Themes in American History: Capitalism, Slavery, Democracy

Nikole Hannah Jones’s essay “America Wasn’t a Democracy, Until Black People Made It One,”

In reading Nikole Hannah Jones’s essay “America Wasn’t a Democracy, Until Black People Made It One,” from The 1619 Project, New York Times, Aug. 14, 2019, my attention was captured by the way in which the author exposes the important aspects that were left out of American history through the analyzation of historical documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution. For example, the Declaration of Independence states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”[1] The Declaration of Independence expresses the desire of forming an independent American nation from the British monarch due to arising conflicts; excessive taxation being one of the many. Colonists were providing cheap raw materials to the British mainland at the expense of their hard labor just to be met with harsh taxes in return. In light of these inequalities and unfairness, colonists proceeded to revolt, obtain their independence, and to gain the rights they believe they deserved. It is interesting to see how when the colonists are forced to lift a pinky, an entire war is commenced to address and resolve the issue. However, when it came to the institution of slavery, were the circumstances not like those of the colonists? Were the inequalities and unfair treatment that enslaved Africans faced not enough to start some commotion? It is baffling to see how enslaved Africans were in support of the revolution and even gave their lives for a cause that would not have an effect on their lives. Jones proceeds to explain how the “we” and the “men” used in this declaration is merely referring to white colonist men and not to the enslaved African Americans as they were regarded as a “separate race” according to the 1857 Dred Scott decision (Jones 5). The rightful equality and the granting of unalienable rights would not apply to enslaved African Americans as a result. The only way in which African Americans were regarded was in an indirect and obtuse manner. For instance, instead of being regarded as the individuals that they were, they were mostly regarded as property. In the U.S. Constitution, the Fugitive Slave Clause, Article IV, Section 2 states, “No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due”.[2] Slaves were only regarded in the Constitution as property to be returned if “lost” or to express their lack of status. In reviewing Jones’s essay, it is concerning to see how the American school system is teaching history to students in that it is a story told without considering all the narratives. The narrative painted in our textbooks has gaps and fails to consider the actual role of African Americans on the development of the United States as a country. In conclusion, Jones is successful at opening the eyes of readers and portraying how the glorified historical documents that have founded our country are implicitly pro-slavery.







One thought on “Nikole Hannah Jones’s essay “America Wasn’t a Democracy, Until Black People Made It One,””

  1. A great post! The comparison you make between the plight of the colonists and that of enslaved people did not go unnoticed at the time or since. Not only did observers like Samuel Johnson mock colonists for their “yelps for liberty” while continuing to hold people in bondage, but abolitionists like David Walker later chastised white Americans, asking them whether their sufferings were “one hundredth part as cruel and tyrannical” as that experienced by the enslaved. To add a further level of irony, white American colonists often referred to themselves as being the “slaves” of British tyranny during the lead-up to Independence.

    That said, I would call your attention to a few things. One of the big problems with Hannah-Jones’s essay, in my view, is that she erases the conflict and debate that shaped documents like the Constitution and followed it for many decades after. It’s not clear, for example, whether the Declaration excludes people of color (it doesn’t use any language about race or whiteness), and in fact, Black abolitionists used the Declaration quite effectively to demand equal rights. Similarly, nowhere does the Constitution spell out that enslaved people were property, although southern slaveowners claimed that it did. Even where it does talk about slavery, as in the Fugitive Clause you cite, it refers to slaves as “persons”—a detail which abolitionists used to argue entitled slaves to some rights. The Dred Scott decision, issued 70 years after the Constitution was ratified, attempted to settle these questions in a proslavery direction, but largely failed because it was never recognized as law, and the Civil War broke out a few years later. So, as we’ll see this week when we look at emancipation and Reconstruction, there was always a debate, always a conflict.

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