Thus to speak of America’s “founding” at all is necessarily to speak of what makes Americans a “people.” When Abraham Lincoln said that the nation was “conceived in liberty” four score and seven years before the dedication of Gettysburg Cemetery—that is, in 1776—and when, a century later, Martin Luther King referred to the Declaration as America’s “promissory note,” they were speaking in metaphor. And when the Times writers insisted to the contrary that America was conceived not in liberty but in slavery, they, too, were obviously speaking in metaphor. For Hannah-Jones and Silverstein to accuse their critics of being overly literal is therefore to set up a straw man. Their metaphor was always the source of the dispute. The question the 1619 Project posed was whether the American nation should be viewed as having its genesis not in the Declaration of Independence, with its covenants of equality and liberty, but in a commercial transaction for human flesh.
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But for one metaphor to be more fruitful than another requires that it provide a better explanation for the subject in question. And the 1619 metaphor failed this test not because it got the dates wrong, but because its effort to frame the question in (literally) black and white terms essentially required ignoring large swaths of American history. America is not, and never has been, a simple dichotomy of black versus white, any more than it falls into the tidy dichotomy of exploiter and exploited, oppressor and oppressed. Instead, its conceiving principle—that each individual is of infinite value and has a right to pursue his or her own happiness in peace—has manifested itself in far more complicated ways, resulting in far more interesting human stories of triumph, treachery, loss, and victory, than is dreamt of in any effort to portray American history as “us” versus “them.” Read more»
Tim Sandefur,, “The 1619 Project: An Autopsy,” The Dispatch October 27, 2020.
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