A Historian Pushback on the 1619 Project and the NYT Responds

The August 18, 2019 cover of The New York Times Magazine. Cover by Dannielle Bowman

I’ve previously highlighted the 1619 Project and some of the criticisms laid against it. The four historians from that original criticism [Professors Gordon Wood, Victoria Bynum, James Oakes, and James McPherson] and Professor Sean Wilentz of Princeton University have signed a joint letter to the New York Times detailing their objections to the project. The Times will publish the letter and their response in print on December 29, 2019.

The letter starts, “We write as historians to express our strong reservations about important aspects of The 1619 Project. The project is intended to offer a new version of American history in which slavery and white supremacy become the dominant organizing themes.” Continuing, they say, “We applaud all efforts to address the enduring centrality of slavery and racism to our history. Some of us have devoted our entire professional lives to those efforts, and all of us have worked hard to advance them. Raising profound, unsettling questions about slavery and the nation’s past and present, as The 1619 Project does, is a praiseworthy and urgent public service. Nevertheless, we are dismayed at some of the factual errors in the project and the closed process behind it.”

Elaborating, they write, “These errors, which concern major events, cannot be described as interpretation or ‘framing.’ They are matters of verifiable fact, which are the foundation of both honest scholarship and honest journalism. They suggest a displacement of historical understanding by ideology. Dismissal of objections on racial grounds — that they are the objections of only ‘white historians’ — has affirmed that displacement.”

At this point they begin to establish their case, beginning with the assertion I earlier identified as the weakest part of the project’s case, the claim that, “one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery.” The historians write, “On the American Revolution, pivotal to any account of our history, the project asserts that the founders declared the colonies’ independence of Britain ‘in order to ensure slavery would continue.’ This is not true. If supportable, the allegation would be astounding — yet every statement offered by the project to validate it is false. Some of the other material in the project is distorted, including the claim that ‘for the most part,’ black Americans have fought their freedom struggles ‘alone.’ ” In my view, the historians here are right. I’ve seen no evidence that supports the sweeping claim regarding the Revolution. None is given in the projects essays. In the response to the historians, editor-in-chief Jake Silverstein writes, “We can hardly claim to have studied the Revolutionary period as long as some of the signatories, nor do we presume to tell them anything they don’t already know, but I think it would be useful for readers to hear why we believe that Hannah-Jones’s claim that ‘one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery’ is grounded in the historical record. The work of various historians, among them David Waldstreicher and Alfred W. and Ruth G. Blumrosen, supports the contention that uneasiness among slaveholders in the colonies about growing antislavery sentiment in Britain and increasing imperial regulation helped motivate the Revolution. One main episode that these and other historians refer to is the landmark 1772 decision of the British high court in Somerset v. Stewart. The case concerned a British customs agent named Charles Stewart who bought an enslaved man named Somerset and took him to England, where he briefly escaped. Stewart captured Somerset and planned to sell him and ship him to Jamaica, only for the chief justice, Lord Mansfield, to declare this unlawful, because chattel slavery was not supported by English common law. It is true, as Professor Wilentz has noted elsewhere, that the Somerset decision did not legally threaten slavery in the colonies, but the ruling caused a sensation nonetheless. Numerous colonial newspapers covered it and warned of the tyranny it represented. Multiple historians have pointed out that in part because of the Somerset case, slavery joined other issues in helping to gradually drive apart the patriots and their colonial governments. The British often tried to undermine the patriots by mocking their hypocrisy in fighting for liberty while keeping Africans in bondage, and colonial officials repeatedly encouraged enslaved people to seek freedom by fleeing to British lines. For their part, large numbers of the enslaved came to see the struggle as one between freedom and continued subjugation. As Waldstreicher writes, ‘The black-British alliance decisively pushed planters in these [Southern] states toward independence.’ The culmination of this was the Dunmore Proclamation, issued in late 1775 by the colonial governor of Virginia, which offered freedom to any enslaved person who fled his plantation and joined the British Army. A member of South Carolina’s delegation to the Continental Congress wrote that this act did more to sever the ties between Britain and its colonies ‘than any other expedient which could possibly have been thought of.’ The historian Jill Lepore writes in her recent book, ‘These Truths: A History of the United States,’ ‘Not the taxes and the tea, not the shots at Lexington and Concord, not the siege of Boston; rather, it was this act, Dunmore’s offer of freedom to slaves, that tipped the scales in favor of American independence.’ And yet how many contemporary Americans have ever even heard of it? Enslaved people at the time certainly knew about it. During the Revolution, thousands sought freedom by taking refuge with British forces.”

Mr. Silverstein’s reference to the Blumrosens refers to their deeply flawed book, Slave Nation. I reviewed that book here. I’ve seen no quotes from colonists that they were rebelling because of the Somerset decision. Mr. Silverstein also, in my opinion, takes Professor Lepore’s words out of context. She very clearly points out the Quakers were emancipating their slaves and the shooting part of the Revolution began on April 19, 1775, well before Dunmore’s proclamation. She clearly tells us the Continental Army was established in June with George Washington placed as its commander, again well before Dunmore’s proclamation. She clearly tells us slaves had been rebelling and running away from plantations for decades prior to Dunmore’s proclamation. Dunmore’s proclamation was intended as a military measure, not as any signal that the British were going to abolish slavery in the colonies. No one has made the case that the colonists thought Dunmore’s proclamation meant the end of slavery in Colonial America. Dunmore was the royal governor of only one colony, Virginia. No other royal governor took steps against slavery. Professor Lepore does quote Edward Rutledge of South Carolina as saying the proclamation did “more effectually work an eternal separation between Great Britain and the Colonies–than any other expedient which could possibly have been thought of.” This is the strongest evidence I’ve seen to this point, but we have to remember the Revolution had already started. If the proclamation pushed some fence-sitters off the fence, that doesn’t back up the sweeping claim Ms. Hannah-Jones made in her essay. Plus, that is just one person making a claim. Where is the corroboration? Add to that the fact that Mr. Silverstein left out what Professor Lepore wrote just after the quoted sentence: “Not that it ever tipped them definitively. The reference to David Waldstreicher refers to his book, Slavery’s Constitution: From Revolution to Ratification. Professor Waldstreicher does say this pushed wealthy planters toward independence, but he was talking about Virginia, North Carolina, and possibly South Carolina only. Also, it seems to me the case he makes is still weak with regard to evidence presented to bolster it. He quotes William Hooper, a North Carolina delegate to the Continental Congress as saying, “our Negroes are to be armed against us.” That, of course, is a military measure. Military emancipations of enemy slaves in wartime had a long history dating back to ancient times, so this would be no surprise and nothing out of the ordinary. Ending the rebellion would have eliminated that possibility.

The historians also take on the view of Lincoln. Ms. Hannah-Jones wrote, “Like many white Americans, he opposed slavery as a cruel system at odds with American ideals, but he also opposed black equality. He believed that free black people were a ‘troublesome presence’ incompatible with a democracy intended only for white people. ‘Free them, and make them politically and socially our equals?’ he had said four years earlier. ‘My own feelings will not admit of this; and if mine would, we well know that those of the great mass of white people will not.’ ” The historians write, “The project criticizes Abraham Lincoln’s views on racial equality but ignores his conviction that the Declaration of Independence proclaimed universal equality, for blacks as well as whites, a view he upheld repeatedly against powerful white supremacists who opposed him. The project also ignores Lincoln’s agreement with Frederick Douglass that the Constitution was, in Douglass’s words, ‘a GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT.’ Instead, the project asserts that the United States was founded on racial slavery, an argument rejected by a majority of abolitionists and proclaimed by champions of slavery like John C. Calhoun.” Here I think the historians err a bit. Lincoln’s use of the Declaration of Independence was for the equal right to enjoy the fruits of one’s labor, not political rights. Ms. Hannah-Jones was speaking of Lincoln’s views before the war and during the first half of the war, while the historians’ use of Frederick Douglass refers to Lincoln in the last half of the war.

In his response, Mr. Silverstein writes, “As for the question of Lincoln’s attitudes on black equality, the letter writers imply that Hannah-Jones was unfairly harsh toward our 16th president. Admittedly, in an essay that covered several centuries and ranged from the personal to the historical, she did not set out to explore in full his continually shifting ideas about abolition and the rights of black Americans. But she provides an important historical lesson by simply reminding the public, which tends to view Lincoln as a saint, that for much of his career, he believed that a necessary prerequisite for freedom would be a plan to encourage the four million formerly enslaved people to leave the country. To be sure, at the end of his life, Lincoln’s racial outlook had evolved considerably in the direction of real equality. Yet the story of abolition becomes more complicated, and more instructive, when readers understand that even the Great Emancipator was ambivalent about full black citizenship. The letter writers also protest that Hannah-Jones, and the project’s authors more broadly, ignore Lincoln’s admiration, which he shared with Frederick Douglass, for the commitment to liberty espoused in the Constitution. This seems to me a more general point of dispute. The writers believe that the Revolution and the Constitution provided the framework for the eventual abolition of slavery and for the equality of black Americans, and that our project insufficiently credits both the founders and 19th-century Republican leaders like Lincoln, Thaddeus Stevens, Charles Sumner and others for their contributions toward achieving these goals.” I’m glad Mr. Silverstein acknowledged how Lincoln’s racial views evolved, but the we have to acknowledge Lincoln’s views, even before the second half of the war, were nuanced. You have to read Lincoln very carefully because he was very careful in his choice of words and in his phrasing. See here and here.

The historians conclude their letter, “The 1619 Project has not been presented as the views of individual writers — views that in some cases, as on the supposed direct connections between slavery and modern corporate practices, have so far failed to establish any empirical veracity or reliability and have been seriously challenged by other historians. Instead, the project is offered as an authoritative account that bears the imprimatur and credibility of The New York Times. Those connected with the project have assured the public that its materials were shaped by a panel of historians and have been scrupulously fact-checked. Yet the process remains opaque. The names of only some of the historians involved have been released, and the extent of their involvement as ‘consultants’ and fact checkers remains vague. The selective transparency deepens our concern. We ask that The Times, according to its own high standards of accuracy and truth, issue prominent corrections of all the errors and distortions presented in The 1619 Project. We also ask for the removal of these mistakes from any materials destined for use in schools, as well as in all further publications, including books bearing the name of The New York Times. We ask finally that The Times reveal fully the process through which the historical materials were and continue to be assembled, checked and authenticated.” In his response Mr. Silverstein wrote, “Though we respect the work of the signatories, appreciate that they are motivated by scholarly concern and applaud the efforts they have made in their own writings to illuminate the nation’s past, we disagree with their claim that our project contains significant factual errors and is driven by ideology rather than historical understanding. While we welcome criticism, we don’t believe that the request for corrections to The 1619 Project is warranted. The project was intended to address the marginalization of African-American history in the telling of our national story and examine the legacy of slavery in contemporary American life. We are not ourselves historians, it is true. We are journalists, trained to look at current events and situations and ask the question: Why is this the way it is? In the case of the persistent racism and inequality that plague this country, the answer to that question led us inexorably into the past — and not just for this project. The project’s creator, Nikole Hannah-Jones, a staff writer at the magazine, has consistently used history to inform her journalism, primarily in her work on educational segregation (work for which she has been recognized with numerous honors, including a MacArthur Fellowship). Though we may not be historians, we take seriously the responsibility of accurately presenting history to readers of The New York Times. The letter writers express concern about a ‘closed process’ and an opaque ‘panel of historians,’ so I’d like to make clear the steps we took. We did not assemble a formal panel for this project. Instead, during the early stages of development, we consulted with numerous scholars of African-American history and related fields, in a group meeting at The Times as well as in a series of individual conversations. (Five of those who initially consulted with us — Mehrsa Baradaran of the University of California, Irvine; Matthew Desmond and Kevin M. Kruse, both of Princeton University; and Tiya Miles and Khalil G. Muhammad, both of Harvard University — went on to publish articles in the issue.) After those consultations, writers conducted their own research, reading widely, examining primary documents and artifacts and interviewing historians. Finally, during the fact-checking process, our researchers carefully reviewed all the articles in the issue with subject-area experts. This is no different from what we do on any article. As the five letter writers well know, there are often debates, even among subject-area experts, about how to see the past. Historical understanding is not fixed; it is constantly being adjusted by new scholarship and new voices. Within the world of academic history, differing views exist, if not over what precisely happened, then about why it happened, who made it happen, how to interpret the motivations of historical actors and what it all means.” It seems to me the letter writers have a point that the experts consulted might not actually be experts in Lincoln or in the Revolutionary War. However, I think Mr. Silverstein also has a point that the Times did its due diligence in seeking out experts to fact-check their articles. I think the assertion about the Revolution needs to be corrected. At the very best it’s an overly broad statement. It certainly doesn’t apply to Black Patriots, nor does it apply to Patriots who were also antislavery. It may possibly apply to some planters in southern colonies, but that still overstates their influence. The claim goes far beyond what the evidence suggests. Regarding Lincoln, I think the claim can be tweaked to take into account the nuance of Lincoln’s position as well as his evolving views.

Entering the 1619 Project fray is another distinguished historian, Professor Allen C. Guelzo, late of Gettysburg College and currently at Princeton University. In this article, he writes, “There is one sense in which the 1619 Project’s attempt to rewrite U.S. history in the image of slavery is right: America’s founding was like nothing else seen in the history of human societies. But not because of slavery. Instead, it was because the American republic modeled itself on the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century by trying to find a natural order in human politics, rather than fall back upon the artificial and irrational hierarchies that governed how the ancients had understood both the physical and political universes. Our Declaration of Independence stated as a self-evident truth of nature that ‘all men are created equal’; our Constitution prohibited all titles of nobility and required virtually all offices to be matters of public election rather than inheritance or class. The American republic would be a theater of those who, like Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, could be ‘self-made men,’ and the solutions to the problems of their day would be generated by a host of voluntary associations, working from the bottom up, rather than through government, from the top down.” He continues, “The temptation has always existed to slide back into the comfortable abyss of hierarchy, whether it be the racial hierarchy of slaveholders in the Civil War or the newer hierarchies of bureaucracy and socialism. It is that temptation to backsliding which the 1619 Project wants to insist is the real story; but this is like taking the stage crew out from behind the curtain and insisting that they’re the real musical.”

Regarding slavery, Professor Guelzo writes, “The American republic inherited slavery from the British empire, in much the same way that it inherited its fiscal poverty, its lack of manufacturing capability, and its primitive infrastructure. We expected to overcome all of these in time. And we would have dealt the same way with slavery, too. At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Gouverneur Morris attacked slavery wholesale as ‘a nefarious institution’ which had ‘the curse of heaven . . . where it prevailed.’ But the expectation of the Founders was that slavery was a dying institution. So, the Convention turned a blind eye to slavery, even as it insisted that turning that blind eye was not meant, as James Madison said, ‘to admit in the Constitution the idea that there could be property in men.’ They were, of course, wrong. The explosion of Britain’s Industrial Revolution, built on the production of cotton textiles and the invention of the cotton gin, turned slave-based cotton agriculture into a roaring inferno of profitability. Profitability first erased shame and then stimulated angry self-justifications; and instead of painlessly winking out, slavery had to be exterminated by the force of civil war before it could strangle the life of the republic itself. Even then, we botched the eradication of slavery’s racial legacy through a badly designed Reconstruction. We have paid the price for that ever since.”

Professor Guelzo then gets to his specific criticisms of the 1619 Project. “This is not, however, the story told by the so-called 1619 Project. Designed largely by journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones and members of the New York Times editorial staff, the 1619 Project aspires—through essays, poems, and short fiction—to rewrite entirely the narrative of American slavery, not as an unwilling inheritance of British colonialism but as the love-object of American capitalism from its very origins. It reviews slavery not as a blemish that the Founders grudgingly tolerated with the understanding that it must soon evaporate, but as the prize that the Constitution went out of its way to secure and protect. The Times presents slavery not as a regrettable chapter in the distant past, but as the living, breathing pattern upon which all American social life is based, world without end. The 1619 Project is not history: it is polemic, born in the imaginations of those whose primary target is capitalism itself and who hope to tarnish capitalism by associating it with slavery. Slavery made cotton profitable; but profitability is not capitalism. Profit-seeking has been around since Abraham bought the cave at Machpelah in the book of Genesis. If profitability were capitalism, then the Soviet Union’s highly profitable sales of natural gas and other commodities would surely make it one of the great success stories of capitalism – which, of course, it was not. Ask any worthwhile Marxist: capitalism is about the creation of class, and especially the bourgeoisie. And one thing the South never developed was a bourgeoisie. Which is why no single American, North or South, before 1861 ever imagined that slavery and capitalism were anything but mortal enemies. The proslavery apologist, George Fitzhugh, frankly declared that slavery was a form, not of capitalism, but feudal socialism; the antislavery president, Abraham Lincoln, explained the war on slavery as a war on behalf of free labor. The 1619 Project commits, moreover, the Supply Chain Fallacy—that slavery was necessary for capitalism and as a result inhabits every level of capitalism’s subsequent development. This is the same reasoning that suggests that if a scientist receives a grant from the National Science Foundation for research, the result of the research is a production of the government. As economic historian Deirdre McCloskey comments, ‘It’s a legal way of thinking, not economic.’ And not much in the way of historical thinking, either. Again: the 1619 Project is not history; it is conspiracy theory. And like all conspiracy theories, the 1619 Project announces with a eureka! that it has acquired the explanation to everything, and thus gives an aggrieved audience a sense that finally it is in control, through its understanding of the real cause of its unhappiness. But historians—and most journalists—know that human experience is multivalent, contingent, and contradictory. And it bodes ill for the 1619 Project that while conspiracy theories arouse tidal waves of attention in their first unveiling, they also—like the Grassy Knoll or the Blood Libel—wear out quickly, because their ability to explain everything usually ends up explaining nothing. And again: the 1619 Project is not history; it is ignorance. It claims that the American Revolution was staged to protect slavery, though it never once occurs to the Project to ask, in that case, why the British West Indies (which had a far larger and infinitely more malignant slave system than the 13 American colonies) never joined us in that revolution. It claims that the Constitution’s three-fifths clause was designed by the Founders as the keystone that would keep the slave states in power, though the 1619 Project seems not to have noticed that at the time of the Constitutional Convention, all of the states were slave states (save only Massachusetts), so that the three-fifths clause could not have been intended to confer such a mysterious power on slavery unless the Founders had come to the Convention equipped with crystal balls. It behaves as though the Civil War never happened, that the slaves somehow freed themselves, and that a white president never put weapons into the hands of black men and bid them kill rebels who had taken up arms in defense of bondage. The 1619 Project forgets, in other words, that there was an 1863 Project, and that its name was emancipation. Finally: the 1619 Project is not history; it is evangelism, but evangelism for a gospel of disenchantment whose ultimate purpose is the hollowing out of the meaning of freedom, so that every defense of freedom drops nervously from the hands of people who have been made too ashamed to defend it. No nation can live without a history, and no free nation can flourish without a history that affirms—in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words in 1856—’that the evil eye can wither, that the heart’s blessing can heal; that love can exalt talent’ and ‘overcome all odds.’ What the 1619 Project offers instead is bitterness, fragility, and intellectual corruption—not history.”

Professor Guelzo concludes his article with, “It is the bitterest of ironies that the 1619 Project dispenses this malediction from the chair of ultimate cultural privilege in America, because in no human society has an enslaved people suddenly found itself vaulted into positions of such privilege, and with the consent—even the approbation—of those who were once the enslavers. The 156 years since emancipation are less than a second on human history’s long clock, so that such a transformation is more in the nature of a miracle to be celebrated than a failure to be deplored for any seeming slowness. It is a miracle Frederick Douglass celebrated; it is a miracle Sergeant William Carney celebrated on the ramparts of Fort Wagner; it is a miracle Dorie Miller and the Tuskegee Airmen celebrated; and it is a miracle Colin Powell and Ben Carson have celebrated. Why not the 1619 Project?” I think Professor Guelzo made some good points, but his conclusion is a bit off. I don’t think African Americans enjoy as much privilege, even today, as he seems to imply. Race relations have come a long way, but there’s also a long way still to go.

6 comments

  1. Shoshana Bee · · Reply

    The 1619 Project was an enormous, courageous undertaking. Why? Within its content is enough material to keep a legion of historians of specific fields VERY busy. For instance, this comment:

    “Admittedly, in an essay that covered several centuries and ranged from the personal to the historical, she did not set out to explore in full his [Lincoln] continually shifting ideas about abolition and the rights of black Americans”

    The pitfall of trying to abridge the history/evolution of Lincoln,is to not understand what made the man so unique: his ever-changing views. Neo-confederate trolls do this on purpose: extract passages from Lincoln out of context/timeline and state it as a final view. Lincoln of 1859 was not the same Lincoln who wrote the Emancipation Proclamation, etc. To address Lincoln within the context of an even bigger story — slavery — is quite a large chunk to bite off.

    Much like when I see ANYTHING topping the headlines regarding Native Americans, I feel a sense of protectiveness towards projects involving people of color (and the authors who have chosen to give the long-neglected people their story/history). I am definitely not the person who would be best-suited to critique the 1619 Project, but I am very appreciative of those who have undertaken this task in a respectful, insightful, and positive manner. Thank you for being one of those people, Albert.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Shoshana. Overall, I like the project, but there are areas where it can be better.

  2. […] arguments made by the five historians as well as a critique of “1619” by Allen Guelzo. You can find his long post on this here. You can read Guelzo’s latest critique of the Times’s series […]

  3. Thanks for this overview, Al.

  4. Pat Young · · Reply

    Thanks for the synopsis Al. Honestly, it is hard for me to agree with Guelzo on this. I am not sure why he sees Colin Powell and Ben Carson as arbiters on this.

    I generally appreciated the 1619 series, but I share some of the concerns of the historians about its accuracy. Some of the conclusions outran the evidence.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Pat. He’s not making Powell and Carson arbiters. He’s saying that in comparison with the timeline of human history 156 years is a very short time, and if we view it that way, it’s a miracle African Americans have moved from just being freed from slavery to being at the heights of our government. Powell and Carson held and hold very high positions as cabinet secretaries.

      I agree completely that some conclusions outran the evidence, especially the claim that protection of slavery was a primary reason for the American Revolution.

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