Does the 1619 Project Distort American History?


My friend Wilfred McClay has weighed in on the New York Times 1619 Project in a Commentary magazine article.  Several people have asked me to respond to it.  Here we go:

When the 1619 Project hit the pages of the Times, I defended it.  I wrote several blog posts and published an op-ed in the Harrisburg Patriot-News.  That op-ed appeared in other papers around the country.

I criticized several conservative pundits who were not happy with the project.  Granted, I went after the low-hanging fruit.  Newt Gingrich, for example, called the whole project “a lie.”  I don’t believe this is true.  Erick Erickson said it was “activism” and not “journalism.”  This is probably true.  Rush Limbaugh called it a “hoax” and a “threat to American greatness.”  I think Rush is wrong on both counts.

Here is what I concluded:

Most conservative critics do not appear to have spent much time with the articles included in the 1619 Project. Some of them probably stopped reading after they saw the words “reframe” and “true founding.”

But in the end, there is plenty of room at the “center” of the American story for all kinds of people—Native Americans, women, working people, educated white people and others.

We shouldn’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.

I defended the 1619 Project so strongly because I thought it was in bad form to try to trash this project on the anniversary of the arrival of these “20 And odd negroes” in 1619. Yes, I think it is historically inaccurate to claim that the United States was “founded” in 1619, but I let that slide in my remarks because I didn’t want to take away from a commemoration that was important and necessary.  I wrote my post and my op-ed to remind the followers of these conservative pundits that slavery was woven into the historical narrative at a much deeper level than they were willing to admit.  I stand by everything I wrote and I will make a few of those same arguments below.

But Bill McClay is also right about some things.  Here is a taste of his piece:

The first effort in what is promised as an ongoing 1619 endeavor throughout the paper was a 100-page issue of the Sunday Magazine, devoted entirely (except for the oddly jarring inclusion of the Times crossword and other puzzles) to a series of short articles of varying length and genre. They ranged from highly compressed historical arguments to poems and other literary or memoiristic pieces, all of which are in some way devoted to the idea that slavery “and the anti-black racism it required” constitute the true foundation of American history. “Out of slavery,” declare the introductory remarks, “grew nearly everything that has truly made America exceptional: its economic might, its industrial power, its electoral system,” and so on, down to the nation’s propensity for violence and its “endemic racial fears and hatreds.” The Project is therefore dedicated to “considering” the proposition that 1619, rather than 1776, should be regarded as “our nation’s birth year.”

Read the entire piece here.

Some general thoughts:

First, the headline of this article does not sound like Bill McClay.  I am guessing he didn’t write it.  It reads: “How the New York Times is Distorting American History.”  The subtitle reads: “The 1619 Project and its false and destructive narrative about this country.”  The spirit of the piece does not match the title, but this is not unusual.

Second, let’s set the record straight on the status of these “20 And odd negroes” who came to Virginia shores in 1619.  McClay suggests that they were indentured servants.  They were not.  They were slaves.  They were captured in Angola and transported across the Atlantic on a Portuguese slave ship named the Sao Joao Bautista.  It was headed for Mexico.  We know that this ship was packed with 350 slaves.  Somewhere along the way, two English ships attacked the Sao Joao Bautista.  One of those ships, the White Lion, took twenty slaves and brought them to Virginia. The captain traded his human cargo for food and then left.

After the arrival of these slaves in 1619, their status is unclear.  Edmund Morgan, in his magisterial American Slavery-American Freedom, has suggested that they may have been indentured servants.

Third, McClay is correct when he says that The New York Times has a political agenda. Of course it does.  No argument here.  In some ways, the 1619 Project is something akin to Howard Zinn’s A People’s History or a history-related Hollywood movie.  Zinn and Hollywood are not interested in complexity or nuance.  They often get things wrong or cherry-pick the parts of the past that are useful and ignore the rest.  Popular histories and movies use the past to hammer home agendas. So while many of the 1619 Project articles are well done, any claim that the project as a whole is a solid contribution American history must be called into question.  We need to read it critically, as McClay and others have done.  As an American historian, however, I am glad that the project prompted a national conversation, at least for a week or so, about slavery and its legacy.

Here is another way of thinking about this: If The New York Times did not call attention to the 1619 anniversary then who would have? Sure they took things too far, at least from a historical perspective, but I doubt that Commentary, The National Review, The American Conservative, The Washington Times or The Wall Street Journal were going to devote extensive coverage to slavery’s legacy on this important anniversary.

Fourth, McClay is critical of Edward Baptist’s book The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism.   He mentions a few very negative reviews written by respectable scholars.  I am not a scholar of slavery or capitalism, so I can’t judge whether or not Baptist’s book holds water. Indeed, as McClay notes, the reviews are damning–leading me to believe that the book’s argument is probably problematic.  But, as I said in some of my previous writing on 1619, we cannot ignore that slavery and its legacy has been at the center of the American experience.  Even if Baptist’s stats are wrong, I think it is still fair to say that the Northern textile industry benefited from slave labor.  Even Abraham Lincoln seemed to be aware of this.  In his Second Inaugural Address he suggested that both North and South were to blame for the “offense” of slavery and “the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil.”  This is worth discussing.

As I wrote in a blog post, there is a lot of really good scholarship that links American freedom with American slavery.  As I wrote in that post: “there is plenty of room at the ‘center’ of the American story for native Americans, women, working people, white people” AND SLAVES.   Moreover, “the very Western ideas, as articulated in some of our founding documents and by people of Christian faith , provided the impetus for the ABOLITION of slavery.”

Politics and activism is not history.  History is messy.