The New York Times Revises The 1619 Project, Barely

Peter Wood

The New York Times met sustained and justified criticism for distorting American history in its 1619 Project, begun last August. The Times attempted to shoehorn all American history into a simplistic story that made the enslavement of black Africans the foundation of everything in our society, including the American Revolution. For more than six months, The Times steadfastly refused to correct major errors pointed out by the nation’s leading historians. In fact, The Times either ignored their polite counsel or brushed it aside with condescension. Until now.

Now, under pressure, The Times has made a small revision to the 1619 Project. Jake Silverstein, Editor-in-Chief, published a statement that declared:

We recognize that our original language could be read to suggest that protecting slavery was a primary motivation for all of  the colonists. The passage has been changed to make clear that this was a primary motivation for some of  the colonists. A note has been appended to the story as well.

Silverstein is referring to a sentence in the lead essay by the 1619 Project’s leader, Nikole Hannah-Jones, in which she declared that the American Revolution was fought because the colonists were eager to protect slavery from the possibility that the British would abolish it. Hannah-Jones cited no evidence that the British intended to abolish American slavery or that Americans were worried that this might happen. Her assertion appeared out of the blue and apparently in an attempt to fit the American Revolution to her thesis that every important event in our history up the Civil War was motivated by the need to protect or advance slavery.

Hannah-Jones herself now admits that she went a little overboard. She tweeted:

Yesterday, we made an important clarification to my #1619Project essay abt the colonists' motivations during the American Revolution. In attempting to summarize and streamline, journalists can sometimes lose important context and nuance. I did that here.

In making his correction, Silverstein says The Times notes that it is “grateful to the many scholars whose insightful advice has helped us decide to make this change.” None of the scholars mentioned are from the brigade of historical luminaries who have rallied the opposition to The 1619 Project—not William Allen, H. W. Brands, Michael Burlingame, Victoria Bynum, Clayborne Carson, Peter Coclanis, Hans Eicholz, Joseph Fornieri, Bruce Gilley, Allen Guelzo, Kevin Gutzman, K. C. Johnson, Peter Kolchin, Glenn LaFantasie, Glenn Loury, Wilfred McClay, Deirdre McCloskey, James McPherson, John McWhorter, James Oakes, Robert Paquette, George Rable, Adolph Reed, Jason Ross, Diana Schaub, Colleen Sheehan, Steven Smith, Gordon Wood, Sean Wilentz, or Michael Zuckert.

The Times is willing to listen to some scholars, just not the ones who told them they were wrong.

The Times’ revision consists of adding two words: some of. In context, this change is even smaller than it looks:

Conveniently left out if our founding mythology is the fact that one of the primary reasons some of the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery.

So far the Times has been unable to locate an example of a single colonist who declared independence from Britain for this reason, stated or implied. The Times, however, is sticking by the idea that the desire to protect slavery was not just lurking somewhere in the back of some unidentified patriot’s mind, but that it was his (or their) “primary reason” for declaring independence. What Hannah-Jones calls “streamlining” and what others call wild exaggeration or pure invention remains.

“Some of” merely adds equivocation to a narrative that is fundamentally false. Moreover, that false narrative of American history remains as a prominent part of what The Times wants to teach our children. To our knowledge, the Pulitzer Center still teaches the same unequivocal falsehoods in its 1619 Project Curriculum. The New York Times’ sorry revision is inadequate, because its entire hate-reading of American history is false. The Times’ micro-revision of it is meant to lull and mislead, while the central miseducation of American students continues.

We urge all Americans who desire that our schools teach America’s history fully and accurately to continue to campaign against The 1619 Project and its associated Curriculum. The problem is not just two words, but the whole Project.

Image: Aaron Burden, Public Domain 

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