Are the 1619 Project’s Defenders its Worst Enemies?

While most of the critiques of the 1619 Project have been ideological in nature, with right-wing pundits attacking the project with little substance, there have been some substantial critiques. In earlier posts I highlighted critiques from historians that took on project assertions with substance. In most instances, the response from the defenders to these substantive critiques has been juvenile ad hominem attacks, making them look bad and making it look as though the project can’t be defended on its merits. Here’s an example from Twitter:

The latest essay comes from the historian Phillip Magness. In this article he fact-checks both the project and its historian critics. He says, “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.” The first item he considers is Ms. Hannah-Jones’s contention, “one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery.” As noted in my last post, Ms. Hannah-Jones has since backed off a small bit from this extreme position, but still defends the idea that protection of slavery was a major factor in the Revolution. Dr. Magness writes, “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.” The case for the Somerset ruling causing support for the Revolution is flimsy, to say the least. It’s based on the fact that several colonists denounced the ruling. But thus far no one that I’ve seen has been able to show a single case of a colonist saying fear of losing slaves was a reason for participating in the Revolution. The case for the Dunmore proclamation causing colonists to support the rebellion is also weak. It only affected slaves of rebels who were able and willing to fight for the British. A loyalist had no reason to fear losing slaves as a result of this.

Dr. Magness continues, “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.” I agree with this.

Additionally, I checked the primary sources in this book:

Even where there is criticism of Dunmore’s proclamation, there is no mention of supporting the Revolution because of it. There’s no mention of the Somerset decision at all.

After discussing how there were loyalists who had a stake in maintaining slavery and didn’t join the Revolution, Dr. Magness writes, “Curiously enough, a British victory in the American Revolution would have almost certainly delayed the politics of this process [emancipation in British colonies] 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.” In his verdict of this factor, Dr. Magness says, “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.”

His next point is framed a small bit as a straw man. He asks, “Was Abraham Lincoln a racial colonizationist or exaggerated egalitarian?” I don’t know of any historians who say Lincoln was an egalitarian. He says Ms. 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.” It’s true Lincoln didn’t support equal rights at first, but this ignores the fact that his position evolved so by late 1864 and early 1865 he was advocating for limited suffrage for black men. Regarding the historian critics, he writes, “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.”

Dr. Magness is one who argues Lincoln supported colonization to his dying day. He next discusses this aspect. “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 20th 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).”

Most discussions of colonization identify it as a racist scheme to rid the United States of African Americans. Many neoconfederates accuse Lincoln of this, but Dr. Magness does not. He says, “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.” In his verdict on this part he writes, “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.” I’m not so sure about that, though I think this portion of her essay is much stronger than her assertion about the Revolution, and as Dr. Magness shows, there can be documentary evidence to support it.

He next looks at the claim that slavery drove the development of capitalism in the United States. He writes, “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 19th 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.” His verdict on this is, “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.”

The final issue he considers is the consultation process the Times used. “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.” Are these scholars sufficient? Dr. Magness writes, “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 20th 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.” In his verdict here, he writes, “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 20th century and present day – areas that are more clearly within the scholarly competencies of the named consultants.”

This appears to me to be a sober evaluation of the project and the criticism from the five historians. It provides substantive input and addresses the historical points forthrightly. However, the project’s defenders have not responded in kind, at least that I’ve seen. An emblematic example is a historian who, in my opinion, should know better. Professor Kevin Gannon responded to this article on Twitter. You can read it here. Let’s take a look at his 28-part response.

This is a gross misstatement, in my view. Magness very clearly identifies which historians he’s writing about, and he’s doing what historians do by evaluating the arguments. Professor Gannon claims the article isn’t objective, but he doesn’t give any evidence of its lack of objectivity. Magness responded.

Professor Gannon next writes:

Okay, so Professor Gannon tells us we need to look into 1779, four years after the Revolution began, three years after the thirteen colonies unanimously voted to approve the Declaration of Independence, to see how deep South colonists were motivated to join the rebellion they had already joined when they approved the Declaration of Independence. Fine. Where are the quotes from these colonists? Also, wouldn’t Dunmore’s proclamation only affect Virginia, since he was the royal governor of that colony and not other southern colonies? I can see where other southern colonists would be apprehensive, but if we look at the wording of that proclamation we see it’s very conservative, affecting only slaves of rebels, not loyalists, and only those slaves who would join the fight against the rebels. Let’s see the evidence.

Here Professor Gannon claims Magess simply dismisses the NHC argument by simply dismissing Magness’s supporting evidence because two articles were published by National Review and Reason. He doesn’t take on any of the arguments in those articles. The NR article is written by Magness himself and goes into specific criticisms of the NHC, and the Reason article is written by Professor Deirdre McCloskey, an emerita professor of economics, history, English, and communications at the University of Chicago. She appears to have had a very distinguished career and it seems to me should be taken seriously. Professor Gannon, though, simply looks at the publication and ignores what’s written in it. He says, “This is like citing Hayek to ‘disprove’ Marx.” Well, perhaps Hayek has some good points to make to disprove Marx.

Here, at least, he claims to have read the article. However, he says the fundamental difference is that of definition, when Professor Clegg wrote, “The problem is not that they lack the ‘correct’ definition of capitalism. The problem is that by dodging the problem of definition altogether they fail to provide a coherent account of capitalist slavery. One doesn’t need to believe in such a thing as ‘pure’ capitalism in order to recognize that modern capitalist societies have certain core features in common. Nor does one have to be a structuralist to see that capitalism lends itself to systematic analysis. Yet these authors fail to explain how the various features of the antebellum economy that they identify form part of a coherent capitalist system.” He also says, “one cannot attribute the high rates of productivity growth on plantations to profit motives alone. Profit seeking is as old as trade itself, but continuous and generalized productivity growth is unique to capitalist societies.” He takes on specific claims the NHC scholars make, such as Professor Baptist’s claim that slave mortality was “exceptionally high” due to torture. He writes, “Still, it must be recognized that neither demographic evidence nor slave testimony support the claim that torturing or starving slaves to death was typical of plantation life. As far as we can tell adult slaves had similar mortality rates to Southern whites.” Professor Gannon appears to be misstating Professor Clegg’s points in his essay.

Yet, as the articles Dr. Magness linked show, Professor Beckert’s book has been criticized outside the NHC fold. A number of controversial books win prizes, so I’m not so sure winning the Bancroft Prize proves acceptance. Professor Gannon claims Magness wants to dismiss the entire 1619 Project, but I don’t see him doing that at all. This looks to me to be a gross mischaracterization. He once again dismisses the first two articles simply because of where they were published. Additionally, Professor Gannon dismisses, without engaging, the two additional articles by Dr. Magness he linked.

Professor Magness responds to this as well.

How is this not correct? He continues.

Here is the link Dr. Magness has in his tweet. Unfortunately, taking pot shots is all Professor Gannon does in his thread.

So where is the evidence Professor Desmond has established expertise in the history of slavery and capitalism? Simply asserting he has expertise is nice, but hardly persuasive. His use of “ZOMG” is, to quote the “Urban Dictionary,” “sarcastic” and “more often than not … humiliating.” He also employs the term “gatekeeping,” which has been employed by other primarily younger historians to attack the five historians who wrote the letter to the Times. Thus Dr. Magness and the five historians are dismissed because, it’s claimed, they’re merely trying to cut off access to the public by those with whom they disagree. That’s not an engagement with the argument. Professor Desmond is a sociologist, so I fail to see why Professor Gannon is so exercised that Dr. Magness identified him as a sociologist.

Dr. Gannon again mischaracterizes what Magness did. There was no bashing of sociologists in the essay. He again claims Magness is trying to dismiss the entire 1619 Project, which is not evident from the essay. His use of sarcasm here might make him feel good, but it’s hardly a persuasive argument.

Here he compares the resistance to the NHC to the Dunning School of Reconstruction history, a racist viewpoint that has been discredited. He then does what he accuses Magness of doing–claiming the opposition is merely a fringe group. If it’s wrong for Magness, why isn’t it wrong for Gannon?

Again we have sarcasm and mischaracterization being substituted for evidence and argument.

This is more of the same. The “welter of scholarship and fact-checkers,” for the most part, have not been identified. So which of those were actual experts in the Revolution and the Civil War? We don’t know. As Dr. Magness pointed out, none of the identified scholars who were consulted are experts in those time periods. He also says there’s little to no controversy about the areas of the project in which the identified scholars have expertise. Indeed, he seems to have no problem at all with those sections. But Dr. Gannon would like us to believe he wants to invalidate the entire project. Additionally, he claims none of the five historians have studied the slave experience. Perhaps he forgets Professor McPherson was actually a scholar of African American history, meaning he studied the slave experience. Again he simply dismisses the critics as a bunch of old folks who are out of step with scholarship. He doesn’t take on any of the arguments. He puts great stock in the fact that no other historians signed their letter, but as I showed in my previous post, many of those who didn’t sign didn’t do so because they weren’t comfortable with the tone of the letter, not because they disagreed with the criticisms.

He ends the thread having only engaged in ad hominem, sarcasm, mischaracterization, and snark and doesn’t engage at all with the substance of Dr. Magness’s essay, nor does he deal with any of the substance of the letter from the five historians. This is how defenders of the project have dealt with the critics. For me, what that does is reinforce the earlier claims of right-wing critics who claimed the project is merely an ideological exercise. For the record, I don’t think it is. I think there may be some ideology associated with it, but I think also there is some solid research behind most of it. The five historians have identified weaknesses in the project that, in my opinion, should be addressed on the merits and should be corrected. That only makes the project stronger. But the attitude of the defenders is defensiveness, and that creates the impression that there’s no substance and that the project is all ideology. That’s a huge mistake. Dr. Gannon can marshal an argument with good sources. He hasn’t done so at this point, to defend the 1619 Project. Is that because it can’t be done? The question has to be asked, and has to be answered. Where is the substantive defense of the project? The lack of it shows the five historians have correctly identified weaknesses. Attacking Magness and the five historians doesn’t make the project any stronger. It makes it look weaker.

Not content with what he’s done so far, Dr. Gannon seemingly can’t resist another ad hominem attack on Dr. Magness.

We are never told why Dr. Magness’s views on a barely tangentially related subject disqualify him from evaluating evidence provided on slavery and capitalism. This is another case of ad hominem. In another Twitter exchange, Dr. Gannon criticized Dr. Magness for saying the only tool Dr. Gannon has is ad hominem by saying he needed to get a new phrase since that one was worn out. If it’s worn out, it seems to me it’s worn out because of all the ad hominem Dr. Gannon and the other defenders of the project have used. Dr. Magness has highlighted the NHC proponents’s fast resort to ad hominem in another article. “This crowd often flees from substantive engagement over disputed scholarly claims, but they’ll attack an interlocutor’s race, gender, or age in a heartbeat.”

Scholars are better than this. Let’s take the discussion to a substantive level and get away from the ad hominem. Let’s stop mischaracterizing the arguments of others. Let’s focus on the meat. Up to now the people defending the project have been its worst enemies, making it seem as though the project is indefensible on the merits.




  1. Shoshana Bee · · Reply

    “Scholars are better than this. Let’s take the discussion to a substantive level and get away from the ad hominem. Let’s stop mischaracterizing the arguments of others. Let’s focus on the meat.”

    Amen: Let us focus on the meat

    This discussion of the 1619 Project is getting very personal and tedious as it drifts further and further from the facts. We are now in second and third tier calls and responses to other calls and responses to the original Project, yet very little substance is being yielded.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Shoshana. I appreciate your taking the time to comment. One good thing is Dr. Magness was nice enough to link to some interesting critiques of the NHC.

  2. Dan Weinfeld · · Reply

    I feel like this dispute over 1619 is simply another skirmish in the long battle over who is entitled to speak as an “historian.” We are familiar with this tension in the Civil War world where enthusiastic “amateurs” (who are often accomplished in another field, like law, medicine or journalism) are often equal to academic historians in knowledge, popularity and influence. By handing over the 1619 project to journalists (with a veneer of academic cover) , the NYT has implicitly challenged the “authority” of current, eminent academic historians to frame American history generally (not merely sub-components, like military history or presidential biographies). We see this challenge to authority made explicit in the twitter exchanges. This upheaval is only a problem for the sub-culture of those who worship at the altar of the sanctity of the “paper of record.” This subculture, however, includes academic historians and their peers who must be frustrated that the NYT has subverted their authority in the very subjects in which they are experts.

    1. Thanks for the comment. I appreciate it. I understand where you’re coming from, but I don’t think this illustrates that point. There are academic historians on both sides of this controversy. The “gatekeeper” argument is used by the defenders as a strawman. The five historians who wrote the letter are talking about specific points, and they question whether actual subject matter experts reviewed the material regarding those specific points. Ms. Hannah-Jones’s essay went into areas well beyond those points, yet there hasn’t been controversy over them among historians. That’s because the reviewers who looked at her essay prior to publication were subject matter experts in those areas and could have corrected any erroneous claims.

  3. Mike Musick · · Reply

    Al: Many thanks for your exceptionally thoughtful and nuanced presentation of this controversy. Just the sort of thing I’ve come to expect on this blog!

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Mike. Three more historians have entered the fray, so another post will be coming along in the not-too-distant future.

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