The 1619 Project: Debate Continues

1619

When we last left the debate on the 1619 Project, Princeton University historian Sean Wilentz leveled more criticism of the project in a piece at The Atlantic.  

Social media historians (and some non-historians who are advancing informed and not-so-informed opinions) are going crazy.  While many ague based on historical evidence and best practices, there is clearly a political dimension to all of this.  The 1619 Project has led to some good conversations on race and slavery in the United States.  It has also exacerbated political divisions in the discipline over how to do history in the 21st century and how the study of the past informs competing visions of American identity.  And yes, as Annette Gordon-Reed tweets, personalities are involved.

There were two major salvos yesterday.

Alex Lichtenstein, the editor of the American Historical Review, considered by many to be the most important historical journal in the United States, weighed-in on the controversy.  Here is a taste:

…many scholars initially greeted 1619 with excitement and effusive praise. In part, I suspect that this was because the basic impulse behind the collection of eighteen articles and many additional short essays—by journalists, historians, sociologists, poets, legal scholars, English professors, artists, playwrights, and novelists—reflects how many, if not most, American historians already teach about that past in the undergraduate classroom….

So why the hostile, if somewhat belated, reaction? Here I admit to being perplexed—hence my initial hesitation to wade into the debate. The initial caveats came from an unlikely precinct, at least for a mainstream public intellectual knock-down, drag-out. In early September, the website of the International Committee of the Fourth International (ICFI) fired a broadside at the Times, denouncing the 1619 Project as “a politically motivated falsification of history” designed, in their view, to bolster the Democratic Party’s alignment with “identity politics” at the expense of any serious engagement with class inequality. This attack came not from the expected quarters of the right, which one imagines would find offensive and unpatriotic the denigration of the American promise as irredeemably racist, but from the Trotskyist left. As good Marxists, the adherents of the Fourth International denounced the project for its “idealism,” that is to say, its tendency to reduce historical causation to “a supra-historical emotional impulse.” By mischaracterizing anti-black racism as an irreducible element built into the “DNA” of the nation and its white citizens, the Trotskyists declared, the 1619 Project is ahistorical and “irrationalist.” This idealist fallacy requires that racism “must persist independently of any change in political or economic conditions,” naturally the very thing that any materialist historian would want to attend to. “The invocation of white racism,” they proclaim, “takes the place of any concrete examination of the economic, political and social history of the country.” Perhaps even worse, “the 1619 Project says nothing about the event that had the greatest impact on the social condition of African-Americans—the Russian Revolution of 1917.”4 (Well, OK, I was with them up to that point.) In some ways, the debate merely reprises one fought out nearly half a century ago: Which came first, racism or slavery? Who is right, Winthrop Jordan or Edmund Morgan?5

But that, it turns out, was merely the opening salvo. In October and November, the ICFI began to post a series of interviews with historians about the 1619 Project on its “World Socialist Web Site,” including (as of January 11) Victoria Bynum (October 30), James McPherson (November 14), James Oakes (November 18), Gordon Wood (November 28), Dolores Janiewski (December 23), and Richard Carwardine (December 31).6 As many critics hastened to note, all of these historians are white. In principle, of course, that should do nothing to invalidate their views. Nevertheless, it was a peculiar choice on the part of the Trotskyist left, since there are undoubtedly African American historians—Marxist and non-Marxist alike—sympathetic to their views. Barbara Fields comes immediately to mind, as she has often made similarly critical appraisals of idealist fallacies about the history of “race” and racism.7

If these scholars all concern themselves in one way or another with historical dilemmas of race and class, they hardly are cut from the same cloth. Bynum, best known for her attention to glimmers of anti-slavery sentiment among southern whites, some of which was driven by class grievances, doesn’t always take the Trotskyists’ bait. For example, she points out that “we cannot assume that individual [southern] Unionists were anti-slavery,” even if they “at the very least connected slavery to their own economic plight in the Civil War era.” Similarly, McPherson, the dean of Civil War historians, acknowledges in his interview that initially most Union Army soldiers fought to “revenge an attack on the flag.” (As the Green-Wood memorial indicates, that’s how many chose to remember it as well.) Still, McPherson complains that the 1619 Project consists of “a very unbalanced, one-sided account, which lack[s] context and perspective on the complexity of slavery.” Yet it is safe to say that he would not sign on to the Marxist version of the Civil War preferred by the ICFI—“the greatest expropriation of private property in world history, not equaled until the Russian Revolution in 1917.”8

McPherson insists in his interview that “opposition to slavery, and opposition to racism, has also been an important theme in American history.” Sure, but it wouldn’t be difficult to find a dozen historians who could say, with confidence, yes, but on balance, slavery and racism themselves have probably been just as, if not more, important. In his interview, Oakes, one of the most sophisticated historians of the rise of the nineteenth-century Republican Party and its complex place within an emergent anti-slavery coalition, offers a bracing critique of the recent literature on slavery and capitalism, scholarship that underpins sociologist Matthew Desmond’s contribution to 1619. But other than gamely defending Lincoln against the charge of racism, Oakes doesn’t really direct much fire at the 1619 Project in particular. For his part, Wood (described by the Trotskyists as “the leading historian of the American Revolution”) seems affronted mostly by the failure of the 1619 Project to solicit his advice, and appears offended by the suggestion that the Revolutionary generation might have had some interest in protecting slavery. Yet, oddly enough, even he seems to endorse what has become one of the project’s most controversial assertions—that “[Lord] Dunmore’s proclamation in 1775, which promised the slaves freedom if they joined the Crown’s cause, provoked many hesitant Virginia planters to become patriots.” Those are Wood’s words, and they are part of his wide-ranging and fascinating discussion of the place of anti-slavery and pro-slavery sentiment in the Revolutionary era and the Revolutionary Atlantic World more generally.

Taken as a whole, the interviews are of enormous interest, but more for what they have to say about these scholars’ own interpretations of key aspects of American history than as a full-on attack on the 1619 Project. Reading closely, one sees the interviewed historians trying to avoid saying what the Trotskyists would like them to say, offering a far more nuanced view of the past. This certainly entails dissent from some of the specific claims of 1619, but it hardly requires them to embrace fully the Trotskyist alternative, which I suspect at least several of them would be reluctant to do. Frankly, I wish the AHR had published these interviews, and I hope they get wide circulation. Not for the critique of the 1619 Project itself, but because collectively they insist on the significance of historical context, the careful weighing of evidence, the necessity of understanding change over time, and the potential dangers of reductionism. I would urge anyone to read them.

Read the entire piece here.  Lichtenstein respects the critics of the 1619 Project who were interviewed at World Socialist Web Site, but he was not overly impressed by the letter these critics wrote to The New York Times.

The second major response to Wilentz’s piece in The Atlantic comes from early American historian David Waldstreicher at the Boston Review.  Here is a summary of Waldstreicher’s piece:

Some historians, espousing what we might call the establishment view, insist that it is anachronistic to see slavery as central to our understanding of the decades-long revolutionary period. According to this view, the Revolution was in fact fundamentally antislavery, since it led to what Bernard Bailyn called in his 1967 study The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution a “contagion of liberty” that made it possible for Americans to think critically about ending the institution. Such accounts emphasize that various Northern states restricted the slave trade and began to institute gradual emancipation during and after the Revolutionary war, and that enslaved people used the ideals of equality voiced during the Revolution to press their own case for freedom. Although a civil war was fought over what the government could and could not do about slavery, these historians say, Lincoln and other members of the Republican Party envisioned a path to emancipation under the Constitution and made it happen.

This is the accepted orthodoxy underwriting the contention, made in the letter sent to the Times, that it is just wrong—as well as bad politics—to tell schoolchildren that some or many or even any American revolutionaries fought to defend their property in slaves from a powerful imperial government. Hannah-Jones wrote that defending slavery was a primary motivation for independence in 1776, but the pushback from Wood and Wilentz was far more absolute. This was not surprising to academics who have followed the work of these historians. Wilentz argues in his latest book, No Property in Man: Slavery and Antislavery at the Nation’s Founding(2018), that the Constitution was antislavery in its essence and most of its subsequent workings, and has repeatedly gone out of his way to attack those who emphasize the proslavery politics of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Andrew Jackson. And for his part, Wood, a student of Bailyn, called talk of slavery and the Constitution in Staughton Lynd’s pathbreaking work “anachronistic” in his 1969 book The Creation of the American Republicand has never let up. According to his view, the founders belonged to a “premodern” society and didn’t talk or think about slavery or black people. In response to Silverstein’s response, he wrote, “I don’t know of any colonist who said that they wanted independence in order to preserve their slaves. No colonist expressed alarm that the mother country was out to abolish slavery in 1776.”

On the other side of this debate is a growing number of scholars—Woody Holton, Annette Gordon-Reed, Michael McDonnell, Gerald Horne, and myself, among others—who question the establishment view of the Revolution and the founders. These historians, most of them younger than Wood or Wilentz, see a multi-sided struggle in an American Revolution that was about colonizing and winning power and authority. They see slavery as more than a peripheral matter. They do not take for granted that the story is primarily one of uncovering the motives and beliefs of the founders. Their work has considerably undercut the glass-half-full version of the narrative, which sees the end of slavery as a long-term consequence of American idealism and independence.

In ambitious works that explore the “unknown” revolutions that contributed to the independence movement, for example, books such as Gary Nash’s The Unknown American Revolution(2005) and Alan Taylor’s American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750–1804(2016) have challenged Wood’s sunnier version of events. In their hands the story loses some of its traditional romance but gains a deeper sense of realism. Other scholars, such as Robert Parkinson in his book The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution (2016), have shown just how concerned the revolutionaries were, in both the North and the South, with slaves as an internal enemy. Perhaps most important of all, newer histories show how Africans and their children themselves forced the issue onto the agenda of the revolutionaries and the empires competing for dominion, especially in wartime. If we were talking about any other revolution or civil war, we wouldn’t be surprised that enslaved people fought on both sides, depending on which side seemed more likely to improve their condition.

Read the entire piece here.

Whatever you think of Waldstreicher’s article, it is a wonderful overview of revolutionary-era historiography.  Graduate students take note.

Stay tuned.  We have more coming on this controversy.  In the meantime, read all of our posts on the 1619 Project here.  I also tried to explain the project to my local community here.