World Socialist Website Responds to Announcement of Nikole Hannah-Jones’s Pulitzer

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Some of you remember Kings College history professor Thomas Mackaman’s visit to The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast. (Listen to Episode 63 here). Mackaman, a socialist, is a strong critic of The New York Times‘s 1619 Project.

Here is a taste his latest (with David North), “Hannah-Jones receives Pulitzer Prize for personal commentary, not historical writing“:

The Pulitzer went only to Hannah-Jones, and not to the Times or the 1619 Project, which was released on August 13, 2019, amidst an unprecedented publicity blitz, to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first slaves in colonial Virginia. The initial glossy magazine was over 100 pages long and included ten essays, a photo essay, and poems and fiction by 16 more writers. It has been followed by podcasts, a lecture tour, school lesson plans, and even a commercial run during the Academy Awards. The 1619 Project was a massive institutional enterprise. But what the New York Times wound up with was nothing more than an individual award for Commentary. This is certainly the most expensive consolation prize in the history of the Pulitzers.

In a departure for the Commentary Award, Hannah-Jones won only for her single essay titled, “Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written. Black Americans have fought to make them true.” One cannot help but suspect that the Times brought considerable pressure to bear to eke out this minimal recognition of the 1619 Project’s existence. Hannah-Jones beat out finalists considered for a whole year’s work. Her competitors were Sally Jenkins, a sturdy sports writer for the Washington Post, and Steve Lopez of the Los Angeles Times, for his series of columns on homelessness in America’s second-largest city.

The Pulitzer board cited Hannah-Jones for her “sweeping, deeply reported and personal essay” (emphasis added). The word choice is revealing and damning. The Board did not evaluate her essay, which defined the content of the 1619 Project, as rising to the level of a history. This is not an insignificant judgment. In the realm of scholarly work, the profound difference between the writing of a historical work and the spinning out of opinions is of a fundamental character. As Hegel, among the greatest of all philosophers of history, once wrote: “What can be more useless than to learn a string of bald opinions, and what more unimportant?” While a reporter’s “personal” thoughts about history may prompt a “public conversation,” as the Pulitzer citation acknowledges, they do not provide the basis for the overturning of documented history, much less a new curriculum for the schools.

The “public conversation” to which the Pulitzer citation refers was set into motion by the World Socialist Web Site, which published in the first week of September 2019 a comprehensive rebuttal of the 1619 Project. The WSWS followed this with a series of interviews with leading historians that subjected the Times’ unprecedented and extravagant foray into history to a withering critique: Victoria BynumJames McPhersonJames OakesGordon WoodAdolph Reed, Jr.Dolores JaniewskiRichard Carwardine and Clayborne Carson.

The central argument advanced in the essays and interviews was that the 1619 Project was a travesty of history. The WSWS’ exposure of the 1619 Project’s shoddy research, numerous factual errors and outright falsifications attracted a huge audience and was the subject of discussion in numerous publications.

Read the entire piece here.

Allen Guelzo Criticizes the 1619 Project

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The New York Times 1619 Project just received a Pulitzer Prize for commentary.

Listen to Allen Guelzo’s critique of the project in an interview with the Heritage Foundation. If you like the 1619 Project, you may want to sit down for this one:

Much of Guelzo’s criticism of the 1619 Project is legitimate. As I listened to him, it seems like his primary beef is less with Nikole Hannah-Jones and the editors of The New York Times (although he has some pretty harsh things to say about journalists) and more with some of the scholarship on which her project is based.

It is also worth noting that the 1619 Project did not win a Pulitzer for “History” or “Non-Fiction.” It won for commentary.  Readers can decide whether or not that matters.

Here is the link to the essay on Lincoln that Guelzo references in this interview.

Andrew Bacevich on the 1619 Project

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Here is a taste of Bacevich‘s take:

…That annoyance notwithstanding, there is actually more afoot here than journalists usurping prerogatives traditionally reserved for highly trained scholars. While the architects of the 1619 Project may be making claims that go beyond what the available evidence will support, let me suggest that they are on to something: as a touchstone of national identity, the familiar tale of 1776, itself encrusted with patriotic lore, no longer cuts it.

Yet the subversive implications of the 1619 Project extend well beyond questioning the hitherto sacrosanct American Revolution. Whether consciously or not, the editors of the Times are tampering with the overarching meta-history that shapes the way that most citizens—and especially members of the elite—are accustomed to situating America in the broader stream of human history. That meta-history centers on three events enshrined in American memory as acts of liberation: the Revolution, the Civil War, and World War II. Together the elements of this Sacred Trilogy have served to validate the claim that history itself has anointed the United States as its chosen agent of liberation, empowered both to define freedom and to ensure its ultimate triumph. If, as Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1787, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants,” it is from these three violent episodes that the United States has drawn sustenance. Or so the story goes. Yet admit the possibility that the impetus for proclaiming independence in 1776 might have differed from the ideals specified in Jefferson’s famous Declaration, and the other elements of the Sacred Trilogy likewise become fair game.

Read the entire piece here.

1619 or 1620?

They Knew They Were PilgrimsHistorian John Turner, author of a new book on the Plymouth Colony, helps us sort this out. Here is a taste of his piece at The National Review:

Some of the critics have gone so far as to propose alternative “birth years.” Last fall, the National Association of Scholars launched a 1620 project, a series of videos and essays rebutting the Times project. Why 1620? It was “the year in which the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock and the Mayflower Compact was signed,” explains the organization’s president, Peter Wood. Similarly, The Federalist has solicited essays celebrating the “anniversary of the Pilgrims’ arrival at Plymouth Rock.” This year is, after all, the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower’s arrival on our shores. To those who place religious and political liberty at the heart of the American experiment, that event makes an attractive starting point.

The 1620 proposals are a throwback to 19th-century views of American origins. On the 200th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ landing, Massachusetts senator Daniel Webster rhapsodized that they had arrived with “intelligence,” “the inspirations of liberty,” and “the truth of divine religion.” Politicians and historians pointed to the Mayflower Compact, a makeshift political agreement forged before the Pilgrims stepped ashore. Once Americans associated the Pilgrims with an annual Thanksgiving feast, their pride of place in the story of the nation’s origins became assured.

Even as Webster lionized them, though, many historians knew that the Pilgrims could not bear the weight of the historical significance placed on them. To begin with, they weren’t first: The less pious and more contentious colonists in Jamestown had arrived in 1607. Even more to the point, the Pilgrims were fewer and more inconsequential than their subsequent place in history would suggest. Plymouth Colony never really thrived. Its settlers eked out a living on land of dubious fertility, and other colonies came to dwarf it in terms of population, economic clout, and military power. Ready to tell new stories about the American past, academic historians eventually kicked the Pilgrims to the scholarly curb.

Nevertheless, there are good reasons to pay attention not just to the Mayflower, the rock, and the feast, but to the chain of events that preceded and followed 1620. Before the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth, an epidemic brought by European fishermen and traders had wiped out a previously thriving Wampanoag community there. Like English colonists elsewhere, the Pilgrims and their descendants then stripped Native populations of their land through dubious property transactions and episodic wars. Many Americans have spoken of slavery as the nation’s “original sin,” but conquest and displacement of Natives are just as original to the early history of English colonization — and Plymouth is one of many starting points for these grave sins.

Read the entire piece here.

Kudos to The National Review publishing Turner’s piece. But they could not let it stand alone without a rebuttal.

Read David Randall’s response here. Now that’s more like it. 😉

The 1619 Project Backs-Off a Controversial Claim. World Socialist Website Responds

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Recently, The New York Times Magazine editor Jake Silverstein issued a statement to clarify a passage in an essay from The 1619 Project. (See our post here). The passage under consideration, which came from project creator Nikole Hannah-Jones’s essay, argued that the British-American colonists fought the American Revolution to protect the institution of slavery. After consultation with early American historians, the Times slightly backed-off this claim. Here is Silverstein: “We recognize that our original language could be read to suggest that protecting slavery was a primary motivation for all colonists. The passage has been changed to make clear that this was a primary motivation for some of the colonists.”

Thomas Mackaman of King College (PA) and the World Socialist Web Site has been a strong critic of The 1619 Project.  Check out our interview with Mackaman in Episode 63 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.

Here is a taste of his response to Silverstein’s statement:

Silverstein’s belated effort in damage control does not withdraw the 1619 Project’s assertion that 1776 was a “lie” and a “founding mythology.” The Times editor is attempting to palm off a minor change in wording as a sufficient correction of a historically untenable rendering of the American Revolution. Hannah-Jones’ passage now reads, with the changed phrase in italics:

“Conveniently left out of our founding mythology is the fact that one of the primary reasons some of the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery. By 1776, Britain had grown deeply conflicted over its role in the barbaric institution that had reshaped the Western Hemisphere.”

This passage is still false. Protecting slavery could not have been a significant cause of the American Revolution, because, far from posing a threat to slavery, the British Empire controlled the slave trade and profited immensely from its commerce in people, as well as from its Caribbean plantations which remained loyal during the war for independence.

Yet in his article, Silverstein reiterates the initial error and compounds it with new layers of confusion. He writes, “We stand behind the basic point, which is that among the various motivations that drove the patriots toward independence was a concern that the British would seek or were already seeking to disrupt in various ways the entrenched system of American slavery” [emphasis added].

There is no evidence for any of this. The chain of events that led “toward” independence had already emerged with the Stamp Act Crisis of 1765, seven years before the Somerset ruling. “The British” did not seek to disrupt “American slavery” until Lord Dunmore’s proclamation of 1775—issued after the war of independence had begun—offered emancipation to slaves and indentured servants who took up arms against masters already in rebellion. The proclamation in fact explicitly preserved slavery among loyal British subjects, many of whom would live out their days under Dunmore in his final post as royal governor of the slave-rich Bahamas.

And this:

Silverstein’s latest foray only adds a new layer of dishonesty to the sordid 1619 Project affair. Were he serious about valuing criticism, as he claims, Silverstein might have written the following:

“We thank the historians who have brought to our attention the many errors in the 1619 Project. We are compelled to acknowledge and correct these errors. We have written to schools that have already received copies of material from the Project asking that they return them, and that they withhold them from students until the errors and distortions, and the processes that led to them, can be corrected. We profoundly apologize to the historians whose scholarship and professionalism we maligned. The Times’ will seek their assistance in preparing a revised edition of the 1619 Project. Finally, as painful as it is to do, we recommend to our readers that they study the essays and interviews criticizing the 1619 Project published in the World Socialist Web Site.”

Read the entire piece here.

*The New York Times* Backs-Off a Controversial Claim in its 1619 Project

The New York Times Magazine offers some nuance. It appears that a recent panel featuring Alan Taylor, Annette Gordon-Reed, and others had something to do with this.  Watch it here:

A taste:

Today we are making a clarification to a passage in an essay from The 1619 Project that has sparked a great deal of online debate. The passage in question states that one primary reason the colonists fought the American Revolution was to protect the institution of slavery. This assertion has elicited criticism from some historians and support from others.

We stand behind the basic point, which is that among the various motivations that drove the patriots toward independence was a concern that the British would seek or were already seeking to disrupt in various ways the entrenched system of American slavery. Versions of this interpretation can be found in much of the scholarship into the origins and character of the Revolution that has marked the past 40 years or so of early American historiography — in part because historians of the past few decades have increasingly scrutinized the role of slavery and the agency of enslaved people in driving events of the Revolutionary period.

That accounting is itself part of a growing acceptance that the patriots represented a truly diverse coalition animated by a variety of interests, which varied by region, class, age, religion and a host of other factors, a point succinctly demonstrated in the title that the historian Alan Taylor chose for his 2016 account of the period: “American Revolutions.” (For some key selections from the recent scholarly work on the Revolution, see this list of suggested reading from the Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture.)

If the scholarship of the past several decades has taught us anything, it is that we should be careful not to assume unanimity on the part of the colonists, as many previous interpretive histories of the patriot cause did. We recognize that our original language could be read to suggest that protecting slavery was a primary motivation for all of the colonists. The passage has been changed to make clear that this was a primary motivation for some of the colonists. A note has been appended to the story as well.

Leslie Harris Weighs-In on the 1619 Project

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Leslie Harris, a professor of history at Northwestern University, fact-checked The New York Times 1619 Project.  Here is what she said in a recent piece at Politico:

On August 19 of last year I listened in stunned silence as Nikole Hannah-Jones, a reporter for the New York Times, repeated an idea that I had vigorously argued against with her fact-checker: that the patriots fought the American Revolution in large part to preserve slavery in North America.

Hannah-Jones and I were on Georgia Public Radio to discuss the path-breaking New York Times 1619 Project, a major feature about the impact of slavery on American history, which she had spearheaded. The Times had just published the special 1619 edition of its magazine, which took its name from the year 20 Africans arrived in the colony of Virginia—a group believed to be the first enslaved Africans to arrive in British North America.

Weeks before, I had received an email from a New York Times research editor. Because I’m an historian of African American life and slavery, in New York, specifically, and the pre-Civil War era more generally, she wanted me to verify some statements for the project. At one point, she sent me this assertion: “One critical reason that the colonists declared their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery in the colonies, which had produced tremendous wealth. At the time there were growing calls to abolish slavery throughout the British Empire, which would have badly damaged the economies of colonies in both North and South.”

I vigorously disputed the claim. Although slavery was certainly an issue in the American Revolution, the protection of slavery was not one of the main reasons the 13 Colonies went to war.

The editor followed up with several questions probing the nature of slavery in the Colonial era, such as whether enslaved people were allowed to read, could legally marry, could congregate in groups of more than four, and could own, will or inherit property—the answers to which vary widely depending on the era and the colony. I explained these histories as best I could—with references to specific examples—but never heard back from her about how the information would be used.

Despite my advice, the Times published the incorrect statement about the American Revolution anyway, in Hannah-Jones’ introductory essay. In addition, the paper’s characterizations of slavery in early America reflected laws and practices more common in the antebellum era than in Colonial times, and did not accurately illustrate the varied experiences of the first generation of enslaved people that arrived in Virginia in 1619.

Both sets of inaccuracies worried me, but the Revolutionary War statement made me especially anxious. Overall, the 1619 Project is a much-needed corrective to the blindly celebratory histories that once dominated our understanding of the past—histories that wrongly suggested racism and slavery were not a central part of U.S. history. I was concerned that critics would use the overstated claim to discredit the entire undertaking. So far, that’s exactly what has happened.

Read the rest of her nuanced perspective here.

Click here for our collection of posts on the 1619 Project.

Conservative African American Intellectuals Respond to *The New York Times* 1619 Project

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Bob Woodson

The World Socialist Web Site (WSWS) is calling attention to Episode 63 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.  This is our interview with Kings College (PA) history professor Thomas Mackaman, a critic of The New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project.  Mackaman is the historian who interviewed several prominent American historians–Gordon Wood, James McPherson, Victoria Bynum, James Oakes, Richard Cawardine, Clayborne Carson–who criticized the history behind the project.

Last week another source of criticism emerged.  The Woodson Center, a conservative nonprofit that “helps community and faith-based organizations solve issues facing their communities,” has announced the “1776 Project.”  Here is a description:

“1776″ is an assembly of independent voices who uphold our country’s authentic founding virtues and values and challenge those who assert America is forever defined by its past failures, such as slavery. We seek to offer alternative perspectives that celebrate the progress America has made on delivering its promise of equality and opportunity, and highlight the resilience of its people. Our focus is on solving problems. We do this in the spirit of 1776, the date of America’s true founding.

In an interview with The Washington Times, Woodson Center founder and president Bob Woodson said, “Most of the contributors of the 1619 Project purport to speak for all of black America with a false and harmful narrative, one that perpetuates victimhood and ignores successes…Through 1776, we choose to highlight America’s promise and to elevate the inspiring stories of blacks who rose and achieved and thrived–in spite of prejudice.”

Woodson has gathered a group of “top black academics, columnists, social service providers, business leaders, and clergy from across America who are committed to telling the complete history of America and black Americans from 1776 to present with a look to the future in answer to Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous question, ‘Where do we go from here.'” The list includes Clarence Page, Shelby Steele, and John McWhorter.  It is worth noting that there are no historians on the list.  This should raise some red flags.

Watch the press conference here.  Check out the 1776 website here.

Episode 63: The 1619 Project

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In August 2019, The New York Times Magazine published The 1619 Project, an attempt to reframe American history by “placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.” American historians have praised and criticized the project. In this episode we talk with Thomas Mackaman, a history professor at Kings University in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania and a writer for World Socialist Web Site. Mackaman has not only criticized The 1619 Project, but has interviewed other critics of the project, including several award-winning historians. Why are socialists so upset about this project? What is the backstory behind Mackaman’s interviews with Gordon Wood, James McPherson, Clayborne Carson, and other 1619 Project critics? Anyone interested in debates over how historians do history and connect the past to present political and social issues will learn something from this episode.

https://playlist.megaphone.fm?e=ADL9483726242

What Can We Learn from the 1619 Project?

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Read all our posts on The New York Times 1619 Project here.

Historian James Brewer Stewart has some good thoughts.  Here is a taste of his piece at History News Network:

But here’s what’s most important. Those of us who value the 1619 Project can reclaim our “teachable moment” by excavating beneath the heated rhetoric. There we will discover that the journalists and the historians embrace conflicting but equally valuable historical truths regarding slavery’s power to shape our nations past and present. I will soon articulate why this is so and what we can learn as a result.

First, however, we must move beyond the conflict that erupted when Wilentz, joined by James M. McPherson, Gordon Wood, James Oakes, and Victoria Bynum, eminent scholars all, forgot that they also have an obligation to serve us as educators, not as censors. By so harshly attacking credibility of the 1619 Project in their letter to The New York Times, they squandered the “teachable moment” that the Project itself intended to create. Instead, these scholars appointed themselves gatekeepers charged with the heavy enforcement of their personal versions of high academic “standards.” 

Instead of constructively dissenting and inviting dialogue, they berated the 1619 journalists for pushing “politically correct” distortions grounded in Afro-centric bias. “The displacement of historical understanding by ideology” is how one of them phrased it. They demanded retractions, worked assiduously (and failed) to recruit scholars of color to their cause, and sent their complaints directly to the top three editors of the Times and its Publisher A.G Sulzberger. That looks a lot like bullying. Dialogue dies when one contending party publicly attempts to undercut the other with his/her bosses.

Read the entire piece here.

Stay tuned. In Episode 63 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast we talk about the 1619 Project with historian Tom Mackaman of World Socialist Web Site. The episode drops February 16, 2020.

*World Socialist Web Site* Responds to the Editor of the *American Historical Review* on the 1619 Project

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Here is David North and Tom Mackaman:

On January 23, Alex Lichtenstein, editor of the American Historical Review (AHR), posted an online statement defending the New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project against criticism from the World Socialist Web Site and several eminent historians. The editorial, “From the EditorDesk: 1619 and All That,” will appear in the forthcoming issue of the leading journal among American academic historians.

The fact that the 1619 Project is now being editorially defended in the AHR, despite the withering criticisms of highly respected professional historians, is a very troubling development. It reveals the extent to which racialist mythology, which has provided the “theoretical” foundation of middle-class identity politics, has been accepted, and even embraced, by a substantial section of the academic community as a legitimate basis for the teaching of American history.

Published by the Times in August, the 1619 Project essays are presented as the basis of a new curriculum, to be provided to the nation’s underfunded public schools, free of charge, by the corporate-endowed Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting. The 1619 Project, according to its architect Nikole Hannah-Jones, aims to “reframe” all of American history as a story of “anti-black racism” rooted in a “national DNA,” which, it claims, emerged out of the allegedly unique American “original sin” of slavery.

In his effort to defend the 1619 Project, Lichtenstein argues not as a conscientious historian but as a lawyer defending what he knows to be a weak case. He is disingenuous to the point of dishonesty in his effort to dismiss the extent of the revision and falsification of history advanced by the 1619 Project. The differences, he claims, are merely a matter of emphasis or nuance.

The arguments advanced by Hannah-Jones are: a) that the establishment of the United States was a counterrevolution, whose primary purpose was the protection of slavery against the danger posed by a British-led emancipation movement; b) that Lincoln was a racist and that the Civil War therefore was unrelated to the fight to abolish slavery; c) that African Americans have fought alone in the face of relentless racism based on the universally popular doctrine of white supremacy; d) racism and slavery are the essential elements of American exceptionalism; and, therefore (and most important of all); e) all of American history is to be understood as the struggle between the white and black races. The driving forces of American history are not objective socioeconomic processes that give rise to class conflict, but, rather, eternal and supra-historical racial hatreds.

What is involved in the 1619 Project controversy is not a case of semantic differences that can be reconciled by a mere rephrasing of arguments. Two absolutely irreconcilable positions are being advanced, which cannot even be described as conflicting “interpretations.” A racialist narrative, which is what the 1619 Project advances, is by its very nature incompatible with empirical research and scientific methodology. It counterposes to genuine historical research a reactionary racial myth.

Read the rest here.

Stay tuned.  We have booked Tom Mackaman for an upcoming episode of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.

Another Group of Historians Criticize the *New York Times* 1619 Project

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If you are not familiar with The New York Times 1619 Project you can get up to speed here.

The latest group of critics includes American historians Michael Burlingame, Allen Guelzo, Peter Kolchin, George Rable, and Colleen Sheehan.  A letter was sent to The New York Times Magazine, but the newspaper refused to publish it.  Editor Jake Silverstein, the editor of the The New York Times Magazine, did respond to the letter.

The letter and the response have now been published at History News Network.  Here is a taste of the letter:

It is not our purpose to question the significance of slavery in the American past. None of us have any disagreement with the need for Americans, as they consider their history, to understand that the past is populated by sinners as well as saints, by horrors as well as honors, and that is particularly true of the scarred legacy of slavery. 

As historians and students of the Founding and the Civil War era, our concern is that The 1619 Project offers a historically-limited view of slavery, especially since slavery was not just (or even exclusively) an American malady, and grew up in a larger context of forced labor and race. Moreover, the breadth of 400 years and 300 million people cannot be compressed into single-size interpretations; yet, The 1619 Project asserts that every aspect of American life has only one lens for viewing, that of slavery and its fall-out. “America Wasn’t a Democracy Until Black Americans Made It One,” insists the lead essay by Nikole Hannah-Jones; “American Capitalism Is Brutal. You Can Trace That to the Plantation,” asserts another by Matthew Desmond. In some cases, history is reduced to metaphor: “How Segregation Caused Your Traffic Jam.”

We are also dismayed by the problematic treatment of major issues and personalities of the Founding and Civil War eras. For instance: The 1619 Project construes slavery as a capitalist venture, yet it fails to note how Southern slaveholders scorned capitalism as “a conglomeration of greasy mechanics, petty operators, small-fisted farmers, and moon-struck theorists. Although the Project asserts that “New Orleans boasted a denser concentration of banking capital than New York City,” the phrase “banking capital” elides the reality that on the eve of the Civil War, New York possessed more banks (294) than the entire future Confederacy (208), and that Southern “banking capital” in 1858 amounted to less than 80% of that held by New York banks alone.

Again: we are presented with an image of Abraham Lincoln in 1862, informing a delegation of “five esteemed free black men” at the White House that, because black Americans were a “troublesome presence,” his solution was colonization — “to ship black people, once freed, to another country.” No mention, however, is made that the “troublesome presence” comment is Lincoln’s description in 1852 of the views of Henry Clay, or that colonization would be “sloughed off” by him (in John Hay’s diary) as a “barbarous humbug,”or that Lincoln would eventually be murdered by a white supremacist in 1865 after calling for black voting rights, or that this was the man whom Frederick Douglass described as “emphatically the black man’s president.”

Read the entire letter and Silverstein’s response here.

Virginia Senator Tim Kaine Defends the 1619 Project

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Some of you may remember Trump lawyer Robert Ray‘s gratuitous swipe at The New York Times 1619 Project during last night’s senate impeachment trial.

Today we learned that Virginia Senator Tim Kaine did not like it.  In fact, he confronted Ray about it after the trial closed for the day.  Here is a taste of a piece at USA Today:

[Ray] criticized a passage from the House Judiciary Committee’s impeachment inquiry report, which argued the 1868 impeachment of President Andrew Johnson was not motivated by his violation of the Tenure of Office Act, “but on his illegitimate use of power to undermine Reconstruction and subordinate Africa-Americans following the Civil War.”

Ray said the argument was an “ahistorical sleight of hand worthy only of The New York Times recent 1619 series,” referring to an interactive project on the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first African slaves in what would become the United States

Ray’s comments about the slavery project caused Kaine to throw his hands up in the air in a giant shrug before leaning back in his chair and shaking his head as he looked up at the ceiling. 

Kaine said that as a Democratic senator from Virginia, where that first landing occurred in 1619, and the co-sponsor of a bill commemorating the anniversary, he found it both “puzzling” and “offensive.” 

“I actually went over to Robert Ray after and I said, ‘Hey, I didn’t get that. Why were you doing that?'” Kaine said. 

Ray responded that the project was “too politically correct,” according to Kaine. 

“What does that have to do with the articles of impeachment?” he asked. “I was stunned by it.” 

Read the entire piece here.

The 1619 Project: Debate Continues

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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

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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?

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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

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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

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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.