The 1619 Project Book’s Goal Is To Keep Slandering America

The 1619 Project Book’s Goal Is To Keep Slandering America

Why does The New York Times seem so desperate to maintain claims contradicted by a very clear and abundant historical record?
Peter W. Wood
By

New York Times Magazine editor Jake Silverstein recently introduced the forthcoming book version of the 1619 Project in a long essay that attempts to head off well-deserved criticism of the original project and the new book. Silverstein’s motive is to explain in advance that the nay-sayers have it all wrong. I don’t yet have the book, so it is possible that Silverstein is right, but judging from his preamble it looks like the new, expanded version of The 1619 Project is woven of the same wish fulfillment as the original.

Silverstein’s essay is meant to clear a path for readers who have heard some of the criticisms of that original and want to be reassured that the critics can safely be ignored. His approach, however, is not so much to refute the critics as it is to draw a map showing 1619 supporters how to evade them.

Think of the editor strapping on his silver skates to glide past a lot of the awkwardness that accompanied the 1619 Project’s early days. In the interests of keeping the record straight, let’s revisit 2019 and 2020.

At the Start

I covered this era pretty thoroughly in my book, 1620: A Critical Response to the 1619 Project. But there are other good sources, including Phillip Magness’s The 1619 Project: A Critique; Mary Grabar’s Debunking the 1619 Project; and David North and Thomas Mackaman’s edited volume, The New York Times’ 1619 Project and Racialist Falsification of History.

The 1619 Project has never faded from public view since The New York Times published it on August 18, 2019. On the opening page, Silverstein wrote it was an effort “to reframe American history by considering what it would mean to regard 1619 as our nation’s birth year.” “Doing so,” he added, “requires us to place the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are as a county.”

Several statements by Nikole Hannah-Jones, the 1619 Project’s lead author and architect, jumped out as contrary to established facts. The six biggest errors are (1) that slavery was somehow new to America in 1619; (2) that the American Revolution was fought to preserve slavery from the threat of emancipation; (3) that Abraham Lincoln was a racist intent on separating blacks and whites; (4) that blacks “fought back alone” to secure their rights; (5) that plantation slavery was the foundation of American capitalism; (6) and that the nation’s entire history is best seen as a struggle by blacks against white supremacy.

Dig into The 1619 Project and you will find an abundance of other errors, but these are the tent poles that hold up the entire circus tent of falsehoods.

Spray Paint

Many historians have criticized the 1619 Project compellingly. The New York Times rejected all their critiques—except one. When Professor Leslie Harris, The New York Times’ own fact-checker for The 1619 Project, came forward in Politico to say that she had warned the Times in advance that there was no foundation for Hannah-Jones’s claim that the American Revolution was undertaken to protect the institution of slavery, she had been ignored.

Silverstein responded to this embarrassment with a weaselly correction. He amended the text to say that only “some of” the revolutionaries were prompted by this goal. In point of fact, there is no evidence (so far) that any American revolutionary had this in mind. It would have been a senseless motive in light of Britain’s firm commitment to maintaining slavery in its colonies.

One can wonder why the Times seem so desperate to maintain a claim that runs counter to a very clear and abundant historical record. Mere stubbornness? Or is discrediting the motives of the American Revolutionaries somehow crucial to the whole 1619 Project?

These controversies over the accuracy of The 1619 Project now lie almost two years in the past. If the Times had made some prompt corrections and admitted some initial error, the project might by now be on a firmer footing. Or perhaps not.

Getting the basic facts right on matters firmly established in the historical record would have been nice, but that would still leave The 1619 Project as a bizarre interpretation of the past—an interpretation founded on the main authors’ reductive effort to see everything as the story of black victimhood and white oppression.

The deep problems with The 1619 Project are its tunnel vision and its animus.

The tunnel-vision is its effort to make everything about race and to ignore what manifestly isn’t about race. The 1619 Project props up a two-degrees-of-separation industry. Name a subject, any subject, and an adroit player will conjure a racial connection, not matter how tenuous.

For example, a recent book (Americanon: An Unexpected U.S. History in Thirteen Bestselling Books, by Jess McHugh) finds white supremacy hidden in the weather forecasts of The Old Farmer’s Almanac and the word lists in Noah Webster’s Speller. Nothing apparently is safe from racial recrimination.

The animus in The 1619 Project is the effort to turn everything aspect of the past into grist for the mill of contemporary racial resentment and division. It was not for nothing that Hannah-Jones declared the 2020 urban riots “the 1619 riots” and it was not for nothing that rioters spray-painted “1619” on toppled statues of George Washington and other revered figures.

Foundings

So how does Silverstein in his new essay deal with these matters? Mostly, he doesn’t. Instead he presents a long essay describing how often over the last 150 years historians have changed their minds about the American past.

The technical term for concepts about how history should be written is “historiography,” which points accurately to a small truth that Silverstein does his best to inflate into a large truth. The small truth is that historians don’t just record the past, they also interpret it. And interpretations certainly change for all sorts of reasons.

Historians nowadays are often more eager to champion the claims of the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized than they are to account for large-scale changes in society or developments in politics and economics. When these woke historians do turn their attention to such large-scale issues, it is often with eagerness to supplant the plain plot of history with fanciful countercurrents.

Likewise, to write a history of America, we want historians to identify the crucial events and to explain those events as best they can with the available evidence. “Founding” events are often crucial in this sense. Who came first and did what? But not every founding event really matters.

The founding of Jamestown in 1607 and of Plymouth in 1620 were historically consequential events. They deserve our attention. Did the disembarking of 20-some African captives near Jamestown in August 1619 rank as one of those founding events? Hannah-Jones and The New York Times are certainly free to argue the case that this event merits that kind of historical focus. But there are strong reasons to doubt it.

The captives, as best we can tell, were treated as indentured servants, eventually released, and assimilated into the general population. Hannah-Jones nominates 1619 as a founding date because, she argues, it is the commencement of race-based oppression of African people in what would become one day become the United States. This claim isn’t true, and obscures the context.

Black slavery had been here for nearly a century before 1619; other forms of slavery were indigenous to North America; the active slave trade to the English colonies was half a century in the future; and African slavery in the mainland English colonies was never more than a small fraction of African slavery in the New World, let alone in Africa and the Middle East. Attempting to make the arrival in 1619 of a handful of slaves captured by English pirates from a Spanish ship into “our nation’s birth year” strains credulity.

The myth that Hannah-Jones and others have conjured is more than a sop to aggrieved activists. It is also a charter for misreading our entire history. It is the beginning of an ambitious assertion that the American pursuit of liberty was—Hannah-Jones’ word—a “lie,” and a depiction of American prosperity as built on the wrongful expropriation of others’ labor. In this sense, to elevate 1619 as “our nation’s birth year” is a none too subtle step towards demoralizing all Americans by persuading us that our nation is rooted in rooted in tyranny rather than the pursuit of liberty and justice.

Interpretations Require Facts

Silverstein acknowledges that the Times received some criticism from historians along the way. The Times’ editors took a letter in December 2019 from five historians “very seriously” but Silverstein didn’t find it persuasive enough to make “prominent corrections.”

In fact, he made no corrections at all in response to that letter, another letter from 12 other scholars, or their follow-on public essays. To the extent that Silverstein gives a reason for this stonewalling, it comes in the form of his claim that history is “the dynamic, contested and frankly pretty thrilling process by which an understanding of the past is formed and reformed.”

This is that small truth again that he is about to twist into a large falsehood. History is indeed constantly rewritten, both in response to the discovery of new evidence and in an effort to advance ideas that challenge previous syntheses.

These shifts in emphasis are real, although it would be more accurate to observe that the arrival of new interpretations seldom if ever blotted out the older ones, and every new claim has had to stand the test of close scrutiny by fellow historians who rightly demanded to see the facts on which the new reading was based. In 2002, the prestigious Bancroft Prize that had been awarded to Michael Bellesiles for his book, Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture, was rescinded when other scholars showed that his work had numerous errors.

Silverstein concludes that, “This dispute about the use and potential misuse of history…is what we have been arguing about for the past two years.” I would say that dispute is part of the context, but no, what we actually have been talking about for the last two years is the need to maintain a tough-minded distinction between history and myth.

The 1619 Project eschewed history from the start. It presented “narrative” that sometimes floated in the vicinity of historical facts; sometimes wafted high about the historical record; and sometimes drifted off to sheer fantasy. The original document was presented without footnotes and only an occasional mention of sources. It spoke with its own voice of authority, as though these things were simply known, as Homer claimed to know what happened at Troy.

Perhaps, having been scorched by so much criticism, the contributors to the new volume will backfill some sources. Indeed, at this point a handful of historians have come forward with strained attempts to give Hannah-Jones’s wilder claims a little historical justification.

Silverstein’s essay is full of noble-sounding justifications for The 1619 Project’s wayward claims, but he rightly expects “the book will kick up a new round of debates.” What the book will really do is support the well-financed and deeply institutionalized effort to force on American children and adults an aggressively false account of the American past. Embedded in that account there may be historical facts, but it will be extremely difficult to extract them from the mythology that characterizes The 1619 Project as a whole.

The 1619 Project is mythmaking of a particularly vicious sort. It is aimed at fostering racial resentment and political division. Even as it presents itself as righting centuries of injustice, it lays the groundwork for new and even more destructive injustices. Silverstein’s prologue sets the stage for the smooth deceptions to come.

Peter W. Wood is the president of the National Association of Scholars.
Photo National Park Service / public domain

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