1619 Again: Revisiting the Project's Troubled Past

Peter Wood

Nikole Hannah-Jones has just published an augmented and greatly extended version of “The 1619 Project,” The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story. The original 1619 Project appears as a special issue of the New York Times Magazine published in August 2019. 

NAS in the company of many historians and other observers pointed to significant flaws in that first version. The new book-length treatment, running almost 600 pages, offered Hannah-Jones’ and her fellow writers ample opportunity to fix those flaws. But instead the book asserts, with additional arguments and examples, the same essential points as the original collection of essays. 

Hannah-Jones’ resolve, come what may, to keep to her story, has already been remarked by reviewers, including Adam Hochschild in the New York Times Book Review, Carlos Lozada in the Washington Post, and Chris Stirewalt in The Dispatch. Hochschild and Lozada are highly sympathetic with the Hannah-Jones’ broader goal of drawing attention to the importance of slavery in American history and its continuing consequences, but they face the awkwardness of applauding a book that they admit is rife with errors, some of which would seem large enough to vitiate the whole enterprise. They do their best with a bad hand. Stirewalt, by contrast, sees the book as more of the “embarrassment of the gross historical failures of the project at its start.”  

I will review the book too, but not yet and not in this article. Rather, here I want to examine the salvo the New York Times published three days before the book came out. It was a preemptive bombardment in anticipation of what critics would say when they encountered Hannah-Jones’ untempered determination to stick with known falsehoods rather than admit the facts. The bombardment was the work of Hannah-Jones’ fellow editor at the Times, Jake Silverstein, and came out under the title, “The 1619 Project and the Long Battle Over U.S. History.” 

Silverstein’s essay clears a path for readers who have heard the criticisms of the original 1619 Project and want to be reassured that those critics can safely be ignored. His approach, however, is not so much to refute the critics as it is to draw a map showing how to evade them. The editor straps on his silver skates and attempts to glide past 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’ 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 not faded from public view since the New York Times published it on August 18, 2019. It hasn’t faded from my personal view either. I read the one-hundred-page magazine cover to cover on the Sunday it was published. The next day I summoned my staff at the National Association of Scholars to say we would have to respond. This “project” appeared to me to promise great damage to America if it forged ahead in the way the Times plainly intended. The intent wasn’t hard to spot.

On the opening page, Jake Silverstein said the project 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.” 

On the closing page of the magazine, the Pulitzer Center announced under the headline “The 1619 Project in Schools” that it had partnered with the New York Times to turn the project into “curriculums, guides and activities” for students and teachers, declaring, “And it’s all free!”

By the end of that first day, my staff and I decided to call our response “The 1620 Project,” invoking the Mayflower Compact as a better conceptual starting point for the origin of American self-government. We started to contact key historians who might have something to say counter to some of the outlandish claims that riddled the Times’ document. I am an anthropologist, not a historian, but some of the statements by Nikole Hannah-Jones, the 1619 Project’s lead author and architect, jumped out as contrary to well-established facts. The six biggest errors in my view 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 Lincoln was a racist intent on separating blacks and whites; (4) that the Blacks “fought back alone” to secure their rights; (5) that Plantation slavery was the foundation of American capitalism; and (6) 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. The book I published in 2020 deals mostly with these issues.

The Historians

I wasn’t alone in thinking these were the key points. In short order many of the most prominent American historians began to express their disagreements with the Times’ new “framework.” One of the first to speak up was the economic historian Phillip W. Magness, who focused on the 1619 Project contributor Matthew Desmond’s claims about plantation slavery’s contributions to capitalism. Within a week of the project’s publication, Magness was knocking its bales of cotton overboard in National Review. By early September, the editors of the World Socialist Daily had launched a series of extended interviews with prominent historians—Victoria Bynum, James McPherson, James Oakes, Gordon Wood, Adolph Reed, Jr., Richard Carwardine, Clayborne Carson, and Dolores Janiewski—who found grave fault with the accuracy of the 1619 Project

That venue might strike conservatives and traditionalists as surprising. It makes sense, however, in that the old-style Marxists who run the World Socialist Daily are relentless in their pursuit of factual accuracy and not at all friendly to the woozy postmodernist “narrative” building that the identitarian left favors. A history that centers on racial grievance rather than the dynamics of class struggle is not to their taste. Moreover, most of the historians they interviewed lean to the left, and it may have been less complicated for them to express their disagreements with the Times in a conspicuously leftist publication than to risk being seen in the company of conservatives.

Another early entrant into the controversy was Princeton historian Sean Wilentz, who gave a lecture at the Newark Public Library on November 4, 2019, published shortly after in the New York Review of Books. Wilentz roundly rejected Hannah-Jones’ contention that the nation’s founding ideals were self-evident lies.

On November 19, I had a conversation with Robert Woodson who told me the Woodson Institute was convening a group of scholars under the heading “The 1776 Project” to push back against the 1619 Project. His focus was going to be refuting the Times’ picture of American blacks as nothing but the victims of relentless oppression by highlighting black achievement.

The Times simply ignored all these early critics, which prompted those critics and others to try another tactic: joint letters to the Times politely urging that it correct the most egregious factual mistakes. In December 2019, Victoria Bynum, James McPherson, James Oakes, and Gordon Wood, joined by Sean Wilentz, wrote a letter to the magazine calling for such corrections. Silverstein responded with a wordy letter that explained the basics to these major historians: “Historical understanding is not fixed; it is constantly being adjusted by new scholarship and new voices.” 

One suspects that Bynum, McPherson, et al., already knew that, but the take-away from Silverstein’s answer was that the Times was not admitting any errors or making any changes. In the meantime twelve other major scholars wrote a separate letter to the Times to express their “deep concern” with the 1619 Project’s “historically-limited view of slavery” and their “dismay” at its “treatment of major issues and personalities of the Founding and Civil War eras.” The signatories were a who’s who of American historians and political scientists: William B. Allen, Michael A. Burlingame, Joseph R. Fornieri, Allen C. Guelzo, Peter Kolchin, Glenn W. LaFantasie, Lucas E. Morel, George C. Rable, Diana J. Schaub, Colleen A. Sheehan, Steven B. Smith, and Michael P. Zuckert. 

Silverstein’s terse response: “No corrections are warranted.” One might conclude that he was fed up with these petty fact-grubbers getting in the way of the Times’ splendid new “narrative.”

A few months later, however, Silverstein relented, just a little bit. 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’ claim that the American Revolution was undertaken to protect the institution of slavery, but 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. 

Spray Paint

One can wonder why the Times seems 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’ own reductive effort to see everything as the story of Black victimhood and white oppression. 

Anyone who criticizes the 1619 Project, of course, is at serious risk of being accused of denying or minimizing Black victimhood and white oppression, or perhaps of suppressing Black history altogether, or not wanting it taught to school children. These are ad hominem attacks that have no basis. Historians of all stripes (and anthropologists too!) are perfectly aware of our country’s racist past and are eager to incorporate Black history in all its dimensions into teaching American history in general. 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, no matter how tenuous. This just blinds us to the multitudinous richness of the American past. 

The animus is the effort to turn every 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 historians have changed their minds over the last 150 years 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 interpret it. And interpretations certainly change for all sorts of reasons. 

Leaving American history aside for the moment, in my field, anthropology, the revolution in genetics has made possible dramatic new interpretations of the human past. We now know that humans in Europe and Asia mated with Neanderthals and that Neanderthal genes are part of the genome of all non-African peoples. And we can also trace past human migrations with a precision unthinkable a generation ago. So new technology has changed anthropology’s view of the past in profound ways. 

But anthropology has also undergone other dramatic changes that I regard as less felicitous. Like the discipline of history, it has been invaded by politics, and a lot of anthropologists today bend their research and writing to the goal of advancing “social justice,” fighting “climate change,” and other causes that have nothing to do with improving our objective knowledge of the human condition. 

A similar dynamic has worked its way through history in recent decades, with the result that historians are often more eager to champion the claims of the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized than they are to account for the large-scale changes in society or developments in politics and economics. When they 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, when writing 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 the Viking settlement we call L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland in the year 1021 (as we now know from tree rings) is an interesting fact that has no important bearing on American history. We can put it aside. The founding of Jamestown in 1607 and of Plymouth in 1620, however, were historically consequential events. They deserve our attention.

Did the disembarking of twenty-some African captives near Jamestown in August 1619 rank as one of those founding events? Nikole 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 was the commencement of race-based oppression of African people in what would one day become the United States. This isn’t true for a whole variety of reasons, and it also 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. 

I sense, however, that few people care about this claim one way or the other. Contemporary Americans have become desensitized to the question of “when” we began, and if it makes some people happy to think it was in 1619 with the arrival of the White Lion at Jamestown, who cares? 

We should care because myths do matter, especially when they run afoul of facts. In this case, 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. 

Story-Telling

Founding events are a crucial part of writing history but other matters are key as well—and it is a long list. We want to know what people thought and believed, what they argued about, why they acted one way and not another, what resources and what technology they had, the condition of their health and the rates of their reproduction, how they conducted themselves in their own communities and towards outsiders, how they governed themselves, and a great deal more. But beneath the welter of detail is always the question, “What difference did this make?” Historiography comes down to debates over which facts, presented in what order, give us the truest picture of the past. Some things, inevitably, matter more than others. The things that really matter are those that framed, guided, or propelled what happened next. 

The short-term settlement of Vikings at L'Anse aux Meadows appeared to have no lasting effect on Europeans or Native Americans. So we can put that settlement in the category of “interesting but not important.” I suspect the arrival of the White Lion at Jamestown in 1619 fits that category as well, at least as far as history goes. But the date has been remembered over the centuries and has taken on a degree of cultural significance independent of its historical weight. 

And that takes us into Silverstein’s extended argument. He writes, “1619 was also the year that a heroic and generative process commenced, one by which enslaved Africans and their free descendants would profoundly alter the direction and character of the country, having an impact on everything from politics to popular culture.” Whoa. That “enslaved Africans and their free descendants” would one day affect almost all aspects of American life is certainly true, but the first part of that sentence requires some attention. What is this “heroic and generative process” that got underway in 1619? What evidence supports such a large claim? 

Silverstein and Hannah-Jones indulge this conceit about a founding event without even trying to give it substance. What they are doing, contrary to Silverstein, isn’t “historiography,” and it isn’t history. It is simply story-telling. What one could say with historical weight about the captives who arrived on the White Lion was that they were the fortunate few who not only survived the Middle Passage but also escaped slavery in Mexico and the Caribbean, and found themselves in relatively favorable circumstances in Virginia with the prospect of freedom ahead. As far as we know, however, they were not the founders of any “heroic and generative process” that made them the deep source of an African-American diaspora. 

Telling stories is not necessarily a bad thing. Done well, such story-telling is called literature, and it is an important part of culture. But we rightly distinguish between the history and fiction sections in our libraries and bookstores. 

Silverstein’s new essay comes down to a claim that “historiography” gives Hannah-Jones permission to ignore that distinction. He observes that upon its publication the original 1619 Project was very popular with readers; that Hannah-Jones won a Pulitzer Prize for her contribution; and that “[t]he racial disparities in Covid infections and deaths” tended to confirm the project’s thesis about “ongoing inequalities,” as did the George Floyd “demonstrations.” This is as much to say that the 1619 Project is its own justification because it has proven popular and influential. 

Interpretations Require Facts

Mixed into this Silverstein acknowledges that the Times received some criticism from historians along the way. They took the 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, the letter from twelve 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. Silverstein recites the shifts from George Bancroft’s ten-volume History of the United States, published between 1834 and 1874; through Charles Beard’s “progressive” (i.e. materialist) history, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States, in 1913; up through today’s race and class-focused micro-historians. These shifts in emphasis are real, although it would be more accurate to observe that the arrival of a new interpretation 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 some cases, audacious new claims were entirely demolished. In 2002, for example, 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.

At least as recently as 2002, American historians were sufficiently vigilant about standards that those who made up stories and presented them as fact were viewed in a dim light. In October 2020, I led a group of scholars who called on the Pulitzer Prize Board to rescind its 2020 prize to Hannah-Jones in light of what had emerged about both its inaccuracy and her complicity in the Times’ stealth editing of the document, long after its initial publication, to hide some of its deficiencies. The Pulitzer Prize Board took no action.

Silverstein weaves into his account of how historians often change their minds a separate thread about how the critics of the 1619 Project are connected to a long-term effort by conservatives to suppress the enlightened views of historians who are trying to “reckon with a new history that acknowledges oppression, exploitation and racism.” I don’t know who these anti-reckoning historians are, but Silverstein includes in this thread Lynne Cheney and others who in the early 1990s rejected the national history standards proposed by Charlotte Crabtree and Gary B. Nash. That’s a long story worthy of close attention, but I will leave it here with the comment that the Crabtree-Nash proposed standards struck many of us at the time as obsessively focused on “oppression, exploitation and racism,” and starkly slanted against any narrative of American national achievement. 

This rapidly became a battle line in academe as well as in the broader culture. The question was not whether “oppression, exploitation and racism” should be part of the history curriculum in the nation’s schools, but how these concerns could best be integrated with a history that accurately captured the broader sweep of the American past. It is of some relevance that Nikole Hannah-Jones was an undergraduate student studying history at the University of Notre Dame in the mid-1990s when the battle over national history standards was fresh and the wounds were deep.

Silverstein concludes, “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 the 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 with only occasional mention of sources. It spoke with its own voice of authority, as though these things were simply known, as Homer presumably knew what happened at Troy and to Odysseus on his way home to Ithaca. 

Perhaps, having been scorched by so much criticism, the new volume will backfill some sources. And indeed, at this point a handful of historians have come forward with strained attempts to give Hannah-Jones’ 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.” And he expects that will be good for our democracy. I expect the debates, but not much in the way of a positive contribution to our culture or our politics. That’s because we will be faced with a popular, 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 of great value, but it will be extremely difficult to extract them from the mythology that characterizes the 1619 Project as a whole. 

I trust Robert Woodson’s "1776 Project" as a far more reliable effort to recover and integrate the African-American past into American history. I trust Wilfred McClay’s Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story to provide a robust and up-to-date framework for teaching all American history. I consider the 1619 Project to be 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. Jake Silverstein’s prologue sets the stage for the smooth deceptions to come. 


Image: Ales Krivec, Public Domain

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