Alexander Hamilton: slaveowner, slave trader, pro-slavery lawyer, and slave renter

UPDATE: A new response in the Federalist (click on screenshot) says that Serfilippi’s interpretation is wrong, and that the evidence that Hamilton owned slaves is unconvincing. Click on screenshot to read:

I wondered why the conservative Federalist would publish this, as well as adding the slur about the NYT, but then I realized that part of this is an implicit attack on the contention of the Times‘s 1619 project about the Founding Fathers creating the Revolution to preserve slavery. Anyway, read and judge for yourself. I expect that Serfilippi will reply.

h/t: Dvorah

_________

A new paper by Jessie Serfilippi, a 27-year-old interpreter at the Schuyler Mansion Historic Site in Albany, New York, begins this way:

In the 21st century, Alexander Hamilton is almost universally depicted as an abolitionist. From Ron Chernow’s Hamilton to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton: An American Musical, there is little room in modern discourse for questioning the founder’s thoughts and feelings on slavery.

In fact, the article below, from the new Smithsonian Magazine (click on screenshot), notes that both Chernow’s book and Miranda’s play based on that book make a point of painting Hamilton as an abolitionist. While Hamilton was tangentially engaged in some abolitionist activities, Serfilippi’s extensive paper, published by the Schulyler Mansion Historic site, makes an almost airtight case that Hamilton not only owned slaves, but rented them out to others for a fee. In addition, he gave advice to others who wanted to promote slavery (often about maintaining ships for transporting slaves), and bought slaves to sell to others.

(The Schuyler mansion, built by Revolutionary War general Philip Schuyler in 1761, is a National Historic site; the Hamilton connection involves Alexander H. marrying Schulyer’s daughter Elizabeth, or “Eliza”.)

If you want a short take, read the Smithsonian article, a good summary of the 28-page article by Serfilippi. But her original publication, which you can get free by clicking on the second screenshot below, is more useful in establishing Hamilton’s slave-owning and -trading activities, as well as his legal advice promoting slavery, with original historical records and documents. These documents include the ledgers of Philip Schuyler, of Hamilton himself, and of John Barker Church, who settled Hamilton’s estate after his death.

Serfilippi’s publication (free pdf at link)

 

I’ll give Serfilippi’s main take first, and then list the ways that Hamilton was involved with slavery. It was, as she says, a “complicated relationship”, but it clearly seems more pro- than anti-slavery.

A thorough study of the depths of Hamilton’s involvement in the institution of slavery has yet to be done through a close examination of Alexander Hamilton’s cash books, various letters to and from Hamilton, letters to Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton from her father, Philip Schuyler, and other related primary accounts. When those sources are fully considered, a rarely acknowledged truth becomes inescapably apparent: not only did Alexander Hamilton enslave people, but his involvement in the institution of slavery was essential to his identity, both personally and professionally. The denial and obscuration of these facts in nearly every major biography written about him over the past two centuries has erased the people he enslaved from history. It has also created and perpetuated a false and incomplete picture of Hamilton as a man and Founding Father.

Here are Serfilippi’s arguments, some merely inferential, but the most damning ones based on historical documentation.

1.) Hamilton, who grew up in St. Croix, was part of a household that had at least seven slaves.  After his dad abandoned the family, Alexander also worked as a clerk at a trading post involved in the slave trade. It is probable, says Serfilippi, that Hamilton was involved in the machinations of this trade. There is no historical record that Hamilton objected to the slavery on St. Croix during his entire life. As Serfillipi surmises,

As a teenager, Hamilton writes to his friend Ned Stevens that he “would willingly risk my life tho’ not my Character to exalt my Station,” showing that his major concern was improving his own situation, not the ones of the enslaved people around him.14 It is more likely that Hamilton’s exposure to slavery as a child caused him to internalize the lesson that enslavement was the symbol of success for a white man like himself and could lead to the higher station he sought. He would carry that lesson with him as he began a new life in New York, and its impact would much later be revealed on the pages of his cash books.

This is, of course, speculative, and is more biographical surmising than hard evidence. But let’s proceed:

2.) Hamilton was a middleman in the trading of slaves.  The 1784 entry in Hamilton’s own ledger (“cash book”) below documents the sale of a woman named Peggy from Hamilton to physician Malachi Treat for ninety pounds. Apparently Hamilton bought Peggy and held her for Treat until the latter could pay for her. This makes Hamilton a slave trader. The sale of “regular” servants (the name “servant” was often used as a synonym for “slave” back then) did not occur; the only humans bought and sold this way were slaves.

In 1797, and not for the first time, Hamilton bought a “negro woman and child”, holding her for his brother-in-law John Church, who was arriving from England.

Twelve years later, the Churches again turned to Hamilton to purchase enslaved servants. On May 29, 1797—only a week after the Churches arrived in New York from England—Hamilton recorded in his cash book that he spent $225 purchasing a “negro woman and child” for John B. Church.24 (The “X” over the entry in the image below means the debt was paid.

 

Serfilippi says that Hamilton’s book makes it clear that Hamilton himself carried out this transaction “for himself”, meaning he purchased the slave to sell to Church. It’s clear that he was engaged in buying and selling slaves—acting as a slave trader.

3.) Hamilton was a “middleman for legal clients.” Serfilippi’s search showed that Hamilton was paid by slaveholding and possibly slave-trading clients to advise them on the slave trade (the “advice” was unrecorded), and records of some of these consultations show that he defended the right of Americans to own ships that had been fitted out to carry slaves. While these ships may not have been used later in the slave trade, Serfilippi argues—and this is speculative and not very hard evidence—that if he were an abolitionist, clients involved in the slave trade would not have sought and paid for his expertise.

4.) Hamilton owned slaves. There are several documented instances. In May, 1781, Hamilton wrote to George Clinton saying he “paid the value of a woman” for Hamilton’s wife Eliza. Eliza’s family had at least 13 slaves, and, says Serfilippi, Hamilton would have been expected to purchase slaves for his own family as part of a “lifestyle reflective of his status as part of one of the wealthiest and most prominent families in New York.”

More telling is an entry in Hamilton’s cashbook from March 23, 1796, in which Hamilton paid $250 to his father in law for “2 Negro servants purchased by him for me”. Here’s the entry:

And there’s more:

On June 25, 1798, Hamilton recorded that he’d received $100.00 for the “term” of a “negro boy.”  [JAC: probably one of the “two Negro servants” above]. He rented the boy to someone else––who that person was is not mentioned––and collected money for the child’s labor. The fact that he was able to lease the boy to another person absolutely indicates that Hamilton enslaved the child.

Serfilippis gives other evidence that these people were slaves, though the material above should be dispositive.  There is other evidence that Hamilton had white “servants”, who, because they were paid wages, were not slaves. No wages were given to the slaves above. Read Serfilippi’s article for more detail.

4.) Hamilton’s slaves were part of his property valued after he died.  The document below, probably by the hand of George Church, Hamilton’s executor, shows the value of his estate (1818 pounds) after Hamilton’s pre-mortem debts were paid off. The items valued were his house, his furniture and library, and his “servants”:

Paid servants do not have a value like this; these were slaves. As Serfilippi notes:

In the assessment likely drawn by Church, the “servants” are valued at £400. Monetary value ascribed to a human being as property is an inherent aspect of slavery. Valuing servants in such a way, as part of the estate on par with furniture, simply cannot refer to hired servants, such as the coachman, gardener, or “White Peggy,” who were hired, paid, and not considered to be the property of the Hamiltons.

In 1804, it is possible there were four servants at The Grange. The first would be the woman Hamilton purchased for Eliza in 1781, the woman and boy, and the maid for Angelica. It is known that a man or boy named Dick died, meaning it is more likely that there were three enslaved servants in 1804: the two women and the girl, who may have been a young woman by that point. There may also have been another maid, as multiple maids were mentioned in relation to the Hamilton children in Schuyler’s 1799 letter and who those maids were—whether they were one of the two women already purchased by Hamilton or not—is unclear.

The auditor does specifically write servants, using the plural of the word, implying there was more than one servant present. Who they were may never be known, but the presence of “servants” on the inventory of Hamilton’s estate is proof enslaved servants were present at The Grange when Alexander Hamilton died in 1804.

It is true that Hamilton occasionally espoused abolitionist views, but Serfilippi argues that these views, which changed over time, simply reflect his adherence to the political organizations with which he was affiliated. Her conclusion:

We may never know what became of the people the Hamiltons enslaved, but we know they existed. Alexander Hamilton’s cash books offer a history of his connections to and relationship with the institution of slavery. He was trusted by legal clients to know the ins and outs of the slave trade for certain cases. He was selected by friends and family to act as a financier and to purchase enslaved people for them. He purchased multiple enslaved people for his own family and did not leave instructions for them to be freed upon his death. The presence of these enslaved servants at his estate, The Grange, is confirmed by the value of Hamilton’s estate, calculated after his death, likely by John Barker Church.

In light of these primary sources, the majority of which are in Hamilton’s own hand, it is vital that the myth of Hamilton as the “Abolitionist Founding Father” end. These documents, especially when placed in context with each other, make it evident that Alexander Hamilton was an enslaver. The truth revealed in Hamilton’s cash books and letters must be acknowledged in order to honor the people he enslaved. Through understanding and accepting Hamilton’s status as an enslaver, the stories of the people he enslaved can finally take their rightful place in history.

Now you probably know why I’m putting up this post. Hamilton, seen as an colonial abolitionist by liberals, turns out to have been just another slaveholder—like many of the founding fathers, including Jefferson, Washington, Monroe, and Madison. But because Hamilton was thought of as different, he’s been deified, by Chernow and especially by Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose play Hamilton was a theatrical phenomenon.

Hamilton is now seen as a man of his time: a white person who owned slaves as a sign of social standing. That doesn’t make slavery right, of course, as it’s the most odious of practices in America. It’s just that because slavery is seen as an original sin in early Americans, and because those who owned or even just approved of slavery have been demonized and their statues torn down, in the name of consistency the antiracists must now tear down or deface the statues of Hamilton, as they have of Jefferson, and rename any monuments or buildings raised in his honor.  One might expect that the play Hamilton would be picketed now, and that there would be calls to remove Hamilton from the ten-dollar bill. After all, Theodore Roosevelt’s statue was removed from in front of the American Museum of Natural History simply because he was astride his horse, with an African and a Native American walking by his side.

That won’t happen, probably because Miranda’s play has put Hamilton, the star, beyond reproach (Miranda is a person of color, of Puerto Rican descent, and a left-wing activist). We shall see if this new research casts doubt on Hamilton’s legacy. I wouldn’t hold my breath, as consistency has never been a defining feature of woke ideology.

What are my views on Hamilton? Given the currents of abolitionism already about in his time, one can’t say that Hamilton is completely absolved of moral failure. He and other slaveholders knew that there were good arguments about the immorality of slavery, and nevertheless still held slaves.

Hamilton shouldn’t be considered as culpable as, say, someone who held slaves today, since morality has progressed substantially since the 18th century.  Should Hamilton still be lionized? Yes, I think that the good he did outweighs the bad, though a calculus in a case like this is hard to perform. But any monuments celebrating the many good things that Hamilton did should stay up, for they are not celebrating his slaveholding.

Perhaps his monuments should be qualified with plaques, as statues of others have been qualified. I leave that to those who deal with the ethics of monuments. The only case I’m making here is that if you erase or demonize someone for merely approving of slavery, or of eugenics, then you must do more to fight against those who actually owned or traded slaves. In other words, whatever treatment was given to Confederates or Founding Fathers who owned slaves should also be meted out to Alexander Hamilton.

Jessie Serfilippi:

The Schuyler Mansion:

Hamilton:

h/t: Dom

More ludicrous erasure: students at Brown demand removal of two Roman statues, while students at UW Madison vote to remove Lincoln statue

At Brown University there are two bronze copies of statues of Roman emperors. One is of Marcus Aurelius:

. . . and the other is of Caesar Augustus (sources of both photos, and a discussion of the statues’ history, are here)

Well, all statues these days are subject to intense scrutiny, and a group of 6 students representing “Decolonization at Brown” (endorsed by 28 student organizations at the University, including the Brown Birding Club), wrote a petition/letter at the Blogonian—an independent student newspaper at Brown University—about the two monuments. The students and groups strongly assert that the two statues are harmful because they exemplify white supremacy and values and thus are offensive to students of color. They have to come down!

Read (click on screenshot) and weep:

What’s telling about all the beefing is that the claim that the statues symbolize colonialism and white supremacy, and were put up to show that Brown was trying to inculcate its students with whiteness, are not based on fact, but on student offense. There’s no record of anything intentions to codify white supremacy. Rather, the statues were clearly erected to symbolize Rome as an antecedent of Western culture and philosophy.  Some quotes from the beef above:

Last spring, Brown’s Public Art Committee proposed to restore and relocate the bronze copy of a Roman statue of Augustus, which currently stands in front of the Ratty, using tens of thousands of dollars solicited from an unnamed donor. Under this proposal, the statue would be moved to the Quiet Green, across from the Slavery Memorial.

We strongly oppose this proposal and urge the Public Art Committee—and any community members or donors who are invested in the role of public art at Brown—to replace both the statue of Augustus and the statue of Marcus Aurelius (currently on Ruth Simmons Quad) with new works of art commissioned from local Black and Indigenous artists.

These monuments were brought to our campus with the goal of upholding the ideals of the “perfect” white form, white civilization, white supremacy, and colonialism—ideas that we believe are incompatible with Brown today. Consequently, removing and replacing these statues is a crucial step in confronting such legacies. We see this as a moment of immense opportunity for transformation and reflection, and we hope that the broader campus community, the Public Art Committee, and potential donors will, too.

It goes on and on like this; the language is by now very familiar:

Because they are not actually from ancient Rome, we must understand them as modern monuments to a set of values and political stances which existed when they were commissioned for Brown’s campus.

. . . The connection between the U.S. and Rome is entirely ideological. There is no natural or direct tie between the two—there is only a fabricated lineage of whiteness. Statues made in the Roman-style, like the two at Brown, are intended to materialize this connection. They convey the supposed supremacy of white values over non-white cultures, a reading in which non-white people should learn and aspire to whiteness. Alt-right groups, like the Proud Boys and Identity Evropa, use this idea of “white virtue” to ground white supremacy.

. . . To the significant number of students, staff, and faculty at Brown today who are not white, these statues function as a constant reminder that Black, Indigenous, and people of color are not included within Brown’s conception of the University community. The presence of these statues is therefore not only incompatible with, but violates Brown’s stated commitment to inclusion, equity, and change.

The authors and supporting organizations call for the complete removal of the statues.

I deny, first of all, that these statues are harmful, or that any students genuinely feel offended by them (there’s also an antiracist monument calling attention to Brown’s involvement in slavery). The offended, I argue are pretending to be offended, using offense as a means of asserting power—of making the campus do what they want. If these statues are removed because Rome engaged in expansion, well, let’s just write off every monument to Greece and Rome, both bellicose empires, but also empires that helped form the ideals of the West. And why not expunge all Roman and Greek writing from the curriculum as well?

At least one student— a woman of color—has pushed back in an article at the Brown Daily Herald, another student newspaper. While Bhaskar could use some lessons in how to write more simply (I’d recommend her reading Strunk and White or Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language”), she does make the point that what goes for statues can also go for curricula. After all, if a Roman statue is offensive, what’s to ensure that readings of Roman and Greek thinkers won’t be expunged, too? No more Meditations of Marcus Aurelius the Colonizer and White Supremacist.

A quote from Bhaskar:

Now, more than ever, the world needs graduates and scholars who are able to recognize the many intricacies and layers of the past and who can use this multifaceted knowledge to consume historical and artistic vestiges of the past with intentionality and a capacity to use such lessons to guide progress. The University must move beyond tendencies to censor “uncomfortable” or “controversial” topics that fail to echo the outspoken post-modernist and left-leaning images associated with Brown in favour of upholding the tenets of free inquiry and the preservation of nuance within the exploration of historical relics. Outlining tangible steps for creating robust anti-racist curricula, while equipping students with the patience, wisdom, and skill-set to grapple with uncomfortable realities and relics of the past, is crucial for the University to uphold its mission of “communicating and preserving knowledge and understanding in a spirit of free inquiry.”

There’s one student who’s much wiser and more thoughtful than the many who have a kneejerk reaction to classical statues as symbols of “white supremacy.”

Meanwhile, on the campus of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, a statue of Abraham Lincoln sits in front of the administration building atop a hill. I saw this when I visited Madison to speak at the FFRF:

Well, Lincoln is in bad odor, too, these days. Lincoln! The man who fought a war against those who wished to preserve slavery, and issued the Emancipation Proclamation! Why Lincoln? Well, read and weep again:

A group of students are calling for the removal of the Abraham Lincoln statue at the top of Bascom Hill on the UW-Madison campus.

This comes after protesters took down two statues on the state Capitol grounds: one embodying the state’s motto “Forward” and another of Civil War Union Army Col. Hans Christian Heg. The students say despite the former president’s role in the abolition of slavery, he had a racist past in supporting the notion of a “superior” white race.

“I just think he did, you know, some good things…the bad things that he’s done definitely outweighs them,” Nalah McWhorter, president of the Wisconsin Black Student Union, told the Badger Herald.

Lincoln was memorialized on the university campus for his role in creating land grant universities, of which UW-Madison is one. The land for the campuses was largely seized from Native American tribes in 1862 through the Morrill Act. Lincoln also ordered the execution of 38 Dakota men that same year.

The students say the sum of the former president’s actions warrant taking down the statue.

“And I do want the 100% removal of the statue. I don’t want it to be moved somewhere or anything like that. I want it removed,” McWhorter said.

And on what basis did “the bad things Lincoln did definitely outweight the good ones”? Does Ms. McWhorter know how many lives were saved or made better by the ending of slavery in America? Yes, Lincoln did order the execution of 38 Dakota tribesmen who killed settlers and soldiers, but he also commuted the death sentences of many more of the convicted. But against that we must measure Lincoln’s legacy, and I can’t imagine what kind of mind would decide that Lincoln caused more harm than good. Again, I assert that this is faux outrage disguising an attempt to get power over a university. Removing a statue of Lincoln, or of Roman emperors, will do exactly nothing to ameliorate racism or better the opportunities for minorities.

In fact, following a student petition with many demands, the first of which was to remove the Lincoln statue (it also demanded the abolition of the campus police), a resolution was brought before the student government demanding attention to BIPOC demands, including doing something about the Lincoln statue, one of the “remnants of this school’s history of white supremacy.” According to Campus Reform, a right-wing site, the student government passed that resolution unanimously.

I don’t know what’s worse: these student demands to remove statues that not only honor great men, but remind us of history, or the pusillanimous administrators who bow to those demands. Northwestern President Morton Schapiro is a welcome exception, but after the students and African-American Studies Department castigated Schapiro’s hard-nosed response to defund-the-cops protestors, he’s showing signs of caving.

For those who think that all this madness will end when Biden is elected, I wouldn’t hold my breath. The students have had a taste of power, and they won’t stop until they’re running the asylum.

Fallout at the New York times over Bret Stephens’s criticism of the 1619 Project

The other day Bret Stephens wrote an op-ed at the New York Times in which he bucked one of the paper’s proudest achievements: the 1619 Project, designed to be at once journalism, history, and a curriculum for secondary schools.  Stephens was unsparing in his criticism, saying that the Project has “failed” and has given critics of the newspaper a “gift”. I applauded him for his bravery, and predicted his demise at the paper.

Thinking about it, though, I realize that the paper would be extremely foolish to let Stephens go, for that would cause a huge public outcry. He’s an established conservative columnist, and if he got released for doing what he should have done—criticizing a project that, although run by his employer, had become a public issue—the paper would be accused even more than it is already for being biased and one-sided. I expect Stephen will stay.

Now I don’t agree with most things that Stephens writes, but I did agree with this. I also don’t agree with most things that Glenn Greenwald writes, either, but his criticisms of the paper, just published in The Intercept (click on first screenshot below), are on the mark. But they’re largely outmoded now, as they’re based on a tweet issued by the New York Times’s own union of employees, the New York Times Guild. And that tweet has now been retracted.  Yet I’ll maintain that his criticisms still have force, even if they were directed against a moving target.

The union issued this tweet on Saturday that was critical of the paper for publishing Stephens’s op-ed, seen as “going after one of it’s [sic] own.” (Note the two misuses of “it’s”, bizarre for a newspaper guild!). Greenwald wrote his piece after he saw this tweet, and oy, was he steamed!

While Greenwald isn’t a fan of the paper or of Stephens (he also has mixed feelings about the 1619 Project), he eloquently defended journalism itself, saying that it’s the duty of newspapers to publish dissenting opinion, and when the story is the paper itself, well, that’s just too bad.  A couple of quotes:

To start with, this is a case of journalists using their union not to demand greater editorial freedom or journalistic independence — something one would reasonably expect from a journalists’ union — but demanding its opposite: that writers at the New York Times be prohibited by management from expressing their views and perspectives about the controversies surrounding the 1619 Project. In other words: they are demanding that their own journalistic colleagues be silenced and censored. What kind of journalists plead with management for greater restrictions on journalistic expression rather than fewer?

Apparently, the answer is New York Times journalists. Indeed, this is not the first time they have publicly implored corporate management to restrict the freedom of expression and editorial freedom of their journalistic colleagues. At the end of July, the Guild issued a series of demands, one of which was that “sensitivity reads should happen at the beginning of the publication process, with compensation for those who do them.”

Here’s the demand for sensitivity readers, now a staple in children’s literature but hardly appropriate for a major newspaper, which, argues Greenwald, should publish stuff that’s occasionally objectionable to everyone, “including culturally hegemonic liberals.” (There are more demands at the link below.)

Here’s one more eloquent statement by Greenwald about why the ungrammatical tweet above was ridiculous:

I’ve long been a harsh critic of Stephens’ (and Weiss’) journalism and opinion writing. But it would never occur to me to take steps to try to silence them. If they were my colleagues and published an article I disliked or expressed views I found pernicious, I certainly would not whine to management that they broke the “rules” and insist that they should not have been allowed to have expressed what they believe.

That’s because I’m a journalist, and I know that journalism can have value only if it fosters divergent views and seeks to expand rather than reduce the freedom of discourse and expression permitted by society and by employers. And whatever one wants to say about Stephens’ career and record of writing — and I’ve had a lot of negative things to say about it — harshly critiquing your own employer’s Pulitzer-winning series, one beloved by powerful media, political and cultural figures, is the type of “challenge to power” that many journalists who do nothing but spout pleasing, popular pieties love to preen as embodying.

There has never been a media outlet where I have worked or where I have been published that did not frequently also publish opinions with which I disagree and articles I dislike, including the one in which I am currently writing. . . .

Well, late yesterday evening, someone thought better of the first tweet, saying it was an “error”. This came out, and Greenwald highlights it an an update to his piece:

Apparently the “mistake” was that someone in the Guild, who also runs its Twitter account, issued the tweet without “internal discussion.” This caused a fracas in the Guild, which issued the apology.

I’d say that this deletion and apology was a good move if I didn’t think it was done only for the “optics,” with the Guild realizing how bad that tweet looked. Although I don’t know for sure, based on the demands the Guild has made previously, and the fact that the NYT and the internal communications of the paper led to a climate so toxic that it forced Bari Weiss to resign, I suspect that many members of the Guild—save for “old school” journalists like Greenwald—agree with the first tweet. And I suspect Stephens has few friends at the paper now.

I really would like to be charitable here, as we shouldn’t assume the worst of those we dislike, but I’m having trouble with that, at least with respect to the Guild. We know from internal communications that those who don’t adhere to the paper’s woke ideology get slammed.

I also have trouble thinking that Jake Silverstein, the editor of the NYT Magazine (which first published the 1619 Project), is completely sincere when he says in the two tweets below that “he welcomes debate” and “stands entirely behind the 1619 Project.” He in fact has rejected criticism and ignored fact checking, and the paper has quietly shelved important claims about the Project without admitting that they did so. It was up to others to note this form of journalistic duplicity. No, the 1619 Project reminds me of a scientist who holds so tenaciously to his theory that he’ll never admit it has flaws, and when some are found he secretly modifies his theory and asserts that it never changed. (In fact, Steve Gould behaved that way with respect to his and Eldredge’s theory of punctuated equilibrium.)

I’m more charitable about the following letter from the publisher, A. G. Sulzberger, shared by Silverstein. I’ve reprinted Sulzberger’s statement at the bottom. The only thing I’ll beef about here is Sulzberger’s claim that their openness to hear criticism is the clearest sign of confidence in their work. In fact, they are open to publishing criticism by one of their highest-profile columnists, but they’re not open to really listening to criticism, as they’ve swatted away the critics as they’ve weighed in (see here) or even secretly altered the Project in light of criticism—without admitting it. And believe me, it’s not a trivial thing to assert, as the 1619 Project did, that the Revolutionary War was really fought by the colonists as a way to preserve slavery. Arguing about the “founding date” of America is one thing, but distorting the history of the American Revolution is another.

 

h/t: cesar

Bret Stephens is wrong about most things, but he is very brave

The title of this piece came from Greg Mayer, who was about to write a post on this same subject when he saw my draft. So, with permission, I’ve stolen his title, which was better than mine. And I agree with it.

Bret Stephens knew what he was doing when he called out the 1619 Project in his latest column (click on screenshot below). For he not only criticized the project, but the paper’s—his paper’s—journalistic integrity, verging at times on mendacity.  In fact, it’s a good piece, even if you don’t like Stephens’s conservatism, for what I know about his indictment is true. But how much of a career will he have at the NYT now? For what he did was far more serious than the “crimes” that made Bari Weiss’s life at the paper so untenable that she left. She was just anti-woke, which went against the paper’s editorial grain.

When Greg saw this draft (he’s followed the Project since its inception, he added this:

You mention Bari Weiss, but don’t forget the opinion page editor, James Bennet, who was defenestrated from the Times for insufficient wokeness. One thing about Stephens that might protect him is the fact that he is very visible, as the Times‘s premier conservative columnist. Both Weiss (who only occasionally was published by the Times) and Bennet were mostly behind the scenes players; Stephens is out in front, published twice weekly (including his duets with Gail Collins), and a “Columnist”, not a mere contributor.

In his column, Stephens says the 1619 Project, however good its motivations, was handled so duplicitously that it gave the paper’s critics “a gift.”

Let me say first that since the 1619 Project was not just journalism, but also an attempt to infiltrate American secondary education with its ideology from Critical Race Theory, it represents a victory for the Woke. Although Ayaan Hirsi Ali says the Woke haven’t won, I disagree. They control not only the two most respected liberal papers in America, and most higher education, but are now putting their tentacles into secondary-school education. Even the Chicago school system has adopted the 1619 Project as part of its curriculum.

But I digress. I described some of the paper’s questionable practices in earlier posts, and Stephens reprises how Nikole Hannah-Jones, the project’s director, simply lied about the project’s overriding aims, saying that she never tried to change the foundation date of America from 1776 to 1619. But she did make that claim several times, and it quietly disappeared from the paper’s website without an explicit correction. And despite trenchant criticism by historians about many of the project’s empirical claims, the paper and editor refused to accept, or even consider, the criticisms.  The Woke don’t do stuff like that.

Stephens finds other problems, like the new claim that 1776 represented the year of “defining contradiction” of America, that the founding principles were “false,” and that Jake Silverstein, the NYT Magazine editor, grossly exaggerated when he said this:

“Out of slavery—and the anti-Black racism it required—grew nearly everything that has truly made America exceptional.”

Well, you can argue about the meaning of words like “contradiction,” “falsity”, and “nearly everything,” but the fact remains that noted historians on all sides of the political spectrum have argued that the Times‘s journalism simply distorted history. Stephens gives several examples of pushback by historians (e.g., here, here and here) and concludes, correctly, I think, that the 1619 Project is “a thesis in search of evidence, not the other way around.”

The historical distortions and track-covering by the Times are not in doubt, at least not among those who’ve followed the controversy, but of course all criticism of the 1619 Project by liberals comes with the obligatory praise for its anti-racist intent.  And indeed, the intent was admirable. Who of good will can oppose anti-racism? But the execution has been deeply flawed, and will the paper really reduce racism by inculcating a generation of American children with Critical Race Theory? Further, Trump has already suggested that he’ll cut off government funding to any schools who adopt the 1619 Project in their curriculum. I oppose that autocratic decision as well, as the President should not be dictating what’s taught to children. School boards set curricula.

In the end, Stephens knows he’s even more of an apostate with his NYT colleagues now, but you have to admire him for the courage of his convictions. He didn’t have to write this column, which includes criticisms of the paper’s journalistic practices like this:

Journalists are, most often, in the business of writing the first rough draft of history, not trying to have the last word on it. We are best when we try to tell truths with a lowercase t, following evidence in directions unseen, not the capital-T truth of a pre-established narrative in which inconvenient facts get discarded. And we’re supposed to report and comment on the political and cultural issues of the day, not become the issue itself.

As fresh concerns make clear, on these points — and for all of its virtues, buzz, spinoffs and a Pulitzer Prize — the 1619 Project has failed.

Nor did he have to end his piece this way, but I’m glad he did:

For obvious reasons, I’ve thought long and hard about the ethics of writing this essay. On the one hand, outside of exceptional circumstances, it’s bad practice to openly criticize the work of one’s colleagues. We bat for the same team and owe one another collegial respect.

On the other, the 1619 Project has become, partly by its design and partly because of avoidable mistakes, a focal point of the kind of intense national debate that columnists are supposed to cover, and that is being widely written about outside The Times. To avoid writing about it on account of the first scruple is to be derelict in our responsibility toward the second.

All the more so as journalists, in the United States and abroad, come under relentless political assault from critics who accuse us of being fake, biased, partisan and an arm of the radical left. Many of these attacks are baseless. Some of them are not. Through its overreach, the 1619 Project has given critics of The Times a gift.

In the meantime, the Wall Street Journal has reported on a futile effort: a letter to the Pulitzer Committee signed by historians (including Glenn Loury), asking them to take back the 1619 Project’s Pulitzer Prize (that Prize was ridiculous from the get-go, awarded not for quality but wokeness). You won’t be able to read the WSJ article, which is paywalled, but you can see the beginning by clicking on the screenshot below. (Judicious inquiry may yield you a copy of the piece.)

The WSJ repeats some of the earlier criticism, but also links to the Pulitzer letter, which you can read by clicking on the screenshot below:

Of course the Pulitzer folks won’t retract the prize; I don’t know if it’s ever done that, but it surely wouldn’t retract an award for an antiracist piece in these times.  Here’s a short extract from the longish letter which includes lots of material we’re familiar with by now:

The duplicity of attempting to alter the historical record in a manner intended to deceive the public is as serious an infraction against professional ethics as a journalist can commit. A “sweeping, deeply reported and personal essay,” as the Pulitzer Prize Board called it, does not have the license to sweep its own errors into obscurity or the remit to publish “deeply reported” falsehoods.

The Pulitzer Prize Board erred in awarding a prize to Hannah-Jones’s profoundly flawed essay, and through it to a Project that, despite its worthy intentions, is disfigured by unfounded conjectures and patently false assertions. To err is human. But now that it has come to light that these materials have been “corrected” without public disclosure and Hannah-Jones has falsely put forward claims that she never said or wrote what she plainly did, the offense is far more serious. It is time for the Pulitzer Prize Board to acknowledge its error rather than compound it. Given the glaring historical fallacy at the heart of its account, and the subsequent breaches of core journalistic ethics by both Hannah-Jones and the Times, “Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written” does not deserve the honor conferred upon it. Nor does The 1619 Project of which it is a central part, and which the Board seeks to honor by honoring Hannah-Jones’s essay. The Board should acknowledge that its award was an error. It can and should correct that error by withdrawing the prize.

The letter is signed by 21 original signatories and 7 additional ones from “the Independent Institute.” I can’t be arsed to look most of the scholars up and, as most Woke people do, try to discredit them. I’d never heard of any of them save Glenn Loury, who, as I recall, identifies as a liberal. It doesn’t matter, though, as Pulitzer won’t revoke the Prize. But the original award to the 1619 Project is, I think, a travesty, motivated much more by ideology than by quality.

h/t: Cate, Enrico

The intellectual mendacity of the New York Times and its 1619 Project

Yesterday I criticized the University of Chicago’s English Department for repeatedly changing their “Faculty Statement of 2020” without ever telling readers that they’d done so. That’s not a huge misstep, though it’s unethical and should not have been done by—of all organizations—a Department of English.

But the New York Times has been far more unethical in a simiular way: changing what it said about the 1619 Project’s aims without letting the readers know.  It also does other dubious things, like employing fact-checkers whose fact-checks are ignored, as well as ignoring correct criticisms from historians on all sides of the political spectrum. And its dug in its heels when historians offer corrections that should have been made.

An example of historical sleaziness is the Project’s assertion that the Revolutionary War in America was fought because the colonists wanted to ensure the continuation of slavery in their new country. The evidence for this is virtually nonexistent, but Nikole Hannah-Jones, who won a Pulitzer Prize for the Project, hasn’t backed off much. As The Atlantic notes,

Hannah-Jones hasn’t budged from her conviction that slavery helped fuel the Revolution. “I do still back up that claim,” she told me last week—before Silverstein’s rebuttal was published—although she says she phrased it too strongly in her essay, in a way that might mislead readers into thinking that support for slavery was universal. “I think someone reading that would assume that this was the case: all 13 colonies and most people involved. And I accept that criticism, for sure.” She said that as the 1619 Project is expanded into a history curriculum and published in book form, the text will be changed to make sure claims are properly contextualized.

Well, maybe you can find a handful of revolutionaries motivated this way, but historians have claimed that, among all other motivations, keeping slavery as a going concern was trivial. She did make the change (or so I think; I haven’t checked.) Other historical are detailed in the article just below.

In a new article in Quillette (click on screenshot), Philip Magness (who has written a critical book on the 1619 Project) finds one critical assertion of the original 1619 Project that’s gone down the “memory hole” (you’ll remember that term from Orwell’s book Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which Winston Smith’s job was to make history disappear). Click to read:

The issue is when America was founded. From the start Hannah-Jones claimed it was 1619, when the first ship containing 20-odd slaves arrived in America.  She asserted this repeatedly:

For several months after the 1619 Project first launched, its creator and organizer Nikole Hannah-Jones doubled down on the claim. “I argue that 1619 is our true founding,” she tweeted the week after the project launched. “Also, look at the banner pic in my profile”—a reference to the graphic of the date 1776 crossed out with a line. It’s a claim she repeated many times over.

The original version:

Hannah-Jones’s present Twitter header (click on screenshot). If she’s not replacing the “founding date” with the 1619 date, I don’t know what that means:

Throughout the controversy, the line about the year 1619 being “our true founding” continued to haunt the Times. This criticism did not aim to denigrate the project’s titular date or the associated events in the history of slavery. Rather, the passage came to symbolize the Times’s blurring of historical analysis with editorial hyperbole. The announced intention of reframing the country’s origin date struck many readers across the political spectrum as an implicit repudiation of the American revolution and its underlying principles.

Rather than address this controversy directly, the Times—it now appears—decided to send it down the memory hole—the euphemized term for selectively editing inconvenient passages out of old newspaper reports in George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984. Without announcement or correction, the newspaper quietly edited out the offending passage such that it now reads:

Magness continues, noting not that Hannah-Jones didn’t just make a sneaky correction, but claimed that she never said that 1619 was the founding date of America. And that’s simply a lie.

Discovery of this edit came about earlier this week when Nikole Hannah-Jones went on CNN to deny that she had ever sought to displace 1776 with a new founding date of 1619. She repeated the point in a now-deleted tweet: “The #1619Project does not argue that 1619 was our true founding. We know this nation marks its founding at 1776.” It was not the first time that Hannah-Jones had tried to alter her self-depiction of the project’s aims on account of the controversial line. She attempted a similar revision a few months ago during an online spat with conservative commentator Ben Shapiro.

Here’s that tweet, which of course somebody saved:

The piece continues:

But this time the brazen rewriting of her own arguments proved too much. Hannah-Jones’s readers scoured her own Twitter feed and public statements over the previous year, unearthing multiple instances where she had in fact announced an intention to displace 1776 with 1619.

The foremost piece of evidence against Hannah-Jones’s spin, of course, came from the opening passage of from the Times’s own website where it originally announced its aim “to reframe the country’s history” around the year “1619 as our true founding.” When readers returned to that website to cite the line however, they discovered to their surprise that it was no longer there.

The Times quietly dropped the offending passage at some point during the intervening year, although multiple screencaps of the original exist. The Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine suggests the alteration came around late December 2019, when the 1619 Project was facing an onslaught of criticism over this exact point from several distinguished historians of the American founding.

A similar change was made in the print edition for schools, which originally contained the sentence “America was not yet America, but this was the moment it began.” That sentence was simply excised.

Now some will argue that this is a trivial change, and to that I’d say: “Are you kidding? July 4, 1776 is an iconic date in American history, and the NYT wants to change it to August 20, 1619, so that the founding of America coincides with the arrival of the first slaves.”

Others will say, “Well, so what? It’s just a minor emendation, and the Times made the change.” The problem with this is that it’s standard for a paper to note when a column or article has been changed, usually with an addendum on the page. This hasn’t been done. Like George Orwell’s Winston Smith, the paper has simply put its previous assertion (and not a trivial one) down the Big Memory Hole. It’s trying to hide its misstatements rather than admit to them. Worse, Hannah-Jones simply denied what she previously said.

Were I to make such a big claim on this site, and then retract it, I’d admit it—either with an emendation or in a separate post. That the NYT cannot abide by even these minimal standards of journalism makes me realize even more that the paper is allowing its ideological agenda seep into its news. And that agenda has also infused the secondary-school materials as well, for the Project was always intended to instill into American children the Times’s view of history. The problem, though,  is that the 1619 Project is not a work of history, but a work of journalism heavily infused with Critical Race Theory.

I’ll finish by saying this: I agree that the aims of the 1619 Project are admirable: to teach children about the horrors of slavery and of the subsequent bigotry and oppression suffered by African-Americans. And it’s very useful to highlight where and how the residuum of slavery, instantiated in current bigotry, still infuses America. But the Times has botched this project big time. If you can’t trust them on details like the above, can you trust the view of history purveyed to kids in school?

Americans abysmally ignorant about the Holocaust

There are two articles this year reporting surveys of Americans’ knowledge of the Holocaust. The first is in the Guardian (click on screenshot below), the second is a Pew survey (click on second screenshot). Both give the same results: compared to what you might think, and certainly to readers here, most Americans don’t know all that much about the Holocaust.

Now you might think that the results aren’t that bad, and, as the Pew survey notes, Jews like me tend to know more about the Holocaust than non-Jews, but I still find it amazing, since it’s hard to live in the West without knowing these basic facts.

The Guardian survey involved 1000 nationwide interviews and 200 interviews in each state, all involving young adults (18-39), totaling 11,000 respondents. The Pew Survey involved 10,971 respondents who were part of the Pew Research Center’s American Trends Panel; respondents were of various ages and were asked four questions about the Holocaust. Both show roughly the same thing, though the Pew survey also broke down the data by age, education, degree of “warmness” towards the Jews, political affiliation and so on. I’ll be brief.

A summary of the Guardian study:

Almost two-thirds of young American adults do not know that 6 million Jews were killed during the Holocaust, and more than one in 10 believe Jews caused the Holocaust, a new survey has found, revealing shocking levels of ignorance about the greatest crime of the 20th century.

According to the study of millennial and Gen Z adults aged between 18 and 39, almost half (48%) could not name a single concentration camp or ghetto established during the second world war.

Almost a quarter of respondents (23%) said they believed the Holocaust was a myth, or had been exaggerated, or they weren’t sure. One in eight (12%) said they had definitely not heard, or didn’t think they had heard, about the Holocaust.

Now the “six million” figure is an iconic number, though perhaps fewer people realize that actually the “Holocaust” refers only to the genocide of Jews. The Nazis actually killed far more civilians that that; here are estimates from the U.S. Holocaust Museum:

This figure is 19 million, with Jews, Roma, Soviet prisoners of war, and Jehovah’s Witnesses being those dispatched in the camps. It’s salutary to remember that the Nazis killed not just Jews, but many civilians on their home ground, as well as Roma, homosexuals, and the disabled. Soviet and Polish civilians suffered horribly, many shot on the spot.

At any rate, the fact that the 6 million figure for the Holocaust proper wasn’t known by nearly everyone was a source of anguish to Gideon Taylor, the president of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germans.

The facts that more than 10% of people thought the Jews caused the Holocaust, and 23% thought the Holocaust was a myth or exaggerated, are more disturbing to me, as is the idea that half the respondents couldn’t name a single concentration camp. Who hasn’t heard of Auschwitz? And don’t people know about the Warsaw Ghetto? These are people who should have learned this in history class, for the minimal age of respondents was 18.

The highest scoring states were Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Massachusetts, and the lowest scorers were Florida, Mississippi and Arkansas. Make of that what you will.

So be it. Here’s the Pew survey.

Pew asked their sample of almost 11,000 people four questions. They’re given in this table along with the proportion of adults and teens who answered each question correctly (and you better know the answers!). Older people did better, as you might expect.

Again we see that most people, but not an overwhelming majority, know that the Holocaust happened between 1930 and 1950, and what a ghetto was. Less than half, however, knew that the number of Jews killed was 6 million as opposed to the three alternative answers of less than a million, three million or more than 12 million. 43% knew that Hitler became chancellor through an election (it was in 1932, and forced Hindenburg to appoint Hitler Chancellor).

66% of Americans knew that the Holocaust refers to the killing of Jews rather than general killings, which is a decent figure. Of the four questions above, 24% of Americans got 3 of them right and 24% got all four right, while 18% got none right and the other 34% one or two right. There was no appreciable difference between Democrats and Republicans in their degree of knowledge about the Holocaust.

I’ll add one more table showing that there’s a big effect on level of education on knowledge about the Holocaust, as you might expect. But I didn’t expect such a big difference between people with “some college” and those who were college graduates:

My take: Yes, I found the level of ignorance fairly surprising, though of course remember that this is the nation that elected Trump as President. I wasn’t so much distressed by ignorance about ghettos and camp names as by the 23% of Americans who thought the Holocaust was a myth or exaggerated, or didn’t know for sure. That’s nearly one out of four people, and I think bespeaks a degree of anti-Semitism more pervasive in America than most people realize.

But if you want to see real ignorance of history, ask Americans about the genocide of the Armenians, which likely involved well more than a million deaths, or the killings during the partition of India (200,000 to 2,000,000; estimates vary widely). The horrors of history need to be studied by everyone, for they tell us what the “average” person are capable of when worked up by religious or political fervor.

h/t: Matthew

Chicago public schools adopt the 1619 Project

I’m not a big fan of the New York Times’s 1619 Project, though I think its aims—letting people know that the aftereffects of slavery still weigh down America—are admirable. But I’m wary of its historical inaccuracies, called out by several prominent historians, of its main message that America is affected in nearly every aspect by “systemic racism”, and, above all, by the efforts of the paper to propagandize American schoolchildren with its own unvetted view of history. (What other bit of NYT journalism has been explicitly designed to be part of a school curriculum?).  In view of this, I thought it was a travesty that Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Project’s creator, got the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for commentary for her essay on the Project. It seemed to me that the Prize was given not for quality but for wokeness.

On the other hand, it’s out of line for Trump to de-fund school districts who adopt the project into its curriculum, as school curricula are the ambit of local school districts, cities, and states—not the President. Here’s his Big Threat.

But I was surprised to hear that in fact the Chicago Public Schools, as reported in this Tribune article (click on screenshot) have quietly adopted that curriculum, for I’d heard no intimations of it previously. And I don’t know how it got adopted.

The report of Chicago’s ideological curriculum came in one short sentence (my bolding):

Mayor Lori Lightfoot fired back at President Donald Trump’s weekend threat to cut federal funding for public schools that teach the “1619 Project,” calling it “more hot air.”

. . .The New York Times Magazine’s “1619 Project” looked at slavery and how it shaped America. Although widely celebrated, the Pulitzer Prize-winning project has drawn criticism from some conservative politicians and scholars. [JAC: It’s not just conservatives who have criticized the project, so this sentence is editorializing.]

But Chicago Public Schools has adopted it as part of its curriculum, which Lightfoot defended on Tuesday by saying it’s important for students of all backgrounds to understand slavery. Lightfoot also said Trump has “no power to try to take funding from any school district.”

“If he does, obviously, we will see him in court,” she said.

Now I like Mayor Lightfoot: she’s tough and a straight shooter, and she even called out violence and looting when they occurred as part of the demonstrations in Chicago. But I wonder if she was able to get that curriculum adopted on her own. For it’s not just an understanding of slavery that the project teaches, but also some aspects of Critical Race Theory, including the prevalence—indeed, ubiquity—of racism in every aspect of American life. It’s also historically inaccurate, but neither Hannah-Jones nor Lightfoot seem to care too much about that.

 

h/t: Cate

Happy Birthday, Rosalind Franklin!

by Matthew Cobb

Franklin on holiday in Tuscany, 1950.

The chemist and X-ray crystallographer Rosalind Franklin was born 100 years ago today. Although she was never in the public eye in her lifetime, in the last quarter century she has become a figure of renown, with her name attached to a university, a medical school, several buildings and student dorms, lecture theatres, as well as various prestigious medals and fellowships and – most recently – a future Mars Rover and a commemorative UK coin. She died in London, of ovarian cancer, on 16 April 1958.

Franklin’s gravestone, in the Jewish cemetery in Willesden, north London, concludes: ‘Her research and discoveries on viruses remain of lasting benefit to mankind’.

Franklin’s work on RNA viruses, carried out from 1953-58 at Birkbeck College, London – first the tobacco mosaic virus, then, briefly, on the polio virus – was of such significance that her PhD student, Aaron Klug, won the 1982 Nobel Prize for this research. Had she lived, she would have had a good case for winning two Nobel Prizes, one for the virus work, and the other for her contribution to the resolution of the double helix structure of DNA, which she made in 1951 and 1952 at King’s College London.

By any standards, therefore, Franklin was a remarkable scientist whose skill and insights created a great legacy of work. As her Nature obituary put it:

The news of the death of Rosalind Franklin on April 16 came as a shock to many workers in the field of biochemistry and virus studies. It is a special tragedy when a brilliant research worker is cut off at the height of her powers and when exciting new discoveries are expected from her.

She was of international renown, collaborating with leading researchers at Berkeley, Tubingen and Yale. Those scientists valued her because, according to the Nature obituary, her work:

was distinguished by extreme clarity and perfection in everything she undertook. Her photographs are among the most beautiful X-ray photographs of any substance ever taken. Their excellence was the fruit of extreme care in preparation and mounting of the specimens as well as in the taking of the photographs. She did nearly all this work with her own hands. At the same time, she proved to be an admirable director of a research team and inspired those who worked with her to reach the same high standard.

It is striking that few of the commemorations you will see today will present this side of her work.* Instead, they will be focused on her contribution to the most significant biological discovery of the 20th century, the structure of DNA, and in particular the suggestion that James Watson stole a key part of her research—an X-ray photograph taken in 1952—known as photograph 51.

There are two problems with this – firstly, her contribution to science was so much more than ‘simply’ contributing to the structure of DNA, and secondly, in highlighting the supposed role of a single image, we are inadvertently doing her a great injustice.

Most people came to hear about Franklin through Jim Watson’s racy, novelised account of the discovery of the structure of DNA, The Double Helix, which came out in 1968. Written with a verve that contrasts with the plodding prose of his other biographical writings, The Double Helix describes how Maurice Wilkins at King’s showed Watson the famous photograph 51 and, in a flash, Watson realised its significance for the structure of DNA.

This moment, so vivid in the book, is the starting point for the modern emphasis on photograph 51 and on Franklin’s status as a wronged woman (this view is amply justified by Watson’s unsettlingly frank description of his scornful, sexist, contemporary views of Franklin in his book).

In reality, photograph 51 played a key role only in convincing Watson that DNA had a helical structure (that is all that a glance could tell you), which is something that Wilkins had long been convinced of and had been repeatedly argued in discussions in King’s. And in providing a dramatic, Watson-centred hook to the account in the book.

Franklin’s decisive and unwitting contribution to Watson and Crick’s discovery was not a single photo. Indeed, she did not even take photograph 51; it was taken by her PhD student, Raymond Gosling, who had initially been a student of Wilkins. By the end of 1952, Gosling was again supervised by Wilkins, which is why Wilkins had the photo and had every right to show it to Watson. Whether that was wise is another matter.

Instead it was something much more significant: a set of values, established by Franklin on the basis of her detailed studies of these photos, and which were contained in a report by the King’s lab to the Medical Research Council, which provided Watson and above all Crick with the key. This report, including Franklin’s data, was handed to Watson and Crick by members of the Cambridge lab where they worked at the end of 1952.

Franklin was not consulted, but the data were not secret, or private. Indeed, she had presented similar data 15 months earlier at a talk Watson attended, but he did not take notes, and by his own account spent his time musing about her dress sense. But the Cambridge crew could and should have asked her, and were wrong not to. Given her previous (and understandable) complaint to members of Wilkins’ group that they should not interpret her data for her, it is perhaps no surprise that she wasn’t asked – it seems very likely her answer would have been ‘no’.

Once Crick saw the data, he understood their significance in a way that Franklin initially did not do – he had been working on the way that helical molecules diffracted X-rays, so his mind was prepared to understand them in an instant. That encounter of a prepared mind with Franklin’s values, not Watson glancing at photograph 51, was the decisive moment.

By early March 1953, Watson and Crick had come up with the detailed double helix structure, and invited Franklin and Wilkins to come and see it. The King’s duo immediately accepted it as correct – in a way it just had to be true, it was so beautiful. The structure was published in Nature shortly thereafter, as a set of three articles, the other two being from Franklin (including photograph 51) and from Wilkins – they provided the empirical justification (but not proof) for Watson and Crick’s theoretical model.

In a piece of understatement, the Watson and Crick paper acknowledged that ‘We have also been stimulated by a knowledge of the general nature of the unpublished experimental results and ideas of Dr M. H. F. Wilkins, Dr. R. E. Franklin and their co-workers’.

A significant element in the discovery of the double helix was the magic of Watson and Crick’s interaction. It is striking that, unlike them, Franklin did not have anyone she could talk to and argue with about her work, and in particular did not get on with Wilkins (I imagined what might have happened if they had been able to work together in a previous post).

And yet, as she was finishing up at King’s, getting ready to move to Birkbeck, she continued, all on her own, to analyse her data. Her lab books reveal her astonishing solitary progress. By 24 February, using Crick’s method published the year before, she had realised that DNA was a double helix, that the bases on either strand were complementary and interchangeable (A with T, C with G), and above all she realised that, as she put it ‘an infinite variety of nucleotide sequences would be possible to explain the biological specificity of DNA’.

In that final, key respect, she was ahead of Watson and Crick’s first explicit statement of this fundamental aspect of DNA structure, which would not be made for another 3 months (the first Watson and Crick paper had very little on function, referring merely to replication).

Making key contributions to the structure of two important viruses, single-handedly approaching the double helix structure of DNA, those are remarkable contributions by a woman scientist at a time when women were relatively rare in the global scientific community. It is just slightly frustrating that her contribution is ‘reduced’ to DNA, and her role in that discovery is framed in the way Watson self-servingly portrayed it.

But, I suppose, it’s better that Franklin is remembered in a distorted, albeit positive way, than solely through Watson’s portrayal in The Double Helix. The simplicity of the story of ‘she took a photo, Watson stole it, she was robbed’ has an undoubted power, even if it isn’t strictly true. It can be a way for young people to come to grips with the science and the history of science, undoubtedly driven by understandable irritation at Watson’s views, both in his account, and subsequently. For example, it is hard to be grumpy about this rap battle between Franklin and Watson and Crick, written and performed by 7th graders. The historical detail is not precisely right, but still. . .

The iconic power of photograph 51 is probably too cemented to dislodge, and she did, after all, use it in her Nature paper of 1953. So, my irritation at the UK’s commemorative 50p piece is subsumed by the fact that it is a beautiful thing, and better this than nothing:

But remember: it was her data that counted, not that photo. The person who made all the fuss about the photo was Jim Watson, in his novelised account. In that respect, our memory of her is still determined by his account, which should not be taken as historically accurate except where it can be independently verified. Above all, she did so much more than provide the data that were used to discover the double helix. With luck, at her bicentenary a more balanced view will dominant popular culture.

* Two exceptions are this week’s editorial in Nature and an article in the Times Literary Supplement by the historian of science Patricia Fara. Both are excellent brief accounts of Franklin’s life that, as Fara’s title puts it, go ‘beyond the double helix’. Strikingly, both still refer to that photo, rather than the key role of Franklin’s data. That tells you all you need to know about the grip of Watson’s account.

If you want to know more about Franklin, Brenda Maddox’s biography The Dark Lady of DNA is excellent. My book Life’s Greatest Secret (2015) contains a detailed chapter on the double helix and Franklin’s contribution.

Endangered Lincoln statue isn’t what it seems

I guess statue destruction is the topic du jour, but do read about this one, as it raises some conflicts for protestors.

About ten days ago, I reported about a statue of Abraham Lincoln that might be pulled down or replaced. The original is The Emancipation Memorial (sculptor: Thomas Ball, erected in 1876) on Capitol Hill in Washington, D. C., and there’s a replica in Boston that was the subject of controversy.  Here it is:

 

In my post, I quoted a Boston site about the statue being endangered.

As WBUR News in Boston reports:

The statue in the city’s Park Square is a replica of the Emancipation Memorial in Washington and depicts Lincoln with one hand raised above a kneeling man with broken shackles on his wrists.

The statue is meant to show Lincoln freeing the man from slavery, but a petition against the statue says it “instead represents us still beneath someone else.”

The petition was started by Tory Bullock, a Boston man who says the statue has long led him to ask, “If he’s free why is he still on his knees?” His call to remove the memorial had attracted nearly 6,000 signatures as of Saturday.

The Boston Globe reports that Mayor Marty Walsh is in favor of removing the statue and is interested in replacing it with something that recognizes equality. Walsh’s office said the administration is looking into the process required to make the change.

Indeed, at first glance I found the statue, well, “cringeworthy”, but I added a caveat in my own take, a caveat that turned out to be crucial (my emphasis below):

I have to say that, in a modern context, it’s a tad cringeworthy. However, the question “If he’s free why is he still on his knees?” might not be relevant if Lincoln is seen in the process of raising up those who were downtrodden. A statue made today wouldn’t—and shouldn’t—show a crouching black man, but are we to tear this down because it was made in 1876, not long after Lincoln died? If you think it should stay up but be contextualized, how would you contextualize it? At least we don’t have to tear down statues of Lincoln by himself, like the great marble sculpture in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.

But you know, I was too lazy to actually look up the statue, but was finally prompted to do so by this tweet from Sarah Haider, which has an African-American lady explaining the statue’s symbolism. Listen to what the woman on the video has to say:.

And Wikipedia verifies the woman’s words:

Designed and sculpted by Thomas Ball and erected in 1876, the monument depicts Abraham Lincoln holding a copy of his Emancipation Proclamation freeing a male African American slave modeled on Archer Alexander. The ex-slave is depicted on one knee, with one fist clenched, shirtless and broken shackles at the president’s feet.

The Emancipation Memorial statue was funded by the wages of freed slaves.

This gives the statue an entirely different meaning, and had I, or the purity sniffer Tory Bullock, looked it up, you’d find it not only inoffensive, but inspiring. And seriously, the original was erected by former slaves? No matter that the replica is in Boston: both statues convey the same message. Who would be so churlish to haul this statue down in light of its history?

Nevertheless, Tory Bullock, who seems to be black (if the picture below is him), persists. His question, “why is he still on his knees?”, is answered with “he won’t be for long”, though of course we still have the residuum of slavery. But the history of this statue, and what it’s supposed to show, convinces me that it should stay. If some get offended, well, too bad.

Bullock’s iPetititon (click on screenshot below), originally aimed to garner 1,000 signatures, now has over 12,500, and he reports this:

The Arts Commission in Boston has decided to hold a public hearing to shape and eventually VOTE on what happens to this statue. THANK YOU for signing the petition to get their attention but now it’s time to make YOUR VOICE HEARD! They’ll be taking live and written testimonials about the piece. I’m going to need the full squad on this one. This memorial has been up for more than 100 years and now is the time we all stand up…this is our chance to finally respectfully put this image away while NEVER forgetting its history.

Given the way things are going, only a few offended people are needed to sufficiently shame others, afraid to be called racists, to vote for tearing down a statue. As Greg reported this morning, two statues in Madison, Wisconsin have been pulled down even though they have no negative connotations and one of them was of an anti-slavery activist killed while fighting with the Union Army against Confederates.

This makes no sense. What we have here is hair-trigger Offense Detectors, which are so sensitive that they detect things that aren’t offensive. At some time we have to start pushing back against the mishigas, and that time is now.

 

Pandemic redux: 1918 vs. now, and the advent of “mask slackers”

Reader Charles Sawicki contacted me with two links to articles about the 1918 “Spanish Flu” pandemic that killed 5 million people worldwide (the first victim was actually in Kansas), and the similarities between those times and ours. In particular, the two articles below and the photos sent by Charles, deal with the mandatory wearing of face masks in the early pandemic, decreed by several cities and states. Then, like now, there were strong opponents of mask wearing. (One person was even shot for not wearing one.) Here’s Charles’s note:

There are interesting similarities between the Spanish flu and our present situation. For example, San Francisco required masks and had an anti-masking league form to resist mask wearing. People were arrested for not wearing masks and as we have seen today, violence sometimes resulted. The same sort of hand washing was recommended as well as some crazy preventative measures. It seems, in some ways, as a society, that we have not changed much in 100 years.

Here are two article about mask-wearing and resistance to it in 1918 and 1919; the first is a long article in Perspectives in Medical Humanities, and the second an article from History. If you want a quick take, read the shorter one, but the first has lots of good photos and illustrations. Click on either screenshot to read.

The second piece:

San Francisco, which initially closed schools, churches, bars, and most businesses as well as imposing mandatory mask wearing for anyone outside their home, is the subject of both of these pieces, because an “Anti-Mask” League formed there in staunch opposition to mask-wearing? Why? Businessmen said that even for open businesses the masks would hurt their sales because people supposedly didn’t want to venture out wearing masks; many people argued that they were ineffective (people wore gauze surgical masks made from cheesecloth) and that they were uncomfortable; and people protested that this was an unconscionable government interference with their freedom. Sounds familiar?

Charles also sent some nice pictures associated with the 1918 pandemic (it killed my paternal grandmother the year my dad was born, so he never knew his mom).

Another reliving of history. At the time they didn’t know what the infectious agent was, as viruses weren’t well known then; the first photos of them were obtained only in 1931, so they were defined as infectious agents that could pass through filters that would stop bacteria.

Social pressure from the Red Cross:

Someone who wouldn’t wear a mask was shot by a health inspector:

More “mask slackers”!  (That’s a great term; why isn’t it used today?) The fines for not wearing one were substantial, and could include jail time:

Opposition!

 

And more opposition:

 

From Dolan’s article: “enforcing the “influenza mask ordinance” among non-compliant San Francisco women. Image from San Francisco Library Historical Collection.”

And the end of masks: November 29, 1918. I don’t think that people today would celebrate the end of masks as much as the end of lockdowns and quarantine: