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above: detail of a 1920 Soviet propaganda poster, which read "Knowledge Will Break the Chains of Slavery."

Polemics & Exchanges

Bound by History

Most of us objected to The New York Times’ notorious “1619 Project” because it trashes the great achievements of Americans (creating free institutions and conquering a continental wilderness), substituting a story of supposed victimization as the core of our history. Alas, Professor Hall, in his speculations in the March issue (“Slavery and the American Founding”) has fallen into the same pit—making the marginal history of Africans in America the center of history. (By the way, 1619 is a good place to start American history. The first elected representative body of the colonies met in Virginia in that year.)

Only rarely does Prof. Hall’s article touch solid American earth. It is true that American Founders disliked the idea of slavery, but nobody had any idea what to do about the reality. Lincoln himself on the eve of his elevation remarked that Northerners would be just like Southerners if they were in the same situation, and that he would not know what to do about slavery even if he had the power. Calhoun did not say slavery in the abstract was a positive good—he said that the South’s domestic servitude had made the best of the situation it had inherited for both races. Hall blames Southerners for “colonization” but it was primarily a Northern movement, more than once endorsed by Lincoln. The...

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