Capitalism vs. Slavery…and The New York Times' 1619 Project

Economic historian Phillip W. Magness on classical liberalism and abolition, Abraham Lincoln's contested legacy, and why history matters in contemporary politics.


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When The New York Times launched its 1619 Project last year, it sought to "reframe the country's history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative." What began as a series of articles in the Times magazine morphed into a collection of lesson plans for K-12 students and provoked an immediate controversy.

Five of the nation's most eminent academic historians co-signed a letter to the Times describing the project as "partly misleading" and containing "factual errors." And Northwestern University Professor Leslie M. Harris revealed that she had been a fact-checker on the series and that her warnings of a major error of interpretation had been ignored. But Harris also took "detractors of the 1619 Project" to task for "misrepresent[ing] both the historical record and the historical profession," writing that the "attacks from its critics are much more dangerous" than the Times' "avoidable mistakes."

Enter Phillip W. Magness, an economic historian, a research fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research, and the author of a new collection of essays on the project. Magness praises aspects of the series but he says that the project's editor, Nikole Hannah-Jones, is guilty of blurring lines between serious scholarship and partisan advocacy. And he has called for the retraction of an essay in the series by Princeton sociologist Matthew Desmond, which was headlined, "In order to understand the brutality of American capitalism, you have to start on the plantation."

Nick Gillespie spoke with Magness from his office in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, about what the Times gets right and wrong about U.S. history, capitalism and slavery, Abraham Lincoln's contested legacy, and why our interpretation of American history matters to contemporary society.

Edited by John Osterhoudt.

Photo credit: Associação Brasileira de Jornalismo Investigativo / CC BY (; Raquel Zaldivar/TNS/Newscom

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  1. I guess ill listen to it again.

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  2. Reruns already?

    1. It is a pandemic. We all have to make sacrifices fury.

  3. The fact is that slavery was banned in the states of the North. To explain that you either have to admit that slavery wasn’t necessary for economic development or that it was but the people of the North were altruistic enough to ban it anyway. It has to be one or the other.

    The claim that the country was built on slavery would at least possibly have some merit if the entire nation had relied on slaves rather than just one particular section of it. Moreover, slavery occurred in every state. Yet, by 1804, every state in the north had voted to abolish it. And while prior to the 1850s the North showed no interest in abolishing slavery in the South, it supported preventing its spread to the West. The 1619 project expects us to believe that slavery was the base of the entire American economy and prosperity but somehow the primary beneficiaries of this, those in the North, didn’t want it in their own states and didn’t want it spreading to new states in the West either. That seems to be a funny way of treating an institution so vital to the nation’s prosperity.

    There really is nothing to praise about the 1619 project. The fact that not everything it claims is a lie doesn’t change that the project as a whole serves the purpose of telling a greater lie. It is just garbage.

    1. Indeed, if you want to understand the real story of Slavery in the United States, it wasn’t central to the perpetuation of capitalism, so much as it was central to extending the life of aristocracy in the country.

      Slavery worked when you owned a lot of land with serfs (slaves) making that land productive. Working the land did not require a lot of skills, and housing (rents) could be handled on the land. And if you controlled the land and serfs in your area, you pretty much controlled all of the political activities of that area.

      The story of the Civil War is largely about the industrialists kicking the remnants of aristocracy to the curb. Those concerned about classism should be happy that capitalism ultimately supplanted aristocracy. But nope.

      1. And Slavery made the South as a whole much poorer than it would have been. It just made those who were wealthy enough to own large tracts of land rich. But an economy based on slavery will never compete with an economy based on free wage earners. Slavery wasted enormous amounts of human capital. Why would any slave work hard or try and improve themselves or the place where they worked? They wouldn’t. If you were a slave in the South, you were never going anywhere. So, slaves understandably did just enough to stay alive and out of trouble and no more. And no amount of beatings and threats were going to get them to work as hard or be as productive as a free laborer working for a wage. And over the course of millions of people and generations that lost productivity and potential human capital adds up. And it added up to the South having 25% of the free population but only owning 10% of the nation’s capital. Another striking statistic is that in 1860, 90% of the nation’s skilled laborers were in free states. Gee taking a third of your population and putting them in bondage created a huge disincentive for workers to acquire skills and for businesses using skilled labor to move to your area. Who knew?

        1. Another reason for the lack of skilled workers in the South was that the plantation owners often deliberately avoided training their slaves any skills beyond tending crops or cooking and cleaning in the house. This was not just the owner’s individual choice; after Nat Turner’s rebellion, most of the southern states passed laws against reading or writing to slaves.

          This is not an inherent characteristic of slavery. Roman industry depended upon slaves who were skilled craftsmen, upper class Romans were educated mainly by Greek slave tutors, and much of the public entertainment was duels between slave gladiators who had been trained to fight. That sometimes led to slave revolts, but the Romans clearly considered the benefits of owning slaves worth the cost of occasional military campaigns to put down revolts.

          OTOH, Southern aristocrats were in the peculiar position of owning large numbers of slaves in a society that otherwise exalted individual freedom, and thus were especially worried about slave revolts. If black men ever learned to think like the American cultural heroes of the Revolutionary War, they certainly would revolt!

          But it certainly cost the South economically; resource extraction (farming, mining, etc.) always results in higher profits for city merchants and manufacturers than for the rural areas who extract the resources. In the long run, the Southern aristocrats could only maintain their position by continually starting new slave plantations on new lands – and so in 1860, they walked out of the Democratic party convention rather than accept a platform that allowed new territories to vote to be free, and when this resulted in Lincoln winning on a platform of banning slavery in new territories, they seceded, _and_ fired the first shots of the Civil War. But the North had the wealth, the industry, and the skilled workers…

      2. Indeed, if you want to understand the real story of Slavery in the United States, it wasn’t central to the perpetuation of capitalism, so much as it was central to extending the life of aristocracy in the country.
        You’d think this would be obvious, but I guess not so in this country, with so many people duped on what capitalism is (rich old white guys amirite?)

      3. Feudalism gives more investment to the serfs. There was a debate (at least in Spain) about whether to let their colonists assume the title of Feudal Lord. Something that had just occurred in Spain was Feudal Lords rising up, uniting, and driving the Muslim leaders out of the country. With the guy playing King of the Aztecs, there was a concern that allowing feudalism in the colonies could result in a similar conflict. So feudal was chucked and the compromise was slaves. Feudal serfs own what they build, however they are taxed in exchange for protection. The better the Lord, the more prosperous his tenants. Slavery turns that around so that everything belongs to the master and everything you have is given to you by him.

  4. “the criticism of my work is more dangerous than whether I did my work correctly”

    does this reconcile? I needed this argument in math classes

  5. Slavery is in no way shape or form capitalistic. Capitalism does after all rely on the free market to function and slaves aren’t free.

    1. But, I only make $12.75 as a Starbucks barista and I cannot afford the rents AND car payments AND my pilates classes! WAGE SLAVERY!

      1. If only everyone worked for some central authority that acted in the common good and then gave out the value that we all produced according to our needs. That way you wouldn’t be working for a wage, you would be working for the common good and would receive food and shelter and what you needed from this central authority.

        Such a system would be totally different than everyone working for a plantation owner in return for room and board because REASONS!!

        Socialism is a form of slavery. It is just slavery to the state. And the only idiots who like that idea are the ones dumb enough to think they will be the overseers in such a system and not the slaves.

  6. I don’t remember the thread (I usually skim these things very quickly since it’s usually the same people bickering pointlessly), but someone said that the campaign manager guy in Tiger King is the only sane one in the whole bunch. Well…

    1. Oklahoma is a big red neck state. Waving a sword around in a state full of red neck gun owners strikes me as having a death wish.

      1. Educational attainment ranking (college degree)
        Oklahoma 44

        Educational attainment ranking (graduate degree)
        Oklahoma 44

        About the only thing to be said for the Okies is that they’re consistent.

        1. That is because Oklahoma has a large native American population who are still suffering the long term effects of how they were treated by the US government. Since you are a racist fuck, it is not surprising that you see them as inferiors. And being ignorant, you have no hope of understanding that.

          You are nothing if not consistently ignorant and racist. It is terrifying how ignorant and hateful you are. You are just a lower form of life.

          1. Gee, John, what bug crawled up your ass and got you so excited? For the record, Oklahoma does not have a large native American population. It numbers somewhere around 6-7% of the population. No, John, racism has nothing to do with the lack of achievement in higher education in the “Sooner” state. It’s all Oklahoman’s that are inferior (at least in higher education) no one is singling out native Americans except for you. Sounds like you suffer from a major inferiority complex.

  7. Slavery is also a terrible way to run a farm. It’s expensive to buy and keep slaves . It also stalls new and more efficient ways of producing crops .It’s immoral and unsound economics. It completely retarded the souths industrial growth.

    1. Yes it did. See the statistics I give above. The only capital the South ended up owning was the slaves themselves.

  8. The most important modern takeaway from slavery is that the US needs open borders. My favorite libertarian writer Shikha Dalmia explored this idea in a piece in which she called slavery our ORIGINAL SIN and recommended implementing Charles Koch’s immigration agenda as the best way to atone.


    1. “#(AndToProveYouOpposeSlavery)”
      I read an article wrote by a brown person today, does that count?

    2. I have nothing to atone for.

  9. So the 1619 project starts with a lie. An easily disproved lie.

    “The first group of 20 or so Africans were brought to Jamestown in 1619 as indentured servants. After working out their contracts for passage money to Virginia and completing their indenture, each was granted 50 acres (20 ha) of land (headrights). This enabled them to raise their own tobacco or other crops.”
    (look up John Castor; his legal case held the right of BLACK men to own slaves in Virginia)

    So the “slaves” were indentured servants paying their way with labor who later became capitalists.

    1. So the “slaves” were indentured servants paying their way with labor who later became capitalists.

      And slave-owning capitalists at that!

  10. sivi solucan gubresi uretimi yapiyor ve bunlari kirmizi kaliforniya solucani ile birlikte satisini yapiyoruz. Solucan gubresi uretimi ve fiyatu icin mutlaka bizi tercih ediniz.

  11. I’m beginning to think that what we’d call the classical-liberal view on race has always been embattled and even despised. The classical liberal acknowledges that if you take a centuries-long view, there’s much more white-on-black racial oppression than the reverse. But the classical liberal does insist that as between two equivalent *individual* incidents of racism, one of them white-on-black and one black on white, the two incidents are morally equivalent. With this as a building block, the classical liberal then builds a vision of a society where you get judged on the content of your character, not the color of your skin (as Rev. King said even if he may not have believed it). Today, the classical-liberal view is considered racist. What about the miasma of systemic racism which overpowers everything and makes white people be racist even without conscious intent? How can a racist white person beating a black person be compared to a racist black person beating a black person? One is part of systemic injustice, the other is a minor mishap. Naturally, white supremacists, back when organized and open white supremacism was common, attacked the classical-liberal vision viciously. The white supremacists knew perfectly well that the classical liberal vision conflicted with their own vision. We’re certainly closer to the classical liberal vision in practice nowadays. But the intellectual classes, raceturbators, academics, and of course media are busy mocking this vision and calling it racist. It’s the vision that was potently effective against actual white supremacism, but sure, abolish the liberal vision and embrace open and avowed racial conflict, no way that can go wrong!

  12. As to why some libertarians tend to have a favorable attitude to the Confederacy, I’ll offer a personal perspective. To be very clear, I strongly believe that slavery was the key reason for the creation of the Confederacy, and that slavery is really bad!

    Three of my great grandfathers were privates in the Confederate army. Between them, they lost 4 brothers, 1 arm and the full use of a leg. One was the 2nd cousin of a Confederate general who was killed in action. Each summer when we visited my grandparents, we saw the Minnie Ball that was dug out of my great grandfather’s leg. So yes, I tend to be a bit sympathetic to things Confederate.

    I grew up in Mississippi during the 1960s. I believe the Federal government was totally right to outlaw governmental discrimination. But I believe there would have been less resistance to the Civil Rights movement if the Federal Government had not also outlawed non-governmental discrimination. Long-run, I believe that would have been a better approach. In that era, Confederate symbols not only represented blatant racism, but a rejection of the Federal Government’s approach to Civil Rights.

  13. Just an assumption being made in my head. This is the reason the USA became wealthy, why were so many other parts of the world poor?

    1. The USA had a whole new continent to exploit – but exploiting natural resources only gives lasting prosperity if the profits are invested in a business that will continue long after the resources are exhausted. The north and central regions of the USA were freed from guilds, aristocracy, and monarchy (with the accompanying Royal licenses and crony capitalism) by the Revolutionary War. With one of the freest markets in history, they industrialized and achieved lasting wealth.

      The South largely failed to join in this, and became increasingly poor until northern industrialists began taking advantage of low wages and workers desperate for a job in the 1970’s.

      1. I mostly agree except I would point out for example that Japan has always had comparatively few resources and has been around for centuries. Modern Japan industrialized and became wealthy because of the Meiji Restoration and reforms (1867 – 1912) not because of resources to exploit. Access to resources affects the price, but it is a free market that allows prices to have meaningful impact.

  14. Slavery and it’s history are certainly important in American history. In much the same way class has shaped British society. The racial division it fostered is still with us, and I have no objection to interpreting American history through the lens of slavery.

    I think it’s trying to throw the baby out with the bath water though. It’s absolutely true that the balance of political power, and certain economic practices were influenced by slavery, but the institutions aren’t fundamentally corrupted because of it. The Senate and electoral college have their reasons to exist apart from slavery, even though I doubt anyone would claim they work well at the moment.

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