected whites over black workers, progressivism remade America.
Thanks to the relentless campaign by progressives embedded in the American news media and at all levels of education, Americans – and especially black Americans – have come to believe that free-market capitalism is the source of nearly all evil in this country. Thanks to the New York Times, Americans are told that slavery was fundamental to the rise of capitalism in this country, and that relief came to black Americans only through the implementation of progressive policies enacted after 1896.
It is tragic when people come to believe that the very policies making them worse off are the policies that will lead them to a better life. It is doubly tragic when people are propagandized to reject those things that will improve their lives.
The events of 1619 are tragic in that they helped lead to the establishment of black chattel slavery in the United States. However, the year 1896 is even more tragic because the actions people with government authority took in that year resulted in near-permanent institutionalized racism with establishment of economic and social policies that hold back minority achievement that continue to this very day.