The 1619 Project Privileges Narrative Over Facts

According to a significant number of scholars of American history, one of the most serious weaknesses in the self-described 1619 Project, which argues that racism and slavery was a central motivation for the origin of the American Republic, is that it is factually inaccurate. Indeed, they argue it is so factually inaccurate that it is fatally flawed. Apparently, according to an essay published today by Jake Silverstein, in The New York Times Magazine, factual inaccuracy is a feature and not a bug of the 1619 Project. In responding to critics of the project, he writes:

A curious feature of this argument on behalf of the historical record is how ahistorical it is. In privileging “actual fact” over “narrative,” the governor [Ron DeSantis], and many others, seem to proceed from the premise that history is a fixed thing; that somehow, long ago, the nation’s historians identified the relevant set of facts about our past, and it is the job of subsequent generations to simply protect and disseminate them.

Silverstein mischaracterizes the critique significantly. Doubtless, there are amateurs who think what Silverstein alleges, but it not at all true that the scholars who have objected to the 1619 Project have argued for that approach to history. DeSantis did not argue any such approach to history. Silverstein has set up a straw man, indicating once again how brittle are the foundations of the entire project. It cannot be defended on its merits or methods.

What happened in the past is fixed. What we know about the past changes. Thus, history is not a “fixed thing.” We learn new things and that knowledge changes the narrative but (and this is essential) the narrative must flow from the facts. The great problem with the 1619 Project and other projects that follow the method outlined by Silverstein and Hannah-Jones (a journalist and an amateur historian) is that they know a priori what the narrative must be before they ever get to the facts. Real historians, who follow a proper method, work a posteriori. They first determine the facts and then form a thesis from their investigation of the facts. A thesis works for the facts, it explains the facts. Indeed, any thesis that lacks substantive explanatory power is a failed hypothesis. A real historian must test her thesis against the facts and revise it in light of the facts, until it is disciplined by those facts. The narrative must be driven not by assumptions about what must have been but by what we can actually prove about what was. There is a place for surmise and reconstruction but those aspects of the narrative must always be clearly indicated. Supposition has some potential explanatory power but only in light of the facts and only as a possibility and never as a flat claim about what was. Think of the value of historical fiction. It paints a picture of what life might have been but it does not claim to represent what actually happened. It gives us a sense of life in the past. Think of the scene in Braveheart when the protagonist enters Edinburgh on a horse, clip clopping through the mud and the muck. Such a scene must have happened to someone like that in that time. There is value in such stories but they are not history per se.

What the 1619 Project ostensibly seeks to do but does badly is to tell the story of American history from the “bottom up” rather than from the “top down.” Scholars call this social history. As Silverstein indicates this approach to history has come more and more to dominate the study of history since the 1960s. In many history departments this is the only way history is allowed to be done. The intellectual historians have been banished to the hinterlands. There is real value in this approach but it is not without its difficulties. First, for most of recorded history the “little people,” the proletariat (to use a Marxist term, the ideology which, in one way or another drives much of the social history project), the “working classes” (another Marxist category) could not or did leave us written records. Thus, for most of history it was the wealthy who are able to get an education and thus to leave written records.

The social historians, however, have sought to rebalance the story by accounting for the lives and experience of the vast majority of the world’s population. Defined more broadly, social history might include social and economic institutions, religious institutions, and political or civil institutions. All these aspects and more of human life ought to be included as historians seek to tell the story of what happened and why.

In certain ways, however, there is now a built-in bias among social historians against intellectual history, the sort of work I do. Like most intellectual historians, who focus on the history of ideas, I have been chastened by the social historians to take better account of the social location of ideas. My students will tell you that they learn quickly and often that ideas (political, economic, social, or religious) do not “drop out of the sky.” They are always socially situated. They arise in a time and a place. They have a past, i.e., they are organically linked to what went before, and a present. People form ideas and people live in social, economic, religious, cultural-linguistic context. A rich history will account for all these aspects of human life.

This is one of the great problems with the 1619 Project, it is a thin history built on assumptions and a priori convictions about what must have been and why. There are fine Marxist historians, who have helped us understand the past by filling in the picture about those who have been overlooked but there is a kind of Marxist historian whose eschatology (expectations about the future) so color their work that they are materially disinterested in what actually happened in the past. To the degree their narrative is not disciplined by the facts they are not writing history. They are eschatological pamphleteers. The 1619 Project is much more eschatological pamphlet than history. Here is a key: anyone who speaks or writes about being on the “right side of history” is not doing history. They are doing eschatology.

It takes hard work to know what happened in the past. Consider any significant criminal trial occurring right now. The defense and prosecution will both call witnesses to the stand to testify about what happened. These accounts may differ significantly. The jury will be asked to sort through the competing claims about what happened and to apply the law. The witnesses to whom historians appeal, however, are dead. In a contemporary trial, lawyers can query witnesses and probe for inconsistencies in their stories. The historian is trying to query people who cannot answer. Nevertheless, anyone who takes the skeptical, position, that we cannot know the past, is also not worthy of serious attention. We can know the past but we must always be striving to get it right.

The 1619 Project is incorrigible and impenitently so and therefore disqualified from serious consideration. It is methodologically committed to an eschatology and to an outcome that is not disciplined by the facts. To use its own categories, it privileges narrative over facts. It is the worst sort of amateur, Marxist-inspired pamphleteering masquerading as history. This dispute is not about  conclusions. It is about methods. Scholars using a better method will reach competing conclusions about what happened and why. They are corrigible. They reasonable. They do not denounce those who disagree with them (because they disagree) as racists. Reasonable and corrigible are not adjectives well used to describe the 1619 Project. The conclusions of the 1619 Project were never in doubt. Real historians struggle through the history, the facts, and competing accounts of what happened in order to form an explanatory thesis and narrative. The 1619 Project was not born of any such struggle. Dr Frankenstein knew how his laboratory project had to turn out before he ever flipped the switch. In the birthing room, doctors, nurses, midwives, mothers,  and fathers face the uncertainty of the process. The 1619 Project is more the product of Dr Frankenstein’s laboratory than the birthing room.

What does this mean for you and your children? If your school uses or seeks to use the 1619 Project, run, do not walk to the nearest home-school co-op, Christian school, or charter school. It means that your child’s teachers lack judgment about what history is and how it is done. It means that the school’s administrators and the district administrators have an agenda that does not include the hard work of doing real history. It means that they have a social agenda and are not committed to teaching your child how to think critically and well and these are the skills that schools must impart in order to prepare a child to find her vocation in the world and to fulfill her responsibilities as a citizen in a free republic.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!


  1. “… In a recent man-on-the-street interview conducted by Prager University, three young black men were asked how many unarmed black men the police killed in 2019. “About a thousand,” said one. “At least a thousand,” said the second. The third estimated, “Fourteen hundred.” When asked how many unarmed white men were killed by police that same year, their answers ranged from four to fourteen. The young men were astonished to learn that only nineteen white men and nine black men had been killed by police in 2019, according to the Washington Post database, the most reliable and up-to-date source available. When asked what they thought about the data, they responded “Cap.” [Cap is an urban slang term that means “B.S” or lies]…” *

    Why that kind of reaction to the data? It didn’t fit their narrative so it could not possibly be true. And anyone who does think it’s true is a default racist.

    * Baucham, Voddie Jr. “Fault Lines: The Social Justice Movement and Evangelicalism’s Looming Catastrophe,” 2021: Salem Books, Washington, D.C.

  2. The 1619 Project is a conclusion in search of supporting evidence. Once the author had a firm conviction of the what, she began her search for anything she could interpret in light of that conclusion or through the tinted (in this case racially tinted) lenses of her own biases to support it.

  3. Particularly irritating to me as I had three ancestors aboard the Mayflower in 1620 who were Leiden Separatists. Building a slave nation never entered their minds. Survival did—only one made it through that first winter.

Comments are closed.