The National Association of Scholars has agreed to host this public letter to the Pulitzer Prize Board. The letter calls on the Board to rescind the prize it awarded to Nikole Hannah-Jones earlier this year. I am one of the 21 signatories. A hard copy has been mailed to the Pulitzer Committee as well as a digital copy.
—Peter Wood, President, National Association of Scholars
We call on the Pulitzer Prize Board to rescind the 2020 Prize for Commentary awarded to Nikole Hannah-Jones for her lead essay in “The 1619 Project.” That essay was entitled, “Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written.” But it turns out the article itself was false when written, making a large claim that protecting the institution of slavery was a primary motive for the American Revolution, a claim for which there is simply no evidence.
We call on the Pulitzer Prize Board to rescind the 2020 Prize for Commentary awarded to Nikole Hannah-Jones for her lead essay in “The 1619 Project.”
When the Board announced the prize on May 4, 2020, it praised Hannah-Jones for “a sweeping, deeply reported and personal essay for the ground-breaking 1619 Project, which seeks to place the enslavement of Africans at the center of America’s story, prompting public conversation about the nation’s founding and evolution.” Note well the last five words. Clearly the award was meant not merely to honor this one isolated essay, but the Project as a whole, with its framing contention that the year 1619, the date when some twenty Africans arrived at Jamestown, ought to be regarded as the nation’s “true founding,” supplanting the long-honored date of July 4, 1776, which marked the emergence of the United States as an independent nation.
Beginning almost immediately after its publication, though, the essay and the Project ran into controversy. It has been subjected to searching criticism by many of the foremost historians of our time and by the Times’ own fact checker. The scrutiny has left the essay discredited, so much so that the Times has felt the need to go back and change a crucial passage in it, softening but not eliminating its unsupported assertion about slavery and the Revolution.
The Project as a whole was marred by similar faults. Prominent historians, most of them deeply sympathetic to the Project’s goal of bringing the African American experience more fully into our understanding of the American past, nevertheless felt obliged to point out, in public statements beginning in September 2019, the Project’s serious factual errors, specious generalizations, and forced interpretations. Hannah-Jones did not refute these criticisms or answer them in a respectful or meaningful way. Instead, she dismissed them. In December 2019 five prominent historians wrote a joint letter to The New York Times expressing their “strong reservations about important aspects of the 1619 Project.”1 The New York Times Magazine’s editor-in-chief Jake Silverstein brushed aside the letter with the explanation that “historical understanding is not fixed; it is constantly being adjusted by new scholarship and new voices.”2 True enough; but he refrained from also mentioning that the advance of historical understanding always involves the testing of new interpretations through a process of open criticism and the free exchange of ideas in honest debate, the very things that Hannah-Jones has consistently disdained. Despite this stonewalling, the criticisms of The 1619 Project continued, notably in another joint letter signed by twelve other historians on December 30. Mr. Silverstein again responded, saying that the Times’s “research desk” had examined their criticisms and “concluded no corrections are warranted.”3
The duplicity of attempting to alter the historical record in a manner intended to deceive the public is as serious an infraction against professional ethics as a journalist can commit.
But that was not the end of it. On March 6, 2020, historian Leslie M. Harris, one of the Times’s own fact-checkers, revealed that she had warned the newspaper that an assertion that “the patriots fought the American Revolution in large part to preserve slavery in North America” was plainly false. Harris identified numerous other mistakes that she had pointed out to the Times in advance of the publication of The 1619 Project, none of which was corrected. The Times did, however, respond to Harris’s March 6 revelation by adding the above-mentioned correction on March 11. Where Hannah-Jones had originally written, “one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery,” the new text says “some of the colonists.” Even this softened assertion has little or no documentary basis, according to the most distinguished specialists in the period.
Hannah-Jones’s refusal to correct her errors or engage her critics, we have recently learned, was accompanied by surreptitious efforts by The New York Times to alter the record of what it had published in the original magazine of August 18, 2019. Providing no public explanation or acknowledgment of its actions, the Times amended the digital version of the Project text. Not until September 19, 2020, when historian Phillip Magness compared the original and digital versions of the essay in the journal Quillette, did the alterations come to light.4 These were not changes to Hannah-Jones’s essay itself, but to the crucially important introductory materials whose claims—for example, the “reframing” of American history with the year 1619 as the nation’s “true founding”—form the underlying rationale of the entire Project.
Correcting factual errors in their published works, of course, is an important responsibility of both the journalistic and scholarly press. But such corrections are typically and rightly made openly and explicitly. The author and the publisher acknowledge an error and correct it. That is not what happened in this case. Rather, the false claims were erased or altered with no explanation, and Hannah-Jones then proceeded to claim that she had never said or written what in fact she has said and written repeatedly, assertions that the Project materials also made. Fortunately, we have a documentary record to the contrary, in the form of the original publication, in addition to extensive video footage of Hannah-Jones (and Silverstein) making precisely the claims that she now denies having made.5
The duplicity of attempting to alter the historical record in a manner intended to deceive the public is as serious an infraction against professional ethics as a journalist can commit. A “sweeping, deeply reported and personal essay,” as the Pulitzer Prize Board called it, does not have the license to sweep its own errors into obscurity or the remit to publish “deeply reported” falsehoods.
The Pulitzer Prize Board erred in awarding a prize to Hannah-Jones’s profoundly flawed essay, and through it to a Project that, despite its worthy intentions, is disfigured by unfounded conjectures and patently false assertions.
The Pulitzer Prize Board erred in awarding a prize to Hannah-Jones’s profoundly flawed essay, and through it to a Project that, despite its worthy intentions, is disfigured by unfounded conjectures and patently false assertions. To err is human. But now that it has come to light that these materials have been “corrected” without public disclosure and Hannah-Jones has falsely put forward claims that she never said or wrote what she plainly did, the offense is far more serious. It is time for the Pulitzer Prize Board to acknowledge its error rather than compound it. Given the glaring historical fallacy at the heart of its account, and the subsequent breaches of core journalistic ethics by both Hannah-Jones and the Times, “Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written” does not deserve the honor conferred upon it. Nor does The 1619 Project of which it is a central part, and which the Board seeks to honor by honoring Hannah-Jones’s essay. The Board should acknowledge that its award was an error. It can and should correct that error by withdrawing the prize.
William B. Allen, Professor of Political Philosophy, James Madison College, Michigan State University.
Larry P. Arnn, President, Hillsdale College.
James Ceaser, Professor of Politics, The University of Virginia.
John Ellis, Professor emeritus of German literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
Burton Folsom, Distinguished Fellow, Hillsdale College.
Mark David Hall, The Herbert Hoover Distinguished Professor of Politics, George Fox University.
Victor Davis Hanson, The Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution.
Charles Kesler, Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College and Claremont Graduate University.
Roger Kimball, Editor and Publisher, The New Criterion; Publisher, Encounter Books.
Stanley Kurtz, Senior Fellow, Ethics and Public Policy Center.
Glenn Loury, The Merton P. Stoltz Professor of the Social Sciences, Department of Economics, Brown University.
Phillip W. Magness, Senior Research Fellow, American Institute for Economic Research.
Myron Magnet, Editor-at-Large, City Journal, The Manhattan Institute.
Wilfred M. McClay, The G.T. and Libby Blankenship Chair in the History of Liberty, University of Oklahoma.
Lucas Morel, The John K. Boardman, Jr. Professor of Politics, Washington and Lee University.
Paul Moreno, The William and Berniece Grewcock Chair in Constitutional History, Hillsdale College.
Robert Paquette, Founder, Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization.
Paul Rahe, Professor of History, and Charles O. Lee and Louise K. Lee Chair in the Western Heritage, Hillsdale College.
Colleen Sheehan, Professor of Political Science, Villanova University.
Peter Wood, President, National Association of Scholars.
Jean Yarbrough, Professor of Government and Gary M. Pendy, Sr. Professor of Social Sciences, Bowdoin College.
Richmond B. Adams, Independent Scholar; Former Department of English, Foreign Languages, and Humanities, Northwestern Oklahoma State University.
Jonathan J. Bean, Professor of History, Southern Illinois University; Research Fellow, Independent Institute.
Angelo M. Codevilla, Emeritus Professor of International Relations, Boston University; Senior Fellow, Independent Institute.
Williamson M. Evers, Senior Fellow and Director, Center on Educational Excellence, Independent Institute.
William F. Shughart II, J. Fish Smith Professor in Public Choice, Utah State University; Research Director, Independent Institute.
David Theroux, Founder and President, Independent Institute.
Richard K. Vedder, Distinguished Emeritus Professor of Economics, Ohio University; Senior Fellow, Independent Institute; Member, Board of Directors, National Assocation of Scholars.
Graham H. Walker, Executive Director, Independent Institute.
1 Victoria Bynum, James M. McPherson, James Oakes, Sean Wilentz, and Gordon Wood, The New York Times Magazine, December 29, 2019.
2 Jake Silverstein, “We Respond to the Historians Who Critiqued The 1619 Project,” The New York Times Magazine, December 29, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/20/magazine/we-respond-to-the-historians-who-critiqued-the-1619-project.html.
3 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, “Twelve Scholars Critique The 1619 Project and The New York Times Magazine Editor Responds,” History News Network, January 26, 2020.
4 Phillip W. Magness, “Down The 1619 Project’s Memory Hole,” Quillette, September 19, 2020, https://quillette.com/2020/09/19/down-the-1619-projects-memory-hole/.