Since The New York Times published The 1619 Project a year ago, an army of scholars, historians, economists, and concerned citizens have criticized its bad history, bad journalism, and bad-faith effort to re-found the country on its original sin of slavery instead of its virtues. Unable to respond with intellectual honesty, the creators of the project have avoided discussion.
Contained within The 1619 Project are 18 essays, a collection of original stories and poems, a photo essay, a five-episode podcast, as well as other elements. The Pulitzer Center has also provided free reading guides, copies of the magazine, and lesson plans to educators. Thousands of schools are teaching the 1619 curriculum.
The project’s flagship essay, written by project architect Nikole Hannah-Jones, argues that America’s true founding should be 1619, the year slaves were first brought to Virginia, instead of 1776, the year the 13 colonies declared independence from Great Britain. The reason 1776 is no longer worthy of being our founding date, Hannah-Jones says, is that the writer of the words “all men are created equal” did not mean them for black men and women. She thus claims the words were a lie until black Americans made them true.
Other essays in the project blame a variety of current societal ills on slavery and racism, from sugary diets, traffic, and the prison system to a lack of socialized health care. Further, an essay by Matthew Desmond calls American capitalism brutal and attempts to trace the economic system back to slavery. The below responses are strong rebuttals to all of these contentions.
1. 1776 Unites Campaign, Woodson Center
The Bob Woodson Center’s 1776 Initiative, also called the 1776 Unites Campaign, challenges the assertion that America should be defined by its failures. Contributors to the initiative, who are top black academics, writers, and community leaders, aim to combat the negative effects they believe The 1619 Project will have on young, especially black Americans.
The initiative’s goal is not to fact-check The New York Times, but to inspire African Americans with stories that empower success instead of victimhood. The campaign seeks to do this by highlighting black Americans who have achieved great things.
They have a page dedicated to men like Tyrone Parker, who runs a non-profit combatting juvenile crime by teaching youth life and social skills, and women like Toni Mcilwain, who founded community revitalization programs that seek to bridge relationships between law enforcement and troubled neighborhoods. In one post, Woodson writes of the project,
1776 is already sparking a competition of ideas and approaches. We aim to mobilize ordinary Americans–black, white, brown, and red– to speak up and advocate the principles of America in our schools and communities. We will explore stories of truth, perseverance, and triumph that acknowledge America’s failures yet celebrate her enduring promise.
2. RealClear’s American Civics Portal
RealClear launched an American Civics education portal in April to renew civic education in the United States. The portal gives readers insight on topics such as America’s founding principles, the nature of republican government, and the Constitution.
The portal publishes essays about American history that present slavery and racism as departures from our founding principles. The portal is arranged around topics such as equality, liberty, and issues of race. It also contains a list of essential readings in American civics. Read more about the American Civics Portal here.
3. RealClearPolicy, 1776 Series
The 1776 Series is a collection of essays written by historians and scholars exploring “foundational themes of the American experience.”
Among the essays is Lucas Morel’s “Lincoln, the American Founding and the Moral Foundation of a Free society,” which argues that for self-government to succeed, a nation needs the right ideas and the right institutions. Morel believes the Framers set the United States up for success when they founded the nation upon the ideas laid out in the Declaration and on the institutions laid out in the Constitution. Morel points out that slavery is incompatible with self-government or a free society. This is why Abraham Lincoln spent his political career fighting against it.
Adam Seagrave’s essay, “Started in Slavery, Founded in Freedom: 1619 vs. 1776,” argues that one can recognize the tragic realities associated with 1619 without diminishing the importance of 1776. He writes that critics have primarily not complained about adding 1619, but about subtracting 1776. He states the juxtaposition between the two dates like this:
The question is whether the undeniable historical fact of the preexistence of American slavery tainted or invalidated entirely the ideas and arguments about natural human rights that motivated and justified the American Revolution—and that, presumably, have continued to motivate and justify the American experiment in self-government from that time to ours.
Seagraves concludes that the self-evident truth “all men are created equal” is wholly incompatible with race-based slavery. He further argues that the fate of this principle should not be wholly wrapped up with the fate of its author, as Thomas Jefferson was capturing the mind of his generation rather than writing something original to his own thinking.
4. RealClear’s Engaging The 1619 Project
RealClear’s “Engaging The 1619 Project” specifically deals with the allegation that America was founded on slavery and that the effects of white supremacy continue to distort every aspect of American society. The portal contains some of the best responses to The 1619 Project, news and updates about the project, and resources such as American history curriculum and primary documents about the Founding and slavery.
Here you will find a Rough Draft of the Declaration of Independence, which condemned slavery, debates on slavery at the Constitutional Convention, and important quotes from the Founders on equality and slavery.
5. Hillsdale College, American History Class
In February, Hillsdale College developed a free online course based on Wilfred McClay’s American history textbook, “Land of Hope: Invitation to the Great American Story,” the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s book of the year for 2019. The course counters the narrative of The 1619 Project and seeks to restore civic knowledge to Americans.
This course features 25 lectures that cover American history from the founding era through Ronald Reagan’s presidency. The first lecture’s homepage states,
Good history presents an accurate picture of what happened in the past with a sympathy for those who lived before us. Studying the birth, growth, and survival of America- one of the most significant events in human history- provides foundational knowledge that we can apply to the challenges of our day.
In his fourth lecture, McClay discusses how the Founders saw slavery. He explains that both Thomas Jefferson and George Washington agonized over the institution even though they owned slaves. Most of the Founders recognized they were living in inconsistency. They understood that slavery was an offense against God and the well-being of the nation.
Most Framers believed that slavery would naturally disappear after the Revolution, as it was antithetical to the principles of the Declaration of Independence. “It would be wrong… to say the United States was founded on slavery… No, it was founded on [the] principles of liberty and self-rule,” McClay concludes.
6. The National Association of Scholars’ 1620 Project
To provide a “broader picture of American history,” the National Association of Scholars developed the 1620 Project. This project is a collection of essays, podcasts, and interviews created to combat The 1619 Project’s narrative that America is irredeemably racist.
Instead of honoring the year African slaves were first brought to Jamestown, NAS chooses to celebrate 1620, the year the Puritans arrived in Massachusetts and signed the Mayflower Compact. This compact espoused rules for self-governance and served as the foundation for a colony that eventually thrived. The document made self-government a precedent in the new world.
In an article, NAS President Peter Wood argues that The 1619 Project does not allow itself to be held up to scrutiny by historians. “The 1619 Project is not concerned with uncovering historical truths, but instead uses pseudo-history as a means to undermine rational, non-partisan historical inquiry,” he writes.
Additionally, NAS economists and historians criticize the way the 1619 Project conflates capitalism and the antebellum South’s mercantile slave system. In fact, they argue that it was the system of mercantilism that Adam Smith was writing to combat in “The Wealth of Nations,” economist Phillip W. Magness explains.
7. Heritage Foundation: A Celebration of America
“A Celebration of America” highlights the inaccuracies of The 1619 Project. Further, Heritage provides a trove of primary sources to help parents, students, and teachers study American history. Included is a digital copy of the Heritage Guide to the Constitution, which provides commentary and historical context for each article and clause. You can find other important primary sources on the page here.
Heritage’s page also includes numerous essays and papers about slavery and the Founding. One of the best is by scholar David Azerrad (who works at the same institution I do). Of efforts like The 1619 Project, Azerrad states in his essay, “What the Constitution Really Says About Race and Slavery,”
Such arguments have unsettling implications for the health of our republic. They teach citizens to despise their founding charter and to be ashamed of their country’s origins. They make the Constitution an object of contempt rather than reverence. And they foster alienation and resentment among African-American citizens by excluding them from our Constitution.
Azerrad argues that the actual text of the Constitution and the debates within the Constitutional Convention tell a different story: “The case for a racist, pro-slavery Constitution collapses under closer scrutiny.”
First among Azerrad’s arguments is that the concept of race does not exist in the Constitution. Neither the Constitution nor the Declaration classifies human beings according to race, ethnicity, sex, or religion. While much of our history has not been colorblind, our founding documents were.
Azerrad’s essay is a thorough and well-reasoned defense of the Constitution, including clauses often interpreted incorrectly. Although he laments that the Constitution did not abolish slavery, he argues that it did much to put slavery on a course towards extinction.
8. Law and Liberty Symposium on the 1619 Project
Law and Liberty’s symposium is titled, “Assessing the 1619 Project.” It asks whether The New York Times’ push to “Write more deeply about the country, race, and other divisions” is a concerted effort to “undermine public faith in the basic decency of our regime.” To answer this question, Law and Liberty sponsored essays by top scholars.
Professor W.B. Allen argues in his essay that The 1619 Project resurrects the Positive Good Slavery Argument first espoused by John C. Calhoun. Claiming that America’s economic and social advances are owing to the labors of enslaved persons sounds eerily similar to a utilitarian apology for slavery, he argues.
Evidence to support this theory has proven specious on both historical and economic grounds, Allen says. He explains that while individual slave owners may have been wealthy, Southern society was far less so. Instead, he argues that the “United States became a financial power in spite of slavery, not because of it.”
He explains that the major industrial, transportation, and communication innovations in the United States of the time took place in the North, not the South, and thus did not derive from slavery. Allen claims The 1619 Project’s real aim is to undermine the claim that free markets and self-governing liberty have improved the human condition.
In his article, “Reclaiming 1619,” History professor Kevin Gutzman takes apart Hannah-Jones’ main contention, that those who drafted the words “all men are created equal” didn’t believe them to be true for the black people in their midst. He does this by examining the committee that drafted the Declaration.
He explains that John Adams helped draft the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 that was later held to have abolished slavery, Roger Sherman of Connecticut drafted the law that abolished slavery in his state, and Benjamin Franklin was the president of an abolitionist society that submitted an abolition petition to the first Congress of the United States.
Further, although a slave-holder himself, Thomas Jefferson co-sponsored a bill that would have ended slavery in Virginia. He also wrote the first draft of a bill that banned slavery from the Northwest Territory. Gutzman writes that Jefferson wrote the most influential antislavery book of his age titled, “Notes on the State of Virginia.” It was also Jefferson, as president, who signed the bill that ended the slave trade.
In light of this evidence, Gutzman writes, “I think it fair to say that Nikole Hannah-Jones is mistaken. The men who drafted the Declaration of Independence believed what they said.” He goes on to remind his readers that in 1776 slavery was common, but the American Revolution put it on a road to extinction in the United States and abroad.
Lastly, in his essay for the symposium, Jason Ross explains that the Times’ supposition that America was racist at its core follows William Lloyd Garrison and the radical abolitionists rather than thinkers like Frederick Douglass who claimed the Constitution is an anti-slavery document. He argues that Garrison’s views align more with the Dred Scot decision claiming the Constitution protected slavery. This view, he states, has been discredited in the eyes of history and was widely rejected even in Garrison’s day by his fellow abolitionists.