1620: A Critical Response to the 1619 Project

“If the 1619 Project were a term paper, any knowledgeable, fair-minded teacher would give it an F and be done with it.  It demonstrates not only incompetence in handling basic facts, but also a total disregard for the importance of using reliable sources.”[1]

This is the conclusion of Peter W. Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, after an examination of the central claims of The New York Times’ widely celebrated initiative to reframe American history around slavery.  The initiative is the brainchild of Nikole Hannah-Jones, a staff writer for the Times.  The project was launched in the August 18, 2019 special issue of The New York Times Magazine.[2]  Its basic premise is that the true founding of America was not 1776 with the ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence,[3] but 1619 with the arrival of the first African slaves brought to Virginia.  It was this event, Hannah-Jones argues, that expressed the real founding ideals of America.  “America was not yet America, but this was the moment it began.”[4] 

Wood examines these claims in his recently released 1620:  A CriticalResponse to the 1619 Project (New York, NY: Encounter Books, 2020).  He begins by helpfully summarizing the Project’s origin, contributors, content, and goals (pp. 1-14), while noting,

The 1619 Project offers the fullest and most vigorous exposition of the view that America is a racist, oppressive country.  Fringe groups of black nationalists take an even grimmer view, but the 1619 Project has taken ideas that a few years ago were exclusively fringe a good way into the realm of mainstream opinion.  The idea, for example, that the American Revolution was a pro-slavery event once circulated only among conspiracy minded activists with comic-book-style theories of history.  The 1619 Project has brought it from the playground into the classroom, to the consternation of serious historians everywhere. (p. 5)

Consternation, because (among other things) “the lead author, Nikole Hannah-Jones, who makes some of the most audacious claims, cites no sources at all:  the project as presented in the magazine contains no footnotes, bibliography, or other scholarly footholds.” (p. 6)  In addition, historians have found the project to be “marred by an astonishing number of errors, misstatements, and omissions.  And for a project that purports to cover the world ‘in all its complexity,’ 1619 gives us a just-so story of simplistic generalities – slavery has shaped everything in America.” (p. 53)  Further, “When the editors responsible for the 1619 Project have been confronted with the errors and contradictions of the Times’ portrayal of history, they have retreated into a postmodern claim that it is all a matter of interpretation.” (p. 39)[5] 

The project has also caused consternation among historians because Hannah-Jones, although claiming to want a “dialogue” on the claims presented in the project, seems to only talk with those who agree with her.

Hannah-Jones had been challenged on what might be called matters of journalistic integrity.  The speaking invitations gave her an open-ended opportunity to debate with her critics, or short of that, at least to offer refutations of their points.  But this is not what happened.

Although faced with criticism from...eminent historians...Hannah-Jones has found no reason to respond to them.  Her agent...appears to have been extraordinarily successful at booking her exclusively in venues where audiences greet her as a hero, a prophet, or a “genius”...

This is, of course, freedom of speech in action.  The Times and Hannah-Jones are well within their rights to ignore their critics and to create a bubble in which everyone appears to agree with their views.  But this approach nullifies any real claim to intellectual seriousness.  We seek the truth through pointed examination of the evidence and careful review of the arguments, not through grand pronouncements before worshipful audiences. (pp. 56, 57)

As Wood points out, she even ignored an otherwise sympathetic scholar consulted by a Times fact-checker to vet her most audacious claim, that the colonists sought independence from Britain because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery from British attempts to abolish it.  The scholar, Leslie M. Harris, is an African-American professor of history at Northwestern University specializing in American urban history, the African diaspora, and African-American history.  Her faculty page lists her principal research interests as “Pre-Civil War African-American Labor and Social History; History and Historiography; History of Women, Gender and Sexuality.” (pp. 74-76)  Harris told the Times that the claim was false.  She tells her story in a Politico essay, “I Helped Fact-Check the 1619 Project.  The Times Ignored me.” 

Wood observes that “The 1619 Project isn’t all bad.  It is just wrong in crucial places.” (p. 69)  Historians have focused their attention on five of the Project’s most egregious claims: 

1.         The American Revolution was fought to protect American slave owners from the threat of abolition by the British authorities

2.         Lincoln was a racist whose primary intent was to keep blacks and whites separate

3.         Hannah-Jones’ claim that “for the most part, black Americans fought back alone”

4.         Plantation slavery was the foundation of American capitalism

5.         The entire project of the nation’s history is best understood as a struggle by American blacks against white supremacy[6]

Wood examines each of these claims in his book except the third, that “for the most part, black Americans fought back alone.”  This, he says,

...simply ignores the abolition movement, created and sustained for a century by white Americans.  It likewise ignores the huge role of white Americans in the post-Civil War constitutional amendments, and in the civil rights movement.  Contrary to what Hannah-Jones contends, black Americans were never alone in their fight against racial injustice.  Her declaration on this is the most transparently false of all of her many falsehoods. (p. 69)

He deals with the first claim, that the American Revolution was fought to protect slave owners from the threat of abolition by British authorities, in chapter 5.  He deals with the second, that Lincoln was a racist whose primary intent was to keep blacks and whites separate, in chapter 9.  He deals with the fourth claim, that plantation slavery was the foundation of American capitalism, in chapter 8.[7]  The fifth claim, that the entire project of the nation’s history is best understood as a struggle by American blacks against white supremacy, he rebuts throughout as reductionistic.

Wood identifies a cast of supporting characters of the project, including the National Education Association, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Zinn Education Project, the D.C. Area Educators for Social Justice, Teaching for Change, Rethinking Schools, Black Lives Matter at School, and the Pulitzer Center (not to be confused with awarders of the Pulitzer Prizes), among others.  As Wood observes, “With these groups, we are in the cultural Marxist, radical anti-American end of the pool, where the goal is to indoctrinate American children with a hatred of their country” (p. 107).

The title of each chapter is simply a date in our nation’s history[8] or in the publication and promotion of the 1619 Project itself.[9]  The latter are interspersed with the former, and most of the dates are out of chronological order.  The final chapter is entitled “The Future.”  

Wood organizes his material this way because of how he chooses to examine the project’s claims, but I think it would have helped the reader better navigate the material if he had dealt with events in historical order and given each chapter a more descriptive title. 

Wood chose the title 1620 for his own book, he says, “mainly as a riposte to the claim that the arrival of slaves in Virginia was the real founding of America.” (p. 6)  It was in 1620, of course, that the Mayflower landed in what is now Massachusetts.  Before disembarking, the passengers signed the Mayflower Compact, probably drawn up by William Brewster and William Bradford, two leaders of the small band of Pilgrims (as they came to be called).  The Compact formed “a civil body politic” for the new community, composed of both Pilgrims and Strangers (i.e., non-Pilgrim settlers).  “By penning the Compact,” Wood says, “they planted a seed.  The document sketched, for the first time in European settlement of the New World, an ideal of self-government based on justice.  And it is very important that the leaders invited servants and underage men to sign it as well.” (p. 26)

If one had to choose an event prior to the signing of the Declaration of Independence as the founding of America, I would agree with Wood that the signing of the Mayflower Compact in 1620 has a better claim than the arrival of the first African slaves to Virginia in 1619.[10]  This is not to say their arrival was not significant.  It surely was.  But it was incidental to the founding, not essential to it.  The Mayflower Compact, however, in its effort to establish the groundwork for a self-governing community, was an important precursor to the Declaration.  As Wood writes, “The circumstances differ so greatly between 1620 and 1776 that it is easy to lose sight of these connections.  But the connections are real, not coincidental...” (pp. 31-32).  He adds, “The Compact was not the actual American founding, but a crucial pre-founding, informing the beginning of the American republic.... [I]t has rightly been seen as the moment when an idea of true self-government began to take root.” (p. 33)

In chapter 12, Wood gives a brief overview of how slavery has been treated in U.S. history textbooks.  Prior the 1960s, the treatment ranged from virtual neglect to minimizing its evils to outright bigotry and racism.  In some instances, the way the subject was covered was influenced by salability.  “[P]ublishers, ever alert to the danger of losing a market in the South, played down the nastiness of slavery, emphasized the problems in Reconstruction, and ignored all but the most banal aspects of African-American history since.” (p. 190)  However,

By the early 1960s, civil rights activists both within and outside the black community were demanding changes in the textbooks and gaining political clout.  A major correction was due, and textbook publishers attempted to comply with the demands.  But the need was also addressed by writers...who published independent works that presented views of the African American past that had little scholarly warrant.  This vein of fanciful pseudo-history complicates the picture to this day, and it is part of the 1619 Project. (p. 199)

“A major correction was needed,” he says, but “the 1619 Project carries the reaction into the realm of radical overreaction.  It tells us, in effect, that we live in the land of the unfree, and it replaces the effort to tell a truthful history of America, with its failures as well as its achievements, with a story of nothing but failure.” (p. 200) 

It is easy to agree with Wood when he says, “The 1619 Project as a whole is myth-making[11] aimed at intensifying identity politics and group grievance.  It doesn’t aim, as it says, to tell ‘our story truthfully.’  It aims to tell it with falsehoods and deceptions for the purpose of instilling resentment.” (p. 217) 

[1] Peter W Wood, 1620:  A Critical Response to the 1619 Project (New York, NY:  Encounter Books, 2020), p. 208

[2] The original version can be found online here:  The 1619 Project

[3] “Our founding ideals were false when they were written” (p. 14)

[4] From the magazine’s cover

[5]  Emphasis in the original.  Wood deals with the impact of postmodernism on the project on pages 65-68

[6] p. 68

[7] Phillip W. Magness gives a thorough critique of this claim in The 1619 Project:  A Critique (The American Institute for Economic Research, 2020)

[8] The dates are October 1492; November 1620; August 1619; 1776; 1775; March 1621; April 1861; January 1863; and October 1621

[9] August 2019; March 2020; January 2020; and September 2020

[10] As Wood shows, there is reason to believe that the first Africans who arrived in Virginia in 1619 were not actually treated as slaves, but as indentured servants (pp. 35-38, 41-50).  “The Southern system of plantation slavery did not spring into existence all at once or fully formed.  It evolved over time in different contexts according to a host of variable conditions.” (p. 44) 

[11] “Malicious myth-making” as he says on p. 224.


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