The Attack on the 1619 Project is an Attack on Mainstream Historical Scholarship and Teaching

I am guessing, and it is only a guess, that most critics of the 1619 Project have not read much serious American history, particularly the history of American slavery and race.  Here is Jeet Heer of The Nation:

Damon Linker’s piece at The Week, for example, has given a lot of ammunition to the kind of people who have been responding to Southern Baptist president J.D. Greear.  Linker, like many conservatives, gets caught-up with the phrase “reframe American history.”  He praises some articles in the 1619 Project, but trashes others.  When was the last time he taught an American history course?  Everyone is an expert.

We can debate what the narrative of American history should look like, or whether or not The New York Times proposal is more political than it is historical, but I would say that we cannot understand colonial America, the American Revolution, or much of early American history without making slavery central to the story.  There is just too much good historical scholarship out there to see this any other way.  Yet we have conservatives like Rod Dreher (another pundit who I am guessing hasn’t taught U.S. history in a while) so upset that he has canceled his 30-year subscription to The New York Times.

I have been teaching the first half of the United States survey for over two decades.  We talk about white colonial settlement, slavery, native Americans, political history, religion, presidential elections, democracy, industrialization, southern culture, the Western ideas that drove the American Revolution, Manifest Destiny, and the coming of the Civil War.  How does one teach these things without slavery? Slavery is everywhere in this course. It constantly rears its ugly head.  There is no way to tell the story without it.  It is central. I don’t advertise my course as a U.S. survey focused on “race” or “slavery” and I don’t put such language in my syllabus.  But these topics just come to the surface naturally and start to shape the narrative.

What the New York Times is proposing in the 1619 Project is not really that radical.  There is actually no “reframing” here. The Times is not as revisionist as it thinks it is.  Just look at any high school or college textbook.  Slavery and race have been central to the study of American history for several decades.

16 thoughts on “The Attack on the 1619 Project is an Attack on Mainstream Historical Scholarship and Teaching

  1. “England’s America was disproportionately African. One million Europeans migrated to British North America between 1600 and 1800 and two and a half million Africans were carried there by force over that same stretch.” Jill Lepore, These Truths, 45-46

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  2. Yeah, so I think Mr. Lucido is reading the whole thing somewhat more tendentiously than is warranted. I don’t expect the definitive account of anything from a newspaper, and having written for popular audiences, I also understand that you can’t bury your point of view in all the qualifications and “on-the-other-hands” you might when writing for fellow scholars.

    So, if someone throws in a “may have” here and there, I’m relatively happy (depending on the particular claim, of course). Otherwise, I expect them to ride their thesis, and as long as they don’t ride it into the ground, that’s legitimate.

    Mr. Lucido is, it seems to me, drawing the circle of “mainstream historical scholarship” far more narrowly than I would. If some number of respected historians are advocating for a certain take on things, even if it’s “edgy,” and the rest of the profession hasn’t stood up and in one voice condemned that thesis or interpretation, I’m OK with calling it “mainstream historical scholarship,” but I understand that as a field full of lively debates, not a hall of fame where only universally-agreed-upon truths are admitted.

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  3. At the outset, as a Ricky Henderson fan, I must say I somewhat enjoyed Mr. Haas’s third person derision. John F. canned Mr. Lucido’s initial response, as perhaps it was too blunt in pointing out Mr. Haas’s condescending sneering, in response to a perfectly civil comment which did not attack him in any way. But which did have the temerity to question the, ahem, rigor and fairness of the NYT’s grand project.

    So, let’s address more fully Mr. Haas’s arguments. He accuses Mr. Lucido of being “untrustworthy” because Mr. Lucido wrote “the” primary reason as opposed to “one of” the primary reasons when summarizing Ms. Jones’s thesis about the alleged threat to chattel slavery in England (despite the fact that the British abolition movement was still in its crib as of 1776) being a crucial, driving force behind the founding.

    Fair enough. Guilty as charged on that imprecision, although it might be worth noting that Ms. Jones never does get around to identifying any of those other primary causes. Yes, yes — beyond the scope of her mission, as they say. So, let’s allow her to expand upon her slave-centric thesis. She writes: “In other words, we may never have revolted against Britain if the founders had not understood that slavery empowered them to do so; nor if they had not believed that independence was required in order to ensure that slavery would continue.”

    Is this historically accurate, particularly the second sentence? Were the Founders all about “ensuring” that slavery would continue? With due respect to Mr. Schama’s ‘first and foremosting’ analysis, the available evidence suggests otherwise.

    Here’s what Jefferson wrote in instruction’s to his colony’s delegation to the first Continental Congress: “[T]he rights of human nature are deeply wounded by this practice.” And: “[T]he abolition of domestic slavery is the great object of desire in those colonies where it was unhappily introduced in their infant state.”

    Here’s Samuel Cooke, in a 1770 sermon: “We, the patrons of liberty [in tolerating slavery], have dishonored the Christian name, and degraded human nature nearly to a level with the beasts that perish.”

    Benjamin Rush (“On Slave Keeping”, 1773): “Espouse the cause of humanity and general liberty…. Bear testimony against a vice which degrades human nature. The plant of liberty is of so tender a nature that it cannot thrive long in the neighborhood of slavery. Remember, the eyes of all Europe are fixed upon you, to preserve an asylum of freedom in this country after the last pillars of it are fallen in every other quarter of the globe.”

    Mr. Lucido could go on and on in this vein. Suffice to say, while certainly there were southern “proto-fire eaters” as Mr. Haas calls them, wedded to a ‘give us slavery or give us death’ creed, the actions and writings of the founders at the time do not demonstrate a commitment to perpetuating and protecting the evil of slavery. Indeed, just the opposite is true. Now, one can assert that this was all grotesquely hypocritical lip-service and lies, but that’s a different argument, which requires grappling with widely disseminated public writings at the time of the revolution that slavery was a moral abomination and must end.

    As for Mr. Haas’s authoritative assurances that we should move along, there is no ideology or agenda to see here, no Sirree, well, I suppose one must judge for oneself. Read all the essays, take in the purported and actual scholarship, the fanciful and unitary cause and effect claims (in this context, consider the inconvenient step of alternative hypothesis testing), the ‘Just-So Stories’ substituting for data, the rejection of complexity and the appeals to (highly contested) authority (see, e.g. the New History of Capitalism and its many factually erroneous claims; an excellent primer is Olmstead and Rhode’s comprehensive take down of the NHC canon (“Cotton, Slavery and the New History of Capitalism”), which relies upon, and distorts, their work as economic historians) and decide for oneself: who ya gonna believe — Mr. Haas and the rigorously objective NYT, or your lyin’ eyes.

    I fear — and it saddens me — that Justin S. will not thank me for this. C’est la vie.

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  4. Mr. Lucido has already shown himself less than fully trustworthy in his account of the articles under discussion. He now betrays his disinterest in investigating the truth of the claims made therein. He has his beliefs, and he is determined to cling to them.

    This is not the place to work out a full accounting of all the motives that led colonists to support the American Revolution. They were many, depending on who you were. In the North, of course, there were many proto-abolitionists who abhorred slavery, and soon would support their states in abolishing it. In South Carolina, on the other hand, there were already proto-fire-eaters who would dissolve the new union before they would see slavery compromised. Different people cared about different things.

    The Somerset decision–which had freed a slave brought to England on the grounds that English law did not support the institution–was already widely talked about before the Revolution. Slaves hoped it would be applied to the colonies; slave-owners feared it might.

    Hoping to spark a rebellion among slaves and demoralization of their owners, Lord Dunsmore issued a famous declaration in 1775 promising freedom to slaves who would run away and join the British. (In a colony like Virginia, with 40% of its population enslaved, this was an alarming proposition.) Many did. Signers of the Declaration of Independence such as Thomas Jefferson lost 30 slaves; James Madison, 20; Benjamin Harrison, 20; Arthur Middleton, lost 50. General George Washington lost slaves, too.

    Rather than depressing the South’s enthusiasm for the war, however, Dunsmore’s ploy actually convinced fence-sitters that their slaves, and therefore they themselves, weren’t safe remaining in the British empire.

    Here’s how Princeton historian Simon Schama summarizes the effect of the offer:

    “Instead of being cowed by the threat of a British armed liberation of the blacks, the slaveholding population mobilized to resist. Innumerable whites, especially those in the habitually loyal backcountry of Virginia, had been hitherto skeptical of following the more hot-headed of their Patriot leaders. But the news that the British troops would liberate their blacks, then give them weapons and their blessing to use them on their masters, persuaded many into thinking that perhaps the militant patriots were right?
    It is not too much, then, to say that in the summer and autumn of 1775 the revolution in the South crystallized around this one immense, terrifying issue. However intoxicating the heady rhetoric of ‘rights’ and ‘liberty’ emanating from Patriot orators and journalists, for the majority of farmers, merchants and townsmen in Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia (the vast majority of whom owned between one and five negroes), all-out war and separation now turned from an ideological flourish to a social necessity. Theirs was a revolution, first and foremost, to protect slavery.”

    “First and formost.”

    Mr. Lucido believes the NYT’s approach is “deeply ideological.” From the evidence presented just in this retort, he has no reason to claim that, other than his felt-need to keep his current conceptions from being disturbed.

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  5. Mr. Haas: I guess the question I would ask is do you truly believe the claim that protecting slavery was a primary catalyst for the colonial exodus from England is supported by the weight of the historical evidence? Regardless of whether some have previously theorized about this or written a book?

    I do not.

    As to your point about contestability, therein lies the rub. This project is being presented as if these causal theories are settled. The NYT is promoting these essays, and the rest of its material, as a curriculum — or, if you will, corrective — on the nature and purpose of America’s “founding” and the centrality of slavery to every aspect of modern life. These are not modulated, or modest, assertions. Do you believe that the monolithic perspective being presented in the 1619 project — devoid of a single, differing viewpoint — represents a balanced, even-handed and objective (as opposed to deeply ideological) approach to these important issues?

    I do not.

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  6. Rich,

    Are you making the unwarranted assumption that the Times always gets it right and that conservatives are necessarily historically ignorant?

    James

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  7. Adam,

    They do have the resources. No argument from me on that point. As far as expertise, that depends on which “experts” they employ. Based on their track record of objectivity on other matters, it’s questionable.
    James

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  8. The question is, are the articles historically accurate? If so, then it matters little that the Times published them. If the articles rattle the historical sensibilities of some conservatives who have an uninformed view of American history, then so be it.

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  9. Mr. Lucido writes: “Is the (entirely unsourced) claim that the primary — primary! — reason that the colonists left England was to protect slavery from the burgeoning abolition movement MHS?”

    From the actual quote: “… one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence …”

    Hardly that radical a claim, given that four of those thirteen original states will, in a couple of generations, declare their independence from the US for exactly that reason.

    Mr. Lucido seems unfamiliar with the Somerset case in England in 1772, and it’s impact on thinking in the colonies and elsewhere. He might, if interested, consult Slave Nation: How Slavery United The Colonies And Sparked The American Revolution, by Alfred and Ruth Blumrosen.

    The point isn’t that this or any other judgments are incontestable–that’s not how the discipline works–but rather, these aren’t things the writers in the NYT are just making up because they “want the terrorists to win,” or whatever.

    Taken as a whole, these “think pieces” do represent ideas common to mainstream historical scholarship.

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  10. We literally have hundreds of books and multiple documentaries.
    This is a 100 page, including ads, newspaper insert. If the main concern is that the NYT is the one that did it, then that just honestly makes no sense.

    It might make sense as a critique if GQ or People did a 100-page edition on the history of slavery. But whether you like them or not, an institution like the NYT has the resources and expertise to do it.

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  11. DC1,

    In answer to your first question, why does it have to be a publication per se? Maybe a balanced group of historians could do it.

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  12. My worry is that this 1619 Project is going to be weaponized as just another weapon in inter-racial/inter-tribal power struggle. I live in a state where everything gets politically weaponized.

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  13. Apparently, the threshold for what qualifies as “mainstream historical scholarship” (MHS) is quite low.

    Is the claim that traffic congestion in 2019 Atlanta is caused by slavery MHS?

    Is the (entirely unsourced) claim that the primary — primary! — reason that the colonists left England was to protect slavery from the burgeoning abolition movement MHS?

    Is the claim that America’s collective sweet tooth (apparently, unique in the industrialized world) is caused by slavery MHS?

    Is the claim that the concept of depreciation was invented by southern slaveowners — and thus taints modern accounting methods — MHS?

    Is the claim that the reason we don’t have the progressive holy grail of universal health care in 2019 MHS? (Are we sure the reason isn’t the insidious influence of the Skull and Bones? Discuss.)

    No. All of these monocausal axioms, er, theories (largely postulated by non-historians) are — beyond being a veritable cornucopia of logical fallacies — unvarnished, ideological positions all hewing to the same foundational world view. It’s just the mirror image of, say, David Barton. Except Barton never asserted that the Christian Founding is the reason we have so many Chick-Fil-A restaurants serving delicious, discriminatory chicken sandwiches.

    No sensible, historically literate person contests the major role that slavery has played in American (and world) history. It was an abomination. And further rigorous, balanced, fact-intensive study of racism, slavery and its ramifications, is welcome and necessary. But the tent pole essays which hold up the 1619 Project are little more than a series of leftwing opinion pieces. Which is fine; that is the NYT’s prerogative and its unvarying wheel house. (And now that the Russia fantasy is dead, as Dean Baquet told his fractious #Resistance warriors, it needs to “pivot” to the next narrative, which is that everything good in America is tainted by slavery.) But let’s stop pretending these “think pieces” represent historical scholarship, unless we mean the kind found at “The People’s History” school of socially just political activism.

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  14. And what publication would you call fair?

    Is the information referenced and sourced correctly?

    For the historically informed, the importance of slavery to the economic viability of the founding States and ultimately the south is undeniable.

    And; the systematic and purposeful condition through which slavery was established and maintain should be exposed with resolve regardless of your political affiliation or cultural appropriation.
    .. because we are all a little of bit everything.

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  15. The skepticism around the 1619 Project does not reflect a distrust of honest historical scholarship. It reflects a distrust of The New York Times which is inexorably tied to the effort. If this historical project were totally initiated and controlled by a bipartisan group of historians, there would be much greater acceptance of the study. The New York Times has long ago shed any pretense to fairness.

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