More on the 1619 Project Controversy

A sign commemorating the arrival of the first Africans is displayed at Chesapeake Bay, in Hampton, Virginia, U.S., August 24, 2019. REUTERS/Michael A. McCoy – RC189ADF5CF0

The Oxford historian Richard Carwardine has weighed in on the 1619 Project. He says of the project, “this is a tendentious and partial reading of American history.” He expands on it, “Of course, the economic well-being of the United States and the colonies that preceded it was constructed for over two-and-a-half centuries on the labor and sufferings of slaves; of course, like all entrenched wielders of power, the white political elite resisted efforts to yield up its privileges. But the idea that the 1619 Project’s lead essay is a rounded history of America—with relations between the races so stark and unyielding—I find quite shocking. I am troubled that this is designed to make its way into classrooms as the true story of the United States, because, as I say, it is so partial. It is also wrong in some fundamentals.” He continues, “the idea that the central, fundamental story of the United States is one of white racism and that black protest and rejection of white superiority has been the essential, indispensable driving force for change—which I take to be the central message of that lead essay—seems to me to be a preposterous and one-dimensional reading of the American past.” The interviewer asks, “Let me ask you about the treatment of Abraham Lincoln. Nikole Hannah-Jones homes in on two episodes: the meeting on colonization with leading African-Americans in 1862, and the well-known quote from the Lincoln-Stephen Douglas debates in which Lincoln disavows social equality for blacks. Could you comment on these two episodes, their presentation by the New York Times, or situate them in the evolution of Lincoln’s thinking as regards race and slavery?” Professor Carwardine responds, “There is indeed an evolution, but first I’ll make two broad points. One is that context is all. Illinois was in 1858 one of the most race-conscious states of the Union. Alexis de Tocqueville concluded that white hostility towards blacks was strongest in the northwestern states. The black laws of Illinois were amongst the fiercest in the country. Lincoln knew that he could not be elected if he were seen as a racial egalitarian. I’m not suggesting he was a racial egalitarian, but we should take into account the political context that prompted his clearly defensive statements, at Ottawa and Charleston, that he was not seeking black political and social equality. Those statements of his are very few in number, grudging, and at times, I think, even satirical—as when he says that blacks are not ‘equal… in color.’ When Lincoln addressed the issue of slavery in his speeches from 1854 to 1860, he was on strong ground: slavery was widely disliked and the prospect of its spread was unwelcome to his political audience. But on the issue of race the Republicans were vulnerable. Their call for an ultimate end to slavery had to explain the consequence for black-white relations, and that of course made Lincoln extremely vulnerable to Stephen Douglas’s racism, and his assault on Lincoln as the ‘lover of the black’—though he would have used a worse epithet, wouldn’t he? So, in reality, Lincoln could only win an election in 1858 by making some concessions to the prevailing racial antipathies of whites. These two statements have understandably, and reasonably, attracted attention. They demonstrate that Lincoln, to secure a Republican victory that would advance the antislavery cause, fell short both of what blacks aspired to and of what the small minority of white racial egalitarians endorsed. It seems to me that what’s really striking, however, is what Lincoln positively demands for blacks at this time. He embraces them within the Declaration of Independence’s proposition that all men are created equal. By ‘all men’ he means regardless of color, and that’s where he gets into a tussle with Douglas. Douglas insisted the Declaration of Independence was never intended to apply to black people, and of course, Lincoln is emphatic that it does. So for me it’s what Lincoln claims for black people that is striking, and not what he says he will deny them. With the August 1862 episode, again context is important. It’s a very striking meeting and it’s not Lincoln’s finest hour. Both Nicolay and Hay, his secretaries, said that they thought that Lincoln was at his most emotionally on edge and mentally fraught in the summer of 1862 when the Peninsular campaign had ended in failure, when he had determined on the Emancipation Proclamation but was waiting for a military victory to bring it forward, and when there was increasing clamor for emancipation. Both secretaries said that they had never known Lincoln as nervy as he was then. The point I’m making here is that at that time Lincoln was under even greater human strain than ever. He knew he was on the brink of taking the most dramatic, even revolutionary, action of any president. He’s nervous. He can’t see what all the consequences will be, but he knows the consequences of not issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. It will leave the Confederacy with the whip hand. That startling episode of Lincoln’s discussions with the five African-Americans—the first blacks invited into the White House as equals—should be placed in this context. Buffeted from all sides during one of the Union’s lowest points of the war, Lincoln lost the good humor that commonly lubricated his meetings with visitors. His message to them about the causes of the war, and the advantages of colonization and racial separation, has to be seen also in the context of the daunting prospective challenge of embracing four million former slaves fully into the American polity.”

A souvenir from the Lincoln-Douglas debates [From the article]

I think Professor Carwardine makes an excellent point. We have to look at the context surrounding each of these episodes, which Ms. Hannah-Jones and the defenders of the project haven’t done to this point. Context, after all, is one of the “5Cs of Historical Thinking.”

In discussing Lincoln’s views on colonization, Professor Carwardine says, “Lincoln was one of the many who before the war supported voluntary colonization as a means towards gradual emancipation. During 1861 and 1862 his advocacy of colonization continued at the same time that he pressed schemes of compensated emancipation and, in September 1862, issued his preliminary emancipation proclamation. However, the final Emancipation Proclamation of January 1863 was silent on the issue, suggesting that Lincoln had been using it, at least in part, to quell the fears of whites. There is evidence that he continued to consider voluntary colonization as just one amongst a cluster of strategies to effect a route into viable post-emancipation, post-war world of racial adjustment.”

I think Professor Carwardine is on shakier ground suggesting Lincoln was simply using support for colonization as a tool to quell the fears of whites. That’s probably a part of it, but that also implies Lincoln didn’t really believe in it. He did. He was in favor of voluntary colonization because he believed whites would never allow blacks to live in this country on any type of equal footing.

Frederick Douglass [From the article]

Professor Carwardine brings in Frederick Douglass and his views of Lincoln. ” Where in Nikole Hannah-Jones’s reading of Lincoln, and in her wider perspective, is the voice of the greatest of all African-Americans, Frederick Douglass? He doesn’t appear. Douglass was not uncritical of Lincoln: he famously said that the black race were only Lincoln’s stepchildren. But he also came to extol Lincoln, too, as a white man who put him at his ease, treating him as an equal, with no thought of the ‘color of our skins,’ and showing he could conceive of a society in which blacks and whites lived together in a degree of harmony, that racial relationships in the US America were not irredeemably fixed by its 17th and 18th century past. Douglass was absolutely stunned when Lincoln suggested in the summer of 1864 that he, Douglass, should organize a band of scouts to penetrate beyond Union lines into the rebel states to spread the news of emancipation among the slaves and encourage their flight. Lincoln proposed this when he thought he would lose the 1864 election and wanted to get as many slaves as possible into the Union lines before then.”

This is another good point. Douglass’s view on Lincoln evolved. At first he didn’t think much of Lincoln, but as he got to know Lincoln and as Lincoln’s actions became clear, he became a supporter. Professor Carwardine continues, “There are many other examples of Lincoln’s positive views of blacks. You could take his letter to James Conkling in September 1863. Lincoln was invited by Conkling, a Springfield colleague who asked him to go to Illinois to campaign for the fall elections. Lincoln felt he had to stay in Washington, but he wrote a letter for Conkling to read to the Springfield audience, which he knew would comprise those who condemned him for issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, sanctioning the use of black troops, and creating an interracial Army. He wanted this letter read to Illinois voters, but it was designed for a wider audience. Lincoln was very specific about how it should be delivered, telling Conkling to read it very slowly and clearly. He was outraged when the text was leaked beforehand. The letter is in part a paean to the bravery of the black soldiers. I consider it his greatest public letter, a powerful statement of how much he admires those African-Americans who have sacrificially taken up arms for the Union.”

Photo from the article. USCT soldiers

Professor Carwardine adds, ” In Indiana and then in Illinois the vast majority of African-Americans that he encountered were uneducated and in menial jobs; they provided the basis for the black stereotypes of the tall tales and ludicrous stories of the time. But once Lincoln reached Washington he found an aspirational black middle class, and in Frederick Douglass he met someone whom he considered his intellectual equal. Add to this the tens and then hundreds of thousands of black sailors and soldiers fighting on behalf of the Union, and it’s no wonder that by April 1865 he was now prepared to advocate for blacks the political benefits of citizenship, including voting rights. These he wanted to extend only to a minority of black Americans—the educated and those in arms—but still this was a step towards the integration of blacks in a multiracial America. It’s not too much to say that Lincoln was a civil rights martyr. John Wilkes Booth shot him soon after hearing him propose, in what would be his final speech, full citizenship—with voting rights—for very educated blacks and those who had fought for the Union. Booth declared, ‘That means [n-word] citizenship. Now, by God! I’ll put him through.’ ”

Professor Carwardine then makes, in my opinion, a powerful point: “My concern with the 1619 Project is not that it highlights the often-cited Lincoln remarks of 1858 and the White House meeting of August 1862. They are part of the overall story. They are real and are not to Lincoln’s credit. But they are thoroughly un-contexted, historically deaf, and blind to a broader reality. Which of us would want to be judged on the basis of two snapshots in our lives? If the essence of Lincoln is captured in these episodes, then why does Frederick Douglass, arguably the preeminent African-American of all time, come to admire Lincoln as a great man and leader? Through his successive encounters with Lincoln, Douglass developed a growing respect and admiration for a president who sought to live up to a progressive reading of the principles of the Declaration of Independence—one, by the way, that is very much at odds with the reading of that document in the 1619 lead essay.”

I think Professor Carwardine makes some excellent points, and I note they are all substantive points. Note also the criticism by the historians has been overwhelmingly tightly focused on specific points made in the opening essay dealing with historical facts and interpretation.

How do the project’s defenders respond? This one begins by attacking the website where most of the interviews took place. He then accuses the historians of fighting a historiographical rear-guard action.

I don’t see much in the way of a substantive refutation of the historians’s criticisms there. He just says, “They’re wrong.” Okay, how? Where is the substantive evidence? The site to which he links is here. I didn’t see any refutation of the historians there.

Professor Peter Coclanis of the University of North Carolina has this article in the right-wing publication, Spectator-US. He begins his article by writing, “It is increasingly clear that the 1619 Project, foisted on the American public in August by the New York Times, was ill advised. Fatuous, tendentious and tedious, 1619 is more advocacy than history, and is intended mainly to stoke the woke and to keep race on the front burner in the upcoming 2020 elections.” Obviously this is not going to be a scholarly, objective piece. He writes, “Major scholars have already weighed in on the egregious problems in various parts of the Project, including luminaries such as Gordon Wood and Sean Wilentz on the Revolutionary era and James McPherson on the antebellum era and the coming of the Civil War. So here I will focus my attention on the early period of American history, including the year 1619. What we find is an overriding interpretative architecture characterized by mischaracterizations, elisions and distortions, a ‘presentist’ ransacking of the past, manufacturing a fake history for use today. The 1619 Project argues assiduously for the precocious importance of slavery and race in British North America, particularly because of the chance arrival in Virginia in 1619 of ‘some 20.  and odd Negroes’, who were sold either as indentured servants or slaves. By this, the organizers and editors of the 1619 Project signal their desire to flatten American history through interpretive bludgeoning. Simply put, the year 1619 is of little historical importance to Africans, African Americans, White Americans or really to anyone not currently working at 242 West 41st Street in New York City. As numerous historians of British and Spanish America have long pointed out, Africans, including enslaved Africans, were present in North America well before 1619, and some for almost a century.  Indeed, if the 1619 editorial crew hadn’t been so avid to link its project with 2019 — and, more to the point, November 2020 — it could have waited until 2026 and marked (at least) the 500th year since the first traces of African slaves in North America. That would have meant nodding in the direction of the short-lived Spanish settlement of San Miguel de Gualdape, founded by Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón at some still debated site along the southeast coast of present-day South Carolina or Georgia, its demise due in part to a slave revolt.”

If I’m not mistaken, the project’s writer have already conceded the point that there were Africans in North America prior to 1619, including enslaved Africans. They use 1619 because of the importance of the Jamestown colony and the subsequent growth of the United States. So the point here is moot, in my opinion.

He continues, “Scholars such as Michael Guasco, writing in 2017 in Black Perspectives, have already called attention to the ‘overstated significance of 1619’. Several generations of careful scholarly work on the origins of racial slavery in Virginia —by historians both black and white — have demonstrated that the process by which the status of Africans became differentiated and then fixed juridically was slow and incremental, involving much ambiguity, with both forward and backward steps. It wasn’t until the second half of the 17th century that the process began to be codified. Only in the last quarter of the 17th century did African and African American slavery begin to achieve any substantive importance in British North America. Indeed, if one is interested in slavery in North America in 1619 and the first half of the 17th century, one would think first of Native Americans and the Spanish, not Africans and the English. Native Americans were mainly enslaved in indigenous communities or in silver-mining areas under control of the Spanish in the southwest. There were also Native American slaves — and African and African American slaves too — in Spanish Florida, as well as relatively small numbers of enslaved Native Americans in French Canada and in the seaboard colonies organized under the English. Figures are hard to come by but Andrés Reséndez, in  his award-winning book The Other Slavery (2016), offers a rough estimate of somewhere between 10,000 and 45,000 Native American slaves in North America (north of Mexico) during that period. Others would put the figure even higher.  African and African American slaves in British North America? Only small numbers.”

Again, this is something the writers of the project have already conceded, so while it’s good history, which is why I included it, it’s not a very good criticism of the project, in my opinion. I have to say that while Professor Coclanis gives us some good information, he is in actuality arguing a straw man, since the project acknowledged from the beginning there were African slaves in North America previous to 1619.

This article comes to us from Professor KC Johnson of Brooklyn College. He writes of the New York Times’s response to the five historians who wrote in to criticize the project, “The paper responded dismissively, and the broader reaction among historians suggests that the profession isn’t up to the challenge of defending factual accuracy—at least, not if doing so threatens what many scholars see as the ideological greater good.” He continues, “The Project’s thesis, as articulated by its creator, investigative journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, is that ‘anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country.’ In one of her essays, she promised to show 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.’ Another contribution, by Matthew Desmond, portrayed slavery as integral to virtually all aspects of nineteenth-century American capitalism.” As we’ve see already, Ms. Hannah-Jones has backed off slightly from her original contention regarding the Revolution, though in my judgment it was grudging and not really enough.

Professor Johnson tells us, “Jake Silverstein, editor-in-chief of the Times Magazineadmitted that the paper ‘did not assemble a formal panel for this project,’ but he did identify five ‘scholars of African-American history and related fields’ with whom the Project consulted. Only one, Tiya Miles, specializes in pre-1900 events; another, Desmond, is a sociologist whose most recent book focused on the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis. Neither Silverstein nor Hannah-Jones has explained why the Times chose not to consult with any of the letter’s signatories, all leading scholars of eighteenth- or nineteenth-century America and specialists in the issues that the Project addressed. If the Project’s editors and Hannah-Jones are ignorant about the work of the Bynum letter’s signatories, their historical competence is deeply suspect. More likely, they understood that figures like Wood or Oakes would challenge the Project’s preconceived notions of the American past, and so they deliberately ignored their work because it would undercut their own preordained conclusions. (Hannah-Jones’s dismissive tweet about McPherson’s criticism of her work strengthens these suspicions: she mockingly asserted that only ‘white historians have produced truly objective history’ before asserting that ‘there is no such thing as objective history.’)”

As Professor Johnson writes, “Though the Times claimed an interest in dialogue, Silverstein’s response avoided engaging with the scholars’ critiques and made no corrections. ‘We are not,’ Silverstein conceded, ‘ourselves historians.’ (This admission should give pause to any school district tempted to adopt the Times’s new history curriculum.) Silverstein offered no defense of the Desmond essay on capitalism and slavery; of the other two topics raised in the historians’ letter, he breezily asserted that ‘there are often debates, even among subject-area experts, about how to see the past’—without explaining why the Times chose to take such a one-sided approach. Hannah-Jones implied that she might have been open to the criticism if the scholars had ‘contacted me’ rather than going public. Instead, however, they tried to ‘get people to sign on to a letter that was attempting really to discredit the entire project without having had a conversation’—as if doing so made their concerns any less relevant, or as though it were necessary for them to seek permission from her to express their doubts.” He makes good points here. If the 1619 Project’s historical assertions can be factually defended, then they should be factually defended. Neither the Times nor other defenders have even attempted to defend the assertions factually. Also, the historians didn’t need to consult with Ms. Hannah-Jones before airing their objections, and the fact they didn’t consult with her first does not mean their objections are any less valid. Professor Johnson next writes, “Silverstein concluded by excusing Hannah-Jones’s tweet about ‘white historians,’ contending that the Project’s creator ‘was trying to make the point that for the most part, the history of this country has been told by white historians (some of whom, as in the case of the Dunning School, which grossly miseducated Americans about the history of Reconstruction for much of the twentieth century, produced accounts that were deeply flawed).’ Linking the concerns of scholars like Oakes, Wilentz, or McPherson to the racist legacy of the long-discredited Dunning School is beneath the dignity of the Times.” He’s right about that tactic. Again, the defense of the project wasn’t factually based but instead was an ad hominem.

Professor Johnson next considers the lack of other scholars signing onto the letter. “The Times’s weak response, combined with the seriousness of the historians’ objections, raises an obvious question: why had so few historians signed onto the letter in the first place? An Atlantic article from Adam Serwer, in which scholars offered unimpressive rationalizations for abstaining from a strong public critique of the 1619 Project, unintentionally answers this question. Bynum herself reported that other historians claimed that they were ‘ashamed of’ and ‘heartbroken by’ the scholars’ letter—challenging not its veracity, but rather, any act that could undermine the Times thesis. Manisha Sinha of the University of Connecticut, for instance, described herself as stuck between two camps. The historians, she noted, correctly understood that the American Revolution wasn’t ‘just a slaveholders’ rebellion.’ But the 1619 Project was right in observing that the Constitution, as originally drafted, protected slavery. Yet the historians had never challenged this second point. Duke’s Thavolia Glymph didn’t even bother to address the substance of the Bynum signatories’ arguments, instead condemning their ‘tone.’ Glymph’s concern is ironic; in 2006, she signed the Group of 88’s public letter proclaiming her students’ guilt in the Duke Lacrosse case, then refused to apologize when the case collapsed and the students’ innocence became clear. Princeton’s Nell Painter refused to join the Bynum signatories despite challenging another of the Project’s alleged facts—that the Africans who arrived in Virginia in 1619 should be considered slaves. Signing the letter, she told Serwer, would have meant joining ‘the white guy’s attack of something that has given a lot of black journalists and writers a chance to speak up in a really big way.’ So much for the value of historians pursuing the truth.” Professor Sinha has since pointed out she didn’t say she was stuck between two camps.

Professor Sinha did point out earlier on Twitter that there was much more nuance to support for the Revolution, and that support for slavery motivated some Southern planters and perhaps some Northern slaveholders, which is different from Ms. Hannah-Jones’s contention.

Professor Sinha’s take informs my position on this. It’s certainly possible some slaveholders to see the hard evidence.

If anything, though, I’d say Professor Sinha generally supports the project.

I wish, though, she would lay out the facts to help the project’s writers correct the weak points of their narrative to make the project stronger.

Professor Johnson concludes his article, “Gordon Wood has argued that the Times’s handling of the historians’ letter means that ‘in the long run the Project will lose its credibility, standing, and persuasiveness with the nation as a whole.’ Perhaps. School administrators should certainly be reluctant to use the Project’s eighteenth- and nineteenth-century curricular material for their students. But the affair has also exposed shortcomings within the historical community. The Project’s slipperiness with the factual record provided a golden opportunity for professional historians to stand up for scholarship in an era where so many seem indifferent to objective facts. The Bynum letter’s signatories passed this test, but the broader historical community appears to have failed.”

Journalist Adam Serwer responded to Professor Johnson’s article on Twitter.

And how did Professor Johnson misrepresent Mr. Serwer’s reporting?

Here’s what Mr. Serwer wrote in his article from which Professor Johnson took his characterizations: “Nell Irvin Painter, a professor emeritus of history at Princeton who was asked to sign the letter, had objected to the 1619 Project’s portrayal of the arrival of African laborers in 1619 as slaves. The 1619 Project was not history ‘as I would write it,’ Painter told me. But she still declined to sign the Wilentz letter. ‘I felt that if I signed on to that, I would be signing on to the white guy’s attack of something that has given a lot of black journalists and writers a chance to speak up in a really big way. So I support the 1619 Project as kind of a cultural event,’ Painter said. ‘For Sean and his colleagues, true history is how they would write it. And I feel like he was asking me to choose sides, and my side is 1619’s side, not his side, in a world in which there are only those two sides.’ This was a recurrent theme among historians I spoke with who had seen the letter but declined to sign it. While they may have agreed with some of the factual objections in the letter or had other reservations of their own, several told me they thought the letter was an unnecessary escalation. ‘The tone to me rather suggested a deep-seated concern about the project. And by that I mean the version of history the project offered. The deep-seated concern is that placing the enslavement of black people and white supremacy at the forefront of a project somehow diminishes American history,’ Thavolia Glymph, a history professor at Duke who was asked to sign the letter, told me. ‘Maybe some of their factual criticisms are correct. But they’ve set a tone that makes it hard to deal with that.’ ‘I don’t think they think they’re trying to discredit the project,’ Painter said. ‘They think they’re trying to fix the project, the way that only they know how.’ ”

I think Mr. Serwer is the one who is misrepresenting others. To me, he appears to be misrepresenting the scholars who wrote the letter. It looks to me as though Professor Johnson faithfully reported what the quoted historians said, according to Mr. Serwer. In what way were the quoted scholars being publicly critical of historical inaccuracies in the project? Has Professor Painter written an essay pointing out the errors? Has Professor Glymph? In what way was the letter from the historians designed to discredit the entire project? The letter specifically stated they merely wanted to strengthen the project and make it better.

Here’s what Professor Painter wrote about the first Africans to arrive in Virginia in 1619, though not in response to the 1619 Project. Her essay would seem to contradict another point of Ms. Hannah-Jones’s article.

Others have criticized Professor Johnson’s article by mistakenly attributing it to the author Christina Hoff Sommers, who tweeted the article. These defenders of the project apparently never bothered to read the article, instead simply looking at the headline and who tweeted it. Even when it was pointed out Ms. Sommers didn’t write the article, it didn’t deter some of them.

Other defenders focused on Professor Johnson’s other writings, the publication in which this article appeared, or the race of the critics.

None of them responded in a substantive manner.

In this article, Rich Lowry of the National Review takes criticism quite a bit too far. He writes, “The reviews of The New York Times’ 1619 project are in. It is ‘a very unbalanced, one-sided account.’ It is ‘wrong in so many ways.’ It is ‘not only ahistorical,’ but ‘actually ­anti-historical.’ It is ‘a tendentious and partial reading of American history.’ This is what top historians have said of the splashy Times Magazine feature on slavery in the United States that aspires to fundamentally re-orient our understanding of American history and change what students are taught in the school.” Actually, he’s misrepresenting the criticisms. The scholar critics have focused in on specific and limited aspects of the project, not the entire project. Most of the project has not received the criticism two of the articles received.

Mr. Lowry is right about this: “The project has been controversial since it was first published last year, but its architects sneered at the critics as troglodyte conservatives (or ‘white historians’) ­unwilling to grapple with the country’s racial sins. Then, the World Socialist Web site — of all outlets — began publishing interviews with eminent historians slamming the project.” The response to the scholars from the Times and other project defenders has been poor. They have not defended the weak points on the merits but instead have engaged in ad hominem.

Mr. Lowry reviews the scholars’ criticisms and the Times’s response. “At the end of the year, the Times published an extraordinary letter from McPherson, Oakes and Wood, as well as Sean Wilentz of Princeton and Victoria Bynum of Texas State University demanding ‘prominent corrections of all the errors and distortions presented in the 1619 project.’ ‘These errors, which concern major events, cannot be described as interpretation or ‘framing,’  ‘ the historians wrote. ‘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.’ The Times, in a response from the editor-in-chief of the magazine, Jake Silverstein, countered: ‘Historical understanding is not fixed; it is constantly being ­adjusted by new scholarship and new voices.’ In other words, just wait and the supporters of the 1619 project will enshrine it as a new orthodoxy. One focus of the historians is the preposterous claim of the 1619 project that a primary reason that the colonists launched the American Revolution was to protect slavery. ‘This is not true,’ they say. ‘If supportable, the allegation would be astounding — yet every statement offered by the project to validate it is false.’ Silverstein counters by invoking disquiet among American slave-holders over the landmark Somerset decision in England in 1772 that found that chattel slavery wasn’t supported under the “natural law.” Yet nothing in the historical record suggests that the decision, which didn’t apply to the colonies, played a role in precipitating the revolution. Silverstein also notes the so-called Dunmore Proclamation by the royal governor of Virginia in late 1775 offering freedom to slaves who joined with British forces. By this point, though, the revolution was already underway (the First Continental Congress met in 1774; Lexington and Concord came earlier in 1775).” Here he’s right again. But he certainly overplays his hand when he claims the entire project is discredited. It isn’t.

Those defending the 1619 Project have been the most disappointing, especially since a number of them know better. They haven’t used factual evidence to defend the project. They’ve depended on dismissal, ad hominem, and simple unsupported assertions. The project’s principals made a huge mistake, in my view, by simply dismissing historian critiques and making it about the race of the critics instead of taking them seriously and correcting their narrative or, if they believe their narrative to be correct, providing the evidence to back it up. Instead, they’ve created the impression they have nothing with which to back up their claims. The historians asked for corrections to improve the project. If there’s no evidence to back up the project’s claims, they should have made the corrections. I’m generally supportive of the project, but I’d like to see it get better. I’d like to see them concede at least on the Revolutionary War aspect, and to provide a more nuanced view of Lincoln’s racial outlook. Those critics who assert the entire project has been discredited are even more wrong. I’ve seen no scholarly pushback at all for the vast majority of the project, and I don’t think there will be any. The Times should mobilize some 18th and 18th century scholars to reframe their opening narrative to eliminate the weaknesses and then move on. Will they? So far it seems not.

2 comments

  1. Shoshana Bee · · Reply

    The soundbite Twitter spats on the topic of the 1619 Project (and the running of our government, for that matter!) are really stretching the platform far beyond what I believe its intended purpose was/is. I find that when points of contention are undertaken on Twitter, they often leave the impression of defensive snark, rather than informed disagreement. 280 characters with endless threads does not leave much room for content development nor support with evidence. I desperately wish that these discussions/debates/disagreements/spats could be held in a much more scholarly format such as a panel, an Oxford debate, or even a sit-down one-on-one CIVIL exchange.

    1. I agree with you about the Twitter comments, Shoshana. There’s been little if any substance passed back and forth on Twitter. One would think if there was a substantive defense of the project it would have been tweeted out with a link by now.

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