The 1619 Project’s flagship essay has been awarded a Pulitzer Prize, even though it underwent a major correction and has been criticized as revisionist history by leading historians.
The New York Times’ 1619 Project argues that all of American history should be seen through the lens of slavery and the contributions of black Americans. It argues that America’s true founding should be considered August 1619, the year slaves were first brought to Jamestown, instead of July 4, 1776, the year America declared its independence from Great Britain.
Nikole Hannah-Jones’s prize-winning essay gets three major things so wrong, even the habitually biased Pulitzer Prize Board should have been able to recognize them.
Hannah-Jones’s Essay Is Garbage History
In true Howard Zinn fashion, Hannah-Jones chose to make a political point over writing accurate, fact-based history. In her essay, entitled “Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written. Black Americans have fought to make them true,” she tried to demonstrate that America was racist from the beginning. To sell her point, she cherry-picked examples, willfully ignoring the whole picture.
One of the most contentious claims in Hannah-Jones’s essay was that Americans largely fought for independence because they believed Great Britain was threatening the slave trade. Leslie M. Harris, a professor of history at Northwestern University and an expert on African-American history, “vigorously disputed” this claim when the New York Times asked her to fact-check the essay. She wrote, “Slavery in the Colonies faced no immediate threat from Great Britain, so colonists wouldn’t have needed to secede to protect it.” Harris claims her objections were ignored.
Five other leading historians wrote The New York Times asking for a correction, stating: “These errors, which concern major events, cannot be described as interpretation or ‘framing.’ They are matters of verifiable fact, which are the foundation of both honest scholarship and honest journalism. They suggest a displacement of historical understanding by ideology.”
The New York Times initially said no correction was needed. Instead, Editor-in-Chief Jake Silverstein wrote three paragraphs defending the claim. Seven months after the project’s release, however, an important editorial note was added, saying only “some of” the colonists fought for independence to preserve slavery. Historian Gordon Wood had trouble with even this assertion, claiming there is no evidence at all slavery was in danger from Great Britain.
Hannah-Jones wrote on Twitter that she had lost important context and nuance in not making clear that not all colonists fought Great Britain to protect slavery. However, when recently asked about this correction, Hannah-Jones claimed it wasn’t a correction, but a clarification. Despite finally changing the record, the 1619 Project curriculum has already been disseminated to thousands of classrooms around the country, falsehoods and all.
Hannah-Jones Incorrectly Interpreted the Constitution
Hannah-Jones criticized the Constitution because it does not condemn slavery outright. Yet the American founders had a difficult decision to make. They had to choose between outlawing slavery or forming a union.
They knew the southern states would never sign a Constitution that destroyed or even diminished slavery. The framers chose union because to choose otherwise would invite future territorial wars and give away any influence on slavery in the South. By compromising, many of the framers believed they were ensuring the eventual end of slavery.
In her essay, Hannah-Jones maligns the founders for “carefully constructing a document that preserves and protects slavery without ever using the word.” However, famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass criticized those who claim the Constitution was a pro-slavery document. He instead said, “The Constitution is a glorious liberty document,” arguing that the Constitution taken as a whole contains purposes and principles “entirely hostile to the existence of slavery.”
Many of Hannah-Jones’s qualms with the text of the Constitution come from a misunderstanding of historical context. For example, the three-fifths clause — Article I, Section 2, Clause 3 — is an often misunderstood article. It is frequently pointed to as evidence that the Constitution favored slavery and was racist because it treated black people as less than a full person. To be sure, it certainly codified an awful principle.
This clause, however, was also a loss for pro-slavery southerners. If slaves at the time had been counted as full persons, as the southerners wanted, the South would have been allotted more representatives and more votes in the Electoral College. They, of course, would have used their influence to perpetuate slavery, not to represent the rights of their slaves. This clause, despite its grave faults, also limited slavery’s spread.
America Was Founded on Equality, Not Slavery
Worse than the historical inaccuracies in Hannah-Jones’s essay is how she got America’s founding principles wrong. 1619 was not just a different century than 1776; it was a different epoch. As of 1619, John Locke had not yet written the “Two Treatises of Government,” which taught fundamental principles such as the consent of the governed, private property, and equality.
Locke wrote that in a state of nature, all men are born equal and independent. Picking up on this language, Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence in 1776, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Hannah-Jones claimed that because these ideals were not fully realized when they were written, they were a lie. Abraham Lincoln disagrees. He wrote: “[T]hey did not mean to assert the obvious untruth, that all were then actually enjoying that equality. … They meant simply to declare the right, so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit.”
In his Gettysburg Address, Lincoln said America was “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Lincoln understood that even in his own time, Jefferson’s words still required action. They were not yet fully realized, but that didn’t mean they were a lie. Truth is still true when people don’t believe it.
1776 Set America on a Path Toward Equality
America became a city on a hill because it was the first nation to enshrine legal equality into its identity. While 1776 forged a new moral landscape that would eventually lead to the abolition of slavery and to the creation of the freest nation on Earth, 1619 represented slavery and tyranny. Why, except to convince black Americans of their perennial victimhood, would The New York Times and Hannah-Jones choose 1619 over 1776 as our founding date?
When Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and demanded that America fulfill her promises, he did not point back to 1619, but to 1776. This is because 1619 had no promises. 1619 was the status quo. Slavery was not a new thing, but an old thing.
1776 was the real revolution, the one that has given us the world in which we live today. It may not be perfect. We may need to work for decades to ensure all men and women are treated equally under the law, but we are surely far more free than we would have been had Jefferson not espoused his famous words and had not the leading men of his day signed his declaration.
Hannah-Jones’s claims are wrong on multiple levels. She sacrificed truth and the discipline of history for an identity politics-based ideology. She wrote as neither a journalist nor historian because her purpose was to misinform instead of inform, indoctrinate instead of teach. Throughout her essay, she attempted to persuade with emotion instead of reason, all in a quest for an egalitarian utopia she believes can be achieved through reparations.
It is a sad statement on journalism that such a work can be deemed worthy of such a prize. Yet perhaps it is more a statement on what the prize has become: praise for whoever does the most to advance the cause of anti-Americanism. If that is the criteria, perhaps Hannah-Jones is deserving after all.