Last fall the student council at the University of Wisconsin unanimously voted to demand the removal of a statue of Abraham Lincoln from the campus, on the grounds that despite his opposition to slavery, Lincoln was anti-Black and anti-Native. The president of the university’s Black Student Union called it a “symbol of white supremacy.” On October 11 protesters in Portland, Oregon, tore down a Lincoln statue and painted the words “Dakota 38” on its pedestal—a reference to thirty-eight Dakota Indians whose executions Lincoln approved in 1862. In January, citing those executions, the San Francisco school board voted to rename Abraham Lincoln High School, as well as forty-three other schools named after figures judged to have had ties to slavery, racism, colonization, or oppression. (The renaming has since been put on hold.)
These incidents come at a time when statues have fallen all across the United States and Western Europe, and the names of figures with long records of racist attitudes and actions have disappeared from well-known institutions, including Yale’s former Calhoun College and Princeton’s former Woodrow Wilson School. The 1619 Project, which began as a collection of articles published in The New York Times Magazine in August 2019 and has grown to include a podcast, a school curriculum, and a documentary series, wants “to reframe American history by considering what it would mean to regard 1619”—the year African slaves first arrived in Virginia—“as our nation’s birth year. Doing so requires us to place the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are as a country.” In short, a large-scale, highly critical reevaluation of the American past is taking place. It has prompted a predictably ferocious and ignorant response from the Trumpian right, which has seized on it as yet more evidence of a supposed liberal plot against America and is rushing to propose state-level legislation on how American history and race relations should be taught in public schools and universities.
Is the reevaluation unprecedented? In 1776, the year the thirteen colonies declared their independence, the sheer gall of slaveholders proclaiming the liberty and equality of “all men” did not exactly escape notice. Samuel Johnson famously asked, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?” Three years earlier, as Tyler Stovall points out in White Freedom, a group of enslaved African-Americans in Boston wrote sarcastically to Massachusetts Bay Colony legislators who had protested British tyranny: “We expect great things from men who have made such a noble stand against the designs of their fellow-men to enslave them.” In 1852, with incomparable eloquence, Frederick Douglass declared:
The hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed…. Americans!… You boast of your love of liberty, your superior civilization, and your pure Christianity, while the whole political power of the nation…is solemnly pledged to support and perpetuate the enslavement of three millions of your countrymen.
There are two very different ways of holding the country to account for its failings. One is essentially an internal critique: to judge America by its own professed standards, distinguishing between its admirable founding principles and its frequently deplorable historical record. For all his thundering denunciations of American conduct, Douglass still rhapsodized over the “great principles” of the Declaration of Independence. “I do not despair of this country,” he concluded.
But there is also a radical critique that calls the founding principles themselves irredeemably tainted and argues that from the very first they were formulated to promote exclusion and oppression. The 1619 Project gestured strongly in this direction when it suggested that the thirteen colonies revolted against Great Britain in large part to preserve American slavery from British moves toward abolition. From the radical point of view, Lincoln’s treatment of Native Americans and certain statements he made about African-Americans confirm his fundamental allegiance to deep structures of exclusion and oppression, even though he ended slavery and promoted citizenship rights for African-Americans.
The radical critiques, like the internal ones, have a long history. As Sean Wilentz recently noted in these pages, it was in 1964 that Malcolm X charged Lincoln with “mak[ing] the race problem in this country worse than any man in history.” Historians have frequently drawn attention to Lincoln’s statement in the first Lincoln-Douglas debate of 1858:
I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and the black races. There is a physical difference between the two which, in my judgment, will probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality…. I, as well as Judge Douglas, am in favor of the race to which I belong having the superior position.
The question, as always, comes down to which pieces of evidence we choose to emphasize, and how to interpret them. Did Lincoln’s statement reflect deeply held white supremacist convictions, or was it a rhetorical move, made to mollify a racist audience and to set up his argument that African-Americans should in fact enjoy all the rights promised by the Declaration of Independence? How much did his views change during his presidency? And how do we place this and other similar statements in the balance against Lincoln’s long-standing opposition to slavery and his actions as president? (Debates have taken place as well over how much culpability he deserves for the Dakota executions.)1
The radical critiques also fit into a broader tradition of holding Western liberal democracy as a whole to account for masking structures of oppression with a language of freedom. In 1844, in his essay “On the Jewish Question,” Karl Marx blasted the “so-called rights of man” proclaimed in the French Revolution as little more than a veil that disguised the true nature of the bourgeois social order: “The practical application of the human right to freedom is the human right to private property.” A century and a half later, feminist scholars such as Carole Pateman and Joan Scott argued that modern Western notions of citizenship were gendered male and predicated on the exclusion of women. Historians have also battled—including recently in these pages—over the question of whether the American Constitution was designed to protect slavery or, to the contrary, had the potential to support abolitionist arguments.2
The arguments are old, but what has changed—especially since George Floyd’s death at the knee of a police officer in May 2020 and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement—has been the sheer strength and prevalence of the radical critiques. Those who consider Lincoln a white supremacist may be a minority, but they are nonetheless having an impact that would have been unthinkable a few years ago. Is American history the story of a deeply imperfect nation struggling to live up to a set of noble founding ideals? Or is it something considerably darker?
Stovall, a distinguished historian of France and the French Empire who has served as president of the American Historical Association, offers a new version of this radical critique in White Freedom. “Freedom can be and historically has been a racist ideology,” he writes. “The dominant concepts of freedom that emerged from [the revolutionary] era bore the unmistakable stamp of whiteness and white racial ideology.” The book, intended for a general audience, provides a lucid if familiar history of American race relations from the eighteenth to the late twentieth century, emphasizing the ways so many Americans equated freedom with whiteness and acted to enshrine this equation in law. Stovall ably surveys the bleak narrative that runs from the arrival of slaves in the Americas to the exclusion of African-Americans from citizenship (notably in the Dred Scott decision) to the establishment of Jim Crow to contemporary racism, drawing in most cases on well-known secondary sources.
White Freedom’s originality lies elsewhere. First, Stovall treats the American story as only a part of a larger Western one. He is particularly astute on the similarities between the US and France, two republics that share common histories of revolution, slavery, and systematic racial discrimination. Both countries, he notes, ended one phase of their histories of racial oppression by abolishing slavery in the mid-nineteenth century. (France did so after the Revolution of 1848.) But both soon afterward inaugurated new forms of “white freedom”: the US with the end of Reconstruction and Jim Crow, and France with the establishment of a vast overseas empire in Africa and Asia that denied fundamental rights to the indigenous inhabitants.
Second, Stovall puts a strong emphasis on collective psychology as a driving force behind this history. After his brief introduction, he does not move directly to the French and American events but to a chapter on pirates, children, and cultural depictions of them (focusing especially on a work that brings the two together: Peter Pan). These groups, he argues, represent a wild, “savage” ideal of freedom as complete independence from all authority—an ideal that modern liberal societies fear and strive to suppress. They have done so, he continues, by associating proper, measured, civilized forms of freedom with whites, and the savage forms with a racialized, Black “other.” Not surprisingly, these societies reacted with particular horror to the world of early modern sea piracy, in which a “rough racial democracy prevailed.”
In other words, political and racial concepts developed in tandem, with racism as a crucial element in the emergence of a modern, “domesticated” version of freedom that “limited the autonomy of the individual for the effective functionality of the collectivity.” Stovall devotes little attention to freedom as a formal concept or to its deep historical roots (as recently explored, for instance, by Annelien de Dijn in Freedom: An Unruly History,3 which begins in ancient Greece). And by tying the emergence of modern racism so closely to the history of liberal democracy, he ends up putting less emphasis than most historians do on its roots in American slave systems.
The argument is intriguing, even if the contrast between “savage” and “domesticated” forms of freedom is left largely undeveloped in the rest of White Freedom. But what does it mean to say, as Stovall does, that “concepts” bear a “stamp”? He claims that freedom and whiteness were so closely and so insistently linked for so long that it became virtually impossible, even down to the present day, for many—perhaps most—white people to imagine the one without the other. The forceful efforts by people of color and their supporters to claim freedom for themselves could not disrupt the association. Indeed, even in situations from which racial politics might seem entirely absent, and in which the principal participants may have had no conscious intention of invoking race, the association persisted. For instance, Stovall argues that American and European politicians saw the liberation of the Warsaw Pact countries in the late twentieth century in an implicitly racial way, since only white European nations qualified to these observers as “captive nations” (the numerous African and Asian societies held captive by European imperialists did not): “The tremendous historical legacy of white freedom could not be shaken off easily.”
In one sense, Stovall’s argument is obviously correct. The association between freedom and white racial identity has been a powerful one throughout modern history. As Edmund Morgan long ago observed, it allowed even poor—but free—whites in colonial and antebellum slave states to feel part of a master class.4 In later centuries it fed similar sentiments on the part of whites seeking to ban nonwhite immigrants or to deprive them of rights. It endures today on the American right, as exemplified by Tucker Carlson’s recent endorsement of the theory that the Democratic Party wants to “replace” the current electorate with “more obedient voters from the Third World”—i.e., voters less capable of freedom.
But to view the entire history of modern freedom through the prism of this association is to misunderstand something important about political language. Such language, especially when enshrined in formal, declarative documents, has a force that even the strongest unspoken associations can never fully undo, and that can undercut its authors’ own unspoken beliefs. It matters that when Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, he used the words “all men are created equal” and not “all white men are created equal.” Jefferson owned slaves and considered people of African descent inferior to whites, but his statement would have lost much of its force if couched in anything other than universal (if still gendered) terms. And however much many readers of the Declaration—and perhaps its author as well—may have silently appended the adjective “white” to the statement, its universalism opened a window of possibility that could never again be shut and whose importance was immediately glimpsed by people struggling for racial equality.
Stovall marshals impressive evidence for the sheer extent of popular associations between freedom and whiteness. A virtuoso chapter shows the way that New York’s Statue of Liberty came to symbolize this association for many. According to one story, its French architects originally called for Lady Liberty to have African features and to hold broken chains in her hands. But eager to avoid provoking post-Reconstruction Americans with these symbols of abolition, they ended up with a Caucasian statue holding a book of law. They did include broken chains but placed them at Liberty’s feet, almost out of sight.
Some Americans saw the statue, with its distinctly non-African features, as a symbol of the white femininity that needed protection from predatory Blacks. In 1906 a Missouri mob lynched three Black men accused of assaulting a white woman and grotesquely hung their bodies from a replica of the statue mounted atop the tallest structure in Springfield. Even the statue’s position at the principal gateway for American immigration could call forth interpretations distinctly at odds with Emma Lazarus’s sonnet, inscribed upon the statue’s pedestal, about huddled masses yearning to breathe free. “O Liberty, white Goddess!” wrote the popular poet Thomas Bailey Aldrich in 1895. “Is it well/To leave the gates unguarded?” Stovall also notes, drawing on the work of immigration historians, that Lazarus’s romantic vision of the statue’s “world-wide welcome” to the oppressed gained wide acceptance only in the 1930s, after Congress had severely curtailed nonwhite immigration, and after white populations had come to accept Eastern and Southern Europeans as white rather than as racialized others.
Yet there is a distinction to be made between popular white attitudes such as these and freedom as a formal concept, with a force of its own. Stovall does not make it. Throughout the book, in a way that sometimes misrepresents the intellectual history at issue, he argues that the racial views of important thinkers almost entirely undermined the liberatory potential of their work. For instance, he comes close to dismissing the fact that major figures of the European Enlightenment opposed slavery. Yes, he notes, they expressed “militant opposition to slavery as a political metaphor,” but they mostly showed little concern for actual enslaved people in Europe’s overseas colonies. He attributes this lack of concern to racism and quotes damning passages in illustration. (For example, Immanuel Kant wrote that “the Negroes of Africa have by nature no feeling that rises above the trifling.”)
Yet even if a thinker like Jean-Jacques Rousseau did not mention European colonies in his abstract condemnation of slavery in The Social Contract, the work’s arguments inspired other thinkers who did fight explicitly for abolition. Stovall plays down their efforts as well, and writes that the French Enlightenment’s most important abolitionist, the Marquis de Condorcet, advocated only gradual abolition, in part because he believed the enslaved were (in Stovall’s words) “not ready for freedom.”
But it is wrong to attribute this belief, as Stovall does, to biological racism on Condorcet’s part. At the beginning of his Reflections on Black Slavery (1781), Condorcet explicitly declared that he had always seen Black slaves as “brothers” who had “the same minds, the same reasoning ability, and the same virtues as Whites.” If they were not ready for freedom, it was not because of any inherent racial inferiority, but because of the enormously destructive and traumatic effects of slavery itself upon them, which he saw his abolitionist project as designed to repair. Condorcet’s attitude was condescending in the way it denied the enslaved immediate citizenship, but to summarize his thought as “freedom belongs to the white races” conflates him with those who believed in Blacks’ biological inferiority and who thought they should never possess equal rights under any circumstances.5
The case of revolutionary France and its empire, to which Stovall also devotes considerable attention, illustrates even more strikingly the importance of distinguishing between popular white attitudes toward freedom and freedom as a formal concept with a force of its own. In 1789 France’s new National Assembly issued the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, whose first article stated that “men are born and remain free and equal in rights.” In France’s Caribbean colonies, as in the United States, hundreds of thousands of men and women remained in bondage, utterly unable to claim these rights. Unlike in the US, this situation would soon change, and the declaration—along with works like Condorcet’s—had more than a little to do with it. When enslaved people in the colonies violently liberated themselves in the 1790s, they soon took the declaration for their own, invoking and appropriating for themselves the “rights of man” to justify their actions, to mobilize their forces, and to solicit support from sympathetic Europeans.
And while many whites undoubtedly glossed the word “men” in the declaration as “white men,” many others did not. In early 1794 the French revolutionary government endorsed and supported the slaves’ actions by formally abolishing slavery throughout France’s overseas possessions. Between 1795 and 1799 the formerly enslaved there had the status of full French citizens, and some served as deputies in the French parliament. Napoleon Bonaparte put an end to this state of affairs when he took power in 1799, and infamously reinstituted slavery in 1802. But he did not do these things in the name of white freedom. An autocratic ruler, he gave freedom to no one and stripped the declaration of rights from the French constitution.
When it comes to the major events of American history, Stovall largely argues along the same lines as the contributors to the 1619 Project. “If the British intended to abolish slavery and promote slave revolts,” he writes, “then colonists had no option but independence…. The American war for liberty thus became equally a war for slavery.” There is little evidence for these assertions. The British government at the time had no intention of abolishing slavery. (It would do so only in 1833.) Only the most paranoid slave-owning colonists imagined that it did, and their fantasies ranked far down in the long list of causes that impelled the United States to declare independence.
Stovall, not surprisingly, has little praise to offer for Abraham Lincoln. He highlights the president’s promise in 1861 not to interfere with slavery in the states where it existed and suggests that Lincoln “resisted the idea of emancipation throughout much of 1862, fearing the presence of free Blacks on American soil.” Most historians would say rather that Lincoln, who had a strong and consistent moral opposition to slavery, hesitated to issue an emancipation proclamation for strategic reasons, finally resolved to do so in July 1862, and then waited for the decisive Union victory at Antietam later that year before actually making the announcement. And it is again worth noting that Lincoln, despite some of his statements about the moral and intellectual abilities of Blacks, was nonetheless inspired by the words of Thomas Jefferson to insist on their equality before the law. As he said in the first of the Lincoln-Douglas debates:
There is no reason in the world why the negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I hold that he is as much entitled to these as the white man.
The Declaration mattered.
In his demonstration of the potent and noxious ways so many people have conflated freedom with whiteness, Tyler Stovall has written a valuable book. But this story should not be confused with the story of freedom as a concept, which has had a powerful way of resisting the stamp that self-interested parties have tried to impose on it. In this sense, both the internal and radical critiques of American history miss the point. The founders of this country had multiple, complex, contradictory motivations for the actions they took. The documents they issued were committee-drafted compromises that mixed brilliant rhetoric with ugly racism (such as the invocation of “merciless Indian Savages” in the Declaration of Independence) and with ugly concessions to slavery (such as the three-fifths clause in the Constitution).
None of these documents has a single, unambiguous meaning. They cannot be said to embody a set of coherent, pristine, unalloyed “principles” that would allow America to achieve moral rectitude, if only it could live up to them. Nor are they irredeemably tainted by their authors’ uglier interests and impulses. Their words had, and still have, a power independent of the circumstances of their composition and the motives behind them: a power to inspire, and a power to serve causes their authors might not have dreamed of. Langston Hughes recognized this point in his great poem “Freedom’s Plow”:
A long time ago, but not too long ago, a man said:
ALL MEN ARE CREATED EQUAL—
ENDOWED BY THEIR CREATOR
WITH CERTAIN UNALIENABLE RIGHTS—
AMONG THESE LIFE, LIBERTY
AND THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS.
His name was Jefferson. There were slaves then,
But in their hearts the slaves believed him, too,
And silently took for granted
That what he said was also meant for them.
September 23, 2021
Conceiving the Future
The Well-Blown Mind
On this matter, and on Lincoln’s racial attitudes in general, see Sean Wilentz’s defense of the sixteenth president in “Lincoln’s Rowdy America,” The New York Review, April 29, 2021. ↩
See notably David Waldstreicher, Slavery’s Constitution: From Revolution to Ratification (Hill and Wang, 2010); Sean Wilentz, No Property in Man: Slavery and Antislavery at the Nation’s Founding (Harvard University Press, 2018); and the exchange between Wilentz, James Oakes, and Nicholas Guyatt, The New York Review, June 27, 2019. ↩
Harvard University Press, 2020. ↩
Edmund S. Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (Norton, 1975) ↩
Stovall takes his interpretation of Condorcet from the tendentious work of the French philosopher Louis Sala-Molins, who mistakenly interpreted Condorcet as saying that Blacks would deserve freedom only when they intermarried with whites and dissolved into the white population. (Condorcet did predict an eventual “mixture of the races” but did not see this as a condition for freedom—and in any case, as he knew very well, Blacks hugely outnumbered whites in the French colonies.) See Louis Sala-Molins, Dark Side of the Light: Slavery and the French Enlightenment, translated by John Conteh-Morgan (University of Minnesota Press, 2006). ↩