A New Founding Narrative: African Influences in the Creation of America

David Hackett Fischer explores the diverse African traditions that shaped American institutions and history.

By Duncan R. Jamieson

African Founders: How Enslaved People Expanded American Ideals, by David Hackett Fischer. Simon & Schuster, 2022. 960p, 9781982145095 $40.00, 9781982145118

Book cover of African Founders

In African Founders, David Hackett Fischer (emer., Brandeis Univ.) reexamines the significance of both free and enslaved Blacks in the founding and development of the United States, conveying the central role they played in establishing the country as a “more perfect union.” Americans have traditionally acknowledged the talents and abilities that different European ethnic groups contributed to the thirteen colonies, later the United States, when they voluntarily came here. However, Americans often totally ignore the existence of the distinct African ethnic groups within American society and how they came, involuntarily, to these shores, either directly from various locations along the West African coast or following a sojourn in the Caribbean. If American exceptionalism denotes the nation’s strength and resilience, then African Americans deserve equal credit, which this text aims to communicate. This is overall a success story for the individuals highlighted in the many fascinating mini biographies Fischer presents, for all the Black Americans whose impact remains anonymous, and for the nation they helped create. It is especially important today to reclaim and celebrate their contributions, rather than continue to minimize them, as racism, which has been a part of Western society for millennia, seems to be more virulent and divisive than ever. Indeed, Fischer’s research confirms that “[a] universal law has often operated through much of American history. When race slavery, or other systems of racial inequality declined, racism tended to increase, and new forms of racial violence were quick to follow” (p. 87).

Fischer’s study fits within the larger literature on American slavery. In White Over Black (1968), for example, Winthrop Jordan explored how in the sixteenth century, the English and Anglo-Americans attached positive connotations to the word white—e.g., cleanliness, goodness, purity—which they ascribed to themselves, and attached negative connotations to the word black—e.g., dirty, darkness, evil—which they ascribed to Africans, furthering the justifications for their enslavement. Another seminal study of slavery’s impact on the United States is Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told (CH, Apr’15, 52-4387), which argues that slavery was a major component of American capitalism’s foundation rather than a premodern institution. A third example is The 1619 Project (CH, May’22, 59-2690), a new origin story compiled by Nikole Hannah-Jones, which places slavery at the center of American history. All three add to readers’ understanding of Africans’ place and role in the New World, but African Founders is a much broader examination of their positive contributions to American society.

The nineteenth-century American historian Francis Parkman laid out three rules for historical research and writing: “go there,” “do it,” and “write it.” With this in mind, Fischer spent a month in West Africa in 1997, accompanied by his wife, Judith, to study the people and their cultures along with the historical sites tied to the slave trade. As he writes, the trip, though brief, “made a profound difference in [their] thinking about Africa” (p. 9). That it took twenty-five years from the time Fischer visited West Africa until the publication of African Founders testifies to the effort and energy that went into this book. 

Another indication is the mini biography that details the life of Kofi (sometimes referred to as Coffe) Slocum. Born around 1717, he was an enslaved Asante, bought and sold several times, who ended up in New England and managed to buy his freedom and become a successful farmer respected by his white neighbors. Slocum learned to read and write, and fortunately his papers remain in the New Bedford, Massachusetts, library where Fischer was able to reconstruct his life. Relating to Slocum’s history, Fischer also explores the relationship between Asante and Fante ethics in conjunction with those of the Puritans and Quakers in New England, a connection that “broadened the reach of their ethical beliefs” (p. 34). 

Fischer theorizes that the colonies and the United States have always been a biracial society, bringing to the fore Black people’s positive contributions. Clearly, their work as enslaved laborers built and strengthened the American economy, but more than that, they added immeasurably to the nation’s cultural and intellectual fabric.

This is the first of multiple short biographies in the book that explore in granular detail the lives of Black people, both enslaved and free, known and unknown, and their relationships with whites in American society. Fischer theorizes that the colonies and the United States have always been a biracial society, bringing to the fore Black people’s positive contributions. Clearly, their work as enslaved laborers built and strengthened the American economy, but more than that, they added immeasurably to the nation’s cultural and intellectual fabric. Without undermining the dedication and contributions of the Founders who wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, African Founders adds greater depth to this origin story. Additional lenses for consideration include housing, languages, arts and crafts, folklore, religion, dress, music, speech, and funeral traditions. As the author details, Africans and African Americans combined with Europeans and European Americans to create a uniquely American culture and history.

As taught today in both secondary and collegiate courses, standard American history often suggests to students that slaves labored only in the colonies and states of the Old South, eleven of which attempted to leave the Union when Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860, thus beginning the Civil War. Though there might be a mention of slavery existing in each of the original thirteen colonies, the subject is quickly shunted aside to focus on the Old South of the nineteenth century. African Founders provides a much broader view. 

The book is organized into three sections—“Northern Regions,” “Southern Regions,” and “Frontier Regions.” Each is further divided into separate geographic areas to examine how slavery functioned in, for example, the Hudson Valley, Coastal Carolina, Georgia and Florida, and the Western Frontier. This creates an accessible approach to the topic for class discussions, although given the time constraints imposed on the classroom, it is easier to include a relatively small block of time to discuss slavery as it existed below the Mason Dixon Line.

To provide a broader and more inclusive view, Fischer explores how the institution manifested in different regions. Though it was brutal in Puritan and Quaker New England, some slaveholders at least acknowledged the enslaved as human beings and treated them with some semblance of care and dignity. Among many other Puritans, the leading theologian of his day, Jonathan Edwards, owned slaves, as did the Quaker William Penn, although they insisted that owners treat their slaves with kindness and resist abuse. 

Fischer, a waterman born in Baltimore, Maryland—which might explain the focus of chapter 8, “Maritime Frontiers”—is a renowned historian who has written eleven books, most focusing on the early period of American history. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 2005 for Washington’s Crossing (CH, Oct’04, 42-1131), alongside multiple other awards for both writing and teaching. As a Whig historian, i.e., one who interprets history as a progression, he has insisted in his works that ideas, above everything else, drove the Revolutionary movement; see, for example, Albion’s Seed (CH, Mar’90, 27-4067) in which he contends that people who moved from Great Britain brought ideas that formed the political culture of the United States. Fischer is also a narrative historian, i.e., an author who provides an engaging chronological story to explore the subject at hand. These two approaches converge in African Founders.

The Civil War has always been front and center in American history. Following the end of Reconstruction, the Compromise of 1877 saw those dedicated to Redemption and the so-called Lost Cause imposing Jim Crow (de jure) segregation in the South, denying the people freed from slavery the rights guaranteed by the Reconstruction Amendments to the Constitution. In the North, de facto segregation created a similar restraint on Black people but without the force of law. As a result, historians and the general public across the nation minimized the contributions and accomplishments of those brought to these shores in chains. 

Using a wide variety of primary and secondary sources, Fischer brings to light his subtitle—“How Enslaved People Expanded American Ideals”—and puts to rest the popular idea that slavery was supposedly a Southern institution.

Although it has roots in the earlier twentieth century, following the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, a more nuanced understanding of slavery and African American history developed, culminating at this point in African Founders. Using a wide variety of primary and secondary sources, Fischer brings to light his subtitle—“How Enslaved People Expanded American Ideals”—and puts to rest the popular idea that slavery was supposedly a Southern institutionIt thrived throughout the American colonies and the United States; nowhere was exempt from the horrors of the institution, and though it lasted longer in the South, catalyzing the Civil War, some of the worst abuses took place in the northern colonies of New York and Massachusetts.

Geographically and culturally distinct, the “burden of bondage in the Chesapeake states tended to be more heavy than in any comparable region” (p. 285). Yet, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and Booker T. Washington overcame the violence and oppression there to remember and take pride in their upbringings in Maryland and Virginia. Some of Michelle Obama’s forebears were Gullah slaves in coastal Carolina, a heritage she was taught to remember “with pride” (p. 455). As First Lady, when “asked about her ancestry, she said that in many ways life in America was a journey with others, and ‘an important message in this journey is that we are all linked … through our histories of growth and survival in this country’” (p. 455). African Founders confirms her faith in the United States.

Summing Up: Highly recommended. All readers.
Interdisciplinary Subjects: African and African American Studies, Racial Justice
Subject: Social & Behavioral Sciences – History, Geography & Area Studies – North America

Duncan R. Jamieson is professor of history at Ashland University. He has a PhD in American intellectual history from Michigan State University.