Slavery, Propaganda, and The New York Times

If you wonder how propaganda gets spread, The New York Times is giving you a real-time lesson. In their 1619 Project, The New York Times spent all of a weekend magazine edition (and more) opining through many essays on slavery, the U.S. Revolution, the Civil War and semi-related topics. At first it was curious that they had no essays from major relevant scholars, including James McPherson (Princeton) or Gordon Wood (Brown). Both McPherson and Wood said that they weren’t even contacted and both confirmed that they knew of no major scholars who were contacted. Odd, given that McPherson and Wood both have won Pulitzers for writing on these subjects.

Odd but with purpose as it becomes clear why The New York Times didn’t contact such respected scholars; The New York Times didn’t want history (or respect). They wanted propaganda. The purpose of their 1619 Project was to implement an agenda. The essays were so unhistorical that McPherson said he couldn’t even continue reading them.[1]

Nice bit of NYC propaganda: Sherman, led by liberty, on his way to burn Atlanta.

The complicating factor about unraveling propaganda about the Civil War is that most have only been taught propaganda. Winners write history, and that’s no more true than with the Civil War. Often, the speed with which a victor attempts to erect a narrative correlates to the degree to which the narrative is false. Congress began passing bills to commission Lincoln statues starting in 1867, and the first Lincoln statue was erected in D.C. in 1868. Construction for the Lincoln Memorial began in 1914 and sits with a brooding prominence over the American capitol unlike any other memorial.

The Truth About Slavery

The major dynamic that unfolded in North American British economies in the 17th century was that New England was the attempted reinvention of civilization whereas Virginia was the attempted perfection of civilization, which, in the 1600s, meant a generally feudal society. New Englanders brought their wives and children, built schools and churches, and maintained a healthy disregard for Europe. Virginia behaved in generally opposite ways.

Here’s a quick review of U.S. slavery-related history that no serious scholar disputes.

The only anti-slavery group of any consequence met for the first time in Philadelphia in 1775; slavery existed globally, and no one seriously questioned it. William Byrd II, a major Virginia planter, politician and founder of Richmond (Virginia’s eventual capitol), left extensive diaries; he never attempts to justify slavery and never argues that blacks are inferior. Either argument would have seemed odd in the 17th century; slavery was part of the fabric of feudalism that was considered a reflection of the natural order of the world. To dispute feudalism would be to dispute nature itself.[2]

The issue becomes more convoluted when one considers that about half the population that arrived in the colonies in the 18th century were bonded servants. The original Virginia colony was stocked with indentured servants (both black and white). James II flooded the colonies with Irish indentured servants. Such servants generally were bound to masters for seven years; they couldn’t marry or own property and could be bought and sold. Servitude was a feudal form of dependency and subjugation that often appeared like slavery. Slavery and servitude were the bottom rungs of the feudal ladder, and one won’t find a substantial debate over the morality of either prior to 1775. James Otis, leader of the Boston rebellion and the Sons of Liberty, championed the anti-slavery cause in the 1760s; no one listened.

The 1776 Revolution attacked the validity of the lowest feudal rungs, and by 1800 feudal servitude was largely extinguished in the America. Southern slavery, though, had economic challenges that made it unique from servitude and stubbornly intractable.

Despite the universal status and acceptance of slavery, the founders generally thought that slavery was doomed. The slavery compromises in the Constitution were satisfactory to both sides because both sides assumed that slavery would soon end in North America though neither knew exactly how. Notably, Virginia had no interest (or need) to extend the slave trade and many Virginians (including George Washington) were switching from being planters to being farmers. (Note: “planting” is human-labor-intensive and includes tobacco and cotton where “farming” is animal-labor-intensive and includes grains). In many ways, the South was splitting between farmers (Virginia), planters (Deep South) and non-large-agriculture areas (western Virginia, eastern Tennessee, Arkansas). As planters transformed into farmers in some parts of the South, slaves began to move to urban areas such as Richmond and Norfolk and were paid pages; as the new country formed, servitude was extinguished and slavery in some areas began to look like servitude. There’s considerable primary evidence to support the conclusion that the South was not unified about slavery at the end of the 18th century.

One result of the Revolution is that slavery is largely confined to the South (some northern states, such as New Jersey, had slaves grandfathered in up to the Civil War). By 1804, every Northern state put slavery on the legal path to extinction, and the Constitution essentially gave the Deep South — the only party interested — twenty years to cease the slave trade. While the road to the extinction of slavery seemed to be clearly ahead with a hard stop on the trade at 1808, this none-the-less suggested that the South, for the first time, had to either end slavery entirely or muster some kind of defense of slavery, which they’d never previously had to do. Slavery was a natural part of a feudal hierarchy, and the South was the attempted perfection of feudalism. Once the Revolution struck a decisive blow against feudalism, slaveholders required — for the first time — a justification for slavery. So while the South was disunified on the application of slavery, there was a catalyst to become unified on the theory.

The Revolution was problematic for the world and particularly thorny for a Deep South that relied heavily on slavery. The Revolution made a clear argument against slavery — an argument that had never been substantially previously made and an institution that had only been seriously challenged once before (Charlemagne, 8th c.). It’s unlikely the British could have ended slavery in the West Indies in 1833 without the Revolution. Slavery was thoroughly integrated throughout the New World, so the global burden to justify slavery outside of feudalism, its natural habitat, weighed solely on the South.

With the anti-slavery convention in Philadelphia in 1775 and the Revolution in 1776, the North became the global leaders of anti-slavery thought, and much of the South was sympathetic to the North’s arguments. In 1791, the Boards of Visitors and Trustees of the College of William and Mary (Virginia) and slaveholding planters awarded an honorary degree to Granville Sharp, the fiery leader of the British abolition movement. Thomas Jefferson opposed slavery early and was an outspoken opponent of it though he realized that his arguments were generally dismissed in the South. Despite knowing that Jefferson’s sympathies lay with the anti-slavery north (he specifically viewed Connecticut as Edenic), his own people continued to elevate him into positions of power. Had Virginians been virulently pro-slavery, then never would have championed Jefferson as a leader or welcomed Granville Sharp into their state.

So some in the South were seeking ways to justify slavery while others were seeking ways to end it. Amidst this disunion, the Haitian Revolution occurred with some 100,000 Haitian colonists and French killed. Many of the French fled to New Orleans and Charleston and conveyed stories of fear and horror. Then Gabriel’s Rebellion — a Richmond-based slave rebellion plot, thwarted by other slaves — occurred in Virginia in 1800 and fear began to metastasize. This fear found purchase in the labor needs of the Deep South, and a narrative framework began to take form.

That’s the undisputed picture of slavery up until the early 1800s. Here’s what you don’t hear.

Back of $1 bill: Novus ordo seclorum (“New order of the ages”). Feudalism was dying, group hierarchies were losing potency, and individuals were coming into form. Slavery would soon conform one way or another.

Enlightenment Undercurrents

As noted above, slavery in the Deep South had a unique problem. Jefferson’s close friend John Adams had never been a slaveowner, hated slavery, and had no vested interest in it. While he’d been opposed to slavery from the beginning, he concluded (and said to Jefferson) that Southerners will have to work out their own slavery problems. Jefferson’s long agitation against slavery met with the same response at Otis’ did: sure, slavery is terrible but what are we going to do about it? So if so many Southerners opposed slavery, then what made it so intractable?

Economic Gordian Knot

Historically, agriculture has always been an asset-rich but cash-poor operation. While the South had great wealth (Charleston was the nation’s wealthiest city at the start of the Civil War), most of that wealth was illiquid (specifically, it was in slaves and farmland). Major agricultural economies tend to run on debt via leveraged assets, and the South was no different. This leads to the very practical problem that anti-slavery Southerners kept running into: if you freed the slaves, how would you pay them for their labor?

This problem was so enormous that it was never solved, not even after the abolition of slavery. Sharecropping was an economic necessity because it paid for labor with crops (which is how the South always financed their expenses). Eventually, the Southern economy rebounded when human labor began to be replaced by machines. The problem of exchanging a high human labor asset/debt economy for a cash economy was never solved because it’s not solvable (there are no agricultural high-human-labor cash economies).

But what about the British?

The British never addressed slavery while slave-labor contributed significantly to their economy. Once the Revolution occurred, slavery-agriculture was a minor contribution to the British economy. After the American South was no longer a part of the United Kingdom, slaveholders had no significant positions of power in the Ministry and cash injections could resolve any liquidity issues suffered by Caribbean plantation owners once their slaves were freed. The Southern economy was simply too large for such a solution.[3]

Failure of Dialogue

The other issue is that by the 1840s, abolition — a largely Quaker trend — begins to take its final form. This mid-century form of abolition, which reached a fever pitch in the 1850s, positioned slave owners at some kind of Satanists (really) who operated in concert with the prince of darkness. This caused two main features of late slavery to form and made the war inevitable. First, the general attack on the “slave-holder South” without distinguishing between varying Southern positions on slavery or acknowledging past Southern efforts to limit or abolish slavery unified the South in ways it hadn’t previously been unified. Prior to the extremist position of abolition, Virginia had as much in common with Florida and Mississippi as it did with Massachusetts; the abolition movement unified the South.

Second, the position that Southerners were evil rendered dialogue impossible. Increasingly, having anything that resembled a productive conversation with Southerners, regardless of their slave-holding status or views on slavery, was toxic. As Southerners were increasingly lumped together through bonds of evil projected onto them by Abolitionists, they found solace and accord in each other. Such accord was not in agreement about slavery or resolutions for the peculiar institution — for there was no pending resolution, but rather this new-found Southern esprit de corps was birthed from their opposition to the North’s projections of homogenizing conclusions about Southern motives.

Even more galling for Southerners was the fact that about 80% of Federal revenue was derived from the South (mostly Charleston and New Orleans), while most of that money was spent by the government — dominated by northerners by the 1850s — outside of the South. Southerners felt that they were being required to fund Northern government projects, solve a massive economic problem without Northern assistance, be homogenized as barbaric evil slavers, and, increasingly, northerners refused to even discuss these problems. It was a classic case of closing dialogue while casting aspersions on one’s opponent with a level of absolutism that aborts any potential for collaborative resolution. And there were four million enslaved blacks in the South that the North could point to as evidence of evil. The South had been thoroughly painted into a corner.

The South couldn’t resolve the restrictive economics of high-labor agriculture by itself, but there was another trend that was sweeping the West that kept the South on stormy seas. As an attempt to perfect feudalism, the South relied on two key foundations of feudal organization. First, that manual labor was for the lower rungs of the feudal ladder.[4] Second, that the world was organized by hierarchical groups.

The Puritan ethos that had been planted in the 17th century in Massachusetts was becoming the dominant feature of American culture. It celebrated individual hard work, manual effort, inventiveness and, in the words of northern prophet Ralph Emerson, self-reliance. At the end of the 1700s, Massachusetts farmer William Manning distilled the growing cultural divide into The Key to Liberty, which painted a picture of hard-working individuals embattled against the parasitic few; it was an argument against aristocrats, oligarchs, and plantation owners. At the time, Boston was the global epicenter of the practical application of the Enlightenment, and the invention and elevation of the individual spread from there southward, largely via the pulpit.

The invention of the individual and the elevation of work further alienated the feudal South just as it had alienated the Old World.[5] God had created the lower rungs of the feudal hierarchy to perform the manual labor humans required to survive, but now the Enlightened North and America’s founding documents suggested neither no longer existed. The Yankee Trader, a new breed of respected individual with callused hands, was the America archetype.[6] Now, the South increasingly seemed more like the feudal Europe that had been rejected than the new America founded on the ideal that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.”

The second foundations of feudal organization, that the world was organized by hierarchical groups, relied on a non-epicurean epistemology that assumed a hierarchy of rights and responsibilities from God to slave. But by the early 1800s, groups were dissolving into individuals and group identities and justifications were increasingly valueless.[7]

The epicurean worldview that argued that there was nothing beyond the individual human increasingly found purchase in the modern mind, and it enabled earthy culpability while negating outside forces such as fate. At that point, arguments from a feudal structure that stretched from the gods to the slaves becomes untenable.

The epicureanism that fueled the development of individual agency was aided by the expanding use of money. The invention of paper money in Boston in 1690 led to a century of trial-and-error with this new instrument of value, but by the beginning of the 1800s, paper money began to flow into the hands of the poor. Prior to that, it wasn’t uncommon for a poor person to spend their entire life without ever touching money. But the 19th century witnessed money — and regular payments for cheap labor — become a viable financial solution to various labor problems.[8]

With the elevation of manual labor, the invention of the individual and individual agency, and the increasing availability of paper money, the South’s economic labor structure that had been so globally accepted just a few decades before now seemed increasingly backward. The South mustered some defense, such as the argument that factory workers were just slaves without masters, and factory owners were just slave owners without any responsibility for worker welfare. Wage slaves were only possible because of the widespread use of money and ignorance of any groups such that anyone willing to work for money would be hired but, for some in the South, these wage slaves seemed to live no better (some argued worse) than plantation slaves. Abolitionists had closed the lines of communication, so the wage slave argument got nowhere.


So that’s the general overview of the issues involving slavery and the Civil War. The New York Times conveyed almost none of that to its readers and instead made the Civil War and the Revolution more about solidifying and perpetuating institutional racism. (Blacks weren’t enslaved because Europeans thought they were inferior; rather, they were enslaved because they weren’t Christian and there were vast Arab and African markets for African slaves already established by the time Europeans showed up.)

To optimize the impact of propaganda, it’s always preferable to target the uneducated or poor or desperate or otherwise helpless. They possess the most limited defenses against untruths. And so, The New York Times is distributing their counter-narrative to schools, and Chicago Public Schools (90% minority, 76% in poverty) is distributing the literature to its students.

Demonizing or elevating whole groups while foreclosing avenues to constructive dialogue are two of the core tactics employed by abolitionists, and yet The New York Times seems ignorant of where that led.


[2] This view was generally held globally and extends from pre-history up into the 19th century.

[3] In fairness to the North, I don’t believe most Northerners even considered this economic problem (or ever did), which is why slavery stumbled into something like slavery — sharecropping — after the Civil War. The absolutism of abolition prevented the dialogue necessary to reach such construction solutions.

[4] Aristotle had said that those who worked with their hands and especially those who worked for money lacked the capacity for virtue.

[5] I’ve written extensively on the disintegration of feudal groups into individuals and the creation of paper money, most notably here.

[7] Marx took advantage of this dissolution of feudal groups in order to formulate new groups, or classes. Marxists view slavery and the Civil War as class struggle.

[8] Previously, all kinds of small payments from wages to taxes were often made in non-money form (crops, animals, iron, wood, etc). For much of the 17th century, Virginia accepted tobacco or iron for tax payments and Massachusetts accepted peas. Yes, the little vegetables. These issues occurred simply because money — gold and silver at the time — was scarce, particularly among the poor.

One fairly good rebuttal to the 1619 project:

About Nathan Allen

Founder of Xio Research (A.I.), Applied Magic (A.I.), and Andover (data). A.I. strategy and development leader at IBM. Academic training is in intellectual history; his most recent book, Weapon of Choice, examines the creation of American identity and modern Western power. Don’t get too excited, Weapon of Choice isn’t about wars but rather more about the seeming ex nihilo development of individual agency … which doesn’t really seem sexy until you consider that individual agency covers everything from voting rights to the cash in your wallet to the reason mass communication even makes sense…. Lectures on historical aspects of media, privacy/law, and power structures (mostly). Previous book: Arsonist.



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