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African Founders:
How Enslaved People Expanded American Ideals

by david hackett fischer
simon & schuster, 960 pages, $40

One of the most important things to be said about the New York Times’ loud but intellectually threadbare effort to recast the year 1619 as the date of the American nation’s “true founding” is that it was a missed opportunity. The year 2019, which was the four hundredth anniversary of the landing of enslaved Africans at Jamestown, could have been a signal moment for the entire nation to reflect on the long trajectory of Africans’ rich and multifarious influence on American life. The occasion deserved something better than a journalistic stunt, which mangled key elements in the history of North American slavery in order to serve a political agenda—reparations—that descends into absurdity, as is now happening in California, the moment it begins to be contemplated as a practical measure.

So what do I mean when I speak of a missed opportunity? I mean the opportunity to grasp the full meaning of what W. E. B. Du Bois pointed out more than a hundred years ago in a chapter of his 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk titled “Of The Sorrow Songs,” a penetrating examination of the songs we have come to call “spirituals.” Du Bois called them “the articulate message of the slave to the world.” They mingle joyfulness with “deep currents of sadness and longing” but in the end breathe “a hope—a faith in the ultimate justice of things,” tracing a path in which “the minor cadences of despair change often to triumph and calm confidence.”

Du Bois went on to address the larger African role in the formation of the American character: “Your country?” he cried, in a tone of anguish and accusation. “How came it yours? Before the Pilgrims landed we were here.” And he was right. If we take 1619 as the beginning of the African influence on America, that is, on the actual land that would become the United States of America a century and a half later, then that influence antedates the arrival of the Mayflower, the signing of the Mayflower Compact, the creation of Plymouth Plantation, and so much else that we associate with the beginnings of America. And yet . . . before all of this, “we were here.” Or to put it differently, the history of Africans in America must not be thought of as a sidebar to the general history of America. Men and women of African descent have been a part of things all along, making contributions of inestimable value, including challenges to the nation’s conscience. That could have been the way we observed 1619.

Du Bois describes some of those contributions, and the passage is worth quoting in full:

Here we have brought our three gifts and mingled them with yours: a gift of story and song—soft, stirring melody in an ill-harmonized and unmelodious land; the gift of sweat and brawn to beat back the wilderness, conquer the soil, and lay the foundations of this vast economic empire two hundred years earlier than your weak hands could have done it; the third, a gift of the Spirit. Around us the history of the land has centred for thrice a hundred years; out of the nation’s heart we have called all that was best to throttle and subdue all that was worst; fire and blood, prayer and sacrifice, have billowed over this people, and they have found peace only in the altars of the God of Right. Nor has our gift of the Spirit been merely passive. Actively we have woven ourselves with the very warp and woof of this nation,—we fought their battles, shared their sorrow, mingled our blood with theirs, and generation after generation have pleaded with a headstrong, careless people to despise not Justice, Mercy, and Truth, lest the nation be smitten with a curse. Our song, our toil, our cheer, and warning have been given to this nation in blood-brotherhood. Are not these gifts worth the giving? Is not this work and striving? Would America have been America without her Negro people?

That last question says it all. And yet, like the lyrics of the spirituals, Du Bois’s words carry a cargo of mixed emotions. There are sadness and disappointment and anger over injustice. But there are also traces of patriotic sentiment: of longing for acknowledgment, connection, recognition, belonging. And the three poignant, and stabbing, questions with which Du Bois concludes might have been the epigraph for David Hackett Fischer’s magnificent and deeply researched new book, ­African Founders, which in a saner and better climate than the present one would be the starting point for any reflection on the enduring African ­influence on the formation of American national ideals. In a saner climate, too, this book would be at the center of our national discussion, for it is manifestly one of the most important works of history published in the past twenty-five years.

Fischer is a remarkably versatile historian, the author of ­many books ranging widely over the historiographical landscape, although he has dealt primarily with early American history, first in a study of the decline of the Federalist party that is still indispensable to an understanding of the subject. As a graduate student, I learned a lot about the errors to which historians are prone by reading Fischer’s supremely intelligent Historians’ Fallacies, a witty 1970 book that raised hackles in the profession among then-senior scholars who did not take well to being so penetratingly criticized by a younger colleague. As Robin Winks wrote in a review of the book, “Ten thousand members of the American Historical Association will rush to the index and breathe a little easier to find their names absent,” since Fischer had room for only 450. ­Only a very confident historian could have dared to write such a book.

Fischer won the Pulitzer Prize in History for Washington’s Crossing, a masterly account of the early turning point of the American Revolution, a work that showed his talent for military and narrative history. But probably his greatest work, and one whose method is reflected in African Founders, is Albion’s Seed (1989), a study of cultural transmission that traces the populating of British North America through the cultural persistence of four geographically and linguistically distinct “folkways” brought by immigrants from the British Isles. With this book, Fischer revived the long disdained “germ theory” of earlier American historiography. He demonstrated how persistent these imported cultural traits have been, and how much of the cultural diversity of early America, and to some extent of today’s America, can be explained by these diverse antecedents.

Fischer is thus an exponent of the enduring power of culture and tradition in human life—the core assumption of the germ theory (“germ” here meaning “seed” in the term’s original acceptation). Contrary to the famous “frontier thesis” of Frederick Jackson Turner, Fischer does not regard the frontier environment as the principal factor that shaped American distinctiveness. In addition, he insists that the American character, though recognizable and distinctive, was far from homogeneous. It was different in different places, responsive to an emerging culture of liberty as an American constant, but not at all the same in coastal New England as in tidewater Virginia. American distinctiveness exhibited the same variety as did the peoples and cultures that came to constitute it.

Fischer’s project in African Founders is similar to that in Albion’s Seed: He assiduously traces the diverse origins of enslaved Africans to their native regions and explores all the ways in which their ­heritages (“germs,” so to speak) combined with the emerging realities of European cultures on American soil. Instead of relying too much on amorphous terms such as “African American,” Fischer gives us a high degree of specificity with regard to African cultural geography—­although it is harder to trace patterns in this book than in Albion’s Seed, and he often has to proceed inferentially, due to the scarcity of documentary evidence.

Fischer identifies four distinct regions—the Senegambia, the Guinea coast (modern Ghana, Nigeria, and the Côte d’Ivoire), the Congo-Angola, and east Africa and Mozambique—from which came the 400,000 Africans who endured the North American slave trade. Each of these groups became established in one of seven distinct regions: New England, the Hudson River Valley, the Delaware Valley, the Chesapeake, the South Atlantic Coast, Louisiana, and the West. In each of these regions, the African cultures exerted influence on the culture of their captors, producing a steady stream of examples, large and small, supporting the assertion of the book’s subtitle that “enslaved people expanded American ideals.”

Readers should not expect some spectacular revelation, such as a previously unknown African political theorist on a par with James Madison, or some Congolese antecedent for judicial review. Instead, a great many strands of connection and reciprocity are discovered here, reinforcing the idea that slavery—especially in the years from the first British colonization to 1830 or so, the years Fischer is studying—was a more fluid and diverse institution in the North American colonies than it became. In that sense, Fischer’s view of slavery is reminiscent of the work of scholars such as Eugene Genovese, who discerned in the master–slave relationship a certain subtle reciprocity rather than abstract and total domination, and who observed in the slave religion a syncretic blend of African and European beliefs and practices that did not abandon the African cultural past, and contributed energy and emotional vigor to the more general practices of American evangelicalism. What we get in this book is a compilation of an immense number of such interactions, often reciprocal and syncretic in character, and of stories like the account of Benjamin Franklin’s transformation from a slaveowner with attitudes that can only be called racist into a passionate advocate for the antislavery cause.

Franklin makes for an interesting example. He was one of the greatest and most accomplished of the American Founders, and yet his racial attitudes were confused and far from admirable by our standards. He had at least five slaves of his own, and although he does not appear to have been a harsh master, and even took two of his slaves with him to England in 1757, he often complained of their laziness and propensity for acts of petty theft. In his 1751 essay “Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind,” an ode to the steadily growing population of British North America that included a denunciation of slavery, he had even speculated about the desirability of “excluding all Blacks and Tawneys” from America. It should be noted that, for him, the category of “tawneys” included Italians, French, Germans, Swedes, Russians, and Spaniards; and that a principal concern expressed in the essay was a fear that unassimilated Germans would create “a colony of aliens.” It is also hard to know, as is sometimes the case with Franklin, how serious he was in making these proposals. Still, such statements offer a window onto a more general set of attitudes, through an essay that was widely read in its day and cited approvingly by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations (1776).

By Franklin’s own testimony, he experienced a profound change of heart, precipitated by a 1763 visit to William Sturgeon’s Philadelphia “Negro School,” an institution that had been running since 1747. ­Sturgeon was a Yale graduate who had been hired by the Anglican Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts to teach, catechize, and baptize the slaves and free blacks who attended the school. Schools for slaves were not unheard of; they had existed in Philadelphia since the 1720s, and many of the most influential evangelical ministers, including George ­Whitefield, had taken an interest in them. Sturgeon’s students were an impressive lot, and “from what I then saw,” Franklin later wrote of his visit, “[I] have conceiv’d a higher Opinion of the natural Capacities of the black Race,” given that the aptitude of Sturgeon’s students was “in every respect equal to that of white Children.” It was only a few years later that Franklin became president of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, and presented that organization’s antislavery petition to the Congress.

African Founders makes its case through the sheer number of such examples: dozens of influences and interactions and notable individuals, factors that may sound small by themselves, but whose cumulative effect is powerful. One sees it especially in Fischer’s close analyses of the geographical variety of Africans’ origins and destinations.

Here is but one instance, a thread pulled from the book’s lavish tapestry. Fischer argues for the reciprocal influence on the culture of New England of African slaves who came from Akan-speaking areas, either Fante states on the Gold Coast or the Asante empire in the Ghanaian interior. Such Akan-speakers constituted as many as two-thirds of African slaves in eighteenth-­century New England, and they brought with them the proud dispositions of a warrior culture that led them to demand of their masters a share of legitimate power and authority. Interestingly, slave revolts were vanishingly rare in New England, not because the enslaved there were more compliant, but for the opposite reason: because they showed determination and ingenuity in mounting peaceful and legal resistance to the conditions to which they were subjected, and were confident they could make their case without resort to violence.

To develop his point, Fischer finds a remarkable degree of congruence between Puritan or Quaker ethical ideas and Fante-Asante ideas, particularly as embodied in the journals of Coffe Slocum, an Asante slave who was brought to Newport by a Yankee sea captain and eventually permitted to buy his liberty. ­Slocum would later become a man of considerable wealth and property, successful in commerce and proprietor of a 116-acre farm near the town of Dartmouth. His journals express an interesting blend of Akan and Biblical morality, as reflected in the Akan proverb “when virtue founds a town, the town thrives and abides.” Fischer calls the journals “a national treasure,” and surely they deserve to be published.

The story doesn’t end there. Coffe Slocum’s sons would be leaders of the campaign for universal manhood suffrage without regard to race under the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution. As Fischer puts it, summing up their achievement: “The sons of an African slave persuaded the citizens of Massachusetts to enlarge one of the founding principles of a free republic in the United States. They also persuaded the Massachusetts General Court [the state legislature] to grant voting rights to all free male citizens without restriction of race.” One of those sons, Paul Cuffe [sic], went on to become a figure of international renown. He was a leader of the campaign to end the Atlantic slave trade and was involved in the founding of the new African countries of Sierra Leone and Liberia. He also started Cuff’s [sic] School in the town of Westport, when the town chose to exclude African children. No wonder he has been called a “one man civil-rights movement.” The entire family descended from Slocum was impressive, and twelve generations later is still cohesive, with a website and recurrent family reunions.

These Akan-influenced New Englanders formed a cultural contrast to Africans in the Delaware Valley, where the enslaved were more likely to emulate mainstream patterns of commerce and innovation, while appealing to the consciences of conflicted Quakers; or in Louisiana, where the slave population came largely from the Senegambia, and their African roots fostered in them “a spirit of comity, collective belonging and mutual respect,” which had effects on the region’s general culture. If you’d like to know more, and learn about the other four regions, you’ll just have to read the book. It is a work that defies easy summary. As does its subject.

There may not have been an African James Madison, but unexpected figures of genuine distinction appear at every turn throughout Fischer’s account. The spiritual leader Absalom Jones, pictured on the book’s jacket, and looking like a Founder from Central Casting, was a Delaware-born slave who purchased his freedom in the 1780s. He led a movement of “colored brethren” to protest their mistreatment at St. George’s Church in Philadelphia and was a founder of the Free African Society in Philadelphia in the spring of 1787—at almost the same moment the Constitutional Convention began its work in that same city. And of course there was the great abolitionist ­Frederick ­Douglass, born into slavery in Maryland, son of a white father and a black mother, who embraced both parts of his mixed racial ancestry, itself an advance in the extension of American ideals that we are only just now catching up to, two centuries later.

We know Douglass mainly as a fierce and often bitter opponent of slavery and racial prejudice, but as Fischer rightly insists, he “also identified with other parts of the culture and values in his native slaveholding region,” and he “wrote with respect about the founders of the American republic.” He would have repudiated the 1619 Project in toto. His famous 1852 oration “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” was full of venom directed at the hypocrisy of so many of his fellow Americans, especially the hypocrisy of the churches, and yet it concludes with a grand affirmation that the Constitution is “a GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT” and a declaration of “hope.” Who could be a better example of a founder who expanded American ideals? And what a superior way of understanding the tangle and moral imperfection of our history, in sharp contrast to the simplistic and exploitative gloss that is offered to Americans today.

Fischer begins his book by declaring a different set of intentions. To a remarkable degree, he sets aside the moralism and virtue-signaling that so often beset writing on the subject of race in America. He does not preach at us, he merely states the facts, which are powerful enough without amplification. He insists on two guiding assumptions. The first is that “slavery, racism, and racial oppression in many forms have long been great and persistent evils in America and the world.” In fact, he could have added that the existence of slavery has been more the rule than the exception throughout human history, and that there are more enslaved people in the world today than ever before—50 million, according to the United Nations’ International Labor Organization—though slavery is illegal throughout the world. Fischer’s second guiding assumption is another equally true statement: “that vibrant traditions of freedom and liberty and the rule of law have long continued to be sources of enduring strength, especially in the United States.” In a sense, American history is a record of the struggle between these two facts, the struggle to overcome the worst aspects of our human nature for the sake of the best. And as Fischer’s detailed research shows, those “vibrant traditions” are fed by African sources in America.

So African Founders is a book that gives us neither fatalism nor ­triumphalism, but reasons for hope, grounded in a meticulous study of the actual historical record—hope that our free institutions can continue to flourish, and continue to expand the embrace of our ideals. Fischer says that he has been working on the book for fifty years, and I have no trouble believing him. He could not possibly have anticipated how valuable the book would be at the exact moment of its appearance. It does what the best historical writing always does: It lifts us out of the preoccupations of the moment, and gives us wider horizons and longer perspectives. It is a book for this moment, precisely because it was not prepared with this moment in mind. Its effects will be felt for ­many years to come, once the terrible simplifications of the present day have begun to weaken their hold, as surely they will. 

Wilfred M. McClay holds the Victor Davis Hanson Chair in Classical History and Western Civilization at Hillsdale College.

Image by Delaware Art Museum on GetArchive licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.