Posted on November 22, 2019

An Interview With Historian James McPherson on the New York Times’ 1619 Project

Tom Mackaman, World Socialist Web Site, November 14, 2019

James McPherson

James McPherson

The World Socialist Web Site recently spoke to James McPherson, professor emeritus of history at Princeton University, on the New York Times’ 1619 Project. McPherson is the author of dozens of books and articles, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Battle Cry of Freedom, widely regarded as the authoritative account of the Civil War.

Q. What was your initial reaction to the 1619 Project?

A. Well, I didn’t know anything about it until I got my Sunday paper, with the magazine section entirely devoted to the 1619 Project. Because this is a subject I’ve long been interested in I sat down and started to read some of the essays. I’d say that, almost from the outset, I was disturbed by what seemed like a very unbalanced, one-sided account, which lacked context and perspective on the complexity of slavery, which was clearly, obviously, not an exclusively American institution, but existed throughout history. And slavery in the United States was only a small part of a larger world process that unfolded over many centuries. And in the United States, too, there was not only slavery but also an antislavery movement. So I thought the account, which emphasized American racism — which is obviously a major part of the history, no question about it — but it focused so narrowly on that part of the story that it left most of the history out.

So I read a few of the essays and skimmed the rest, but didn’t pursue much more about it because it seemed to me that I wasn’t learning very much new. And I was a little bit unhappy with the idea that people who did not have a good knowledge of the subject would be influenced by this and would then have a biased or narrow view.

Q. Are you aware that the glossy magazine is being distributed to schools across the country, and the Chicago public school district has already announced that it will be part of the curriculum?

A. I knew that its purpose was for education, but I haven’t heard many of the details of that, including what you’ve just mentioned.


Q. You mentioned that you were totally surprised when you found Project 1619 in your Sunday paper. You are one of the leading historians of the Civil War and slavery. And the Times did not approach you?

A. No, they didn’t, no.

Q. We’ve spoken to a lot of historians, leading scholars in the fields of slavery, the Civil War, the American Revolution, and we’re finding that none of them were approached. Although the Times doesn’t list its sources, what do you think, in terms of scholarship, this 1619 Project is basing itself on?

A. I don’t really know. One of the people they approached is Kevin Kruse, who wrote about Atlanta. He’s a colleague, a professor here at Princeton. He doesn’t quite fit the mold of the other writers. But I don’t know who advised them, and what motivated them to choose the people they did choose.

Q. Nikole Hannah-Jones, the lead writer and leader of the 1619 Project, includes a statement in her essay — and I would say that this is the thesis of the project — that “anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country.”

A. Yes, I saw that too. It does not make very much sense to me. I suppose she’s using DNA metaphorically. She argues that racism is the central theme of American history. It is certainly part of the history. But again, I think it lacks context, lacks perspective on the entire course of slavery and how slavery began and how slavery in the United States was hardly unique. And racial convictions, or “anti-other” convictions, have been central to many societies.

But the idea that racism is a permanent condition, well that’s just not true. And it also doesn’t account for the countervailing tendencies in American history as well. Because opposition to slavery, and opposition to racism, has also been an important theme in American history.


Q. Could you speak specifically on what motivated Union soldiers in the Civil War? I know you’ve written on this question.

A. Attitudes in the Union Army ranged from extreme racism to a kind of radical idealism and anti-slavery. I think that any one statement about “the soldiers” in the Union Army would not make any sense. I read the letters and diaries of well over 1,000 of them, and their attitudes on this question ranged all the way from a racist, pro-slavery position to a kind of radical egalitarian perspective. I tried to quantify these things, but it’s hard to make a generalization about two-and-a-half million soldiers.

Q. The motivations are complex, and the major political perspectives of the time are bound up with the soldiers’ motivations, whether it was a war to preserve the Union or a war to end slavery, or a combination of the two . . .

A. . . . Well the initial motivation was revenge for the attack on the flag. The response in the North, and especially among the men who signed up — and they were all volunteers for the first two years of the Civil War, and they were mostly volunteers throughout — viewed it at first as an unprovoked attack on the flag. And that broadened into an idea of not only revenging the flag, and the ideas that it stood for, but of taking revenge against what they were increasingly calling “the Slave Power.” So, almost from the beginning, there was not really a sharp division between fighting for the integrity of the United States, and against the institution that had attacked it.


Q. Maybe you could speak on Lincoln. Nikole Hannah-Jones refers to Lincoln as viewing African Americans as “an obstacle to national unity.” And then she moves on. I think that that’s a vast oversimplification.

A. It is a vast oversimplification. Lincoln became increasingly convinced, as many of the Union soldiers did, that that the Union could not be preserved if that disturbing factor — slavery — remained. And Lincoln’s frequently quoted statement, in his famous letter to Horace Greeley, that, ‘my primary object is to preserve the Union. If I could do that without freeing the slaves, I would do that. But if I could do it by freeing the slaves, I would do that.’ (The full text of Lincoln’s letter to Greeley’s New York Tribune.) He’d in fact already made up his mind when he wrote that letter. He had already drafted the Emancipation Proclamation, and he was preparing the way for it. He had become convinced by the summer of 1862 that he could never achieve his primary goal — the preservation of the Union — without getting rid of slavery. And this was the first step toward doing that.

Q. Is it correct to say that by the end of his life Lincoln had drawn to a position proximate to that of the Radical Republicans?

A. He was moving in that direction. In his last speech — it turned out to be his last speech — he came out in favor of qualified suffrage for freed slaves, those who could pass a literacy test and those who were veterans of the Union army.

Q. Another element implicit in the 1619 Project is that all white people in the South were unified behind slavery.

A. George Frederickson [(1934-2008) – TM] came up with the idea of “herrenvolk democracy.” He was a historian at Stanford University who wrote on the ideology of white supremacy in the US, and comparatively with South Africa. I think it gets at a powerful element in the southern ideology in the antebellum. That even though two-thirds to three-quarters of southern whites did not own slaves, they all owned the white skin. So with the slave system, as Senator Hammond of South Carolina put it, the slaves are the “mudsill” of the society, and all whites were above that mudsill because they were white. And that’s a good definition of white privilege.

It did exist, at least in theory. Whether it existed in practical relations is another matter. But it existed in the ideology of the pro-slavery argument.

Q. I think in Battle Cry of Freedom you refer to this as “holding the line” in the South — in the context of the war in which the Confederacy has to muster all these soldiers into the ranks. But it’s not so simple, as it turns out.

A. Yes. In the parts of the South where slavery was a minimal factor — in the Appalachian Mountain chain for example, in western Virginia and in eastern Tennessee, where there are very few slaves and very few slaveholders, a lot of the whites did not want to fight for the Confederacy, to risk their lives for what they saw as a slaveholders’ war. So you had strong currents of unionism in those parts of the South. In fact West Virginia becomes a union state — one-third of the state of Virginia — in the Civil War.

The herrenvolk idea was an ideological effort to undercut class conflict among whites in the South by saying that all whites are superior to all blacks, all whites are in the same category, they are not of different classes. You may not be a slaveholder and you may not have much money, but you are white. Well, not every white southerner bought that argument. And that’s especially true in parts of the South where slavery was marginal to the social order: western Virginia, eastern Tennessee, western North Carolina.

Q. Part of the Republican critique of slavery that emerges in the 1850s is the idea that slavery degraded all labor.

A. That was a part of the “free labor ideology” that 50 years ago Eric Foner wrote about so effectively. Slavery undermined the concept of the dignity of labor and held down the white working man because labor was identified in the South with slavery. Hinton Rowan Helper made that a theme of his famous book.

Q. Can you explain who Hinton Helper was?

A. He was a sort of middle class resident of western North Carolnia who became in the 1850s increasingly resentful of the control of southern society, of the suppression of the non-slaveholders, by the slaveholding elite that held them back, as he saw it. And he wrote a book in 1857 called The Impending Crisis of the South, in which he attacked the slaveholders and the Slave Power controlling society in their interest, and using this argument of herrenvolk democracy to keep down, to mitigate, class resentment and class conflict among whites in the South. And Republicans in the North seized on that as part of their free labor ideology.


Q. Let me ask you a counterfactual question. Suppose the South had won the Civil War. What would have happened with the slavery institution?

A. I get asked this question a lot. Nobody knows for sure. It’s like the question of what would have happened had Lincoln not been assassinated. I think slavery would have continued for another generation. It did continue to exist in Brazil and Cuba for another generation, and it might not have come to an end as it did those two countries had it not already been abolished in the United States. So another generation of black people would have been slaves, another generation of children being sold apart from their parents, and so on. Clearly that would have gone on. We can’t say for sure when slavery would have come to an end, and under what conditions it would have come to an end, but clearly there would have been no 14th and 15th amendments for a long time, if ever.


Q. Have you read Karl Marx’s writings on the Civil War?

A. Yes I have.

Q. What do you think of them?

A. Well, I think they have a lot of very good insight into what was going on in the American Civil War. Marx certainly saw the abolition of slavery as a kind of bourgeois revolution that paved the way for the proletarian revolution that he hoped would come in another generation or so. It was a crucial step on the way to the eventual proletarian revolution, as Marx perceived it.