Some Thoughts on the Opposition to the 1619 Project

1619

We introduced readers to The New York Times 1619 Project in this post.  It now looks like there are some people who do not like the newspaper’s attempt to observe the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery.  Here are a few examples:

I am not surprised by any of this.  I knew there would be push-back when I read that The New York Times was framing the 1619 Project as an attempt to “frame the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and, placing the consequences of slavery, and the contribution of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.”

I wonder if any of the aforementioned tweeters have read the essays in the 1619 Project.  Most of them probably stopped after they read the words “frame” and “true founding.”

Historians, of course, have been bringing slavery to the center of the American story for a long time–more than half a century.  The 1619 Project reflects this scholarship and takes it to its logical conclusion.

Frankly, the 1619 project is excellent.  Americans need to wrestle with the legacy of slavery.  I hope teachers will use it in their classrooms.

Newt Gingrich is completely wrong when he says that “if you are an African American slavery is at the center of what YOU see as the American experience, but for most Americans, most of the time, there were a lot of other things going on.” Gingrich is an embarrassment.  (I am especially tough on him because he has a Ph.D in history).

So what were some of those “other things going on?”

Edmund Morgan, of course, showed us that American freedom has always been intricately linked to American slavery.  Pennsylvania farmers in the so-called “best poor man’s country in the world,” pursued their “American” dream by supplying grain to feed West Indian slaves in the British sugar colonies.  As historians Edward Baptist, Sven Beckert, and others have taught us, slavery fueled capitalism and American economic growth.  Even those living in the free-soil north benefited from the wealth generated by slave labor.  As Robert Parkinson argues in his recent book, the racial fears of American patriots had something to do with the way they understood the Revolution.  In Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, I trace the history of race and the legacy of slavery in shaping an evangelical approach to political life.  And we could go on.

But there is plenty of room at the “center” of the American story for native Americans, women, working people, white people, and many others.  We can’t forget, for example, that Western ideas, as articulated in some of our founding documents and by people of Christian faith, provided the impetus for the abolition of slavery.

History is messy and complex.  We should make every effort to remember our past.  And now is the time to remember the significance of 1619 and the central role that slavery and racism has played in the making of America.

16 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on the Opposition to the 1619 Project

  1. Well stated, John. Those opposed to the project have yet to do anything but prove their opposition is not rooted in historical facts, but rather their opinions which are not supported by historical fact. They are not interested in historical facts to begin with, except the facts that support their preferred narrative which is what historians call cherry picking. They ignore everything that doesn’t fit into their preferred narrative.

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  2. James keeps bashing the NYT as if the mere printing of a sentence in the paper poisons it. He seems to imply that publication in an academic journal is necessary to authenticate a historical
    matter. Not so — getting the facts right and presenting them in an intellectually honest way is what’s needed. I haven’t read all the articles, but I notice that Kevin Kruse , a distinguished Princeton historian, is one of the authors.

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  3. Matt: I totally agree with everything you said here. For me, it is a matter of speaking and writing about America in this particular moment in time. For more than 200 years we have celebrated white America–the founding fathers, Western ideas of liberty and freedom, etc. We celebrate these things every 4th of July. Do I find The New York Times’s foundationalistic rhetoric overly provocative and perhaps even reductionist at times? Yes. As I said in a few of my posts of the matter, there is plenty room at the “center” of the American story for a host of other people groups and their ideals. Western ideas about liberty are important. Christianity is important. But so is race and slavery. And now is the time–on the 400th anniversary of 1619– to make that point. Those who oppose this kind of celebration–and do so with such an aggressive spirit of opposition (and I am including people who write comments on this blog) tell us more about themselves and their own politics than the narrative of American history. As for the articles in the series, all of them are excellent and deeply rooted in good scholarship. They are all based on extensive research that many of the authors cannot squeeze into a newspaper article. I hope that those who think these articles are lacking in some way will find the books and read them before spewing forth their ill-informed critiques. But I am not optimistic about this happening.

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  4. John. Agree with the criticism leveled against partisans like Newt. And I agree that the wealth of historians writing on this over the last 30+ years is long over due. Too many stories of our national history were simply not told correctly.

    Saying things like “the legacy of slavery in shaping an evangelical approach to political life” sounds like pen of a careful historian. Supporting the 1619 project because “America was founded on racism” seems to me to swing the pendulum in an unhelpful direction…..from a 1970s era that (by Noll’s admission) conveniently avoided touching on issues of race/slavery as related to Amerca’s to now in 2019 where some pundits almost sound like they want it to explain everything.

    Seems to me that’s where some of the disconnect is coming from. The articles I’ve quickly glanced through on the 1619 site look good. It’s the pundit advocacy I’ve heard in the last couple of days that seem to almost oversell things. If I said “the Persian empire was founded on….” I’d be laughed out of an SBL meeting.

    Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for telling history’s messy story. Just don’t see how “foundationalistic” advocacy helps the folks that need to hear it.

    Curious your thoughts on that.

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  5. Deb,

    It is telling that your in-house historian missed this point and had to rely upon the NYT, not an historical journal, to learn these facts.

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  6. “Gingrich is an embarrassment. (I hold him to such a high standard because he has a Ph.D in history)”

    If you really want the profession to flourish, I would not advertise this.

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  7. I put in a link but it vanished. I don’t know what happened. Anyway, you can find info. on the National Park Service website if you “google” the subject. That was the link I tried to send. I’m sorry I couldn’t help more.

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  8. One site is . If you “google” August 25 bell ringing or something similar, you’ll probably find some church websites about it.

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  9. The National Park Service has asked that churches ring their bells at 3:00 p.m.EDT Sunday, August 25, 2019 as a day of healing as we remember the landing of the first enslaved Africans in English-occupied North America in 1619. Our church plans to do this. I hope all churches with bells will do so and the others will in some way take part, and I pray that it does help bring healing.

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  10. Show us what didn’t come out of slavery, Tony. Don’t even try to say the American Revolution because the facts show that slavery was intricately woven into the Revolution at every step of the way. Even westward expansion was linked to slavery. It is all there. I think some people just do not want to see it there because it would require them to challenge all of their beliefs and assumptions they have about American history. Others do not see it because they are blind to it. It’s right there in front of us via the primary sources like Edmund Morgan revealed to us.

    You can object all you want, but if you want to make people believe your opinion, you need facts. The 1619 Project uses facts. Those who object to it are not using facts. I will be featuring the 1619 Project in my classroom tomorrow.

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  11. Other than politics, Tony, can you point me to historical scholarship to support your argument? I list several in my post and I could list a lot, lot more. Moreover, I thought my post was pretty nuanced. Perhaps you need to take a deep look into why generally straightforward historical post struck such a nerve.

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  12. Jeff: the 1619 Project is not merely claiming that slavery was a central facet of U.S. history — an assertion which no reasonable and reasonably informed person could contest.

    No, it’s aims are far more expansive. It intends to re-define the very founding of the country, and makes the radical — and purely ideological — claim that the evil of slavery is the prism through which EVERYTHING in American history must be understood. Here’s Mara Gray of the NYT, touting the 1619 Project and candidly setting forth this one-sided, Leftist revisionism:

    “In the days and weeks to come, we will publish essays demonstrating that nearly everything that has made America exceptional grew out of slavery.”

    Wow. That sounds … balanced. Note: not opining, mind you — “demonstrating.” This is a scholarly, sciencey endeavor, you see. “Everything exceptional … grew out of slavery.” Why, even an open New Left propagandist like the late Howard Zinn, who no doubt would have been pleased to find like-minded folks using his method to advance political agendas in the guise of doing “history,” would be amazed by the audacity of this claim. Actually, to be fair, Zinn himself was transparent and unapologetic about his own project, and it had nothing to do with objectivity, balance or moral complexity. His purpose was to take sides, to stand with those on the “right side of history.” The people behind the 1619 project have imbibed this philosophy, for they mean to take sides as well, and no opposition to the “Everything Is Slavery and Slavery is Everything” narrative will be countenanced.

    The facial absurdity of some of these think-pieces (Your Traffic Jam In Atlanta is Because: Slavery; The Use of Depreciation in Accounting is Because: Yup, You Guessed It) is beyond lampooning. The fact that John — who is a serious historian, and someone who used to recognize the chasm of difference between rigorous historical scholarship and straight up political activism masquerading as a neutral, agenda-free study of history — labels this, without caveat or concern, an unmitigated good, is disappointing — but at this point unsurprising.

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  13. As the chief docent at The Old Dutch Church of Sleepy Hollow I’m aware that our founder, Frederick Philips created a triangle trade between his Upper Mills – Barbados – and Madagascar. Food>Slaves>Sugar.
    He built the church to attract Dutch colonist north to clear timber and plant wheat. Philipsburg Manor is now a museum which interprets the through the experience of the enslaves Africans that worked and managed the place. Across the street at the Old Dutch we have included slavery into our dialog with visitors who come looking for Washington Irving’s Headless Horseman but hopefully walk away with a deeper understanding of the role of enslaved Africans in our colonial history. Thank you John for keeping it real!

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  14. This idea that slavery was not a central facet of US history and most Americans had other things in their minds reminds me of history that used to, and still does in some ways, assigns women a diminished role.
    If your words aren’t in political documents and recorded public debate then you barely exist historically.

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