Two visiting scholars, Leslie Harris and Lucas Morel, spoke last week about the founding of America and the legacy of slavery. Titled “1619 or 1776: Was America Founded on Slavery?”, the debate was hosted by the Alexander Hamilton Forum and sparked controversy among students.
Harris, a professor of history and African American studies at Northwestern University and a fact-checker for The New York Times Magazine’s groundbreaking “1619 Project,” a series of essays documenting the consequences of slavery, represented the 1619 school of thought, arguing that slavery is inseparable from the American project.
Morel, a professor of politics at Washington and Lee University and the author of several books on Ralph Ellison and Abraham Lincoln — most recently “Lincoln and the American Founding” — presented the 1776 school of thought, arguing that the founding of the United States, though a slave-owning nation, was not rooted in racial hierarchies, and its founders intended an incremental approach to abolition.
The debate was held over Zoom and was moderated by Professors of Political Science Keegan Callanan and Gary Winslett. Over 200 students, faculty and community members attended the event.
Beginning the debate, Harris argued that the arrival of 20 slaves near Jamestown in August of 1619 marked America’s true beginning: the birth of a nation that would develop an insidious dependency on “African slave labor as an engine of wealth creation.”
As Harris put it, “1776 was impossible without 1619.” The nation’s very identity was defined by overt “poisonous racism that claimed everyone was not equal, while secular and religious ideals stated the opposite.” She concluded by reaffirming the current anti-racist climate of American culture and the lessons to be learned by understanding the nation’s relationship with slavery as it manifests in injustices like police brutality.
“When I stand at the altar of history, I am not arrogant. I am humble,” she said.
Morel pushed back against the nation’s founding as being rooted in slavery and instead advocated for the incremental “wither on the vine” approach taken by the country’s founders. According to Morel, such an approach is evidenced by the 1787 ban on slavery in the newly acquired Northwest territory, the 1808 ban on the importation of slaves and the early banning of slavery in six Northeast states: Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut and Vermont, he explained.
During his portion of the talk, Morel paid special attention to Vermont, which entered as the Union’s 14th state but as the first to explicitly outlaw slavery in its constitution. He argued that Confederate states “thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery,” and stated so in their constitution, while the Union’s constitution never mentioned slavery, and American founding fathers had the intention of eventual emancipation. Morel concluded with the notion that some of the founding fathers — namely Jefferson — feared a race war should slavery end, and thus determined that “freeing self and slaves at the same time would have undermined chances at self-determination.”
“It could not have been perfect at the start. It had to slowly get better,” he said.
Some students, frustrated that the premise of the debate questioned the historical significance of slavery, protested the event by attending with altered versions of the event posters as profile pictures. Some had the “1776” portion of the poster crossed out with “Slavery isn’t up for debate” written below. Others’ profile pictures featured the full poster, but with “YES” written in bold red letters. Protestor numbers peaked when Morel began speaking, making up 43 of 204 participants. Some students attempted to turn on video in order to hold protest signs but were removed from the Zoom call.
“Striking a balance between being non-disruptive yet still making our voice heard with the minimal access to expression we had was certainly difficult, but I think we were successful,” Claire Contreras ’22.5, one of the organizers of the protest, said. “They certainly all knew we were “in the room.”’
Prior to the event, Contreras and other protest organizers circulated an open letter to the senior leadership group about the motivations for their resistance, which garnered more than 600 signatures.
In response to the student protest and outcry, Professor of Political Science Gary Winslett acknowledged the poster design as a source of confusion, saying some students may have “read the poster in such a way that what they thought we were doing with the event was different than what we were actually doing with the event.”
Winslett emphasized that the debate was intended to focus on the role of slavery in the founding of the United States, not on denying its egregious nature or lasting harm. According to Winslett, the wording “1619 or 1776” itself was aimed more at addressing the differing schools of thought on the issue, represented by “The 1619 Project and “1776 Unites” — a lesser-known essay collection pushing back against the 1619 Project — which includes writings by predominantly Black authors.
Touching on the heavy-handed moderating of the Zoom call, Winslett recalled the racially charged “Zoom-bombing” of a July 28 town selectboard meeting. The Zoom link for that debate was open to the public and had a publicly posted password. Any removal of students, however harsh, he said, was done in order to avoid the possibility of similar events transpiring.
One student who attended the debate, Hannah Wander ’22, spoke highly of the event, and added that hearing both sides of any issue is an important part of necessary conversations.
Contreras felt that organizing student resistance, not just against this event, but against the AHF broadly, was vital. “We protested the event because we found AHF’s decision and permission to circulate harmful and purposefully inflammatory material damaging to our campus culture and community,” she said. “But this protest truly wasn’t just about this event. We also find the mission, funding, and history of AHF just as much of the issue as the topic and title of the event.”
The Alexander Hamilton Forum has been previously scrutinized for its sources of funding: The Institute for Humane Studies (IHS), J.P. Morgan Charitable Giving Fund and the Jack Miller Center. Their past events on campus include “Conservatism After Trump: Reaganism Restored or Populism Forever?,” “Race or Class: An Affirmative Action Debate,” and “Do We Need a Green New Deal?.”
The next event, titled “Has the Supreme Court Become Too Powerful,” will be held on Oct 21.