Another Salvo (This One From The Left) Against The 1619 Project

On a hot, drowsy August Saturday, a copy of the New York Times Magazine devoted entirely to something called The 1619 Project landed on my doorstep, and immediately grabbed my attention. It took me little time to comprehend the project’s purpose, or what appeared to be its purpose. Historians, if not the public, identify 1619 as the year the first African bondsmen arrived in the British colonies that would become the United States. Clearly, or so it seemed, the Times, at a fraught moment in the nation’s race relations, had commendably decided to popularize half a century’s worth of historical research on American slavery, race, and racism, as a rejoinder to the alarming spread of pro-Trump white nationalism. The Times’s list of the project’s contributors included some names I recognized and respected, although it did seem odd that the list lacked any historian with expertise on the history of the United States before 1865, which would include, of course, the entire history of American slavery. Still, I thought, better an uneven rendering than none at all, so long as the rendering was intellectually reliable.

But I began feeling uneasy a few minutes into reading the lead essay by the project’s chief contributor, the journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, and then I read a key paragraph so fallacious and dogmatic that it hit me between the eyes. With a tone of absolute assurance, flagging the matter as crucial, the essay informed readers of what it called “fact”—a “fact conveniently left out of our founding mythology”— specifically that “one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery.”

I instantly wondered how anyone even lightly informed about the history of either slavery or the American Revolution could write that sentence. Unfortunately, the ensuing explanation only made matters worse. The British, the essay claimed, had grown “deeply conflicted” over slavery, and the British government was facing rising calls to end the Atlantic slave trade—a reform that would have “upended” the entire colonial economy, not just in the South. For that reason—the essay mentioned no other—the American colonists, North and South, believed that the British posed a threat to slavery, an institution they desperately wanted to protect. Rather than run the risk of losing slavery, the colonists declared their independence. The Revolution was supposedly, at its core, a reactionary, proslavery struggle to fend off abolition of slavery by the British.

The paragraph covered subjects of unsurpassed importance and it was historical gibberish. Read more»

Sean Wilentz | “The 1619 Project and Living in Truth” | Opera Historica vol. 22 (2021), 88 | (HT: Dan McLaughlin)


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