The New York Times has produced a forthcoming book version of its error-riddled 1619 Project, whose outrageous central claim is that slavery and racism are the true basis of the American project — that America wasn’t founded on the proposition that “all men are created equal” but on white supremacy.
Indeed, the book’s subtitle is “A New Origin Story,” which is precisely what Nikole Hannah-Jones’ lead essay for the original 1619 Project proposed: America’s founding ideals “were false when they were written,” and our true origin is not 1776 but 1619, the year African slaves first arrived in the British colonies.
As an organizing thesis, it is certainly bold and sensational, but as history it is complete garbage. That has not stopped the Times from pushing ahead with a book version of the project, as well as materials for classrooms, just as it did not stop them from doubling down on their fantastical claims when they were first exposed shortly after the 1619 Project debuted in August 2019.
Five eminent historians — Sean Wilentz, Victoria Bynum, James McPherson, James Oakes, and Gordon Wood — wrote to the Times that December to express their “strong reservations” about the project, which they said contained “errors and distortions” about major events that “cannot be described as interpretation or ‘framing.’ They are matters of verifiable fact, which are the foundation of both honest scholarship and honest journalism.”
These errors, they went on, “suggest a displacement of historical understanding by ideology.” Most objectionable, in their view, was Hannah-Jones’s ahistorical assertion that the American colonists wanted independence from Britain “because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery.”
“This is not true,” the historians wrote. “If supportable, the allegation would be astounding — yet every statement offered by the project to validate it is false.” They demanded “prominent corrections” and “the removal of these mistakes from any materials destined for use in schools, as well as in all further publications, including books bearing the name of The New York Times.”
Jake Silverstein, the editor of the New York Times Magazine, responded by shrugging them off and flatly denying there were any errors or problems with the project. The one concession he eventually made was to insert the words “some of” in Hannah-Jones’ sentence claiming the colonists wanted independence from Britain in order to preserve slavery — a change that presumably will be reflected in the book version of the essay. Otherwise, Silverstein politely agreed to disagree with the people most qualified to critique the 1619 Project.
In the course of his reply, however, Silverstein admitted that the primary purpose of the 1619 Project is not to illuminate the past or deepen the public’s understanding of American history, but to use history to advance an argument about the present: “The very premise of The 1619 Project, in fact, is that many of the inequalities that continue to afflict the nation are a direct result of the unhealed wound created by 250 years of slavery and an additional century of second-class citizenship and white-supremacist terrorism inflicted on black people.”
He went on to cite a number of inequalities between white and black Americans, things like median family wealth and incarceration rates, which he says were “the starting point of our project.” Silverstein does not come out and say so, but his point, put bluntly, is that slavery and racism, past and present, account for inequalities of outcome in our own time.
But that is not a claim historians can adjudicate because it is fundamentally ideological and political. It is not a question of historical facts, of what happened when, and why. It is a question of how we should order society and public policy today, here and now. It is also a question of power: who should wield it, and how?
The 1619 Project, then, is exactly what the five dissenting historians suspected it was: a displacement of historical understanding by ideology. It exists primarily to advance a narrative that certain changes in public policy that people like Silverstein and Hannah-Jones would like to see are justified by America’s past sins.
Yet because the 1619 Project is prominently billed as a grand reckoning with our nation’s shameful past, the historical claims undergirding it have to hold up. If they do not, the project’s implicit ideological and political claims about the present are revealed to be its true purpose, and the historical essays that make up the bulk of the project are exposed as nothing more than shoddy propaganda.
Unfortunately for Silverstein and the Times, their historical claims have been utterly demolished. In January 2020, Wilentz, the Princeton scholar who had organized the initial letter, fisked Silverstein’s reply in a powerful essay for The Atlantic, systematically refuting Hannah-Jones’s claims about the American Revolution, the Civil War, and resistance to Jim Crow in the South.
Contra Hannah-Jones, by 1776 there were no “growing calls” in London to abolish the slave trade, Britain had not “grown deeply conflicted over its role in the barbaric institution” of slavery, and abolition would not have “upended the economy of the colonies, in both the North and the South.” On this last point, Wilentz notes that
the colonists had themselves taken decisive steps to end the Atlantic slave trade from 1769 to 1774. During that time, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Rhode Island either outlawed the trade or imposed prohibitive duties on it. Measures to abolish the trade also won approval in Massachusetts, Delaware, New York, and Virginia, but were denied by royal officials. The colonials’ motives were not always humanitarian: Virginia, for example, had more enslaved black people than it needed to sustain its economy and saw the further importation of Africans as a threat to social order. But the Americans who attempted to end the trade did not believe that they were committing economic suicide.
Wilentz also exposes how Silverstein either misunderstood or manipulated the historical evidence he offered in his reply. The Somerset case, in which a British high court ruled that English common law did not support chattel slavery, did not in fact cause a “sensation” when it was reported in the colonies, as Silverstein claimed.
The Dunmore proclamation of 1775 by the royal governor of Virginia did not offer freedom to any slave who ran away, it only offered freedom to slaves who fled plantations owned by rebel slaveowners. The proclamation, writes Wilentz, “was intended as an act of war, not a blow against the institution of slavery, and everyone understood it as such.”
Wilentz goes on to demolish Hannah-Jones’s cartoonish portrayal of Abraham Lincoln as a racist who “opposed black equality” and believed the United States was “a democracy intended only for white people,” as well as her objectively false assertion that “black Americans fought back alone” against Jim Crow in the South. Anyone acquainted with the relevant histories here knows that such claims are demonstrably false, as Wilentz clearly shows them to be. Later, other historians would add to the chorus of criticism.
What are the chances that they corrected the multiple factual errors in Matthew Desmond's piece on Capitalism and Slavery?
When I pointed one of these out to Silverstein directly in Jan. 2020, he outright refused to do anything about it. https://t.co/VqcTZVOnC8
— Phil Magness (@PhilWMagness) November 9, 2021
No wonder then that Silverstein, in a ponderous essay published this week to introduce the 1619 Project book, recounts his initial exchange with the five historians but omits any mention of Wilentz’s essay in The Atlantic or the many other critiques from historians and scholars.
Instead, he inveighs against recent state laws designed to prevent the teaching of the flawed 1619 Project in public schools, then spends the bulk of the essay ruminating on the last 100 years of American historiography to advance the idea that history isn’t fixed and can’t be reduced to a relevant set of facts or authorities. Hence, “a knowledge of American historiography, in particular the way our historical profession evolved to take fuller account of the role of slavery and racism in our past, is critical to understanding the debates of the past two years.”
He goes on to a torturous recounting of American historiography, the purpose of which should by now be clear: ahead of the 1619 Project book release, Silverstein is trying to inoculate himself, Hannah-Jones, and the Times against damning and still unanswered critiques from Wilentz and others.
Neither he nor Hannah-Jones can offer any compelling rebuttal or defense to these critiques, so he hides behind the history of American historiography, arguing ludicrously that “real” American history-writing only began around 1965. But he also argues that what we tell ourselves about America’s founding is ever-shifting, and because past attempts to revise our origin story have provoked hostile reactions from people who wanted a sanitized version, any hostile reaction to the 1619 Project is just more of the same. It’s a neat trick. Silverstein manages to dodge the criticism and impugn his critics’ motives in one fell swoop.
He closes by making the case that the proper response to our battles over American history is to “conclude that a republic founded on an irresolvable contradiction — freedom and slavery — was always going to wind up in an irresolvable argument over how to tell its story, that this contentiousness is American democracy, that the loss of consensus means we’ve finally arrived.”
A republic founded on freedom and slavery, he says. Indeed, that would be an irresolvable contradiction if it were true. But America was not founded on slavery, it was founded on the proposition that all men are created equal. No, we have not always lived up to that ideal, and we might never achieve it fully. But that was and always will be our goal. Slavery was an aberration and a betrayal of that ideal, so was Jim Crow, and we have paid a dear price for it. We are paying still.
Silverstein calls our founding an “irresolvable contradiction,” but what he really means, and what Hannah-Jones says outright, is that America was founded on a monstrous and cynical lie. The ideals of the founding, after all, “were false when they were written.” That idea, it turns out, did not begin with Silverstein or Hannah-Jones. It began with John C. Calhoun, who hated both the Declaration and the Constitution, and sought to construct an entirely new political philosophy based on junk racial science and metaphysical determinism.
What a bitter irony then, that Silverstein and Hannah-Jones and the Times have come around at last to embracing the central claim of Calhounian thought. Instead of proclaiming it boldly though, as Calhoun did, they are hiding — not behind the junk science of Calhoun’s time, but behind the junk history of our own.