‘Race and the American Founding’ sparks productive dialogue at the Athenaeum

'Race and American Founding' sparks productive dialogue at the Ath.
Recommended Reading

To encourage further exploration of race and the American founding, the faculty suggested the following books:

  • Christian Slavery: Conversion and Race in the Protestant Atlantic World by Katharine Gerbner (Prof. Mills)
  • White Over Black by Winston Jordan (Prof. Livesay)
  • American Slavery, American Freedom by Edmond Morgan (Prof. Livesay)
  • Freedom National:  The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-65 by James Oakes (Prof. Kesler)
  • Vindicating the Founders: Race, Sex, Class, and Justice in the Origins of America by Thomas G. West (Professors Busch and Kesler)

1619 or 1776? When was the true founding of America? And what was the role of slavery in our nation’s birth?

These thought-provoking questions were central to the intellectually engaging Claremont McKenna College faculty panel discussion of “The 1619 Project” and “The 1776 Report” at the Athenaeum on March 1, 2023, a respectful, constructive dialogue that reflected the divergent viewpoints of the panelists.

Andrew Busch, Crown Professor of Government and George R. Roberts Fellow, organized the conversation as a component of his faculty fellow project sponsored by the Presidential Initiative on Anti-Racism and the Black Experience in America.

“My thinking was that sometimes in these discussions, there's a tendency for the conversation not to be a conversation, and sometimes these questions are treated as if they only have one possible answer, and that really isn't the case,” he explained at a lunchtime faculty panel held at the Ath the previous day, Feb. 28.

His approach paid off the following evening on March 1, when Busch moderated the lively and constructive conversation, “1619? 1776? Race and the American Founding,” between Charles Kesler, Dengler-Dykema Distinguished Professor of Government; Dan Livesay, associate professor of history; and Troy Mills, a post-doctoral fellow of religious studies and visiting instructor of religious studies, African American religions.

“The 1619 Project” is a Pulitzer Prize-winning report led by reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones and published in The New York Times in 2019. It argued that America was founded when the first enslaved people were brought to the Virginia colonies.

The Trump Administration responded with “The 1776 Report,” published in January 2021. Produced by a commission that included Kesler as a member and tasked with refuting the idea that America was founded on the basis of slavery, the report took the conventional view that America began with the Declaration of Independence.

“When was the real founding and what really was the role of slavery and race in the founding?” Busch queried as he introduced the panel. “How does that fit into our concepts, the archetypes of what the American experience is? I’m going to start with a pretty broad question for our panelists, and that is: Why are we here? Why is it an important question? Why is it important to grapple with this issue? And what are the stakes?”

Livesay, a scholar of Early American and Atlantic history, said, “I think history matters in terms of how we understand ourselves, in terms of how we make sense of the world around us. And so, debating these questions is really fundamental to how we place ourselves in our own present. And so, I think to get to why 1619 is an important moment for us to reflect on as a nation, as something in opposition to 1776 … is that slavery is a fundamental part of the foundation of the colonial system, which turned into the United States, and that the racism that came out of slavery continues in institutionalized form up to the present day.”

Kesler, an expert in American Constitutionalism, acknowledged that “contemporary issues over race are important. Race is an active fault line in America right now because it's involved with a whole series of issues, which are controversial between the two political parties, and which involve more generally a judgment about ourselves. What is America and what should we think of America? How should we think about America? Is America something that deserves our loyalty, that represents principles that are worthy of our respect, or not? Or is America a much less noble and admirable place? In which case, of course, that leads to us a whole series of other questions about what would be better, or how could one make America different and presumably better.”

Mills, whose research area includes African American religious history, provided a perspective of the civil rights era. “I feel these are important conversations to have because I think they reflect the complexities of American history…and reflect that we’re at a point in our history where we can have this conversation and have a debate about it. And I think that reflects progress in my mind,” he said. “But most importantly, I think it also reflects the importance of having multiple stories or multiple entry points in which we can think about U.S. history and understand those entry points, which may be meaningful to me in a different way than they may be meaningful to you. I think these entry points into U.S. history allow us to see ourselves and that history, and also allows us to see others within that history.”

Each panelist also shared their diverse viewpoints on the merits and deficiencies of both “The 1619 Project” and “The 1776 Report.” Kesler said that “The 1776 Report” was produced in only a month and was therefore “imperfect,” adding, “It takes a colorblind reading of the Declaration of Independence and of American principles and runs with it. The weakness, in my view, of ‘The 1776 Report’ is it sometimes speaks as though the South was not part of America, and not a part of American history. And, of course, it was.”

Meanwhile, Livesay articulated the relevance of “The 1619 Project:” “Its chief contributions were to show how these ideas that many of us would call structural racism that we believe still have a deep impact in American society today, how those structures were founded at the very beginning of colonization in the Americas.”

“One of the things that doesn't really get talked about much with ‘The 1619 Project’ is that it actually has a very positive, hopeful tone to it,” Livesay added. “It’s framed around the idea that if you want to find the purest expression of freedom in the United States, it really is in the struggle that African Americans have had to endure coming from slavery into freedom and still trying to build upon those concepts of freedom.”

While Livesay disagreed with defining “The 1776 Project” as history, he also said that he could understand the impulse behind it, “to want to tell a positive story, to have people connect with their history, to have people feel that there is something worth connecting to, to contribute to your country. I think that’s what that report was trying to do.”

Mills shared a critique of “The 1776 Report.” “What I wrestle with personally — and from an academic perspective as well— is that it often fails to allow the narratives of others, who are not Eurocentric or as not U.S.-centric. It fails to allow those narratives to be a part of the conversation,” he said.

To deepen the Ath dinner table conversation, the evening’s schedule was “flipped,” with the program taking place before dinner, allowing students, faculty, and staff to exchange their thoughts and perspectives on the ideas generated by the panel.

After dinner, CMC students took to the mic to probe the panelists for further insights, covering topics such as reinterpreting the Declaration of Independence, reparations for Black American descendants of enslaved people, and an exploration of Bacon’s rebellion in 1676, the 100-year precursor to the American Revolution.

“Thank you for the entertaining and insightful panel,” said David Taylor ’26 before asking his question: “Which came first, racism or slavery?”

Kesler answered, “Nikole Hannah-Jones is, I think, broadly correct that it is really after the introduction of slavery that you get a developed doctrine of racial inferiority in the country. That’s a later development. So, I think in America it’s true probably that slavery came first and then racism to justify it.”

Livesay and Mills expanded upon their answers with three book recommendations: “White Over Black” by Winston Jordan; Edmond Morgan’s “American Slavery, American Freedom”; and Christian Slavery: Conversion and Race in the Protestant Atlantic World” by Katharine Gerbner. (See sidebar for further suggestions.)

“Thank you for all of your amazing questions,” Busch said as he concluded the evening.

Julie Riggott and Anne Bergman


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