Editor of *The New York Times Magazines* addresses recent criticisms of the 1619 Project

You can find all of our posts on the 1619 Project here.

Here is Jake Silverstein, editor of The New York Times Magazine:

Most of the questions around our display language have centered on variations on a single phrase. In some cases, we referred to 1619 as the nation’s “birth year,” in others as our “birth date,” in others as “a foundational date,” in others as our “point of origin.” In one instance of digital display copy, we referred to 1619 as our “true founding.” It is this use of this last phrase, and its subsequent deletion, that was the subject of an article in the online magazine Quillette and then, more recently, that figured prominently in a column by my colleague Bret Stephens, a columnist on The Times’s Opinion page.

A few notes on this phrase, “true founding”: It was written by a digital editor and approved by me. (Hannah-Jones, as a staff writer at the magazine is not typically involved in matters of digital display language.) It does not appear in the print edition of The 1619 Project. This phrase was introduced when the project went online, in August 2019, appearing in an un-bylined 55-word passage that lived in a small box on the project’s main web page, as well as on the individual story pages, which read as follows: “The 1619 Project is a major initiative from The New York Times. It aims to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.”

Given the space constraints, “true founding” was a way to summarize the “birth” metaphor that appeared here and there throughout the print edition — such as in a sentence in my editor’s note that read: “The goal of The 1619 Project, a major initiative from The New York Times that this issue of the magazine inaugurates, is to reframe American history by considering what it would mean to regard 1619 as our nation’s birth year. Doing so requires us to place the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are as a country.” It also carried some of the meaning of a sentence from Hannah-Jones’s essay in which she says that Black Americans, “as much as those men cast in alabaster in the nation’s capital, are this nation’s true ‘founding fathers.’” (This summer, President Obama made a similar comparison in his eulogy for the civil rights leader and congressman John Lewis, calling him a “founding father of that fuller, fairer, better America.”)

Nevertheless, in the months after the package went online, we began to wonder if we’d gotten it quite right. In the longer phrase from the editor’s note (“by considering what it would mean to regard 1619 as our nation’s birth year”), the sense that this was a metaphor — a whole new perspective on American history that this collection of essays would give you — was explicit. The online language risked being read literally. And indeed, some readers pointed out that this word choice implied that the specific historical meaning of what took place during the founding period should be replaced by the specific historical meaning of what took place in 1619.

So in December, we edited this digital display text to more closely mirror what appeared in the print magazine. We did not see this as a significant alteration, let alone concession, in how we presented the project. Within the project’s essays, the argument about 1619’s being the nation’s symbolic point of origin remained.

Read the entire piece here.

A short history of the 1619 Project

Over at The Washington Post, Sarah Ellison chronicles the ways The New York Times‘s 1619 Project has influenced American politics in 2020. Here is a taste:

Sean Wilentz remembers the Sunday morning in August when he walked down his driveway to pick up his Times. The Princeton historian was intrigued to see an issue of the magazine devoted to slavery; his most recent book, “No Property in Man,” explored the antislavery instincts of the nation’s founders. But then he started reading Hannah-Jones’s essay.

“I threw the thing across the room, I was so astounded,” he recalled recently, “because I ran across a paragraph on the American Revolution, and it was just factually wrong.”

Long before “1619” was vibrating on the lips of President Trump and leading GOP lawmakers, objections were brewing among serious liberal academics. Hannah-Jones’s 10,000-word essay opened with her father’s roots in a Mississippi sharecropping family before blossoming into a panoramic take on the nation’s history. In the passage that so enraged Wilentz, she asserted that “one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery” at a time when “Britain had grown deeply conflicted over its role in the barbaric institution.”

This, Wilentz argues, is patently false: Other than a few lonely voices, England remained committed to the slave trade in 1776. The abolitionist movement didn’t take hold in London for more than a decade — and then it was inspired by anti-slavery opinions emerging from America.

Wilentz was impressed by some of the 1619 Project’s essays, but in November, he critiqued Hannah-Jones’s piece in a public speech. And he contacted other prominent academics, whose complaints about the project were chronicled by the World Socialist Web Site. Eventually, four agreed to join Wilentz in writing a letter to the Times, criticizing the project’s “displacement of historical understanding by ideology.”

It didn’t go over so well.

“We perceived it right away to be an attack on the project,” said Silverstein. He questioned why they didn’t just contact him or Hannah-Jones directly to offer thoughts on how to “strengthen this historical analysis” as he said other readers had.

Wilentz, in turn, was stunned by Silverstein’s response letter, which published alongside the scholars’ in December and was longer than their own — a major tell, in his view, that the Times knew it had gotten something very wrong even while it appeared to dismiss the complaint and avoided addressing many of its points. “Holy smokes,” he thought. “This is war!”

Wilentz, who is White, had not succeeded in getting any Black historians to sign on to his letter. But some shared his concerns. Leslie Harris, a history professor at Northwestern who has written extensively about colonial slavery, was contacted in 2019 by a Times fact-checker asking if preserving slavery was a cause of the Revolutionary War. “Immediately, I was like, no, no, that doesn’t sound right,” Harris recalled. She thought the issue was settled — until she was a guest on a radio show with Hannah-Jones and heard the journalist assert that the colonists launched the revolution to preserve slavery. Taken aback, she was unready to argue but retreated to her car nearly in tears: A fan of the 1619 Project’s mission, she knew the claim could be consequential. “Given how high-profile this was, if this was really wrong, it was —” she paused, punctuating each word. “Really. Going. To. Be. Wrong.”

Read the entire piece here. Read all our posts on the 1619 Project here.

The American Historical Association responds to Trump’s White House American History event

Here it is:

On September 17, the White House announced, “In commemoration of Constitution Day, President Trump will travel to the National Archives to participate in a discussion on the liberal indoctrination of America’s youth through the 1619 Project, Critical Race Theory, and other misleading, radical ideologies with a diverse group of professors, historians, and scholars. The President will deliver remarks on his Administration’s efforts to promote a more balanced, accurate, and patriotic curricula in America’s schools.”

This hastily assembled “White House Conference on American History” took place in the Rotunda of the National Archives, although the National Archives and Records Administration had no role in organizing the program. The organizers of the event neither informed nor consulted associations of professional historians. 

The American Historical Association addresses this “conference” and the president’s ill-informed observations about American history and history education reluctantly and with dismay. The event was clearly a campaign stunt, deploying the legitimating backdrop of the Rotunda, home of the nation’s founding documents, to draw distinctions between the two political parties on education policy, tie one party to civil disorder, and enable the president to explicitly attack his opponent. Like the president’s claim at Mount Rushmore two months ago that “our children are taught in school to hate their own country,” this political theater stokes culture wars that are meant to distract Americans from other, more pressing current issues. The AHA only reluctantly gives air to such distraction; we are not interested in inflating a brouhaha that is a mere sideshow to the many perils facing our nation at this moment. 

Past generations of historians participated in promoting a mythical view of the United States. Missing from this conventional narrative were essential themes that we now recognize as central to a complete understanding of our nation’s past. As scholars, we locate and evaluate evidence, which we use to craft stories about the past that are inclusive and able to withstand critical scrutiny. In the process, we engage in lively and at times heated conversations with each other about the meaning of evidence and ways to interpret it. As teachers, we encourage our students to question conventional wisdom as well as their own assumptions, but always with an emphasis on evidence. It is not appropriate for us to censor ourselves or our students when it comes to discussing past events and developments. To purge history of its unsavory elements and full complexity would be a disservice to history as a discipline and the nation, and in the process would render a rich, fascinating story dull and uninspiring.

The AHA deplores the use of history and history education at all grade levels and other contexts to divide the American people, rather than use our discipline to heal the divisions that are central to our heritage. Healing those divisions requires an understanding of history and an appreciation for the persistent struggles of Americans to hold the nation accountable for falling short of its lofty ideals. To learn from our history we must confront it, understand it in all its messy complexity, and take responsibility as much for our failures as our accomplishments.

Read the cosigning organizations here.

“Fig leaves” for a “Trumpist-state dictated popular history”

Over at the anti-Trump conservative website, The Bulwark, historian Ronald Radosh reflects on the recent “White House Conference on American History.”

He calls the entire event “bizarre.”

Here is a taste:

I have nothing but disdain for the professors who use their courses to try and convert their students to Marxism or any other radical ideology. The late historian Eugene D. Genovese was a major historian. The books and articles he wrote while he was a Marxist hold up, as do those he wrote when he became a conservative Catholic. I knew him well enough to know that in both phases he did not indoctrinate students; he only taught history so that students could understand the past of the American South and its legacy of slavery.

Everything the panelists said at last week’s conference must be looked at in the context of the event itself. Historian L.D. Burnett, writing in Slate, is incorrect when she writes that the conference was “100 percent anti-intellectual.” Allen Guelzo, for example, did not offer a right-wing rant. But even his appearance—as with those of all the participants—served as a fig leaf, providing legitimization for the development of a Trumpist state-dictated popular history that would be used to teach a “patriotic” version of our nation’s past.

This is not the attitude of many of the radical professors who are historians I still know. They do not insist that their students agree with them. The activist and professor Cornel West team-teaches a course with Robert P. George at Princeton University. Robby has written about how West’s list of books and articles to read includes scores of conservative books with which he does not agree. Both men are completely supportive of free speech on campus.

The serious historians who participated last week, as well as the other panelists, were there to provide a cover for the politicized history that Trump favors. Nothing, however, compared to some of the remarks Ben Carson made. Since everyone knows he was a medical doctor of great accomplishment, but not a historian, nor even someone known to have given any thought to the subject of the conference, why was he even there? A clear reason is that he is an African American, and stood out in a panel composed of all white men and two women.

Read the entire piece here.

Radosh also references criticisms of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States by Michael Kazin, Sam Wineburg, and David Greenberg.

He also references Kazin’s criticism of Bill McClay’s book Land of Hope, a text featured at the White House event.

Is the 1619 Project backing-off some of its more problematic claims about the American founding?

It sure seems that way.

Here is Tom Mackaman and David North at World Socialist Web Site:

The New York Times, without announcement or explanation, has abandoned the central claim of the 1619 Project: that 1619, the year the first slaves were brought to Colonial Virginia—and not 1776—was the “true founding” of the United States.

The initial introduction to the Project, when it was rolled out in August 2019, stated that

The 1619 Project is a major initiative from the New York Times observing the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery. It aims to reframe the country’s history, 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.

The revised text now reads:

The 1619 Project is an ongoing initiative from The New York Times Magazine that began in August 2019, the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery. It aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.

A similar change was made from the print version of the 1619 Project, which has been sent out to millions of school children in all 50 states. The original version read:

In August of 1619, a ship appeared on this horizon, near Point Comfort, a coastal port in the British colony of Virginia. It carried more than 20 enslaved Africans, who were sold to the colonists. America was not yet America, but this was the moment it began. No aspect of the country that would be formed here has been untouched by the 250 years of slavery that followed.

The website version has deleted the key claim. It now reads:

In August of 1619, a ship appeared on this horizon, near Point Comfort, a coastal port in the English colony of Virginia. It carried more than 20 enslaved Africans, who were sold to the colonists. No aspect of the country that would be formed here has been untouched by the years of slavery that followed.

It is not entirely clear when the Times deleted its “true founding” claim, but an examination of old cached versions of the 1619 Project text indicates that it probably took place on December 18, 2019.

These deletions are not mere wording changes. The “true founding” claim was the core element of the Project’s assertion that all of American history is rooted in and defined by white racial hatred of blacks. According to this narrative, trumpeted by Project creator Nikole Hannah-Jones, the American Revolution was a preemptive racial counterrevolution waged by white people in North America to defend slavery against British plans to abolish it. The fact that there is no historical evidence to support this claim did not deter the Times and Hannah-Jones from declaring that the historical identification of 1776 with the creation of a new nation is a myth, as is the claim that the Civil War was a progressive struggle aimed at the destruction of slavery. According to the New York Times and Hannah-Jones, the fight against slavery and all forms of oppression were struggles that black Americans always waged alone.

Read the rest here. For out other 1619 Project posts click here.

Sean Wilentz on Tom Cotton and slavery

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The Princeton University American historian Sean Wilentz has been a harsh critic of The New York Times 1619 Project. But that doesn’t mean he is going to give Arkansas senator Tom Cotton a pass for his recent comments about slavery and the founding fathers.

Here is a taste of his recent piece at The New York Review of Books:

Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, has introduced a bill in Congress that would punish school districts that use The New York Times’s 1619 Project in their curriculum by withholding federal funding. In so doing, he announced in a newspaper interview that America’s schoolchildren need to learn that the nation’s Founders said slavery “was the necessary evil upon which the union was built.” His statement is as preposterous as it is false: presuming to clarify American history, Cotton has grievously distorted it.

(As this article went to press, Cotton supported his argument by citing me along with several other liberal historians who have criticized the 1619 Project; with my colleagues, I have fundamental publicized objections to the project, but these in no way mitigate Cotton’s serious misrepresentations of the historical record for evident political gain.)

None of the delegates who framed the Constitution in 1787 called slavery a “necessary evil.” Some of them called slavery an evil, but not a necessary one. Gouverneur Morris of New York, for example, declared to the Constitutional Convention that he would “never concur in upholding domestic slavery,” that “nefarious institution” based on “the most cruel bondages”—“the curse of heaven on the states where it prevailed.” The great majority of the Framers joined Morris in fighting to ensure that slavery would be excluded from national law.

Read the rest here.

What the real socialists are saying about Sanders, AOC, and Black Lives Matter

Bernie Cortez

I want to highlight again something I mentioned briefly in this post.

What do real socialists say about Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, and others on the left-wing of the Democratic Party who are frightening America conservatives and white evangelicals as we approach the 2020 elections?

The following quotes come from the World Socialist Web Site (WSWS), a Marxist organization of the International Committee of the Fourth International. They are followers of Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky. I am guessing many of my readers are unfamiliar with this organization.

Here is the WSWS on Bernie Sanders 2016 campaign for president:

…what is remarkable about Sanders is how vacuous his supposed radicalism really is. He is far less radical in his domestic policy than the Populists, the anti-Wall Street presidential campaigns of William Jennings Bryan, and the Farmer-Laborites. In the crucial area of foreign policy, he is virtually indistinguishable from Obama and Hillary Clinton, even attacking them from the right on issues like trade with China. When asked directly last year about his attitude to US military intervention abroad, he declared he was for “drones, all that and more.”

If Sanders goes on to win the Democratic nomination and the presidency, he will betray the aspirations of his supporters flagrantly and with extraordinary speed. A thousand excuses will be brought forward to explain why the wars must continue abroad and nothing can be done to rein in Wall Street at home.

Sanders is not the representative of a working class movement. He is rather the temporary beneficiary of a rising tide of popular opposition that is passing through only its initial stages of social and class differentiation.

Here is WSWS on Sanders’s 2020 presidential campaign:

Notably excluded from Sanders’ opening campaign statement was any mention of “capitalism,” “socialism,” “fascism,” “imperialism,” “internationalism,” “equality” or “working class.”

He declared Tuesday that his campaign is “about transforming our country and creating a government based on the principles of economic, social, racial and environmental justice,” but he said nothing about how this could be achieved through the vehicle of the Democratic Party.

The fundamental fraud promoted by Sanders, along with individuals such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, is that the Democratic Party can be pushed to the left and made a force for progressive change. Articulating this political fiction, Jacobin editor and leading Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) member Bhaskar Sunkara proclaimed in a column for the Guardian newspaper on Tuesday that “Sanders started a revolution in 2016. In 2020, he can finish it.”

Here is the WSWS on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez:

Ocasio-Cortez feeds on “half-thoughts” in the sense that she criticizes social inequality, global warming, etc., but refuses to say anything about the social and historical conditions that produce these maladies and the political forces responsible. She proposes curing inequality by supporting the Democratic Party, one of the two parties that promoted it. She proposes to attack the wealth of the rich without attacking the social system upon which this wealth is based.

Such “half-truths” are, as Trotsky noted, the worst form of falsehood—they aim to chloroform, to misdirect, and thereby provide an essential service to the ruling class. All those who promote her, as they promoted Sanders before her and Obama before him, are assisting in this process of political cover-up.

There are social interests that underlie these politics. Pseudo-left groups like the Democratic Socialists of America, the International Socialist Organization and Socialist Alternative, which promote figures like Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders, use populist slogans to cover over the fundamental class issues, subordinate the working class to the Democratic Party, and promote the social interests of more privileged sections of the upper-middle class.

Here is the WSWS on The Squad’s 2019 disagreements with Nancy Pelosi:

Everything about this supposed conflict is a political fraud. Ocasio-Cortez is not leading a rank-and-file revolt, nor is Pelosi seeking to crush such a rebellion. No such rebellion exists, only a cynical division of labor. Pelosi pushes through the policies demanded by big business and the military-intelligence apparatus, and Ocasio-Cortez and a handful of others seek to give the Democratic Party a “left” face so that it can better disguise its right-wing policies in the 2020 election campaign.

Here is the WSWS on Black Lives Matter:

“Black Lives Matter” has been adopted as a rallying cry by interracial and interethnic crowds of youth and workers protesting the actions of the police across the planet because it evokes their rage over the fact that the lives of black workers and youth do not matter to the ruling elite. In opposing police violence across the world, workers and young people must embrace a political strategy aimed at more than the rebranding and racial diversification of the bodies of armed officials which comprise the guards of the capitalist class. In order to put an end to the onslaught of police violence, war and social inequality, the protests must turn to the working class as whole and advance a program of revolutionary socialism.

Here is the WSWS on a Black Lives Matter statement in the wake Trump’s election:

On November 15, Black Lives Matter Global Network released a statement on the election of Donald Trump that ignores the facts of the vote to present a false interpretation of American society as one dominated by racial hatred.

This racialist narrative goes hand in hand with the endorsement by the top leadership of Black Lives Matter of Democrat Hillary Clinton, whose campaign was based on a combination of personal attacks on Trump, anti-Russian propaganda and the promotion of racial and gender politics.

The statement is a semi-coherent collection of bald and unsubstantiated assertions, non-sequiturs and moralistic declarations. Even apart from its politically reactionary content, it has no intellectual substance and offers no perspective for achieving its stated goal, which is to “end all state-sanctioned violence until all Black Lives Matter.”

The statement is perhaps most remarkable for what it lacks. Names that do not appear include Obama, Clinton and Sanders. Also absent are the words “Democratic” and “Republican.” Other words not to be found include “capitalism,” “unemployment,” “inequality,” “poverty,” “working class,” or any reference to the social crisis in America.

Instead, the authors operate with the abstract and ahistorical terms associated with identity politics. Without citing any evidence, the statement asserts that a “white supremacist” was voted into office by an electorate opposed to “dismantling white supremacy.”

And this from 2015:

At Amherst College and Princeton University, protesters have demanded that the schools change the names of buildings named after figures who demonstrators say were racist. At Amherst, students are demanding that the school officially renounce its namesake, Baron Jeffery Amherst, an 18th century British Army Field Marshall. Princeton students are likewise demanding that the school drop the name of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs because of the 28th president’s racism.

The working class is entitled to ask: Is this a movement that has a progressive character? Do the demonstrators deserve at least critical support? The answer to both questions is no.

These protests are not part of a movement for social equality or civil rights. Rather, they are of a typically middle class character and represent a very familiar and toxic element of bourgeois politics: the fight amongst different factions within the wealthiest ten percent for a more favorable distribution of wealth at the top. The extreme concentration of wealth among the top 1 percent generates resentment and grievances within broader sections of the affluent middle class, and the various factions seek to stake their claims to wealth, privilege and positions of influence by utilizing the politics of race, gender, sexual orientation and nationality.

The Marxists at The World Socialist Web Site are just as angry as conservatives and many white evangelicals about the cultural politics of the left-wing of the Democratic Party, the academy, and Hollywood. For example, these Marxists have waged the most intense and sustained battle against The New York Times 1619 project, even recruiting prominent American historians such as Gordon Wood, James McPherson, Richard Cawardine, Clayborne Carson, Victoria Bynum, and James Oakes in their battle against it. They believe that identity politics, especially those that focus on race, serve to divide the international working class–a community of laborers that Marxists believe transcends race.

I encourage you to listen to our conversation with WSWS historian Thomas Mackaman in this episode of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.

Sean Wilentz on our current moment

Wilentz

Bill Kristol interviews Princeton University historian Sean Wilentz.

Wilentz talks about his relationship with John Lewis, the 1619 Project, monuments, Woodrow Wilson at Princeton, Richard Hofstadter, the American quest for “purity,” the illiberality of the Right and the Left, and the need for “informed, thoughtful, and respectful debate.” During the interview we learn what was in John Lewis’s backpack as he crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965 (hint: Hofstadter and Merton).

Listen here.

Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton opposes “cancel culture.” Unless, of course, it is the 1619 Project

1619

I just learned today that Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton is trying to pass legislation to prohibit schools from using federal funds to teach the New York Times‘s 1619 Project. (If you are unfamiliar with the 1619 Project, read our coverage here. We’ve collected most of the pertinent articles).

This week I am doing Q&A sessions with about 100 hundred high school teachers enrolled in my Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American History course on British North America. They are watching a series of lectures I recorded with Gilder-Lehrman back in 2015 and I am meeting with them live via ZOOM to answer their questions.

Yesterday, we talked about the colonial Chesapeake and, as might be expected, most of the conversation revolved around race, slavery, and the 1619 Project. My comments about the Project focused on several points:

  1. The 1619 Project has some serious historical problems, especially in its claim that the American Revolution was primarily about preserving slavery.
  2. We cannot ignore the relationship between slavery, race, and the American founding. (Several teachers, for example, had read Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery–American Freedom).
  3. We should not hesitate to use the 1619 Project in our classrooms if we think it might help students understand issues of systemic racism.
  4. Very few essays in the 1619 Project are written by historians.
  5. The claim that the 1619 Project should be the final word in the classroom concerning the subject of slavery, race, and the historical roots of American identity is a claim that is insulting to history teachers. Which leads me to my final, and most important point:
  6. Much of the debate over the 1619 Project in the classroom fails to grasp the nature of good history teaching. While citizenship and equitable coverage is certainly important, the primary goal of the history classroom is to get students to think and read historically. This requires a sensitivity to bias, context, authorial intent (sourcing), close reading, and complexity. As Sam Wineburg says in Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, students should not only learn what a document is saying, but also what a document is doing. If this is our goal, then why should we be afraid of the 1619 Project? Use it in class, interrogate it, and teach your kids to read it like any good historian would read a document.

Read Cotton’s “Saving American History Act.  Here is an opinion piece at Forbes.

The World Socialist Web Site Gathers Historians to Discuss the American Revolution and the Civil War

2f8fa-declarationofindependence

The historians participating include Victoria Bynum, Clayborne Carson, Richard Cawardine, James Oakes, Gordon Wood, and Tom Mackaman. The conversation, moderated by Mackaman and World Socialist Web Site’s David North, will live-stream at 1:30pm EDT.

Here is the press release:

The American Revolution of 1775-1783 and the Civil War of 1861-1865 rank among the most momentous events in shaping the political, social and intellectual history of the modern world. The Declaration of Independence, issued on July 4, 1776, established the United States on the principle that “all men are created equal.” This first Revolution set into motion socio-economic and political processes that led to the Civil War—the Second American Revolution, which abolished slavery.

In the present, a time of social crisis and uncertainty, the first and second Revolutions are the subject of intense controversy. The World Socialist Web Site will be celebrating the 244th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence by hosting a discussion with five eminent historians, Victoria Bynum, Clayborne Carson, Richard Carwardine, James Oakes and Gordon Wood. They will assess the Revolutions in the context of their times as well as their national and global consequences. Finally, the discussants will consider the possible implications of contemporary debates over the nature of the Revolutions for the future of the United States and the world.

This event will be streamed live throughout the world on July 4th at 1:30 pm EDT at wsws.org/live.

For those unfamiliar, all of the historians participating in this conversation have been critical of The New York Times 1619 Project. A good way to get some larger context is to listen to our interview with Mackaman in Episode 63 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.

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

1619

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.