Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 27, 2019

WSWS, Sean Wilentz, and the Star Spangled Banner

Filed under: racism — louisproyect @ 12:47 am

Francis Scott Key, who composed the Star Spangled Banner, owned slaves. He was a close political ally of fellow slave-owner Andrew Jackson, an icon of democracy according to Sean Wilentz

Without question, this assault on the NY Times Project 1619 is being co-led by WSWS contributor Tom Mackaman and Princeton professor Sean Wilentz. There’s some fancy footwork going on with Mackaman working with the professors who signed Wilentz’s open letter attacking the project and Wilentz lining up support among those who share his liberal Democratic Party politics. Even though it is a united front between the sectarian lunatics of the Socialist Equality Party and the Princeton don who is a close friend of the Clintons and hates any politician to their left, the WSWS is shrewd enough not to solicit an interview with Wilentz since that would give away their sordid game.

In my previous post on this controversy, I referred to Wilentz’s recently published “No Property in Man: Slavery and Antislavery at the Nation’s Founding”. This book is consistent with the contents of the open letter that is so upset about Nikole Hannah-Jones’s saying that racism is in the USA’s DNA. That formulation is not that different from the universally acclaimed observation from H. Rap Brown that violence is as American as apple pie. Maybe, if these white professors grew up in the same circumstances as Hannah-Jones’s father, they’d understand her anger:

My dad was born into a family of sharecroppers on a white plantation in Greenwood, Miss., where black people bent over cotton from can’t-see-in-the-morning to can’t-see-at-night, just as their enslaved ancestors had done not long before. The Mississippi of my dad’s youth was an apartheid state that subjugated its near-majority black population through breathtaking acts of violence.

Wilentz, by contrast, was the son of the man who owned the highly successful 8th Street Bookstore that thrived in the days before Barnes and Noble and then Amazon. Growing up in such privilege, he probably can’t quite see things from the same perspective as someone who grew up picking cotton.

The older Wilentz became, the more he adopted the inside-the-beltway attitudes of Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and other historians who saw American presidents as being a lamp onto the feet of backward peoples. Like Schlesinger, who wrote a flattering portrait of Andrew Jackson, Wilentz came up with his own adoring biography in 2005 that was torn apart in the New Left Review by Tom Mertes. (Contact me for a copy of the paywalled article.) Mertes had these choice words for the WSWS’s co-thinker, who made excuses for Jackson’s genocidal attacks on American Indians in the same way he made excuses for Bill Clinton’s war in Yugoslavia:

Far greater exertions are required to burnish Jackson’s bid to construct a Herrenvolk republic free of Indians. Here Wilentz’s contortions are truly exemplary. His Jackson is a ‘sincere if unsentimental paternalist’, who simply wished for the good of the indigenous peoples, killing them only when ‘provoked’—though he lets slip a few pages earlier that he was a ‘fire-eating hater of unyielding Indians’. Yielding Indians were those who agreed to ‘voluntary’ removal from their ancestral lands, for their own protection, to ‘safe havens’ (Kurdistans for the 19th century?), so rescuing them from the ‘obliteration’ that would otherwise have befallen them. If these operations did not go quite as ‘smoothly and benevolently as Jackson had expected’, this was an unfortunate outcome he had in no way intended.

As it happens, one other African-American besides Nikole Hannah-Jones got the reputation of being a “racialist” not too long ago. I am referring to Colin Kaepernick who took a knee for the Star Spangled Banner, an act that “divided the working class”, no doubt.

There’s a tie-in to Andrew Jackson here as well as this article points out. In a neglected verse in the national anthem, it celebrates the killing of slaves who had fought alongside the British in exchange for their freedom:

Kindly put, Key was a nation-builder who lost luster later in life. Perhaps his association with the fierce Jackson turned his character unkind, darker and harder. Like many upper-crust slave owners, including James Madison, Key claimed to favor colonization, shipping free blacks to Africa.

It’s worth looking at Key in better days. At St. John’s College in Annapolis, he played lots of schoolboy pranks. Good-looking and confident, he had a gift for scribbling verse, which he put to good use at age 35, in the crepuscular light of day.

“The Star-Spangled Banner” hails the huge battle flag flying over Fort McHenry after dawn broke and smoke cleared above Baltimore’s waters after a night of British naval bombardment. Key witnessed the scene from a neutral vessel and composed his patriotic poem in the rush of victory that very morning. A sensation, it swept the streets, sung to the tune of an English drinking song.

Pride was palpable. Baltimore saved the early republic after the British army sacked Washington. Madison fled the empty capital, riding ahead of the redcoats, who feasted in the White House before setting fire to it. Baltimore blocked the British advance up the Eastern Seaboard, and the bard bottled the moment. The song was named the national anthem more than 100 years later. If only that were the happy end of the tale. From the third verse of “The Star-Spangled Banner”:

No refuge could save the hireling & slave/

From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave:/

And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave/

O’er the land of the free & the home of the brave.

This verse is hardly ever sung these days, but there it is.

Whatever side you’re on, we all need to know the roots of “The Star-Spangled Banner” run deep in slavery’s soil. How deep is seldom told.

Lawyer-poet Key, born to massive slaveholding wealth in Maryland, was one of the richest men in America. He liked it that way.

As he grew older and darker, Key sought to buttress slavery, known as our own “peculiar institution.” He did just that, past his last breath. The U.S. Supreme Court, which he helped shape, stood strongly for slavery. So beside the anthem, his political legacy as a critical political player in upholding slavery is devastating.

In his 50s, Key became an adviser to President Andrew Jackson, who was also a wealthy self-made Southern slaveholder.

At the same time, Key was named by Jackson as the U.S. district attorney for the nation’s capital, where he prosecuted race and slavery laws to the fullest extent, even to the death penalty. He also aggressively prosecuted early abolitionists, who had founded the anti-slavery movement in 1833.

Key often whispered in the ear of Jackson, the plantation owner in the White House. When he wasn’t shouting, Jackson listened. Jackson’s presidency brought brutal, racially motivated mob violence like never before, including a race riot in Washington, D.C. Jackson had no sympathy for mobs, but even less for slaves and free blacks.

Then came the worst cut of all: Key prevailed on Jackson to name Key’s own brother-in-law, Roger Taney, to the Cabinet and then to the ultimate prize: chief justice of the United States.

To be tied to the infamous Taney is a serious stain on Key’s rosy reputation. Like Key, Taney was a native of Maryland, a state steeped in slavery, where Frederick Douglass was born. Taney and Key were friends before Roger met and married Key’s sister. That’s how small the antebellum South was for wealthy white men.

Roundly hated north of the Mason-Dixon line, Taney lived long enough to author the 1857 Dred Scott Supreme Court opinion, the most starkly racist high court decision in history. Taney struck down the argument that free blacks could become citizens in free states like Illinois and further declared that all blacks, whether slave or free, were never entitled to any rights, period.

The Dred Scott ruling landed as a public outrage. Historians consider it a catalyst for the Civil War, which broke out four years later. Taney swore in Abraham Lincoln as president in 1861, a face-to-face breaking point between the nation’s past and future.

Is racism part of America’s DNA? That so many people could be outraged by Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to kneel while the anthem is being sung suggests it is.


  1. An excellent takedown for the ages and I hope it ruminates with Wilentz until his miserable end. I hope it will ring a bell in the heads of the kooks running WSWS too but that’s like getting a Republican to vote for impeaching the Orange Caligula.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — December 27, 2019 @ 1:52 am

  2. Jeez…Of course racism is built into the DNA of this fucking country. That’s so obviously true and how could any sane person not see that. The USA is a racist, white supremacist police state and always has been. Anyone who says that this is the land of the free, is my enemy.

    Comment by Otto Carnage — December 27, 2019 @ 2:39 am

  3. Wilentz is an example of how whiteness and American exceptionalism are inextricably intertwined. They are bound together like the shallow roots of redwood trees. People like Wilentz can’t acknowledge the horrors of US history without losing their sense of racial and cultural superiority. They aren’t nearly as far removed from Trump as they think they are.

    Comment by Richard Estes — December 27, 2019 @ 2:49 am

  4. Excelsior Louis! Bravo!

    Comment by stew312856 — December 27, 2019 @ 3:04 am

  5. Another bravo from me, Louis. An excellent, heartfelt essay, brimming with the anger we should all feel about this country’s sordid past. And to think that a black professor, Adolph Reed, was also interviewed on the WSWS website, spouting out the same kind of nonsense as Wilentz and company. Reed is a smart guy, but he has gotten progressively worse the older he gets. Like Wilentz. Meanwhile, institutional racism and its attendant personal racism continue unabated. But we must unify the class and not bring in extraneous issues! As too many in the DSA and Jacobin tell us we must. You would think these people would ask, how is this going for us. Racism and the virulent nationalism that goes along with it must be attacked head-on if there is to be any hope of building a radical movement worthy of the name. And this is true for the UK as well.

    Comment by Michael D Yates — December 27, 2019 @ 5:16 pm

  6. Adolph Reed clearly is grinding an axe against the ghost of Cedric Robinson and desires to launch a personal crusade against the ideas in Black Marxism, probably owing to issues far too complicated and personal to merit discussion here. Regardless, the amount of time and vitriol he exudes is clearly indicative of a much more symptomatic matter.

    Comment by stew312856 — December 27, 2019 @ 5:27 pm

  7. Wilentz’s personal attitudes are irrelevant to whether the criticisms of historical errors in the 1619 Project are valid or not. He may well be a huge racist asshole, but the mistakes (or deliberate deception) of the NYT will remain valid targets of criticism, regardless.

    As far as I can tell the 1619 Project is largely an elaborate exercise in virtue signaling, channeling a Ta-Nehisi Coates-style narrative of resignation and powerlessness. ‘Racism is just baked into America, it doesn’t come from anywhere or have a basis that can be challenged. Some people are just racist because they’re racist.’

    Bemusing to watch ‘The Unrepentant Marxist™ run flak for a narrative that attempts to detach racism from a foundation in political economy. Nikole Hannah-Jones’s own family history involves sharecropping, so in other words the bigotry was inextricable from an economic motivation.

    Also, there’s something quite hilarious about the spectacle of Louis Proyect calling anyone else a ‘sectarian lunatic’.

    Comment by Benjamin — January 3, 2020 @ 7:42 pm

  8. Bemusing to watch ‘The Unrepentant Marxist™ run flak for a narrative that attempts to detach racism from a foundation in political economy.

    You don’t understand what the word bemusing means. Don’t try to write above your pay grade next time.

    Comment by louisproyect — January 4, 2020 @ 3:51 am

  9. That’s all you’ve got in response?

    And yes, I do in fact know what it means, and am using it correctly. It is puzzling to watch a self-professed Marxist try to isolate racism from its economic roots. Is there such a thing as the opposite of Vulgar Marxism?

    Comment by Benjamin — January 4, 2020 @ 4:13 am

  10. What we see here is liberalism versus socialism.

    Socialism, materialism, understands that racism was created to justify slavery. Slavery came first, then racism.

    The American revolution, recognized as such by Marx, Lenin and Trotsky all, was not fought because a bunch of white people wanted a place where blacks could be held down.

    Identity politics is wholly reactionary. Race doesn’t exist. It was made up. Study biology. Then socialism.


    Comment by Chas — January 6, 2020 @ 8:58 am

  11. The American revolution, recognized as such by Marx, Lenin and Trotsky all, was not fought because a bunch of white people wanted a place where blacks could be held down.


    You forgot to mention Sean Wilentz, the most profound ally of the WSWS who is best friends with the Clintons and who wrote a fawning biography of the slave-owner and Indian-killer Andrew Jackson.

    Comment by louisproyect — January 6, 2020 @ 1:36 pm

  12. Yes, Wilentz is a pretty ugly piece of work.

    Now, are his claims of historical inaccuracies in the 1619 Project valid, or not?

    Comment by Benjamin — January 7, 2020 @ 12:22 am

  13. And John Bolton agrees with you that the Syrian regime needs to go…. and the American far right was also against the war in Iraq… and the Sparticist League is also against union busting… so?

    Comment by Chas — January 7, 2020 @ 5:26 am

  14. Chas, feel free to expound on your point. This is not Twitter, after all. Unless, your goal is just to throw stupid spitballs.

    Comment by louisproyect — January 7, 2020 @ 12:42 pm

  15. The point is obvious. An argument isn’t rendered invalid just because an undesirable person supports it.

    The WSWS and the associated historians are correct in this case, and the NYT is wrong, no matter what Sean thinks.

    Comment by Chas — January 9, 2020 @ 11:29 am

  16. I have personally done my own scholarship as a Marxian filmmaker on this topic and WDWS is simply wrong, wed to a Gilded Age progressive historical narrative a la Charles and Mary Beard that went out of vogue decades ago.

    Comment by stew312856 — January 9, 2020 @ 12:27 pm

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