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.

Sean Wilentz’s Criticism of *The New York Times*’s 1619 Project

1619

Some of you will remember Sean Wilentz‘s letter to The New York Times criticizing the newspaper’s 1619 Project.  You can read it here.  The letter is signed by Wilentz, Victoria Bynum, James McPherson, James Oakes, and Gordon Wood.  With the exception of Wilentz, all of these American historians criticized the 1619 Project at the World Socialist Web Site.

After the publication of the letter, journalist Adam Serwer wrote a piece at The Atlantic titled, “The Fight Over the 1619 Project is Not About the Facts.” The subtitle reads: “A dispute between a small group of scholars and the authors of The New York Times Magazine‘s issue on slavery represents a fundamental disagreement over the trajectory of American society.”

Today The Atlantic published a longer piece by Wilentz on the subject.  Here is a taste of piece “A Matter of Facts“:

The opportunity seized by the 1619 Project is as urgent as it is enormous. For more than two generations, historians have deepened and transformed the study of the centrality of slavery and race to American history and generated a wealth of facts and interpretations. Yet the subject, which connects the past to our current troubled times, remains too little understood by the general public. The 1619 Project proposed to fill that gap with its own interpretation.

To sustain its particular take on an immense subject while also informing a wide readership is a remarkably ambitious goal, imposing, among other responsibilities, a scrupulous regard for factual accuracy. Readers expect nothing less from The New York Times, the project’s sponsor, and they deserve nothing less from an effort as profound in its intentions as the 1619 Project. During the weeks and months after the 1619 Project first appeared, however, historians, publicly and privately, began expressing alarm over serious inaccuracies.

On December 20, the Times Magazine published a letter that I signed with four other historians—Victoria Bynum, James McPherson, James Oakes, and Gordon Wood. Our letter applauded the project’s stated aim to raise public awareness and understanding of slavery’s central importance in our history. Although the project is not a conventional work of history and cannot be judged as such, the letter intended to help ensure that its efforts did not come at the expense of basic accuracy. Offering practical support to that end, it pointed out specific statements that, if allowed to stand, would misinform the public and give ammunition to those who might be opposed to the mission of grappling with the legacy of slavery. The letter requested that the Times print corrections of the errors that had already appeared, and that it keep those errors from appearing in any future materials published with the Times’ imprimatur, including the school curricula the newspaper announced it was developing in conjunction with the project.

The letter has provoked considerable reaction, some of it from historians affirming our concerns about the 1619 Project’s inaccuracies, some from historians questioning our motives in pointing out those inaccuracies, and some from the Times itself. In the newspaper’s lengthy formal response, the New York Times Magazine editor in chief, Jake Silverstein, flatly denied that the project “contains significant factual errors” and said that our request for corrections was not “warranted.” Silverstein then offered new evidence to support claims that our letter had described as groundless. In the interest of historical accuracy, it is worth examining his denials and new claims in detail.

No effort to educate the public in order to advance social justice can afford to dispense with a respect for basic facts. In the long and continuing battle against oppression of every kind, an insistence on plain and accurate facts has been a powerful tool against propaganda that is widely accepted as truth. That tool is far too important to cede now.

Read the entire rest here.  Whatever one thinks about Wilentz’s argument, it is hard to say that he is not making a case based on historical facts or offering a critique of the 1619 Project that is within the bounds of historical inquiry.

Clayborne Carson is the Latest to Talk to the World Socialist Web Site About the 1619 Project

Clayborne Carson


Clayborne Carson and former Black Panther Ericka Huggins at Occupy Oakland Protest, November 2, 2011

Clayborne Carson is professor of history at Stanford University and director of its Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute. He is the author and editor of numerous books on King and the civil rights movement, including The Papers of Martin Luther King Jr.

Here is a taste of his interview with Tom Mackaman at World Socialist Web Site:

Q. …I think one of the things that is missing in the lead essay by Nikole Hannah-Jones is any appreciation of the power of the contradiction that was introduced in 1776 with the proclamation of human equality, and also the impact of the Revolution itself. I thought in our interview with Gordon Wood he took that question up very effectively, pointing out that slavery became very conspicuous as a result of the Revolution. Also disregarded is the Afro-Caribbean historian Eric Williams, who analyzed the impact of the American Revolution on the demise of slavery. Instead the Revolution is presented as a conspiracy to perpetuate slavery.

A. Yes, and it’s wonderful to concentrate on that contradiction because that to me explains Frederick Douglass, it explains King. What all of these people were united on was to expose that contradiction—and we should always keep exposing it—the contradiction between the self-image of the United States as a free and democratic country and the reality that it’s not. If you are a black leader, your job is to expose that contradiction. If you go through a list of all the great orations in African American history, nearly all of them focus on that. They want to expose that and use that contradiction.

Read the rest here.

Click here to see our previous posts on the 1619 Project.

1619 or 1776?

1619

The debate over the 1619 Project continues. What is the 1619 Project and how has the debate over its publication unfolded thus far?  Click here and read our posts.

Here is Conor Friedersdorf a The Atlantic:

America’s original revolutionaries, along with Abraham LincolnFrederick Douglass, and Martin Luther King Jr., all placed the universalist ideals of the Declaration of Independence at the center of this country’s founding. But that paradigm is under vigorous challenge from The New York Times Magazine. Last summer, the magazine began publishing the 1619 Project, marking the 400th anniversary of enslaved Africans’ arrival in Virginia. In essays, stories, poems, podcast episodes, and more, the Times has grappled with how slavery shaped all that followed.

More controversially, the project explicitly aims to reframe American history, rejecting the centrality of 1776 and instead “understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.” In 2020, the Times will expand the 1619 Project into a book and promote classroom materials adapted from it.

That revisionist ambition quickly brought out critics—in outlets as normally antagonistic as The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page and the World Socialist Web Site—who challenged the Times’s reframing and the factual claims offered as its basis. Last month, five historians alleged significant factual errors in a letter published in the magazine, alongside a response from Jake Silverstein, its editor in chief, who declined to issue corrections. That prompted another round of critical coverage from the World Socialist Web Site and historian Gordon Wood, a leading scholar of the period, who was irked most by the Times Magazine’s doubling down on the claim that a primary reason American colonists favored independence was to protect slavery. “I don’t know of any colonist who said that they wanted independence in order to preserve their slaves,” he wrote. “No colonist expressed alarm that the mother country was out to abolish slavery in 1776.”

That movement conservatives, tenured historians, and the editors of the World Socialist Web Site align so substantially in their critiques has broader significance. The debate over the relative salience of class, race, and hierarchy in the United States has divided the left while yielding odd convergences, and not only between classical liberals on the left and right. Both Trotskyites and movement conservatives can be fiercely protective of the revolution of 1776 and worry that centering race in history and politics divides America in corrosive ways (though they differ wildly on what should or will likely happen if racial fissures recede).

My own judgment diverges somewhat from the main rival factions in this debate. Like many critics, I hope the Times Magazine’s work succeeds in causing more Americans to recognize the remarkable faith that African Americans showed in our country’s promise even in eras when America least deserved it. Yet the core reframing that the 1619 Project advocates would unwittingly set back, rather than advance, the causes of equity and racial inclusion. Placing America’s founding moment in 1776 honors the diversity of its people in a way that 1619 does not.

Read the rest here.

University of North Carolina Historian Peter Colcanis Joins the Criticism of *The New York Times* 1619 Project

1619

Peter Colcanis, Albert R. Newsome Distinguished Professor of History at UNC,  writes at Spectator USA:

The great French historian Marc Bloch wrote many years ago in The Historian’s Craft about the ‘idol of origins’. When people make the common error of fixating on beginnings, they run the risk of ‘confusing ancestry with explanation’. The principals in the New York Times’s project seem to be doing just that in their effort to establish an unrelenting and remorseless 400-year genealogy of unmitigated white-on-black racism in the United States, beginning with the landing of ‘some 20. and odd Negroes’ at Point Comfort in 1619.

Slavery was, and indeed still is, an enormity. Figures compiled by a variety of organizations, ranging from the Free the Slaves advocacy group to the International Labour Organization (ILO), suggest that there are roughly three times as many slaves in the world today than were trafficked during the entire history of the Atlantic slave trade. To be sure, the figure for today derives in technical terms from a ‘stock’ concept (a measurement made at a given point in time, which can be the result of accumulated flows), whereas the figure for the Atlantic slave trade derives from a ‘flow’ concept (a measurement made over a given period of time). But the difference between the two is nonetheless worth noting.

To invoke ‘modern’ slavery is not to downplay the historical horrors of the Atlantic slave trade, only to call attention to the continuing horror of slavery amongst vulnerable groups and individuals, and to guard against what the great Marxist historian E.P. Thompson referred to as ‘the enormous condescension of posterity’ toward actors and actions in the past.

The New York Times is peddling a linear narrative of national shame, its principal theme invariant racial oppression, or, to be more specific, the incessant depredations by villainous — or at best acquiescent — whites against friendless blacks. And this throbbing narrative allegedly began in 1619. But history, pace Nikole Hannah-Jones, doesn’t often work that way. Linearity works for certain problems — Ohm’s law in electricity and electromagnetics, for example — but not for others. Linearity certainly does not work for history, which is complex and polychromatic, circuitous and irregular. History, alas, is rather more tragedy than melodrama, and is not color-coded.

Read the rest here.

Oxford’s Richard Carwardine is the Latest American Historian to Criticize the 1619 Project

Carwardine

Like James McPherson, Gordon Wood, Victoria Bynum, and James Oakes before him, historian Richard Carwardine has criticized The New York Times 1619 Project in an interview at World Socialist Web Site.

Here is a taste:

Q. Let me begin by asking you your reaction to the 1619 Project’s lead essay, by Nikole Hannah-Jones, upon reading it.

A. As well as the essay I have read your interviews with James McPherson and James Oakes. I share their sense that, putting it politely, this is a tendentious and partial reading of American history.

I understand where this Project is coming from, politically and culturally. 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.

I’m all for recovering and celebrating the history of those whose voices have been historically muted and I certainly understand the concern of historians in recent times, black and white, that the black contribution to the United States has not been fully recognized. But 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.

Q. I agree with everything you’ve said. There was a long period in American historiography in which the contributions of African-Americans were written out, and what prevailed was a basically false presentation in which the problems of slavery were obscured. But it seems the 1619 Project has simply put a minus sign where that earlier historiography, the Dunning School and so on, put a plus.

A. Yes. As an undergraduate at Oxford in the 1960s I was aware of work that brought a fresh and deeper understanding of African-American history. This was an era of breakthrough studies on slavery and anti-slavery, and “history from below” more widely, a development which chimed with so much of the best British radical and Marxist historiography. That was a stimulating time to be studying American history. As you say, African-American historiography has been transformed since then. I am pleased, but not surprised, that some African-American historians are stepping forward to challenge the narrative that appeared in the New York Times.

Q. 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?

A. 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.

Read the entire interview here.

The Fight Over the *New York Times* 1619 Project

1619

I have said all I want to say about the 1619 Project.  You can read my posts here.

Over at The Atlantic, David Serwer tells the story behind the opposition to the project coming from historians Sean Wilentz, Victoria Bynum, Gordon Wood, James McPherson, and James Oakes. These historians recently published a letter criticizing the project.  Here is a taste:

Underlying each of the disagreements in the letter is not just a matter of historical fact but a conflict about whether Americans, from the Founders to the present day, are committed to the ideals they claim to revere. And while some of the critiques can be answered with historical fact, others are questions of interpretation grounded in perspective and experience.

In fact, the harshness of the Wilentz letter may obscure the extent to which its authors and the creators of the 1619 Project share a broad historical vision. Both sides agree, as many of the project’s right-wing critics do not, that slavery’s legacy still shapes American life—an argument that is less radical than it may appear at first glance. If you think anti-black racism still shapes American society, then you are in agreement with the thrust of the 1619 Project, though not necessarily with all of its individual arguments.

The clash between the Times authors and their historian critics represents a fundamental disagreement over the trajectory of American society. Was America founded as a slavocracy, and are current racial inequities the natural outgrowth of that? Or was America conceived in liberty, a nation haltingly redeeming itself through its founding principles? These are not simple questions to answer, because the nation’s pro-slavery and anti-slavery tendencies are so closely intertwined.

The letter is rooted in a vision of American history as a slow, uncertain march toward a more perfect union. The 1619 Project, and Hannah-Jones’s introductory essay in particular, offer a darker vision of the nation, in which Americans have made less progress than they think, and in which black people continue to struggle indefinitely for rights they may never fully realize. Inherent in that vision is a kind of pessimism, not about black struggle but about the sincerity and viability of white anti-racism. It is a harsh verdict, and one of the reasons the 1619 Project has provoked pointed criticism alongside praise.

Americans need to believe that, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, the arc of history bends toward justice. And they are rarely kind to those who question whether it does.

Read the entire piece here.

Whose Afraid of the 1619 Project?

1619

Interviews with historians James McPherson, Gordon Wood, and James Oakes at a socialist website are firing-up the political critics of The New York Times‘s 1619 Project.  The latest to attack the project is Max Eden of the conservative Manhattan Institute.  In his City Journal piece “A Divisive, Historically Dubious Curriculum” Eden concludes:

To understand their country, students should read America’s Founding documents and the works of great figures like Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, and grapple with history’s circumstantial and moral complexities—not “reframe” history to make it fit partisan purposes. They should be taught about the moral abomination of American slavery—but not that “slavery is our country’s very origin,” or that its legacy is baked into all our social institutions, allegations that cannot stand up to any fair-minded examination of American history. The themes and messages of the 1619 Project are not only historically dubious; they will also lead to deeper civic alienation. Conscientious teachers should file the 1619 curriculum where it belongs: in the waste bin.

Read the entire piece here.

Ramesh Ponnuru, an editor at The National Review, got so excited about Eden’s piece that he quoted the above paragraph at his blog with no commentary.

The 1619 Project is not perfect.  Some of it is not very good.  But why are people like Eden so afraid of this project?  For all its flaws, the themes of the 1619 Project are things that students need to wrestle with in the classroom. And they need to wrestle with them critically.  And they need to wrestle with them under the guidance of a skilled history teacher.  Eden believes that if students read the 1619 Project they will somehow be indoctrinated into a mode of “civic alienation.”  But this is not how a history classroom works. In fact, most good history teachers would find Eden’s piece offensive. Good history teachers teach the past to help their students think critically (and historically) about the world.  The study of the past teaches students how to understand the complexity of the human experience, change over time and continuity, causation, and contingency.  Students learn how detect bias in sources. They learn how to empathize with different voices.  They learn how to read more deeply.  These are the things that will make them better citizens.

I would jump at the chance to teach the 1619 Project.

  1. The 1619 Project forces us to comes to grips with the African-American experience in America.
  2. The 1619 Project appeared in The New York Times and has been getting a lot of attention lately.  Because of the reach of The New York Times and the ongoing debate over the Project, it begs consideration in the history classroom.  Do we really want to pretend that The 1619 Project doesn’t exist?  Do we want to shield students from it? No, we want to engage it.
  3. I would use the 1619 Project alongside primary source and second source material (like the World Socialist Website interviews) to teach my students the skills of the historian.  Instead of telling them that the 1619 Project is good or bad, I want to give my students the skill to be able to draw their own conclusions.

Eden’s piece has nothing to do with the teaching of history.  It has everything to do with politics.

Historian James Oakes on the 1619 Project

1619

Princeton Civil War historian James McPherson has weighed-in.  So has Gordon Wood, a historian of the American Revolution.  And now it is time for CUNY-Graduate School historian James Oakes to offer his opinion on The New York Times‘s 1619 Project.

Here is a taste of the World Socialist Website’s interview with Oakes:

Q. Can you discuss some of the recent literature on slavery and capitalism, which argues that chattel slavery was, and is, the decisive feature of capitalism, especially American capitalism? I am thinking in particular of the recent books by Sven Beckert, Ed Baptist and Walter Johnson. This seems to inform the contribution to the 1619 Project by Matthew Desmond.

A. Collectively their work has prompted some very strong criticism from scholars in the field. My concern is that by avoiding some of the basic analytical questions, most of the scholars have backed into a neo-liberal economic interpretation of slavery, though I think I’d exempt Sven Beckert somewhat from that, because I think he’s come to do something somewhat different theoretically.

What you really have with this literature is a marriage of neo-liberalism and liberal guilt. When you marry those two things, neo-liberal politics and liberal guilt, this is what you get. You get the New York Times, you get the literature on slavery and capitalism.

Q. Let me ask you about Lincoln. He’s not discussed much in Ms. Hannah-Jones’ article—

A. Yes, she does the famous 1862 meeting Lincoln had in the White House on colonization—

Q. Lincoln is presented as a garden-variety racist…

A. Yes, and she also says somewhere else that he issued the Emancipation Proclamation simply as a military tactic…

Q. Could you comment on that?

A. It’s ridiculous. Most of what Abraham Lincoln had to say about African Americans was anti-racist, from the first major speech he gives on slavery in 1854, when he says, “If the negro is a man, why then my ancient faith teaches me that ‘all men are created equal’; and that there can be no moral right in connection with one man’s making a slave of another.” Lincoln says, can’t we stop talking about this race and that race being equal or inferior and go back to the principle that all men are created equal. And he says this so many times and in so many ways. By the late 1850s he was vehemently denouncing Stephen Douglas and his northern Democrats for their racist demagoguery, which Lincoln complained was designed to accustom the American people to the idea that slavery was the permanent, natural condition of black people. His speeches were becoming, quite literally, anti-racist.

Now, he grew up in Indiana and he lived as an adult in Illinois, and Illinois had some of the harshest discriminatory laws in the North. That is to say, he inhabited a world in which it’s almost unimaginable to him that white people will ever allow black people to live as equals. So on the one hand he denounces racism and is committed to emancipation, to the overthrow of slavery, gradually or however it would take place. But on the other hand he believes white people will never allow blacks equality. So he advocates voluntary colonization. Find a place somewhere where blacks can enjoy the full fruits of liberty that all human beings are entitled to. It’s a very pessimistic view about the possibilities of racial equality. Ironically, it’s not all that far from Lincoln’s critics today who say that racism is built into the American DNA. At least Lincoln got over it and came to the conclusion that we’re going to have to live as equals here.

The statement he makes on colonization was framed as an unflinching attack on the colonizationists who were motivated by their hatred of blacks, who wanted free blacks expelled from the country simply because they were black. It’s a vehement attack on the racist justification of colonization. So Lincoln favors colonization, but he abandons it with the Emancipation Proclamation once it no longer serves the political function of promoting state abolition, and once he comes to accept that America was going to have to be a multi-racial nation.

Still, that meeting with African Americans in the summer of 1862 was terrible. As I said in a previous book, it was a low point in his presidency. But although Lincoln at that point was still sincerely committed to colonization, he was also a politician and it was also a strategic meeting. He was sitting on the Emancipation Proclamation. He knew that northern racists were going to be annoyed because they’d been saying from the start that they didn’t want the Civil War to be about freeing the slaves, they wanted it to be about nothing more than restoring the union. So Lincoln is throwing them a sop by behaving in a disgraceful, condescending manner toward a group of African American leaders in the most conspicuous, public way.

Read the entire interview here.

Gordon Wood on the 1619 Project

Earlier this month we did a post on the World Socialist Website’s interview with James McPherson.  The topic was The New York Times‘s 1619 Project.

And now the same website has published an interview with historian Gordon Wood.

Here is a taste of the interview:

Q. The 1619 Project claims basically that nothing has ever gotten any better. That it’s as bad now as it was during slavery, and instead what you’re describing is a very changed world…

A. Imagine the inequalities that existed before the Revolution. Not just in wealth—I mean, we have that now—but in the way in which people were treated. Consider the huge number of people who were servants of some kind. I just think that people need to know just how bad the Ancién Regime was. In France, we always had this Charles Dickens Tale of Two Cities view of the society, with a nobleman riding through the village and running over children and so on. But similar kinds of brutalities and cruelties existed in the English-speaking world in the way common people were treated. In England, there must have been 200 capital crimes on the books. Consequently, juries became somewhat reluctant to convict to hanging a person for stealing a handkerchief. So the convict was sent as a bonded servant to the colonies, 50,000 of them. And then when the American Revolution occurs, Australia becomes the replacement.

I don’t think people realize just what a cruel and brutal world existed in the Ancién Regime, in the premodern societies of the West, not just for slaves, but for lots of people who were considered the mean or lowly sort. And they don’t appreciate what a radical message is involved in declaring that all men are created equal and what that message means for our obsession with education, and the implications of that for our society.

Read the entire interview here.

Civil War Historian James McPherson on the Problems with the 1619 Project

1619

What is the 1619 Project?  Get up to speed here.

Prize-winning Civil War historian James McPherson talks to Tom Mackaman at the World Socialist Website.  Here is a taste of the interview:

Q. What was your initial reaction to the 1619 Project?

A. Well, I didn’t know anything about it until I got my Sunday paper, with the magazine section entirely devoted to the 1619 Project. Because this is a subject I’ve long been interested in I sat down and started to read some of the essays. I’d say that, almost from the outset, I was disturbed by what seemed like a very unbalanced, one-sided account, which lacked context and perspective on the complexity of slavery, which was clearly, obviously, not an exclusively American institution, but existed throughout history. And slavery in the United States was only a small part of a larger world process that unfolded over many centuries. And in the United States, too, there was not only slavery but also an antislavery movement. So I thought the account, which emphasized American racism—which is obviously a major part of the history, no question about it—but it focused so narrowly on that part of the story that it left most of the history out.

So I read a few of the essays and skimmed the rest, but didn’t pursue much more about it because it seemed to me that I wasn’t learning very much new. And I was a little bit unhappy with the idea that people who did not have a good knowledge of the subject would be influenced by this and would then have a biased or narrow view…

Q. We’ve spoken to a lot of historians, leading scholars in the fields of slavery, the Civil War, the American Revolution, and we’re finding that none of them were approached. Although the Times doesn’t list its sources, what do you think, in terms of scholarship, this 1619 Project is basing itself on?

A. I don’t really know. One of the people they approached is Kevin Kruse, who wrote about Atlanta. He’s a colleague, a professor here at Princeton. He doesn’t quite fit the mold of the other writers. But I don’t know who advised them, and what motivated them to choose the people they did choose.

Q. Nikole Hannah-Jones, the lead writer and leader of the 1619 Project, includes a statement in her essay—and I would say that this is the thesis of the project—that “anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country.”

A. Yes, I saw that too. It does not make very much sense to me. I suppose she’s using DNA metaphorically. She argues that racism is the central theme of American history. It is certainly part of the history. But again, I think it lacks context, lacks perspective on the entire course of slavery and how slavery began and how slavery in the United States was hardly unique. And racial convictions, or “anti-other” convictions, have been central to many societies.

But the idea that racism is a permanent condition, well that’s just not true. And it also doesn’t account for the countervailing tendencies in American history as well. Because opposition to slavery, and opposition to racism, has also been an important theme in American history.

Read the entire piece here.

Does the 1619 Project Distort American History?

1619

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.

Michael Gerson: Conservative reaction to the “1619 Project” is “disappointing”

1619

If you want to get conservatives riled-up these days, just mention the “1619 Project.”  Last week I published an op-ed about the The New York Times  project designed to commemorate 400 years of slavery in America and all hell broke loose.  You can read my piece in the Harrisburg Patriot-News here. (Read some of the 155 comments).

Since the appearance of this piece I have received multiple negative voicemail messages on my office phone.  It took one guy three messages to tell me that I was wrong.  His rant was cut off by the “beep” and then he continued mid-sentence in the next message.  Another caller insisted that I call him back and defend myself against his criticisms. Apparently the piece was republished in a Grand Rapids, Michigan newspaper.  How do I know this?  Because somebody approached me at my daughter’s volleyball game  (she goes to college in Grand Rapids) and wanted to politely debate me.  My posts on the 1619 Project here at the blog drew some intense push-back from commentators.  Some of the comments were so ugly I refused to post them.  Eventually I just decided to close down the comments section.

Not all conservatives are opposed to the way the 1619 project frames American history.  One of them is Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson.  Here is a taste of his recent piece:

I am thinking instead of conservative writers who argue that the 1619 Project is a prime example of leftist ideological overreach — that its (mainly African American) authors see the country entirely through the prism of its sins and intend to “delegitimize” the American experiment. In making this case, some conservatives have offered excuses — or at least mitigations — for the moral failures of the Founders on matters of race. The institution of slavery, we are assured, was historically ubiquitous. The global slave trade, we are reminded, involved not just Americans but Arabs and black Africans. Other countries, we are told, took more slaves than America, treated them worse and liberated them later.

The attempt here is to defend the honor of the American experiment by denying the uniqueness of its hypocrisy on slavery. In one way or another, all these arguments ask us to consider the inadequacies of the Founders within the context of their times.

But to deny the uniqueness of American guilt on slavery is also to deny the uniqueness of its aspirations. Americans are required to have ambiguous feelings about many of the country’s Founders precisely because of the moral ideals the Founders engraved in American life. The height of their ambitions is also the measure of their hypocrisy. It should unsettle us that the author of the Declaration of Independence built a way of life entirely dependent on human bondage.

This leads to an unavoidably complex form of patriotism. We properly venerate not the Founders, but the standards they raised and often failed to meet. This is their primary achievement: They put into place an ideological structure that harshly judged their own practice and drove American democracy to achievements beyond the limits of their vision.

Read the entire piece here.

The 1619 Project: A “patriotism not of hagiography but of struggle”

1619

Over at Boston Review, Princeton graduate student David Walsh wonders why the conservative view of “patriotism” is so “fragile.”  He comes up with three reasons for this:

  1. The conservative propensity for “viewing freedom and equality as incompatible.”
  2. Conservatives are invested in the “explicitly racist power arrangements that the 1619 Protect criticizes.
  3. Conservatives “revere history as a source of  incontestable authority, as opposed to a storehouse of fallible human experience.”

Read the entire piece here.

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.

Penn Live: “It’s time to remember the central role slavery played in the making of America”

Virginia sign

This piece at today’s Penn Live/Harrisburg Patriot-News will look somewhat familiar to readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  A taste:

In August 1619, a shipment of “20 And odd Negroes” from Angola arrived at Point Comfort, Virginia. They got there because earlier in the year English pirates stole them from a Portuguese slave ship headed for Vera Cruz, Mexico, and sold them to the earliest Jamestown settlers in exchange for food.

While the story of these Africans is complicated, historians agree that the August 1619 shipment was the beginning of slavery in the English colonies of North America. On Sunday, to commemorate the 400th anniversary of slavery in the colonies, The New York Times released a series of essays and a website called “The 1619 Project.” The Times describes the project as a “major initiative” to “reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who were are.”

The 1619 Project is excellent. Some of our best scholars of African American history, slavery, and race have contributed articles. The racist legacy of slavery in America, they argue, has shaped everything from capitalism to health care, and traffic patterns to music. I hope that teachers will use it in their classrooms.

But not everyone is happy about the 1619 Project. Talk radio host Rush Limbaugh called it a “hoax” and a threat to “American greatness.” Texas Senator Ted Cruz told his Twitter followers that the project is a political attempt by the left to rewrite America’s history. He questioned the journalistic integrity of The Times

Read the rest here.

This is the Best You Will Get from the *National Review* on “The 1619 Project”

1619

Jim Geraghty writes about everything that is missing from the story of African-American history told in The New York Times 1619 Project.  The National Review writer seems to think that the project is an African-American history textbook that must cover everything.

But David French sees some merit in the project:

The black American argument for liberty is achieving new prominence in part because of the New York Times’s “ 1619 Project” — an ambitious effort to reframe the arrival of the first slaves on America’s shores as our nation’s “true founding.” Many of the accompanying essays are interesting and provocative, though they don’t truly make the case that America came into being as a result of slavery rather than through the ratification of one of the most stirring and aspirational documents in human history. The true founding of our nation resulted in the creation of a series of painful conflicts between the promise of liberty and the reality of oppression, and the promise of liberty has prevailed time and again. But the focus on 1619 should provide modern Evangelicals — many of whom are in a state of near-panic — with a healthy dose of perspective.

I like French’s piece because he draws upon African-American history as an antidote to evangelical political pessimism.  A lot of his thoughts here echo the last chapter of Believe Me in which I suggested that the Civil Rights Movement could serve as a model for white evangelical political engagement today.

Are Conservatives Unable to Deal with the Complexity of American History?

Why Study HistoryThe responses to the 1619 Project sure make it look that way.

Complexity, of course, is one of the 5 Cs of historical thinking.

Over at Slate, Rebecca Onion traces the conservative backlash to The New York Times project back to the “history wars” of the 1990s.  Here is a taste of her piece, “A Brief History of the History Wars“:

The controversial history standards, along with the defeated and revised Enola Gay exhibit, provided a fine set of talking points for Republicans seeking election in 1995. Presidential candidate Bob Dole referenced the Enola Gay exhibit controversy in a speech to the American Legion in September 1995, calling the national history standards an effort “to denigrate America’s story while sanitizing and glorifying other cultures.” Newt Gingrich—a history Ph.D. who has long delighted in claiming the authority of “historian,” despite having left the academy in 1978 after being denied tenure—made hay of the exhibit and the standards in his own efforts to flip the House to the Republicans. “In a postelection interview,” Wallace writes, “Gingrich said that the new Republican leadership intended to improve the country’s moral climate, especially by ‘teaching the truth about American history.’ ” Later, Gingrich told the National Governors Association: “The Enola Gay fight was a fight, in effect, over the reassertion by most Americans that they’re sick and tired of being told by some cultural elite that they ought to be ashamed of their country.”

By 2019, these arguments have become standard conservative fare, and liberals continue to have a hard time countering them. The New York Times Magazine’s use of the term reframe to describe its intention in reconceptualizing the sweep of American history drew particular conservative ire. I think that’s because it sounds a little like “revisionist,” a favorite trigger word for history culture warriors. In 2003, when George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice used it to slam those who criticized the foundations of the war in Iraq, then-president of the American Historical Association James McPherson observed: “Neither Bush nor Rice offered a definition of this phrase, but their body language and tone of voice appeared to suggest that they wanted listeners to understand ‘revisionist history’ to be a consciously falsified interpretation of the past to serve partisan or ideological purposes in the present.”

Read the rest here.

Onion is right about conservative’s resistance to words like “reframing” and “revisionism.”  Yesterday I argued the same thing about The 1619 Project.  I have also said a few things over the years about revisionist history.  This is from Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past:

…the responsibility of the historian is to resurrect the past.  Yet, because we live in the present, far removed from the events of the past, our ability to construct what happened in by-gone eras is limited.  This is why the doing of history requires an act of the imagination.  Sometimes we do not have the sources to provide a complete picture of “what happened” at any given time….

Even the best accounts of the past are open to change based on new evidence or the work of historians who approach a subject with a different lens of interpretation.  In this sense, history is more about competing perceptions of the past than it is about nailing down a definitive account of a specific event or life…While the past never changes, history changes all the time.  Think, for example, about two eyewitness accounts of the same auto accident.  Even if we assume that the drivers involved in the accident believe that they are telling the truth about what happened, it is still likely that the police will receive two very different accounts  of how the accident occurred and two different accounts of who is to blame or who caused the accident.  It is thus up to the police officer in charge, or perhaps a judge, to weigh the evidence and come up with a plausible interpretation of this historical event.  But let’s imagine two weeks after the paperwork is filed and the case is closed, a reliable eyewitness to the accident emerges with new evidence to suggest that the person who the judge held responsible for the accident was actually not at fault.  This new information leads to a new historical narrative of what happened.  History has changed.  This is called revisionism, and it is the lifeblood of the historical profession.

The word revisionism carries a negative connotation in American society because it is usually associated with changing true facts of the past in order to fit some kind of agenda in the present.  But actually, the historian who is called a “revisionist” received a high compliment.  In his book Who Owns History?, Pulitzer Prize-winning history professor Eric Foner recalls a conversation with a Newsweek reporter who asked him, “When did historians stop relating facts and start all this revising of interpretations of the past?”  Foner responded, “Around the time of Thucydides.” (Thucydides is the Greek writer who is often credited with being one of the first historians in the West).  Those who believe “revisionism” is a negative term often misunderstands the way it is used by historians.  Revisionists are not in the business of changing the facts of history.  Any good revisionist interpretation of history will be based on evidence–documents or other artifacts that people in the past left behind.  This type of reconstruction of the past always takes place in community.  We know whether a particular revision of the past is good because it is vetted by a community of historians.  This is called peer review.  When bad history does make it into print, we rely on the community of historians to call this to our attention through reviews.

A few examples might help illustrate what I mean when I say that revisionism is the lifeblood of history.  Without revisionism, our understanding of racial relations in the American South after the Civil War would still be driven by what historians call the “Dunning School.”  William Dunning was an early twentieth-century who suggested that Reconstruction–the attempt to bring civil rights and voting rights to Southern blacks in the wake of the Civil War–was a mistake.  The Northern Republicans who promoted Reconstruction and the various “carpetbaggers” who came to the South to start schools for blacks and work for racial integration destroyed the Southern way of life.  In the end, however, the South did indeed rise again.  In Dunning’s portrayal, Southerners eventually rallied to overthrow this Northern invasion.  They removed blacks from positions of power and established a regime of segregation that would last for much of the twentieth century.  These so-called redeemers of Southern culture are the heroes of the Dunning School, an interpretation of Reconstruction that would inform D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915), one of the most popular, and most racist, motion pictures of the early twentieth century.  In the 1930s the Dunning School was challenged by a group of historians who began to interpret the period of Reconstruction from the perspective of the former slaves . Rather than viewing the blacks in the post-Civil War South as people without power, these revisionist authors provided a much richer understanding of the period that included a place for all historical actors, regardless of skin color or social standing, in the story of this important movement in American history.

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.