More on the 1619 Project

February 2, 2020 • 12:15 pm


The opening page of the 1619 Project in the New York Times (click on screenshot to go there)

by Greg Mayer

Last August the New York Times Magazine launched what it called the “1619 Project“. The project’s promoters wish to change the general understanding of American history, and to have their view of American history adopted by schools. The project has generated a wave of backlash from historians. (The Times‘ Project is run by journalists, not historians.) While being sympathetic to some of the Project’s ideological goals, historians have decisively refuted many of the factual claims that are key to the Project’s interpretation. (We’ve discussed the Project in previous posts here at WEIT: here, here, and here, with links to some of the historians’ critiques.)

Not all historians are critical though, and Alexander Lichtenstein, an historian at Indiana University, has published an article criticizing historians who are not on board with the Project. In terms of history, two things stand out to me about the claims of the Project and its defenders. First is their claim that the American Revolution was about saving slavery from the British Crown, which was about to abolish it. (This isn’t the case.) Second, the Project wholeheartedly adopts, of all things, a neo-Confederate view of the Civil War: the war was about state’s rights, or Northern aggression, or some such; but not slavery. But of course the war was about slavery, and the Times here is actively undoing the valuable work it did with its Disunion series. That effort, marking the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, did much good in furthering understanding of the war, and, by republishing the secession ordinances, made it clear what the South went to war for.

But perhaps even more striking than dubious historical interpretation and factual errors is the ideology that pervades the defense of the Project: it is racialist and, apparently, capitalist. The racialist part is clear, and perhaps not surprising. Victoria Bynum, of Texas State University, San Marcos, one of the critics of the Project, and a target of Lichtenstein, has responded directly to him, writing on her blog:

Despite your [Liechtenstein’s] disclaimer that “in principle” being white should not “invalidate” the views of 1619 critics, in fact the skin color of historians critical of the 1619 Project has been scorned (and far worse) over and over again in the Twitterverse—by historians as well as the general public—as the preeminent reason for discrediting our views.

But Lichtenstein isn’t even right about the critics being white. Of the several critiques gathered by the World Socialist Website (WSWS; more on that below), one was by the well-known political scientist Adolph Reed of the University of Pennsylvania, who is black; Lichtenstein doesn’t mention him. Of the critics, he was one of only two I had heard of before (the other being the even more well-known, and white, James McPherson).

[Addendum, 4.ii.2020. I already knew Reed’s work, and knew he was black. The WSWS posted photos of all the people it interviewed about the 1619 project, but I hadn’t made any note of their apparent race at the time. Going back and looking, I now see that two of the eight interviewees are black- Adolph Reed and  Clayborne Carson. That 1/4 of the interviewees were black completely puts to the lie Lichtenstein’s claim that “all of these historians are white.” (He might want to complain that Reed is a political scientist, so he doesn’t count, but that’s hair-splitting that I’m not buying.)]

Lichtenstein makes much of the fact that it is the WSWS that has published a number of critiques, noting “The animus of the Fourth International types seems clear”. I don’t know Lichtenstein’s economic policy views, and perhaps his disdain for the WSWS stems from some internal debate among leftists. (I once met a rather haughty and disdainful Trotskyist myself!) But I don’t know why it is brought up. Marxists of most stripes are not racialists—seeing class as at least equally important as race—and thus would not be expected to endorse a racialist project. Furthermore, the historians interviewed by WSWS are not all, or even mostly, Marxists. (The WSWS, like Bynum, has replied to Lichtenstein’s piece.)

Adolph Reed, however is a Marxist, and as such it is not surprising that he has been a fierce critic of racialism. He, along with Brian Leiter (a white Marxist, for those racialists keeping score), have characterized identitarianism in general (which Leiter derides as “diversity blather“) as a capitalist tool for distracting attention from what is really afflicting society. As Leiter wrote in a defense of affirmative action, since “diversity” would “increase productivity”, it was “good for capitalism”. Reed, noting the disconnect with what the real problems are (which, in his view, include a concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a very few; I concur), put it in a way that highlights, if not heightens, the contradictions:

. . . society would be fair if 1% of the population controlled 90% of the resources so long as the dominant 1% were 13% black, 17% Latino, 50% female, 4% or whatever LGBTQ, etc.

So while Reed shows that criticism cannot be dismissed because critics are white, and a number of the white critics show that criticism cannot be dismissed because critics are Marxists (or perhaps the wrong kind of Marxist), a new piece at Reason by John McWhorter, an African American linguist at Columbia University [JAC: He’s also a liberal], shows that black non-Marxists can be critics, too. (I did not know of McWhorter before seeing this piece; he writes frequently for the Atlantic.)

McWhorter, following the criticisms of Bynum, Reed, and others, accepts that the central premises of the 1619 Project have been shown to be false. What he discusses is how—because we are in a post-truth society where facts must be bent to the demands of group identity and membership—the Project may well succeed:

The verdict is in: The idea that America’s real founding was in 1619 does not wash. And yet, it will be considered a mark of sophistication to pretend otherwise.

Since last August, The New York Times has asked us to consider that America’s real founding was not in 1776 but in 1619, when the first Africans were brought to these shores. Nikole Hannah-Jones teaches that the Revolutionary War was fought mainly not to escape British tyranny, but out of fear that British tyranny was about to threaten the institution of slavery.

Stimulating proposition, but professional historians, as modern academics about as enlightened on issues of race and racism as any humans on the planet, have politely but firmly declared that the facts simply do not bear out this take on our nation’s founding. Gordon Wood and others wrote careful and authoritative pieces to this effect, and more recently Sean Wilentz has penned a careful response to the inevitable pushback. Unless fact is not fact, unless documentation is forgery, no unbiased observer could read Wilentz here as partisan or as even swayed by subconscious racism. [Emphases added.]

He endorses the view that epistemologically challenged ideologies may usefully be compared to religion:

Only this perspective can explain how serenely professional historians’ takedown of The 1619 Project will be ignored. Of late, social justice warrior ideology has been deemed a new religion by many writers, Vox writer Matthew Yglesias’ term “The Great Awokening” being especially apt. The 1619 idea is an almost uncanny embodiment of this new way of thinking.

For one, note the suspension of disbelief we are expected to maintain. Supposedly the Founding Fathers were trying to protect slavery, despite never actually making such a goal clear for the historical record, and at a time when there would have been no shame in doing so. What are the chances that this supposed revelation would have slept undiscovered until now, when for almost 50 years, humanities academics of all colors have been committed to their socks to unearthing racism in the American fabric? Can we really believe that a group of journalists writing for the Times has unboxed such a key historical revelation from reading around, that no one else of any color has chosen to trumpet in the mainstream media for decades?

Hogwash, clearly.

He concludes:

The insistence on maintaining the 1619 idea is rooted in a pervasive modern notion that when evaluating race issues, it is a form of intelligence and morality to duck truth when it is inconvenient to a victimhood-focused construct. W.E.B. Du Bois tackled the Dunning School with facts; today people sensing themselves as his heirs insist we accept alternative facts. Yet, to point out that neither Du Bois, Frederick Douglass, nor Martin Luther King Jr. would see this as progress renders one a heretic. This is one more thing we must overcome.

26 thoughts on “More on the 1619 Project

  1. Anyone interested in the question of what role slavery had in the coming of the War of the Rebellion should check out Charles Dew’s Apostles of Disunion. It is a short book (168pp) that collects the speeches of the the “secession commissioners” that seceded states sent to hector their dilatory neighbors. There is only one issue they raise: slavery.

      1. My understanding of their logic is that if you believe that the northern US fought primarily for the good and just cause of abolitionism, it could relieve people now living in the northern states of some of the permanent and overwhelming guilt that southern Americans share for having invented and perpetuating chattel slavery.
        So, as much fun as it is to portray Southerners as monsters, it is also important for Northerners to remember that they are permanently guilty as well. Possibly more so. Every child raised in the south already has the shadow of slavery cast upon them.

    1. I have listened to a number of discussions between Loury and McWhorter. Their dialogues are ALWAYS thoughtful and enlightening.

    2. I listened to at least half of this video and would agree with both of these folks. Very good job of explaining the reality vs the woke or whatever it is the Times is doing.

  2. Can someone point me to the place where the 1619 project “adopts, of all things, a neo-Confederate view of the Civil War: the war was about state’s rights, or Northern aggression, or some such; but not slavery”? Because I’m not seeing it.

    I looked at the essay titles in the NYT 1619 project page, and figured “A Brief History of Slavery” was the most likely place. There I found this: “The [Fugitive Slave] act — which created a legal obligation for Americans, regardless of their moral views on slavery, to support and enforce the institution — divided the nation and undergirded the path to the Civil War.” So, that comes pretty close to saying the primary cause of the Civil War *was* about slavery.

    1. When I wrote that line I was particularly thinking of the story that Lichtenstein begins his piece with about a Civil War memorial in a cemetery in New York that he visited. He summarizes the memorial as saying that the New Yorkers who died (Union soldiers) “did so to defend the Union and preserve the Constitution. The inscription contains not a word about slavery or emancipation, let alone black military service.” The WSWS aptly responded, “This omission, Lichtenstein implies, proves that the union soldiers who fought and died in the Civil War were indifferent to slavery. However, the connection between the defense of the union and the abolition of slavery, lost on the editor of the AHR, was understood by all contemporaries. Why, one wonders, does Lichtenstein suppose the South seceded from the Union in 1861?” I think that reply is spot on.

      In her lead essay of the 1619 Project, Nikole Hannah-Jones, mentions the Civil War substantively only twice. Once about a meeting Lincoln had with a group of black leaders in the middle of the war, and then jumping to Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. This event made blacks “suddenly free” she writes, as though it just sort of happened, and not through the death and suffering of millions in the most terrible war America has ever fought. Lincoln got it right: “until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword”. The Union army– including a great many free blacks and former slaves– paid dearly for this, and exacted an even harder price from the South. The start of the war isn’t even mentioned.

      It may just be an infelicitous phrasing, but Hannah-Jones also writes about “rights they [black Americans] had fought for and won after the Civil War”, which they certainly did; but the elision of any mention of what was won during the Civil War reinforces that it is not an important part of her historical account.

      One point of the WSWS’s summary of the 1619 Project’s thesis is “that Lincoln was a racist and that the Civil War therefore was unrelated to the fight to abolish slavery”, and I can certainly see the basis for that summary. There’s a rather negative view of Lincoln in the Project, and Oxford historian Richard Carwardine dwelt particularly on its, at best, inadequate treatment of Lincoln in his criticisms.

      The writers and defenders of the 1619 Project are not necessarily all of one mind, and some may not share all of Lichtenstein’s or Hannah-Jones’ views. But the various pro-Southern views of today, ranging from “Lost Cause” to actually promoting secession (Rick Perry, anyone?), can not but take succor from finding their views on the irrelevance of slavery to the Civil War propounded by historians and media outlets they might have thought they had nothing in common with.


      1. I agree, but what was won by the Civil War was lost after reconstruction. After a weak attempt to support the freedmen, the North gave up and surrendered them to a century of terror in the interest of reconciliation between the North and South. It was not the Civil War but the aftermath that leads one to believe the war was about something other than slavery. If it were about slavery per se (rather than the spread of slavery into the territories), why were the freed slaves then abandoned to the terror of their former masters? The fact is that Lincoln freed the slaves as a stratagem in the civil war. He admitted as much.

      2. So the problematic views of Lichtenstein, who is not even one of the 1619 project authors, is somehow a valid basis to criticize the 1619 project? I guess guilt by association isn’t just for the woke anymore.

        1. I addressed “the claims of the Project and its defenders”, and Lichtenstein is certainly the latter; and I pointed you to the texts of both his defense and the original lead essay by Nikole Hannah-Jones. You may think they are guilty “by association” with one another, but I don’t. I criticized them (as have others) for what they each wrote.


  3. I agree with others who have mentioned the Glenn Show. The discussions, all of them, are a real delight. But don’t miss Loury and McWhorter.

  4. … John McWhorter, an African American linguist at Columbia University [JAC: He’s also a liberal] …

    McWhorter began his days as a public intellectual, back when he was with the Manhattan Institute, as a conservative, somewhat in the mold of Shelby Steele. He’s moved progressively to the left over the ensuing years — driven in part, I think, by the rightwing’s ugly backlash against Barack Obama — to where I think it’s accurate now to classify him as a “liberal.”

  5. Identitarian scholarship (sic) takes it as axiomatic that “white supremacy” is a virus that permanently infects the souls of white folks. But reifying abstractions, and treating white racism against POC as axiomatic, will lead to all sorts of distortions of history, as the post describes for slavery. The same can be said for describing the current prison crisis as owing to the resurgence of racism (using labels like the “New Jim Crow” as Michelle Alexander, absurdly, calls it). The notion that neoliberal economic dynamics can be the main culprit in disparity, rather than an (unexplained) white resurgence of hatred against minorities, is brushed aside axiomatically.

    To take another example of the distortions of history, last year AOC said black Americans deserve reparations for, of all things, FDR’s New Deal (see the video here)! Reed ably takes apart such nonsense in a recent New Republic piece .

  6. That’s a nicely written piece by McWhorter in Reason, but then one might expect no less of a linguist — although a knowledge of linguistics no more assures that one is a felicitous writer than a knowledge of music ensures that one has a mellifluous singing voice.

  7. Here we go again. There is so much to comment on here that I am forced to limit myself to a few topics.

    First to the issue of when the country was founded. Yes, one can mark the signing of the Declaration of Independence as the “founding” of the country. But, this would seem to imply that the country came into being out of nothing. It is an interpretation that is analogous to creationism. One must study what were the factors that resulted in revolution. To do this, a knowledge of the colonial era is essential, which means going back as far as 1607 (the establishment of Jamestown) if not to the English impulse to find riches and/or religious freedom in the New World.

    Second, the issue of whether the colonists revolted to protect slavery is a complicated issue. McWhorter is entitled to his views, but he is not an historian so I don’t give them more credence than any other person interested in the topic. Instead, I would consider the views of a real historian, namely David Waldstreicher, who has written on this topic and has an extended essay in the Boston Review.

    He presents a sophisticated argument that the Revolution had both revolutionary and reactionary aspects. His main point is this:

    So it is all the more important to push back critically against the voices who would insist that the American Revolution and the Constitution were innocent of slavery—but also against the notion that they had no antislavery implications whatsoever. It remains important to question the myth that the founders never thought about slavery politically and that black people were not “central” actors of the period. Similarly, we should interrogate the debatable but equally problematic notion that no white person with power ever really meant that all men are created equal. The Revolution was a triumph and a tragedy precisely because it was an emancipation and a betrayal of its egalitarian potential. Denying the radicalism or the reaction against it is to deny that the American Revolution actually was a revolution.

    Finally, I find generally the discussion of the relationship between slavery and the Civil War the days puerile at best, on a second grade level, even when discussed by talking head historians on news shows. Let’s understand what really happened. I will try to keep this as brief as possible, but we need more detail than just saying slavery caused the Civil War. By civil war, I mean actually fighting with battles fought and people killed.

    We need to start with the election of 1860. There is no doubt that the slaveholding South considered the election of a Republican, any Republican, as a threat to slavery. In the period between Lincoln’s election in November 1860 and his inauguration in March 1861 (sometimes referred to as secession winter), seven of the fifteen slave states seceded (Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Texas, Louisiana, South Carolina and Georgia). The other eight held back waiting to see what Lincoln would do. Only after Lincoln decided to use force after the firing on Fort Sumter in April 1861 did four others secede (Tennessee, Virginia, North Carolina, and Arkansas). The remaining four never seceded (Maryland, Delaware, Missouri, and Kentucky). The key thing here is that it was because of Lincoln’s decision to use force did the civil war begin. If Lincoln chose not to use force there would have not been war. There would have been a rump Confederacy of seven states. What would have happened after that is anyone’s guess.

    We cannot assume that if there had been another Republican president that that person would have used force. It is often forgotten or unknown by Civil War dilettantes that Lincoln secured the Republican nomination in 1860 due to luck and that the much more known contenders (Salmon Chase, William Seward, and Edward Bates) could not secure the necessary delegates at the Republican convention to secure the nomination. Lincoln was the compromise choice. If any of the others had gained the nomination, we cannot assume that they would have reacted to Fort Sumter with force as did Lincoln. They might very well have condemned the firing on Sumter and secession in general, but not taken military action.

    In summary, what this means that regardless of who won the Republican nomination, the seven states of the lower South would have seceded, but this does not meaning that fighting was inevitable. It was Lincoln’s decision to use force that actually precipitated civil war.

    Again, I have been brief here. Many books have been written on the secession crisis.

    1. Thanks for the summary. Don’t agree that any republican would have caused the states to leave. Another republics may have made some outreach to South Carolina which would have been successful. Lincoln made no effort.

    2. A very interesting comment, thanks for taking the time to give a historians perspective.

      After watching the conversation between Loury and McWhorter that Eric linked to up above, I’m not sure that there is much conflict between McWhorter’s views on these issues and what you relate here. His main point of contention with the 1619 project seems to be quite similar to your critique of him, that the history of the US is much more complicated than the story the 1619 project tells.

  8. “McWhorter is entitled to his views, but he is not an historian so I don’t give them more credence than any other person interested in the topic.”

    Would that also go for the 1619 Project’s main editor and writer of the lead essay, Nikole Hannah-Jones?

  9. Greg, thank you for the link to the response to Alex Lichtenstein. Excerpt:

    “Northern abolitionists liked to post photographs of enslaved children whose appearance belied not a trace of African ancestry. Mostly they did so to appeal to racist whites who recoiled at the sight of white-skinned children in bondage, but in so doing the abolitionists wittingly or unwittingly exposed the fact that many enslaved children exhibited white as well as black ancestry. Furthermore, the intertwined nature of race- and class-based laws provided an additional means of social control. Southern white lawmakers not only enslaved black and mixed-race people, they frequently appropriated the labor of lower class white children and free children of color by removing them from the homes of their mothers through apprenticeship laws.”

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