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Polish-Muscovite War, 1609-1619
The Polish-Muscovite War of 1609-1619 was one consequence of the Russian Time of Troubles (1604-1613). In 1598 Fedor I, the son of Ivan IV (The Terrible) had died. He was the last member of the Rurik, or Rus dynasty that had ruled in parts of Russia since the ninth century. Fedor was followed by Tsar as Boris Godunov, but despite his own personal abilities Godunov lacked legitimacy. In 1604 his rule was challenged by the first False Dmitry, one of a series of men who claimed to be Fedor’s son Dmitry, who had actually died in 1591. Godunov died (1605) before he could defeat the False Dmitry, who briefly held the Russian throne, before being killed in 1606. Civil War followed. Vasilii Shuiskii was declared Tsar, but he was unpopular in Russia.
A number of Dmitry’s supporters had been Polish, and their massacre in 1606 triggered a period of Polish intervention in the civil war. Finally, in 1609 Sigismund III made the war official, claiming the Russian throne himself. His main effort was directed against Smolensk, which was besieged from 1609-1611. The city was defended by Michael Borisovich Shein, who would later attempt to capture the city (siege of Smolensk, 1632-34).
The Polish intervention in Russia triggered an alliance between Sweden and Moscow. A combined army, under the Tsar’s brother Dmitrii Shuiskii, was sent to relief the siege of Smolensk, but it was heavily defeated at the battle of Klushino (4 July 1610). Three months later, on 8 October 1610 a Polish army occupied Moscow. Tsar Vasilii was deposed, and dragged to Warsaw. Sigismund’s son Wladyslaw was actually offered the Russian throne, but he was unable to take advantage of his chance. The war in Russia was unpopular in Poland, and Sigismund was more interesting in the capture of Smolensk and associated borderlands. Despite this, a Polish garrison occupied the Kremlin from 1610 until 1612. Smolensk finally fell in the summer of 1611.
The same year saw the beginning of an anti-Polish uprising in Russia. The Poles were forced to withdraw from most of Russia in 1612, while the garrison in the Kremlin was forced to surrender and then massacred. In 1613 Michael Romanov, the son of the Patriarch Filaret, was elected Tsar, and some stability returned.
The Swedish-Russian alliance now collapsed and was replaced by a renewed Swedish-Russian War (1613-1617). In 1617 Wladyslaw took advantage of this war to make another attempt to gain what he now saw as “his” throne. In 1617-18 he made a determined attempt to capture Russia, but Michael made peace with the Swedes, and held off the renewed Polish attack.
Both sides were now ready for a truce. In January 1619 the Truce of Deulino suspended hostilities for fourteen and a half years (the truce would be broken early by the Russians in the Smolensk War of 1632-34). The Russians were forced to recognise the Polish occupation of Smolensk, Seversk, Chernihiv and the surrounding areas. In return Russian prisoners held in Warsaw, including Patriarch Filaret, were freed.
Battle of Klushino
There were some large-scale and decisive field battles in the wars of the Baltic theater (Orsza, Klushino, Dirschau, Warsaw, Kliszow, etc.), but they do not provide a clear test of the superiority of Mauritsian line tactics-this is true even of many of Gustav II Adolf ‘s battles-in part because terrain was often too broken to facilitate line tactics, troops lacked the drill to master more than the most elementary firing systems, and because commanders still preferred to trust to cavalry action to decide the final outcome. At Kirchholm and at Klushino Polish husarz cavalry routed much larger forces of Swedish and Scots musketeers and pikemen. Except in Swedish and mercenary forces pikes were not much used-janissary, haiduk, and strelets infantry largely dispensed with them. To substitute for pike protection musketeers were often deployed behind field fortifications or in a wagenburg.
The battles of Kokenhausen and Kircholm illustrate the devastating effects a well-timed, precisely aimed Husaria charge could have against even a much larger enemy. The two engagements also illustrate the marked superiority the concerted heavy cavalry charge had during this time over Western cavalry still trained in the caracole. However, it is important to note that neither victory would have been attained were it not for the close coordination of infantry, artillery, and cavalry required to create the perfect conditions for the Husaria to strike effectively. Luckily for the Husaria, during the early 17th century the Polish army was fortunate to have been led by a series of truly brilliant battlefield tacticians. In fact, just four years after Kircholm at the Battle of Klushino in 1610, Stanislaw Zolkiewski, despite being outnumbered five to one, skillfully used his Husaria to defeat a Muscovite army of 30,000 under the command of the tsar’s brother.
For the Husaria, their crucial role in such spectacular victories as Kircholm, Klushino, and Chocim solidified their importance as the Polish army’s elite arm. The latter battle in particular, which saw them man the ramparts at times alongside the infantry, earned them a reputation as universal soldiers that could fill any battlefield role when needed. Not surprisingly, the Husaria’s success and prestige, coupled with their noble pedigree and the fact that they were the only purely Polish (and Lithuanian) unit in the army, soon fostered a regimental culture and tradition markedly different from any other unit in the Commonwealth or indeed in Europe.
Sieges were more common than field battles and until the beginning of the eighteenth century the capture of enemy strongholds was considered a more important campaign objective than attriting or destroying enemy field armies. Until the mid-17th century, when some Baltic coast cities were refortified with trace italienne works, most for tresses were old curtain-wall stone fortresses and not very large (with the exceptions of Ivangorod and Smolensk), or, as in Muscovy and Lithuania, palisade or ostrog-style wooden fortresses with high towers. One would suppose both types to be more vulnerable to bombardment than the trace italienne, except that the heavy rains and early freezing of the ground made it difficult to dig trenches to bring siege guns close enough to the wall. Guns were more often moved and positioned behind shifting gabion lines than through trench approaches and behind fortified redoubts. 2 Rain and frost also complicated mining. Gunnery skills before the mid-seventeenth century appear to have been low there may have been gunners of good eye who knew from experience or intuition how to point a piece, but there was little evidence that knowledge of the principles of scientific gunnery had spread far into Eastern Europe. Although the Muscovites followed the Ottoman practice of acquiring great numbers of heavy bombard-style guns (Russ. stenobitnye pushki, Turk. balyemez), these do not seem to have guaranteed success in besieging enemy castles and fortresses, so that the Muscovites were usually forced to fall back on lobbing incendiary shot over the fortress walls to start fires within and then taking the walls by storm assault.
A spectacular and decisive example of betrayal by mercenaries switching sides in mid-battle occurred at Klushino in 1610 when Vasilii Shuiskii was betrayed by De la Gardie’s Swedes, whose pay was in arrears. This threw open the road to Moscow to the Poles.
By the time the commonwealth was giving Charles IX cause to question his invasion of Livonia, things were starting to fall apart on the eastern frontier once again. Ivan the Terrible may have been a nightmare in life, but in death he was a catastrophe, a fact that Muscovy’s long border with the commonwealth turned into yet another war.
Ivan IV, in one of his many fits of pique, allegedly struck his eldest son with a staff during a fierce argument, killing him. Whatever the true cause of Ivan Ivanovitch’s death, it left the tsar’s half-witted son as the only heir. Fedor I took the throne in 1584, ushering in a period of utter chaos that came to be known as the Time of Troubles.
The sickly Fedor carried on with the help of his chief minister, Boris Godunov, who was proclaimed tsar upon Fedor’s death in 1598. But without unimpeachable legitimacy, and facing a state that had been in decline since the Livonian War, Godunov struggled against resistance to his rule. Ironically, his greatest threat came from a corpse: a series of three pretenders claiming to be Dmitry, a son of Ivan the Terrible who had supposedly died in 1591, bedeviled the stability of Muscovy.
When Godunov died in 1605, he had failed to defeat the “first Dmitry,” whose followers placed him on the throne and then murdered him in 1606 for marrying a Pole and filling the capital with unsavory foreign influences. Vasilii Shuiskii, a boyar, or Russian aristocrat, was elevated to tsar, his first order of business being the destruction of no less than two other Dmitrys and their enthusiastic followers. Bedlam reigned in Muscovy.
From Sigismund III’s perspective, the situation was delicate. The commonwealth was already at war with Sweden, after all. But the troubles in Moscow were drawing in Poles and Lithuanians who had devoted themselves to one or another of the Dmitrys and who now, thanks to increasing Russian consternation and xenophobia, were being killed in the chaos. The first Dmitry had been a Catholic and therefore was seen by Orthodox Russians as an interloper backed by Poland, a largely Catholic nation. Matters in Muscovy were taking an ugly sectarian direction.
Driven by this, as well as the signing of a new Russo-Swedish alliance, Sigismund opted for war against Muscovy in 1609. Chief on his list of priorities was Smolensk, the mighty fortress near Muscovy’s border with Lithuania, the conquest of which would place the commonwealth in an ideal bargaining position. He began siege operations against it in 1609, the year before his hetman Stanislaw Zolkiewski won his spectacular victory at Klushino against enormous odds. Matters took a decisive turn when a group of boyars in Moscow, having defeated Vasilii Shuiskii, elected Sigismund’s son Wladyslaw as tsar.
Smolensk, along with Danzig, Poland’s largest city, was one of the most heavily fortified places in Europe. Between 1595 and 1602, the Russians had undertaken the modernization of the city’s defenses, embarking on one of the grandest construction projects in European history. The result was a stronghold that Sigismund, with 22,000 men and some thirty heavy guns, could not take in less than two years.
But take it he did, opening all Muscovy to invasion. In one of the most notorious chapters of Russian history, a garrison of Poles occupied Moscow until 1612. Although they were ultimately starved into submission by an angry populace, the event served as the high-water mark of Poland’s interminable fight against Muscovy.
The Battle of Klushino, part of the Polish-Muscovite War of 1609–1619, served to highlight the strengths of Polish-Lithuanian tactics. But as dramatic as Zolkiewski’s victory was, it could do little to help shape events in a decisive manner in this part of the world where war had become endemic.
This was a part of the world where perpetual war was all but unavoidable. To begin with, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, created to ensure the safety of its citizens in a volatile region, lay near the epicenter of a four-way grudge match for control of the Baltic world. Moreover, dynastic complexities and the rivalries they invariably sparked locked the commonwealth in power struggles that paid little heed to borders. Religion, an inflammatory issue in Early Modern Europe, also played a role in fueling conflict, as predominantly Catholic Poland found itself surrounded by Orthodox and Protestant powers.
Then there was the nature of Eastern Europe itself, a vast, sparsely populated region that dissipated the best efforts of invaders, ensuring that wars rarely, if ever, ended decisively. Finally, there was Muscovy—the tsars of which proved most dangerous of all to Poland for their unyielding desire to gain access to the Baltic and command the vast, almost fluid, frontier that separated the two countries. Its control ensured the upper hand in this tumultuous part of the world.
Cavalry played an important role in battle and campaigning. The Poles won cavalry victories over the Swedes at Kokenhausen (23 June 1601), Reval (June 1602), Kirchholm (27 September 1605) and, over a much larger Russo-Swedish army, at Klushino (4 July 1610), although at Klushino the firepower of the Polish infantry and artillery also played a major role. At Kirchholm and Klushino, the mobility and power of the Polish cavalry, which attacked in waves and relied on shock charges, nullified its opponent’s numerical superiority and the Poles were able to destroy the Swedish cavalry before turning on their infantry. Exposed once the cavalry had been driven off, the Swedish infantry suffered heavily. At Kircholm, they lost over 70 per cent of their strength. This was a powerful reminder of the need to avoid an account of European military development solely in terms of improvements in infantry firepower. Similarly, on 8 July 1659 at Konotop, Russian cavalry were heavily defeated by steppe cavalry: the Crimean Tatars allied with Hetman Vyhovsky of the Ukraine and the Cossacks. The Russians lost largely due to poor reconnaissance and generalship: they let their main corps get lured into a swamp.
Polish cavalry tactics influenced those further west, not least thanks to commanders such as Pappenheim who had served in Poland. Aside from providing a warning about the customary emphasis on infantry, these battles also suggested that the novel military techniques that are held up for particular praise, were of only limited value. At Klushino, the Swedish force was largely composed of mercenaries familiar with conflict in Western Europe, while one of the commanders, Jakob de la Gardie, had served under Maurice of Nassau.
The ability of Polish-Lithuanian troops to defeat western troops, when Zolkiewski led a small army of 5,556 hussars, 679 cossack horse, 290 petyhorcy (the Lithuanian equivalent), 200 infantry and two small field guns to victory at Klushino on 4 July 1610 against a combined Muscovite-Swedish army with a massive numerical advantage. Żółkiewski took his small army on a forced march at dead of night through difficult forested terrain to arrive just before dawn at the Muscovite-Swedish encampment. The Muscovites, led by Vasilii Shuiskii, numbered some 30,000 if the numerous peasant auxiliaries are included of this, perhaps 16,000 were strel’tsy, pomest’e cavalry and mounted arquebusiers. The Swedes, led by Christoph Horn and Jakob de la Gardie, who had spent two years in Holland learning the art of war from Maurice of Nassau himself, were largely composed of French, German and British mercenaries, some 5–7,000 in all: on their own they possibly outnumbered the Poles Żółkiewski enjoyed the advantage of surprise, but his plan of an immediate attack on the two enemy camps before they awoke was thwarted. As the Poles emerged from the forest, they had to negotiate a palisade and a small village before reaching the enemy camps. At first light, as Żółkiewski’s men smashed gaps in the palisade and set fire to the village, the Muscovites and Swedes began to deploy. The battle which followed was a dramatic demonstration of the effectiveness and endurance of the Polish cavalry. Żółkiewski directed his first assault against the Muscovite horse on his right. With no possibility of a flanking attack, he sent Zborowski’s hussar regiment, no more than 2,000–strong, in a direct attack on the hordes of Muscovite horse. Samuel Maskiewicz, who took part, described how:
The panic-stricken enemy … began to stream out of their encampments in disorder … the Germans were first to form up, standing in their usual fieldworks, on boggy ground by the palisade. They did us some damage, by the numbers of their infantry armed with pikes and muskets. The Muscovite, not trusting himself, stationed reiters amidst his formation, and drew up the common folk, a numberless horde so great that it was terrifying to observe, considering the small number of our army.
Some units charged into the mass of Muscovite horse eight or ten times:
for already our arms and armour were damaged and our strength ebbing from such frequent regrouping and charges against the enemy … our horses were almost fainting on the battlefield, for we fought from the dawn of a summer’s day until dinner-time, at least five hours without rest– we could only trust in the mercy of God, in luck and in the strength of our arms.
The hussars were seriously hampered by the palisade, which had only been partially demolished: the gaps were only large enough for ten horses to pass through in close order this prevented them attacking in their usual extended formation and the steady fire of the foreign infantry, protected by the palisade, was causing heavy casualties. The Muscovite horse, however, was beginning to crack. Vasilii Shuiskii asked de la Gardie to support it with his cavalry. As the reiters advanced, however, the hussars exposed the caracole as a useless parade-ground manoeuvre:
they handed us the victory, for as they came at us, we were in some disorder, and immediately, having fired their carbines, they wheeled away to the rear in their normal fashion to reload, and the next rank advanced firing. We did not wait, but at the moment all had emptied their pieces, and seeing that they were starting to withdraw, we charged them with only our sabres in our hands they, having failed to reload, while the next rank had not yet fired, took to their heels. We crashed into the whole Muscovite force, still drawn up in battle-order at the entrance to their camp, plunging them into disorder.
As the Muscovite cavalry fled, Żółkiewski turned on the Swedes. His hussars, many of whose lances were shattered, had little chance of defeating the ‘Germans’ unsupported. At this point, however, Żółkiewski’s small force of infantry and the two guns, which had become bogged down in the forest, arrived to rescue the situation. As the infantry and the cannon shot gaps in the palisade and inflicted casualties on the foreigners, Żółkiewski sent in Jüdrzej Firlej’s company, whose lances were still intact, against ‘the whole foreign infantry … standing in battle-order, protected by stakes, beside their camp … Firlej broke this infantry, having attacked it with courage. We … supported him … having broken our lances, we could only join the attack with our sabres in our hands.’ As the rest of the foreign cavalry was driven from the field, accompanied by de la Gardie and Horn, the infantry took refuge in their camp. Abandoned by their commanders and by the Muscovites, individuals and groups began to slip over to the Poles. By the time Horn and de la Gardie returned to the battlefield, it was too late they were forced to negotiate an honourable surrender. Many of the foreign mercenaries entered Polish service de la Gardie led the Swedes and Finns to Novgorod.
Russian historians have frequently explained the outcome of Klushino as the result of foreign treachery. This is a travesty of what happened. Polish and foreign accounts agree that it was the Muscovite horse which left the battlefield first, and it was the foreigners who felt abandoned. If Klushino demonstrated anything, apart from the inadequacy of the pomest’e cavalry, it was that western methods were no magic elixir. Foreign mercenaries had been involved in Muscovy from the start of the Time of Troubles. De la Gardie had instructed Muscovite troops in western methods, especially pike tactics, and there were native Muscovite units of mounted western-style arquebusiers, officered by foreigners, at Klushino. Yet if western-style tactics certainly improved the defensive capacity of the Muscovite infantry, they could not win the war. For that, cavalry was still the decisive arm in eastern Europe. Pike and shot alone could not produce a military revolution in the east.
Fact Checking the 1619 Project and Its Critics
The New York Times’ 1619 Project entered a new phase of historical assessment when the paper published a scathing criticism by five well-known historians of the American Revolution and Civil War eras. The group included previous critics James McPherson, Gordon Wood, Victoria Bynum, and James Oakes, along with a new signature from Sean Wilentz. The newspaper’s editor-in-chief Jake Silverstein then responded with a point-by-point rebuttal of the historians, defending the project.
Each deserve to be taken seriously, as they form part of a larger debate on the merits of the 1619 Project as a work of history and its intended use in the K-12 classroom curriculum. While the project itself spans some four centuries, devoting substantial attention to racial discrimination against African-Americans in the present day, the historians’ criticism focuses almost entirely on the two articles that are most directly pertinent to their own areas of expertise. The first is the lengthy introductory essay by Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Times journalist who edited the project. The second is a contentious essay on the relationship between slavery and American capitalism by Princeton University sociologist Matthew Desmond.
How should readers assess the competing claims of each group, seeing as they appear to be at bitter odds? That question is subject to a multitude of interpretive issues raised by the project’s stated political aims, as well as the historians’ own objectives as eminent figures – some might say gatekeepers – in the academic end of the profession.
But the debate may also be scored on its many disputed factual claims. To advance that discussion, I accordingly offer an assessment for each of the main points of contention as raised by the historians’ letter and Silverstein’s response.
1. Was the American Revolution fought in defense of slavery?
One of the most hotly contested claims of the 1619 Project appears in its introductory essay by Nikole Hannah-Jones, who writes “one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery.”
Hannah-Jones cites this claim to two historical events. The first is the 1772 British legal case of Somerset v. Stewart, which reasoned from English common law that a slave taken by his owner from the colonies to Great Britain could not be legally held against his will. England had never established slavery by positive law, therefore Somerset was free to go.
The second event she enlists is a late 1775 proclamation by Lord Dunmore, the colonial governor of Virginia, in which he offered freedom to slaves who would take up arms for the loyalist cause against the stirring rebellion. The measure specified that it was “appertaining to Rebels” only, thereby exempting any slaves owned by loyalists.
Hannah-Jones argues that these two events revealed that British colonial rule presented an emerging threat to the continuation of slavery, thereby providing an impetus for slave-owning Americans to support independence. The American Revolution, she contends, was motivated in large part to “ensure slavery would continue.” The five historians vigorously dispute this claimed causality, indicating that it exaggerates the influence of these events vis-à-vis better known objects of colonial ire, as stated in the Declaration of Independence.
There is a kernel of truth in Hannah-Jones’s interpretation of these events. Somerset’s case is traditionally seen as the starting point of Britain’s own struggle for emancipation, and Dunmore’s proclamation certainly provoked the ire of slaveowners in the southern colonies – although they were more likely to interpret it as an attempt to foment the threat of a slave revolt as a counterrevolutionary strategy than a sign that Britain itself would impose emancipation in the near future.
Curiously unmentioned in the dispute is a much clearer case of how the loyalist cause aligned itself with emancipation, albeit in a limited sense. As part of his evacuation of New York City in 1783, British commander Sir Guy Carleton secured the removal of over 3,000 slaves for resettlement in Nova Scotia. This action liberated more than ten times as many slaves as Dunmore’s proclamation, the earlier measure having been offered as part of an increasingly desperate bid to retain power long after colonial opinion turned against him. Carleton’s removal also became a source of recurring tensions for U.S.-British relations after the war’s settlement. Alexander Hamilton, representing New York, even presented a resolution before the Confederation Congress demanding the return of this human “property” to their former owners.
That much noted, Hannah-Jones’s argument must be assessed against the broader context of British emancipation. It is here that the five historians gain the stronger case. First, despite both its high symbolic importance and later use as a case precedent, the Somerset ruling was only narrowly applied as a matter of law. It did not portend impending emancipation across the empire, nor did its reach extend to either the American colonies or their West Indian neighbors where a much larger plantation economy still thrived.
It is also entirely unrealistic to speculate that Britain would have imposed emancipation in the American colonies had the war for independence gone the other way. We know this because Britain’s own pathway to abolition in its remaining colonies entailed a half-century battle against intense parliamentary resistance after Somerset.
Simply securing a prohibition on the slave trade became a lifetime project of the abolitionist William Wilberforce, who proposed the notion in 1787, and of liberal Whig leader Charles James Fox, who brought it to a vote in 1791, only to see it go down in flames as merchant interests and West Indian planters organized to preserve the slave trade. Any student of the American Revolution will recognize the member of Parliament from Liverpool who successfully led the slave traders in opposition, for it was Banastre Tarleton, famed cavalry officer under General Cornwallis on the British side of the war.
Tarleton’s father and grandfather owned merchant firms in Liverpool, and directly profiteered from the slave trade. When Fox and Wilberforce’s slave trade ban came to a vote he led the opposition in debate. The measure failed with 163 against and only 88 in favor.
After more than a decade of failed attempts Fox eventually persevered, steering a bill that allowed the slave trade ban through the House of Commons as one of his final acts before he died in 1806. It would take another generation for Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson, invested in a decades-long public campaign that highlighted the horrors of the institution and assisted by a large slave uprising in Jamaica, before a full Slavery Abolition Act would clear Parliament in 1833.
Nor was Tarleton the only loyalist from the revolutionary war with a stake in slavery as an institution. Lord Dunmore, whose 1775 proclamation forms the basis of the 1619 Project’s argument, comes across as a desperate political opportunist rather than a principled actor once he is examined in light of his later career. From 1787 to 1796 he served as colonial governor of the Bahamas, where he embarked on a massive and controversial building project to fortify the city of Nassau against irrational fears of foreign invasion. Dunmore used more than 600 enslaved laborers to construct a network of fortifications, including a famous 66-step staircase that they hand carved from solid rock under the threat of whipping and torture. Responding to a parliamentary inquiry on the condition of the colony’s slaves in 1789, Dunmore absurdly depicted them as well cared for and content with their condition.
Curiously enough, a British victory in the American Revolution would have almost certainly delayed the politics of this process even further. With the American colonies still intact, planters from Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia would have likely joined their West Indian counterparts to obstruct any measure that weakened slavery from advancing through Parliament. Subject to greater oversight from London, the northern colonies would have had fewer direct options to eliminate the institution on their own.
These state-initiated measures came about through both legislative action and legal proceeding, including a handful of “freedom cases” that successfully deployed reasoning similar to Somerset to strike against the presence of slavery in New England. The most notable example occurred in Massachusetts, where an escaped slave named Quock Walker successfully used the state’s new post-independence constitution of 1780 to challenge the legality of enforcing slavery within its borders.
Although they had significantly smaller slave populations than the southern states, several other northern states used the occasion of independence to move against the institution. The newly constituted state governments of Pennsylvania (1780), New Hampshire (1783), Connecticut (1784), Rhode Island (1784), and New York (1799) adopted measures for gradual but certain emancipation, usually phased in over a specified period of time or taking effect as underage enslaved persons reached legal majority. Vermont abolished slavery under its constitution as an independent republic aligned with the revolutionaries in 1777, and officially joined the United States as a free state in 1791. Antislavery delegates to the Confederation Congress were similarly able to secure a prohibition against the institution’s extension under the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, ensuring that the modern day states of Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Indiana entered the Union as free states.
While these examples do not negate the pernicious effects of slavery upon the political trajectory of the former southern colonies, they do reveal clear instances where the cause of emancipation was aided – rather than impeded – by the American revolution. Britain’s own plodding course to emancipation similarly negates an underlying premise of Hannah-Jones’ depiction of the crown as an existential threat to American slavery itself in 1776. Indeed, the reluctance of the slaveholding West Indian colonies to join those on the continent in rebellion despite repeated overtures from the Americans reveals the opposite. The planters of Jamaica, Barbados and other Caribbean islands considered their institutions secure under the crown – and they would remain so for another half-century.
The Verdict: The historians have a clear upper hand in disputing the portrayal of the American Revolution as an attempt to protect slavery from British-instigated abolitionism. Britain itself remained several decades away from abolition at the time of the revolution. Hannah-Jones’s argument nonetheless contains kernels of truth that complicate the historians’ assessment, without overturning it. Included among these are instances where Britain was involved in the emancipation of slaves during the course of the war. These events must also be balanced against the fact that American independence created new opportunities for the northern states to abolish slavery within their borders. In the end, slavery’s relationship with the American Revolution was fraught with complexities that cut across the political dimensions of both sides.
2. Was Abraham Lincoln a racial colonizationist or exaggerated egalitarian?
In her lead essay, Nikole Hannah-Jones pointed to several complexities in the political beliefs of Abraham Lincoln to argue that his reputation as a racial egalitarian has been exaggerated. She points specifically to Lincoln’s longstanding support for the colonization of freed slaves abroad as a corollary feature of ending slavery, including a notorious August 1862 meeting at the White House in which the president pressed this scheme upon a delegation of free African-Americans.
Elsewhere she points to grating remarks by Lincoln that questioned the possibility of attaining racial equality in the United States, and to his tepid reactions to the proposition of black citizenship at the end of the Civil War. Hannah-Jones’s final assessment is not unduly harsh, but it does dampen some of the “Great Emancipator” mythology of popular perception while also questioning the extent to which Lincoln can be viewed as a philosophical egalitarian, as distinct from an anti-slavery man.
The historians’ letter contests this depiction, responding that Lincoln evolved in an egalitarian direction and pointing to his embrace of an anti-slavery constitutionalism that was also shared by Frederick Douglass. Hannah-Jones, they contend, has essentially cherry picked quotations and other examples of Lincoln’s shortcomings on racial matters and presented them out of context from his life and broader philosophical principles.
Although the historians’ letter to the Times only briefly discusses the particular details of Hannah-Jones’s essay, several of the signers have individually elaborated on these claims. McPherson, Oakes, and Wilentz have all advanced various interpretations that imbue Lincoln with more radical sentiments – including on racial equality – than his words and actions evince at the surface.
These arguments usually depict an element of political shrewdness at play in which Lincoln is forced to obscure his true intentions from a racist electorate until emancipation was secured or the Civil War was won. When Hannah-Jones points to policies such as colonization, or to problematic speeches by Lincoln that suggest a less-than-egalitarian view of African-Americans, the historians respond that these charges miss a deeper political context. And in their telling, that context largely serves an exonerative purpose.
The historians’ treatment of colonization is probably the foremost example of how they deploy this argument around Lincoln. McPherson was one of the main originators of what has become known as the “lullaby thesis” (a term that I helped to coin in a historiographical examination of the colonization literature). According to this thesis, Lincoln only advanced racially charged policies such as colonization to lull a reluctant populace into accepting the “strong pill” of emancipation. Once emancipation was achieved, McPherson and the other lullaby theorists maintain, Lincoln promptly retreated from these racially fraught auxiliary positions – a claim supposedly evidenced by Lincoln’s omission of colonizationist language from the final version of the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863. Colonization is therefore reduced to a political stratagem, insincerely advanced to clear the way for emancipation.
Wilentz echoes McPherson on this claim, and at times presses it even further. In 2009 he published a vicious and dismissive attack on Henry Louis Gates, Jr., after the eminent African-American scholar called upon historians to update their consideration of Lincoln’s colonization policies and consider the possibility that they sincerely reflected his beliefs.
Gates’s interpretation was far from radical or disparaging of Lincoln. He correctly noted that the evidentiary record on Lincoln’s colonization programs had substantially expanded since the time that McPherson and others posited the lullaby thesis in the second half of the 20 th century (I was one of the principal co-discoverers of the new materials, including several large caches of diplomatic records from Lincoln’s efforts to secure sites for freedmen’s colonies in the West Indies that are now housed in Great Britain, Belize, the Netherlands, and Jamaica). Wilentz’s counterargument offered little to counter the new evidence, relying instead on invocations of authority from leading scholars including himself.
When viewed in light of these and other recent archival discoveries, the lullaby thesis and similar variants as espoused by the signers of the letter may be conclusively rejected.
Lincoln’s sincere belief in colonization may be documented from the earliest days of his political career as a Henry Clay Whig in Illinois to a succession of failed attempts to launch colonization projects during his presidency. Furthermore, the claim that Lincoln abandoned colonization after the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863 is directly belied by another year of sustained diplomatic negotiations with the governments of Great Britain and the Netherlands as Lincoln sought to secure suitable locales in their Caribbean colonies.
Lincoln’s proactive support for colonization kept it alive until at least 1864 when a series of political setbacks induced Congress to strip away the program’s funding against the president’s wishes. A fair amount of evidence suggests Lincoln intended to revive the project in his second term, and new discoveries pertaining to long-missing colonization records from Lincoln’s presidency continue to be made.
I won’t belabor the point further, save to note that the evidence of Lincoln’s sincere support for colonization is overwhelming (a brief summary of which may be found here).
This finding carries with it the substantial caveat that Lincoln did not pursue this course out of personal racial animosity. Quite the contrary, his public and private statements consistently link the policy to his personal fears that former slaveowners would continue to oppress African-Americans after the Civil War. The colonization component of his solution was a racially retrograde and paternalistic reflection of its time, but it also revealed Lincoln’s awareness of the challenges that lay ahead in his second term. Given that Lincoln’s presidency and life were cut short, we will never know what that term would have brought. And while there are subtle clues of Lincoln’s migration toward greater racial inclusivity in other areas – for example, the extension of suffrage to black soldiers – the record on colonization is in clear tension with the arguments advanced by the 1619 Project’s critics.
The Verdict: Nikole Hannah-Jones has the clear upper hand here. Her call to evaluate Lincoln’s record through problematic racial policies such as colonization reflects greater historical nuance and closer attention to the evidentiary record, including new developments in Lincoln scholarship. The historians’ counterarguments reflect a combination of outdated evidence and the construction of apocryphal exonerative narratives such as the lullaby thesis around colonization.
3. Did slavery drive America’s economic growth and the emergence of American Capitalism?
Matthew Desmond’s 1619 Project contribution has been at the center of the firestorm since the day it was published. The main thrust of this article holds that slavery was the primary driver of American economic growth in the 19 th century, and that it infused its brutality into American capitalism today. The resulting thesis is overtly ideological and overtly anti-capitalist, seeking to enlist slavery as an explanatory mechanism for a long list of grievances he has against the Republican Party’s positions on healthcare, taxation, and labor regulation in the present day.
The five historians directly challenged the historical accuracy of Desmond’s thesis. By presenting “supposed direct connections between slavery and modern corporate practices,” they note, the 1619 Project’s editors “have so far failed to establish any empirical veracity or reliability” of these claims “and have been seriously challenged by other historians.” The historians’ letter further chastises the Times for extending its “imprimatur and credibility” to these claims.
Each of these criticisms rings true.
Desmond’s thesis relies exclusively on scholarship from a hotly contested school of thought known as the New History of Capitalism (NHC). Although NHC scholars often present their work as cutting-edge explorations into the relationship between capitalism and slavery, they have not fared well under scrutiny from outside their own ranks.
For those wishing to review the details, I have written extensively on the historiographical debate around the NHC literature. Other scholars, including several leading economic historians, have reached similar conclusions, finding very little merit in this body of work. The NHC camp frequently struggles with basic economic concepts and statistics, has a clear track record of misrepresenting historical evidence to bolster its arguments, and has adopted a bizarre and insular practice of refusing to answer substantive scholarly criticisms from non-NHC scholars – including from opposite ends of the political spectrum.
While most criticisms of Desmond’s thesis focus upon these broader problems in the NHC literature, the Times has done practically nothing to address the issues involved. Hannah-Jones herself admitted to being unaware of the controversy surrounding the NHC material until I pointed it out to her shortly after the 1619 Project appeared in print. From that time until the present the 1619 Project has almost intentionally disengaged from the problems with Desmond’s essay – and so it remains in Silverstein’s response.
Although the Times editor attempted to answer most of the other specific criticisms from the historians, he was conspicuously silent on the subject of Desmond’s thesis. Hannah-Jones has similarly shown little interest in revisiting this piece or responding to specific criticisms of the NHC literature. Meanwhile, the Times continues to extend this defective body of academic work its imprimatur and credibility, exactly as the historians’ letter charges.
The Verdict: This one goes conclusively to the five historians. Echoing other critics, the historians point to serious and substantive defects with Matthew Desmond’s thesis about the economics of slavery, and with the project’s overreliance on the contested New History of Capitalism literature. By contrast, the Times has completely failed to offer a convincing response to this criticism – or really any response at all.
4. Did the 1619 Project seek adequate scholarly guidance in preparing its work?
Moving beyond the content of the project itself, the historians’ letter raises a broader criticism of the scholarly vetting behind the 1619 Project. They charge that the Times used an “opaque” fact-checking process, marred by “selective transparency” about the names and qualifications of scholars involved. They further suggest that Hannah-Jones and other Times editors did not solicit sufficient input from experts on the subjects they covered – a point that several of the signers reiterated in their individual interviews.
Silverstein takes issue with this criticism, noting that they “consulted with numerous scholars of African-American history and related fields” and subjected the resulting articles to rigorous fact-checking. He also specifically identifies five scholars involved in these consultations who each contributed a piece to the 1619 Project. They are Mehrsa Baradaran, Matthew Desmond, Kevin Kruse, Tiya Miles, and Khalil G. Muhammed.
Each of these scholars brings relevant areas of expertise to aspects of the larger project. The listed names, however, are noticeably light when it comes to historians of the subject areas that the critics describe as deficient, namely the period from the American Revolution to the Civil War or roughly 1775 to 1865.
Of the five named academic consultants, only Miles possesses a clear scholarly expertise in this period of history. Her contributions to the project – three short vignettes about slavery, business, and migration – are not disputed by the five historian critics, and do not appear to have elicited any significant criticism. Rather, they have been well-received as abbreviated distillations of her scholarly work for a popular audience.
The true oddity of the group remains Matthew Desmond, a sociologist who specializes in present day race relations. Although Desmond was given the task of writing the 1619 Project’s main article on the economics of slavery, he does not appear to have any scholarly expertise in either the economics or history of slavery. None of his scholarly publications are on subjects related to the period between 1775 and 1865. Indeed most of his work focuses on the 20 th century or later. As a result, Desmond approaches his 1619 Project essay entirely as a second-hand disseminator of the aforementioned claims from the problematic New History of Capitalism literature.
The other three named consultants – Kruse, Baradaran, and Muhammad – all specialize in more recent areas of history or social science, so none of them could plausibly claim an expertise in the period that the five historians focus their criticisms upon.
Barring the revelation of additional names, it appears that the 1619 Project neglected to adequately vet its material covering slavery during the period between the American Revolution and the Civil War. Its editors also appear to have assigned the primary article on this period to a writer who may possess expertise in other areas of social science involving race, but who is not qualified for the specific task of assessing slavery’s economic dimensions.
Although Silverstein attempted to defuse this angle of the historians’ criticism, he ended up only affirming its validity. Since the period in question encompasses several of the most important events in the history of slavery, this oversight harms the project’s credibility in the areas where the five historians are highly regarded experts.
The Verdict: The historians have a valid complaint about deficiencies of scholarly guidance for the 1619 Project’s treatment of the period between the American Revolution and the Civil War. This comparative lack of scholarly input for the years between 1775 and 1865 stands in contrast with the Times’ heavy use of scholars who specialize in more recent dimensions of race in the United States. It is worth noting that the 1619 Project has received far less pushback on its materials about the 20 th century and present day – areas that are more clearly within the scholarly competencies of the named consultants.
Polish-Muscovite War, 1609-1619 - History
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Historically, disputes over estates of deceased family members often took up the time and resourc. more Historically, disputes over estates of deceased family members often took up the time and resources of their heirs in Poland. This was also the case of the relatives of Jan Karol Chodkiewicz, Voivode of Vilnius and Grand Hetman of Lithuania. According to the bequests made before his death, his hereditary property was to have passed as a lifehold to his second wife, Anna Alojza née Ostrogska. This meant that for some time or perhaps permanently the inheritance from her late father would be denied to Chodkiewicz’s daughter from his first marriage, Anna Scholastyka Sapieha, whose interests were represented by her husband, Jan Stanisław Sapieha, Grand Marshal of Lithuania.
The conflict between the widow and the stepdaughter, and between the families supporting them had a fairly standard basis, but what distinguished it was its scale. It required considerable funds, mobilisation of clients and wining over of influential allies. It unfolded on several planes simultaneously: in local assemblies, before Tribunals and at the king’s court, and required armed forces to make forays into disputed estates or to defend them.
An important moment in the fight for the inheritance left by Chodkiewicz — won by the Sapiehas in the end — was the funeral of the Voivode of Vilnius. The present publication contains a source edition of an account of this occasion. In the commentary preceding it the author seeks to place the funeral in the context of the conflict over property and to point to the consequences of the events. He also asks a question about the uniqueness of the funeral and assesses its lavishness.
The paper’s series on slavery made avoidable mistakes. But the attacks from its critics are much more dangerous.
On August 19 of last year I listened in stunned silence as Nikole Hannah-Jones, a reporter for the New York Times, repeated an idea that I had vigorously argued against with her fact-checker: that the patriots fought the American Revolution in large part to preserve slavery in North America.
Hannah-Jones and I were on Georgia Public Radio to discuss the path-breaking New York Times 1619 Project, a major feature about the impact of slavery on American history, which she had spearheaded. The Times had just published the special 1619 edition of its magazine, which took its name from the year 20 Africans arrived in the colony of Virginia—a group believed to be the first enslaved Africans to arrive in British North America.
Weeks before, I had received an email from a New York Times research editor. Because I’m an historian of African American life and slavery, in New York, specifically, and the pre-Civil War era more generally, she wanted me to verify some statements for the project. At one point, she sent me this assertion: “One critical reason that the colonists declared their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery in the colonies, which had produced tremendous wealth. At the time there were growing calls to abolish slavery throughout the British Empire, which would have badly damaged the economies of colonies in both North and South.”
I vigorously disputed the claim. Although slavery was certainly an issue in the American Revolution, the protection of slavery was not one of the main reasons the 13 Colonies went to war.
I was concerned that critics would use the overstated claim to discredit the entire undertaking.
The editor followed up with several questions probing the nature of slavery in the Colonial era, such as whether enslaved people were allowed to read, could legally marry, could congregate in groups of more than four, and could own, will or inherit property—the answers to which vary widely depending on the era and the colony. I explained these histories as best I could—with references to specific examples—but never heard back from her about how the information would be used.
Despite my advice, the Times published the incorrect statement about the American Revolution anyway, in Hannah-Jones’ introductory essay. In addition, the paper’s characterizations of slavery in early America reflected laws and practices more common in the antebellum era than in Colonial times, and did not accurately illustrate the varied experiences of the first generation of enslaved people that arrived in Virginia in 1619.
Both sets of inaccuracies worried me, but the Revolutionary War statement made me especially anxious. Overall, the 1619 Project is a much-needed corrective to the blindly celebratory histories that once dominated our understanding of the past—histories that wrongly suggested racism and slavery were not a central part of U.S. history. I was concerned that critics would use the overstated claim to discredit the entire undertaking. So far, that’s exactly what has happened.
The 1619 Project became one of the most talked-about journalistic achievements of the year—as it was intended to. The Times produced not just a magazine, but podcasts, a newspaper section, and even a curriculum designed to inject a new version of American history into schools. Now it’s back in circulation the Times is promoting it again during journalistic awards season, and it’s already a finalist for the National Magazine Awards and rumored to be a strong Pulitzer contender.
But it has also become a lightning rod for critics, and that one sentence about the role of slavery in the founding of the United States has ended up at the center of a debate over the whole project. A letter signed by five academic historians claimed that the 1619 Project got some significant elements of the history wrong, including the claim that the Revolutionary War was fought to preserve slavery. They have demanded that the New York Times issue corrections on these points, which the paper has so far refused to do. For her part, Hannah-Jones has acknowledged that she overstated her argument about slavery and the Revolution in her essay, and that she plans to amend this argument for the book version of the project, under contract with Random House.
The argument among historians, while real, is hardly black and white.
The criticism of the Times has emboldened some conservatives to assert that such “revisionist history” is flat-out illegitimate. The right-wing publication The Federalist is extending the fight with a planned “1620 Project” about the anniversary of the Mayflower Landing at Plymouth Rock. (This plan is already inviting its own correction request, since Plymouth Rock is not actually the site of the Pilgrims’ first landing.) The project was even criticized on the floor of the U.S. Senate when, during the impeachment trial, President Donald Trump’s lawyer cited the historians’ letter to slam the project. Some observers, including at times Hannah-Jones herself, have framed the argument as evidence of a chasm between black and white scholars (the historians who signed the letter are all white), pitting a progressive history that centers on slavery and racism against a conservative history that downplays them.
But the debates playing out now on social media and in op-eds between supporters and detractors of the 1619 Project misrepresent both the historical record and the historical profession. The United States was not, in fact, founded to protect slavery—but the Times is right that slavery was central to its story. And the argument among historians, while real, is hardly black and white. Over the past half-century, important foundational work on the history and legacy of slavery has been done by a multiracial group of scholars who are committed to a broad understanding of U.S. history—one that centers on race without denying the roles of other influences or erasing the contributions of white elites. An accurate understanding of our history must present a comprehensive picture, and it’s by paying attention to these scholars that we’ll get there.
Here is the complicated picture of the Revolutionary era that the New York Times missed: White Southerners might have wanted to preserve slavery in their territory, but white Northerners were much more conflicted, with many opposing the ownership of enslaved people in the North even as they continued to benefit from investments in the slave trade and slave colonies. More importantly for Hannah-Jones’ argument, slavery in the Colonies faced no immediate threat from Great Britain, so colonists wouldn’t have needed to secede to protect it. It’s true that in 1772, the famous Somerset case ended slavery in England and Wales, but it had no impact on Britain’s Caribbean colonies, where the vast majority of black people enslaved by the British labored and died, or in the North American Colonies. It took 60 more years for the British government to finally end slavery in its Caribbean colonies, and when it happened, it was in part because a series of slave rebellions in the British Caribbean in the early 19th century made protecting slavery there an increasingly expensive proposition.
Far from being fought to preserve slavery, the Revolutionary War became a primary disrupter of slavery in the North American Colonies. Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation, a British military strategy designed to unsettle the Southern Colonies by inviting enslaved people to flee to British lines, propelled hundreds of enslaved people off plantations and turned some Southerners to the patriot side. It also led most of the 13 Colonies to arm and employ free and enslaved black people, with the promise of freedom to those who served in their armies. While neither side fully kept its promises, thousands of enslaved people were freed as a result of these policies.
This week from Politico Magazine
By Mark Ostow and David Giambusso
By Capricia Penavic Marshall
By Mary Ziegler and Robert L. Tsai
The ideals gaining force during the Revolutionary era also inspired Northern states from Vermont to Pennsylvania to pass laws gradually ending slavery. These laws did not prescribe full and immediate emancipation: They freed the children of enslaved mothers only after the children served their mothers’ enslavers through their early 20s. Nor did they promise racial equality or full citizenship for African Americans—far from it. But black activism during the Revolutionary War and this era of emancipation led to the end of slavery earlier than prescribed in such laws. Enslaved black people negotiated with their owners to purchase their freedom, or simply ran away in the confused aftermath of war. And most Northern enslavers freed slaves ahead of the time mandated by law.
Among Northern—and even some Southern—white people, the push to end slavery during this time was real. The new nation almost faltered over the degree to which the Constitution supported the institution. In the end, Northern Colonies conceded a number of points to the protection of slavery on the federal level, even as the Constitution also pledged to end the trans-Atlantic slave trade by 1807—all without once using the word “slave.” The degree to which the document was intended to provide for the protection or the destruction of slavery was hotly contested in the antebellum era. While Frederick Douglass may have seen the Constitution as an anti-slavery document, both radical abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and pro-slavery ideologue John C. Calhoun saw it as written to support slavery. Abraham Lincoln was unable to use the Constitution as written to end slavery, either during his time in Congress or after his election to the presidency. The argument was settled through the Civil War, and by rewriting the Constitution with the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments.
Frederick Douglass, right, may have seen the Constitution as an anti-slavery document, while fellow abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, left, saw it as written to support slavery. | National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture
The 1619 Project, in its claim that the Revolution was fought primarily to preserve slavery, doesn’t do justice to this history. Nor, however, does the five historians’ critical letter. In fact, the historians are just as misleading in simply asserting that Lincoln and Douglass agreed that the Constitution was a “glorious liberty document” without addressing how few other Americans agreed that the Constitution’s protections should be shared with African Americans. Gradual emancipation laws, as well as a range of state and local laws across the antebellum nation limiting black suffrage, property ownership, access to education and even residency in places like Ohio, Washington and California, together demonstrate that legally, the struggle for black equality almost always took a back seat to the oppressive imperatives of white supremacy. And racial violence against black people and against those few white people who supported ending slavery and supported black citizenship undergirded these inequalities—a pattern that continued well into the 20th century.
The five historians’ letter says it “applauds all efforts to address the enduring centrality of slavery and racism to our history.” The best-known of those letter-writers, however, built their careers on an older style of American history—one that largely ignored the new currents that had begun to bubble up among their contemporaries. By the time Gordon Wood and Sean Wilentz were publishing their first, highly acclaimed books on pre-Civil War America, in the early 1970s and mid-1980s, respectively, academic historians had begun, finally, to acknowledge African American history and slavery as a critical theme in American history. But Wood and Wilentz paid little attention to such matters in their first works on early America.
In Wood’s exhaustive and foundational The Creation of the American Republic (1969), which details the development of republican ideology in the new nation, there is only one index listing for “Negroes,” and none for slavery. In his first book, Chants Democratic (1984), Wilentz sought to explain how New York’s antebellum-era working class took up republican ideals, which had been used by some Founding Fathers to limit citizenship, and rewrote the tenets to include themselves as full-fledged citizens. Yet Wilentz’s work largely ignored issues of race and black workers, even though New York had the largest population of enslaved black people in the Colonial North, the second-largest population of free black people in the antebellum urban North, and was the site of the most violent race riots of the 19th century. As I wrote in my own 2003 book, Wilentz created “a white hegemony more powerful than that which existed” during the era he was studying.
In their subsequent works, Wilentz and Wood have continued to fall prey to the same either/or interpretation of the nation’s history: Either the nation is a radical instigator of freedom and liberty, or it is not. (The truth, obviously, is somewhere in between.) In The Radicalism of the American Revolution (1991), Wood acknowledges the new nation’s failure to end slavery, and even the brutality of some Founding Fathers who held people as property. But the facts of slave-owning are not presented as central to that time. While he discusses the Founders’ ability to eliminate other forms of hierarchy, Wood has no explanation for why they were unable to eliminate slavery nor does he discuss how or why Northern states did so. Further, black people as historical actors shaping the ideas and lives of the Founders have no place in his work.
Wilentz has struggled publicly over how to understand the centrality of slavery to the nation’s founding era. In a 2015 op-ed, and more fully in his 2018 book No Property in Man, he argues that the Constitutional Convention specifically kept support for slavery defined as “property in man” out of the Constitution, a key distinction that the Founders believed would eventually allow for ending slavery in the nation. Such an argument obscures the degree to which many Founding Fathers returned to a support of Southern slavery as the revolutionary fervor waned by the early 19th century, as only one example, Thomas Jefferson established the University of Virginia in part as a pro-slavery bulwark against Northern anti-slavery ideologies.
Fortunately, the works of Wood and Wilentz and others who underrepresent the centrality of slavery and African Americans to America’s history are only one strand of a vibrant scholarship on early America. Beginning in the last quarter of the 20th century, historians like Gary Nash, Ira Berlin and Alfred Young built on the earlier work of Carter G. Woodson, Benjamin Quarles, John Hope Franklin and others, writing histories of the Colonial and Revolutionary eras that included African Americans, slavery and race. A standout from this time is Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom, which addresses explicitly how the intertwined histories of Native American, African American and English residents of Virginia are foundational to understanding the ideas of freedom we still struggle with today. These works have much to teach us about history, and about how to study and present it in a way that is inclusive of our historical and present-day diversity as a nation. Just as importantly, these scholars and many others fostered new scholarship by mentoring a diverse group of thinkers within and beyond academia.
Polish-Muscovite War, 1609-1619 - History
A.) The Military Course of Events
In 1609 King Sigismund III. Vasa, claiming the Russian throne for himself, declared war on Russia. After a victory in the Battle of Kluskino 1610, the Poles occupied Moscow. The Russians offered the Russian crown to Sigismund's son Wladislaw (Ladislas) King Sigismund, claiming the crown for himself refused. Furthermore the Russian side insisted that the future Czar would have to convert to Orthodox Christianity and to reside in Moscow, conditions Sigismund was not willing to accept.
A Russian revolt in 1612 caused the Poles to withdraw from Moscow the war continued as a border conflict. In 1617 the TRUCE OF DEULINO was signed, according to which Poland held on to the previously Russian cities and districts of Smolensk, Chernigov and Severia and King Sigismund, de facto, recognized the new Romanov Dynasty in Moscow, practically renouncing his claim to the Russian throne.
The Russo-Polish War of 1609-1618 has to be seen in the context of the Swedish-Polish Rivalry. Sigismund had been elected King of Poland in 1587, had succeeded to the Swedish throne in 1592, was deposed in 1600, bur never gave up his claim to the Swedish throne. Poland and Sweden were at war - a war mostly fought in Livonia - 1600-1611 from 1611 to 1617 Sweden was at war with Russia. In fact, there were factions of Russian nobles siding with Sweden and Poland respectively, in a period of Russian history generally referred to as the "Time of Troubles".
EDITORIAL: The Project' is bad history fueled by bad motives
Every decade or so, a new revisionist fad will captivate some small — and invariably loud — subsect of American “historians.” It happened, most memorably, in the 1960s and s as the rise of Marxist professors swept through our universities. Slowly but surely the grift was seen for what it was — bad history based on bad motives. But a good deal of damage was done, as thousands of university students were indoctrinated to interpret American history as an ongoing drama of class conflict and nothing more. We see the effects of this education playing out today.
Well, the revisionists are at it again. Similar grift, similar bad history and similar bad motives. But this time it’s worse, the long-term effect more pernicious.
Earlier this month, Nikole Hannah-Jones of The New York Times was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for commentary “For a sweeping, provocative and personal essay for the ground-breaking 1619 Project, which seeks to place the enslavement of Africans at the center of America’s story, prompting public conversation about the nation’s founding and evolution.”
At the heart of Mrs. Hannah-Jones’ project is the explicit claim that the true history of America did not start in 1776, but in 1619, the year when the first slaves arrived to the colonies. Instead of taking our bearings from the eternal truths enshrined in the Declaration (“all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights”), she argues that slavery is the lens through which all of America’s successes and failures, every single thing that defines us, good and bad, must be understood.
Mrs. Hannah-Jones applies her argument to Revolution, claiming that the colonists fought for independence on the grounds that an America untethered from Britain would allow the institution of slavery to flourish. This assertion is so wrong, so factually inaccurate, that leading historians (Mrs. Hannah-Jones is a journalist) of both conservative and liberal persuasions, systematically went through her research and found no evidence supporting her contention. (They did, however, find a trove of historical inaccuracies and distortions.)
Now, Mrs. Hannah-Jones is an ideologue. The truth and falsity of her “Project” does not, one suspects, interest her (or The New York Times) in the least. She cares about making a political splash, self-aggrandizement and righting historical wrongs on her own terms. This is disgusting as it lamentable, and all the more so since the suffering and story of black Americans doubtless deserves to be told honestly and more loudly.
The Pulitzer Prize, like the Nobel Prize for Peace, is so obviously a tool of the dogmatic left that demanding objectivity or standards from their respective committees is futile. And in this respect, Mrs. Hannah-Jones was given an award by an organization that matches the seriousness of her endeavor. If this is where things stopped, we could easily ignore the 1619 Project.
But there are indications now that this dishonest “history” will now be taught in K-12 public schools, from Chicago to Washington, D.C. This means children, unable to discern fact from fiction, will be subjected to a politicized, false history of their country. It would be one thing if Mrs. Hannah-Jones, The New York Times and the Pulitzer committee were ignorant of what they were creating or supporting. But they are not, as evidenced by the fact that 1619 Project is still funded and lauded — irrespective of the devastating critiques it faced by real historians.
So, let’s call the 1619 Project and its use in our public schools what it is: An attempt to brainwash children into believing the historical narrative Mrs. Hannah-Jones and The New York Times want them to believe.
Neither party cares that the dissemination of their distortion of America’s story will lead, like the teachings of the Marxists of yesteryear, to the weakening of our shared social fabric. Neither party cares that elites telling mistruths about the trials African-Americans endured does this community a tremendous injustice. And neither party cares, ultimately, about the status of truth and falsehood, right and wrong, in the world.
Polish-Muscovite War, 1609-1619 - History
Wars between Poland, Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Teutonic Knights.
Polish-Muscovite War of Livonia interfered in Sweden, initially appearing as an ally of Moscow. 1568, after taking the throne by King Jan III Waza, who married Catherine Jagiellonka, Sweden became an ally of the Polish.
Sending “lisowczyks” (the irregular unit of Polish-Lithuanian light cavalry) by Sigismund III Vasa to Transylvania in order to make a diversion there (1619), Varna burned by the Cossacks (1620), and finally taken over by the Polish suzerainty over hospodar Moldovan G. Gratinim led to the outbreak of war with Turkey (1620-1621). In the first period of fighting the Turks defeated the captains and S. S. Zolkiewski Koniecpolski by Tutora. Effective defense of Polish troops in the camp Chocimski (1621) ended with the conclusion of peace, which was in force for half a century.
The Polish-Cossack-Tartar war broke out as a result of rivalry that emerged between the Republic and the Crimean Khanate in the Ukraine during the final years of the Polish-Russian War 1654-1667.
April 27, 1792 in St. Petersburg conspiracy was set. On May 14 it revealed itself as the Confederation.
War between Poland and Soviet Russia, Red Army began marching to Belarus and Lithuania
World War II began on September 1, 1939 - Poland came under the major attack of Germany. Later the Soviet Russia attacked Poland too. In Katyn twenty-one thousand Poles were shot. The war spread to the entire world. It ended on September 2, 1945.
Polish-Muscovite War, 1609-1619 - History
1577 to 1618 (links to map of Poland)
1577-1582 War with Muscovy
Batory now turned East, where Ivan IV (the terrible) had taken advantage of the Gdansk rebellion and invaded Livonia. By the autumn of 1577 he had captured most of it, except Riga and Rewel. Although Sweden assisted Poland in capturing Weden (October 1578) they would not agree to a formal alliance, preferring to await, and hopefully profit from, any outcome.
In 1579 Batory declared war and with 22,000 men targeted Polock for capture . His plan was to drive a wedge between Muscovy and Livonia. He reached Polock on the 11th of August and took it by the end of the month. Batory victoriously returned to Wilno having regained a region lost to Muscovy during the reign of Zygmunt August.
In 1580 larger forces were gathered (29,000), targeting Wielkie Luki, a strategic stronghold. A smaller diversionary force was sent to Smolensk, while the main army reached Wielkie Luki on 26th August, storming it on 4th September.
The following year Batory had to give up his plan to strike directly at Moscow due to the lack of allocated funds. Instead, with 31,000 men he marched on Pskov, a near impregnable fortress with a strong garrison. Initial successes were finally repulsed and the siege became a blockade. In the terrible winter of 1581-2 the army would have mutinied without the iron will of the Chancellor Zamojski. In 1582 Ivan surrendered the whole of Livonia and Polock in return for the lands occupied by Batory. He had lost some 300,000 men, with the Poles capturing 40,000. During the campaigns independent Polish detachments had roamed deep into enemy territory causing havoc and directly threatening the Tsar.
Stefan Batory, amongst the
greatest of Polish Kings,
dies in 1586.
1587-1588 War with Austria
In the next election there was a conflict between the rebellious Zborowski family and the powerful Chancellor Jan Zamojski. The Zborowski's attempted to take matters into their own hands and urged Archduke Maximillian to take the crown. In September 1587, together with an army, Maximillian entered Poland but was repulsed at Krakow by Zamojski. The following year in January the Chancellor, with 3,700 cavalry and 2,300 infantry, crushed the Austrian forces, of 2,600 cavalry, 2,900 infantry and 8 cannon, at Byczyna (24 January 1588) capturing the Archduke. He was not released until Austria abandoned all claims to the Polish throne.
Zygmunt (Sigismund) III Vasa is elected King
in 1587. Son of the Swedish king John III
and Catherine Jagiellonian.
In July 1589 Tartars invaded Lvov and Tarnopol, but were driven out and pursued by Cossack forces.
In 1593 Zygmunt III went to Stockholm in an attempt to gain his throne, in his absence the Cossacks stirred up the South by invading Turkish territory and Zamojski was compelled to march against the Crimean tartars and prevent Turkish retaliation.
1595-1600 Wars in Moldavia and Wallachia
In 1595 the Chancellor led a small army of 8,000 veterans into Moldavia, placing Jeremy Mohila, as Poland's vassal. When a combined Turkish-Tartar force attacked them at Cecora, Zamojski withstood a three day siege (17-20 October) and managed to obtain agreement from the Turks of the Treaty of Cecora, thereby recognising Mohila as Hospodar.
In 1596 King Zygmunt III transfers the Capital of Poland
from Krakow to Warsaw (Warszawa).
In 1599 Hospodar Michael of Wallachia drove out Hospodar Mohila and the following year Zamojski returned, marched into Wallachia and defeated Michael on 19th September 1600.
1600-1611 War with Sweden
In 1598 Zygmunt left for Sweden with 5,000 men, without official Polish assistance, but was defeated at Linkoping by his Uncle Charles of Sudermania. Charles made himself master of all Sweden and forced Finland to submit to his authority. In 1600 he led troops into Estonia which still recognised Zygmunt, and continued the war into Polish Livonia. So instead of the election of a Swedish king bringing the two countries closer it led to war, which was to last, intermittently, for sixty years.
In 1601 and 1602 after initial successes the Swedes were driven from most of Livonia. Radziwill achieved a decisive victory over greater enemy forces at Kokenhausen (24th June 1601). Though Zygmunt continued his claims for the Swedish Crown, he did not provide any assistance in the form of troops. In the 1604 campaign Chodkiewicz's outnumbered forces comprehensively defeated the Swedes at Bialy Kamien (25 September 1604). In 1605, after difficulties at home, Charles resumed the war in Livonia. The weak Polish-Lithuanian forces under Chodkiewicz achieved a startling victory on at Kircholm, (27 September 1605) totally destroying the three times larger enemy. Significant advantage could not be taken by the unpaid Polish forces and when rebellion against Zygmunt appeared in Poland Charles was able to return to Livonia and regain many strongholds. The Swedish had also learnt from their past experiences and they avoided battle, remaining in towns and castles. However returning Polish forces were still able to regain much of what had been lost and the conflict dissipated with both participants' attention being turned to the turmoil in Muscovy.
1606-1607 Zebrzydowski Rebellion.
A large number of nobles revolted against the King Zygmunt III Vasa, a Swede, who they felt concerned himself too much with regaining his Swedish throne. The nobles took to arms but were defeated by a heavily outnumbered Royal army led by the two loyal Hetman's Zolkiewski and Chodkiewicz at Guzow (6 July 1607).
1610-1619 War with Muscovy
After the death of Ivan the Terrible Muscovy was in turmoil with the arrival of various false Demetrius'. Significant numbers of Polish adventurers were recruited by the second false Demetrius. However the Commonwealth did not involve itself until Prince Vasili Szujski became Tsar. It was Szujski who in the 1606 coup instigated the massacre of 500 Poles in Moscow, he also signed an alliance with Sweden in February 1609 and 5,000 Swedish troops joined the Muscovite army. This was a threat that Poland could not ignore and Hetman Zolkiewski left with 13,000 troops intending to march directly on Moscow. He was however overruled by Zygmunt who wanted to besiege the powerful fortress at Smolensk. A combined 30-40,000 Muscovite-Swedish army was sent to relieve Smolensk, but they were decisively defeated by Zolkiewski's 5,000 force at Kluszyn (Klushino) (4th July 1610) and Szujski was removed by a court rebellion and the Poles moved to Moscow unopposed.
Zolkiewski entered Moscow and his conciliatory attitude enabled Zygmunt's son Wladyslaw to be elected Tsar. However Zygmunt did not feel bound by Zolkiewski's agreements with Moscow and Zolkiewski returned to Poland in October 1610 leaving a garrison in Moscow. The view of the Muscovites turned against the foreign intruders and in March 1611 they attacked the garrison and burned three quarters of the city, forcing the Poles to take refuge in the Kremlin where they endured a nineteen month siege. In June 1611 Smolensk capitulated to the Poles. But Zygmunt's poorly organised relief of the Moscow garrison failed to reach them and they were starved into surrender. The overall campaign was a failure, though the Smolensk and Seversk regions, lost since the 16th century, were regained.
On returning to Poland Zygmunt found in disorder, with thousands of unpaid and undisciplined soldiers roaming and pillaging the lands, while his military operations were heavily criticised. In 1613 the New Tsar Michael Romanov sent forces to regain Smolensk, while Zaporozhian Cossacks, withdrawn from the adventures in Muscovy, raided the Ottoman territories causing protestation from the Turks of Poland's lack of control of them.
Conflict with Turkey
In 1615 powerful Polish Magnates attempted to install their candidate in Moldavia. Their initial success caused the Ottomans to stir, sending an force to meet the private army of the magnates. After defeating them they approached Poland but met an entrenched Polish army of Zolkiewski at Busza. Neither side wanted war and previous agreements were reaffirmed in 1617.
Continuation of Conflict with Muscovy
Once peace was confirmed with Turkey, Wladyslaw invaded Russia in an attempt to regain his Tsardom, but he achieved nothing. In January 1619 the treaty of Deulina was concluded which left Smolensk, Siewiersk and Czernihow to Poland.
The Misguided Focus on 1619 as the Beginning of Slavery in the U.S. Damages Our Understanding of American History
In 1619, . and odd Negroes” arrived off the coast of Virginia, where they were “bought for victualle” by labor-hungry English colonists. The story of these captive Africans has set the stage for countless scholars and teachers interested in telling the story of slavery in English North America. Unfortunately, 1619 is not the best place to begin a meaningful inquiry into the history of African peoples in America. Certainly, there is a story to be told that begins in 1619, but it is neither well-suited to help us understand slavery as an institution nor to help us better grasp the complicated place of African peoples in the early modern Atlantic world. For too long, the focus on 1619 has led the general public and scholars alike to ignore more important issues and, worse, to silently accept unquestioned assumptions that continue to impact us in remarkably consequential ways. As a historical signifier, 1619 may be more insidious than instructive.
The overstated significance of 1619—still a common fixture in American history curriculum—begins with the questions most of us reflexively ask when we consider the first documented arrival of a handful of people from Africa in a place that would one day become the United States of America. First, what was the status of the newly arrived African men and women? Were they slaves? Servants? Something else? And, second, as Winthrop Jordan wondered in the preface to his 1968 classic, White Over Black, what did the white inhabitants of Virginia think when these dark-skinned people were rowed ashore and traded for provisions? Were they shocked? Were they frightened? Did they notice these people were black? If so, did they care?
In truth, these questions fail to approach the subject of Africans in America in a historically responsible way. None of these queries conceive of the newly-arrived Africans as actors in their own right. These questions also assume that the arrival of these people was an exceptional historical moment, and they reflect the worries and concerns of the world we inhabit rather than shedding useful light on the unique challenges of life in the early seventeenth century.
There are important historical correctives to the misplaced marker of 1619 that can help us ask better questions about the past. Most obviously, 1619 was not the first time Africans could be found in an English Atlantic colony, and it certainly wasn’t the first time people of African descent made their mark and imposed their will on the land that would someday be part of the United States. As early as May 1616, blacks from the West Indies were already at work in Bermuda providing expert knowledge about the cultivation of tobacco. There is also suggestive evidence that scores of Africans plundered from the Spanish were aboard a fleet under the command of Sir Francis Drake when he arrived at Roanoke Island in 1586. In 1526, enslaved Africans were part of a Spanish expedition to establish an outpost on the North American coast in present-day South Carolina. Those Africans launched a rebellion in November of that year and effectively destroyed the Spanish settlers’ ability to sustain the settlement, which they abandoned a year later. Nearly 100 years before Jamestown, African actors enabled American colonies to survive, and they were equally able to destroy European colonial ventures.
These stories highlight additional problems with exaggerating the importance of 1619. Privileging that date and the Chesapeake region effectively erases the memory of many more African peoples than it memorializes. The “from-this-point-forward” and “in-this-place” narrative arc silences the memory of the more than 500,000 African men, women, and children who had already crossed the Atlantic against their will, aided and abetted Europeans in their endeavors, provided expertise and guidance in a range of enterprises, suffered, died, and – most importantly – endured. That Sir John Hawkins was behind four slave-trading expeditions during the 1560s suggests the degree to which England may have been more invested in African slavery than we typically recall. Tens of thousands of English men and women had meaningful contact with African peoples throughout the Atlantic world before Jamestown. In this light, the events of 1619 were a bit more yawn-inducing than we typically allow.
Telling the story of 1619 as an “English” story also ignores the entirely transnational nature of the early modern Atlantic world and the way competing European powers collectively facilitated racial slavery even as they disagreed about and fought over almost everything else. From the early 1500s forward, the Portuguese, Spanish, English, French, Dutch and others fought to control the resources of the emerging transatlantic world and worked together to facilitate the dislocation of the indigenous peoples of Africa and the Americas. As historian John Thornton has shown us, the African men and women who appeared almost as if by chance in Virginia in 1619 were there because of a chain of events involving Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands and England. Virginia was part of the story, but it was a blip on the radar screen.
These concerns about making too much of 1619 are likely familiar to some readers. But they may not even be the biggest problem with overemphasizing this one very specific moment in time. The worst aspect of overemphasizing 1619 may be the way it has shaped the black experience of living in America since that time. As we near the 400th anniversary of 1619 and new works appear that are timed to remember the “firstness” of the arrival of a few African men and women in Virginia, it is important to remember that historical framing shapes historical meaning. How we choose to characterize the past has important consequences for how we think about today and what we can imagine for tomorrow.
In that light, the most poisonous consequence of raising the curtain with 1619 is that it casually normalizes white Christian Europeans as historical constants and makes African actors little more than dependent variables in the effort to understand what it means to be American. Elevating 1619 has the unintended consequence of cementing in our minds that those very same Europeans who lived quite precipitously and very much on death’s doorstep on the wisp of America were, in fact, already home. But, of course, they were not. Europeans were the outsiders. Selective memory has conditioned us to employ terms like settlers and colonists when we would be better served by thinking of the English as invaders or occupiers. In 1619, Virginia was still Tsenacommacah, Europeans were the non-native species, and the English were the illegal aliens. Uncertainty was still very much the order of the day.
When we make the mistake of fixing this place in time as inherently or inevitably English, we prepare the ground for the assumption that the United States already existed in embryonic fashion. When we allow that idea to go unchallenged, we silently condone the notion that this place is, and always has been, white, Christian, and European.
Where does that leave Africans and people of African descent? Unfortunately, the same insidious logic of 1619 that reinforces the illusion of white permanence necessitates that blacks can only be, ipso facto, abnormal, impermanent, and only tolerable to the degree that they adapt themselves to someone else’s fictional universe. Remembering 1619 may be a way of accessing the memory and dignifying the early presence of black people in the place that would become the United States, but it also imprints in our minds, our national narratives, and our history books that blacks are not from these parts. When we elevate the events of 1619, we establish the conditions for people of African descent to remain, forever, strangers in a strange land.
It doesn’t have to be this way. We shouldn’t ignore that something worth remembering happened in 1619. There are certainly stories worth telling and lives worth remembering, but history is also an exercise in crafting narratives that give voice to the past in order to engage with the present. The year 1619 might seem long ago for people more attuned to the politics of life in the 21st century. But if we can do a better job of situating the foundational story of black history and the history of slavery in North America in its proper context, then perhaps we can articulate an American history that doesn’t essentialize notions of “us” and “them” (in the broadest possible and various understandings of those words). That would be a pretty good first step, and it would make it much easier to sink our teeth into the rich and varied issues that continue to roil the world today.
This story was originally published on Black Perspectives, an online platform for public scholarship on global black thought, history and culture.