[Marxism] Letter to the Editor: Historians Critique The 1619 Project, and We Respond

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Dec 22 14:44:21 MST 2019


https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/20/magazine/letter-to-the-editor-historians-critique-the-1619-project-and-we-respond.htm

Letter to the Editor: Historians Critique The 1619 Project, and We Respond

Five historians wrote to us with their reservations. Our editor in chief 
replies.

Published Dec. 20, 2019
Updated Dec. 21, 2019

The letter below will be published in the Dec. 29 issue of The New York 
Times Magazine.

RE: The 1619 Project

We write as historians to express our strong reservations about 
important aspects of The 1619 Project. The project is intended to offer 
a new version of American history in which slavery and white supremacy 
become the dominant organizing themes. The Times has announced ambitious 
plans to make the project available to schools in the form of 
curriculums and related instructional material.

We applaud all efforts to address the enduring centrality of slavery and 
racism to our history. Some of us have devoted our entire professional 
lives to those efforts, and all of us have worked hard to advance them. 
Raising profound, unsettling questions about slavery and the nation’s 
past and present, as The 1619 Project does, is a praiseworthy and urgent 
public service. Nevertheless, we are dismayed at some of the factual 
errors in the project and the closed process behind it.

These errors, which concern major events, cannot be described as 
interpretation or “framing.” They are matters of verifiable fact, which 
are the foundation of both honest scholarship and honest journalism. 
They suggest a displacement of historical understanding by ideology. 
Dismissal of objections on racial grounds — that they are the objections 
of only “white historians” — has affirmed that displacement.

On the American Revolution, pivotal to any account of our history, the 
project asserts that the founders declared the colonies’ independence of 
Britain “in order to ensure slavery would continue.” This is not true. 
If supportable, the allegation would be astounding — yet every statement 
offered by the project to validate it is false. Some of the other 
material in the project is distorted, including the claim that “for the 
most part,” black Americans have fought their freedom struggles “alone.”

Still other material is misleading. The project criticizes Abraham 
Lincoln’s views on racial equality but ignores his conviction that the 
Declaration of Independence proclaimed universal equality, for blacks as 
well as whites, a view he upheld repeatedly against powerful white 
supremacists who opposed him. The project also ignores Lincoln’s 
agreement with Frederick Douglass that the Constitution was, in 
Douglass’s words, “a GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT.” Instead, the project 
asserts that the United States was founded on racial slavery, an 
argument rejected by a majority of abolitionists and proclaimed by 
champions of slavery like John C. Calhoun.

The 1619 Project has not been presented as the views of individual 
writers — views that in some cases, as on the supposed direct 
connections between slavery and modern corporate practices, have so far 
failed to establish any empirical veracity or reliability and have been 
seriously challenged by other historians. Instead, the project is 
offered as an authoritative account that bears the imprimatur and 
credibility of The New York Times. Those connected with the project have 
assured the public that its materials were shaped by a panel of 
historians and have been scrupulously fact-checked. Yet the process 
remains opaque. The names of only some of the historians involved have 
been released, and the extent of their involvement as “consultants” and 
fact checkers remains vague. The selective transparency deepens our concern.

We ask that The Times, according to its own high standards of accuracy 
and truth, issue prominent corrections of all the errors and distortions 
presented in The 1619 Project. We also ask for the removal of these 
mistakes from any materials destined for use in schools, as well as in 
all further publications, including books bearing the name of The New 
York Times. We ask finally that The Times reveal fully the process 
through which the historical materials were and continue to be 
assembled, checked and authenticated.

Sincerely,

Victoria Bynum, distinguished emerita professor of history, Texas State 
University;
James M. McPherson, George Henry Davis 1886 emeritus professor of 
American history, Princeton University;
James Oakes, distinguished professor, the Graduate Center, the City 
University of New York;
Sean Wilentz, George Henry Davis 1886 professor of American history, 
Princeton University;
Gordon S. Wood, Alva O. Wade University emeritus professor and emeritus 
professor of history, Brown University.

----

NY Times response:

Since The 1619 Project was published in August, we have received a great 
deal of feedback from readers, many of them educators, academics and 
historians. A majority have reacted positively to the project, but there 
have also been criticisms. Some I would describe as constructive, noting 
episodes we might have overlooked; others have treated the work more 
harshly. We are happy to accept all of this input, as it helps us 
continue to think deeply about the subject of slavery and its legacy.

The letter from Professors Bynum, McPherson, Oakes, Wilentz and Wood 
differs from the previous critiques we have received in that it contains 
the first major request for correction. We are familiar with the 
objections of the letter writers, as four of them have been interviewed 
in recent months by the World Socialist Web Site. We’re glad for a 
chance to respond directly to some of their objections.

Though we respect the work of the signatories, appreciate that they are 
motivated by scholarly concern and applaud the efforts they have made in 
their own writings to illuminate the nation’s past, we disagree with 
their claim that our project contains significant factual errors and is 
driven by ideology rather than historical understanding. While we 
welcome criticism, we don’t believe that the request for corrections to 
The 1619 Project is warranted.

The project was intended to address the marginalization of 
African-American history in the telling of our national story and 
examine the legacy of slavery in contemporary American life. We are not 
ourselves historians, it is true. We are journalists, trained to look at 
current events and situations and ask the question: Why is this the way 
it is? In the case of the persistent racism and inequality that plague 
this country, the answer to that question led us inexorably into the 
past — and not just for this project. The project’s creator, Nikole 
Hannah-Jones, a staff writer at the magazine, has consistently used 
history to inform her journalism, primarily in her work on educational 
segregation (work for which she has been recognized with numerous 
honors, including a MacArthur Fellowship).

Though we may not be historians, we take seriously the responsibility of 
accurately presenting history to readers of The New York Times. The 
letter writers express concern about a “closed process” and an opaque 
“panel of historians,” so I’d like to make clear the steps we took. We 
did not assemble a formal panel for this project. Instead, during the 
early stages of development, we consulted with numerous scholars of 
African-American history and related fields, in a group meeting at The 
Times as well as in a series of individual conversations. (Five of those 
who initially consulted with us — Mehrsa Baradaran of the University of 
California, Irvine; Matthew Desmond and Kevin M. Kruse, both of 
Princeton University; and Tiya Miles and Khalil G. Muhammad, both of 
Harvard University — went on to publish articles in the issue.) After 
those consultations, writers conducted their own research, reading 
widely, examining primary documents and artifacts and interviewing 
historians. Finally, during the fact-checking process, our researchers 
carefully reviewed all the articles in the issue with subject-area 
experts. This is no different from what we do on any article.

As the five letter writers well know, there are often debates, even 
among subject-area experts, about how to see the past. Historical 
understanding is not fixed; it is constantly being adjusted by new 
scholarship and new voices. Within the world of academic history, 
differing views exist, if not over what precisely happened, then about 
why it happened, who made it happen, how to interpret the motivations of 
historical actors and what it all means.

The passages cited in the letter, regarding the causes of the American 
Revolution and the attitudes toward black equality of Abraham Lincoln, 
are good examples of this. Both are found in the lead essay by 
Hannah-Jones. We can hardly claim to have studied the Revolutionary 
period as long as some of the signatories, nor do we presume to tell 
them anything they don’t already know, but I think it would be useful 
for readers to hear why we believe that Hannah-Jones’s claim that “one 
of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their 
independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the 
institution of slavery” is grounded in the historical record.

The work of various historians, among them David Waldstreicher and 
Alfred W. and Ruth G. Blumrosen, supports the contention that uneasiness 
among slaveholders in the colonies about growing antislavery sentiment 
in Britain and increasing imperial regulation helped motivate the 
Revolution. One main episode that these and other historians refer to is 
the landmark 1772 decision of the British high court in Somerset v. 
Stewart. The case concerned a British customs agent named Charles 
Stewart who bought an enslaved man named Somerset and took him to 
England, where he briefly escaped. Stewart captured Somerset and planned 
to sell him and ship him to Jamaica, only for the chief justice, Lord 
Mansfield, to declare this unlawful, because chattel slavery was not 
supported by English common law.

It is true, as Professor Wilentz has noted elsewhere, that the Somerset 
decision did not legally threaten slavery in the colonies, but the 
ruling caused a sensation nonetheless. Numerous colonial newspapers 
covered it and warned of the tyranny it represented. Multiple historians 
have pointed out that in part because of the Somerset case, slavery 
joined other issues in helping to gradually drive apart the patriots and 
their colonial governments. The British often tried to undermine the 
patriots by mocking their hypocrisy in fighting for liberty while 
keeping Africans in bondage, and colonial officials repeatedly 
encouraged enslaved people to seek freedom by fleeing to British lines. 
For their part, large numbers of the enslaved came to see the struggle 
as one between freedom and continued subjugation. As Waldstreicher 
writes, “The black-British alliance decisively pushed planters in these 
[Southern] states toward independence.”

The culmination of this was the Dunmore Proclamation, issued in late 
1775 by the colonial governor of Virginia, which offered freedom to any 
enslaved person who fled his plantation and joined the British Army. A 
member of South Carolina’s delegation to the Continental Congress wrote 
that this act did more to sever the ties between Britain and its 
colonies “than any other expedient which could possibly have been 
thought of.” The historian Jill Lepore writes in her recent book, “These 
Truths: A History of the United States,” “Not the taxes and the tea, not 
the shots at Lexington and Concord, not the siege of Boston; rather, it 
was this act, Dunmore’s offer of freedom to slaves, that tipped the 
scales in favor of American independence.” And yet how many contemporary 
Americans have ever even heard of it? Enslaved people at the time 
certainly knew about it. During the Revolution, thousands sought freedom 
by taking refuge with British forces.

As for the question of Lincoln’s attitudes on black equality, the letter 
writers imply that Hannah-Jones was unfairly harsh toward our 16th 
president. Admittedly, in an essay that covered several centuries and 
ranged from the personal to the historical, she did not set out to 
explore in full his continually shifting ideas about abolition and the 
rights of black Americans. But she provides an important historical 
lesson by simply reminding the public, which tends to view Lincoln as a 
saint, that for much of his career, he believed that a necessary 
prerequisite for freedom would be a plan to encourage the four million 
formerly enslaved people to leave the country. To be sure, at the end of 
his life, Lincoln’s racial outlook had evolved considerably in the 
direction of real equality. Yet the story of abolition becomes more 
complicated, and more instructive, when readers understand that even the 
Great Emancipator was ambivalent about full black citizenship.

The letter writers also protest that Hannah-Jones, and the project’s 
authors more broadly, ignore Lincoln’s admiration, which he shared with 
Frederick Douglass, for the commitment to liberty espoused in the 
Constitution. This seems to me a more general point of dispute. The 
writers believe that the Revolution and the Constitution provided the 
framework for the eventual abolition of slavery and for the equality of 
black Americans, and that our project insufficiently credits both the 
founders and 19th-century Republican leaders like Lincoln, Thaddeus 
Stevens, Charles Sumner and others for their contributions toward 
achieving these goals.

It may be true that under a less egalitarian system of government, 
slavery would have continued for longer, but the United States was still 
one of the last nations in the Americas to abolish the institution — 
only Cuba and Brazil did so after us. And while our democratic system 
has certainly led to many progressive advances for the rights of 
minority groups over the past two centuries, these advances, as 
Hannah-Jones argues in her essay, have almost always come as a result of 
political and social struggles in which African-Americans have generally 
taken the lead, not as a working-out of the immanent logic of the 
Constitution.

And yet for all that, it is difficult to argue that equality has ever 
been truly achieved for black Americans — not in 1776, not in 1865, not 
in 1964, not in 2008 and not today. The very premise of The 1619 
Project, in fact, is that many of the inequalities that continue to 
afflict the nation are a direct result of the unhealed wound created by 
250 years of slavery and an additional century of second-class 
citizenship and white-supremacist terrorism inflicted on black people 
(together, those two periods account for 88 percent of our history since 
1619). These inequalities were the starting point of our project — the 
facts that, to take just a few examples, black men are nearly six times 
as likely to wind up in prison as white men, or that black women are 
three times as likely to die in childbirth as white women, or that the 
median family wealth for white people is $171,000, compared with just 
$17,600 for black people. The rampant discrimination that black people 
continue to face across nearly every aspect of American life suggests 
that neither the framework of the Constitution nor the strenuous efforts 
of political leaders in the past and the present, both white and black, 
has yet been able to achieve the democratic ideals of the founding for 
all Americans.

This is an important discussion to have, and we are eager to see it 
continue. To that end, we are planning to host public conversations next 
year among academics with differing perspectives on American history. 
Good-faith critiques of our project only help us refine and improve it — 
an important goal for us now that we are in the process of expanding it 
into a book. For example, we have heard from several scholars who 
profess to admire the project a great deal but wish it had included some 
mention of African slavery in Spanish Florida during the century before 
1619. Though we stand by the logic of marking the beginning of American 
slavery with the year it was introduced in the English colonies, this 
feedback has helped us think about the importance of considering the 
prehistory of the period our project addresses.

Valuable critiques may come from many sources. The letter misperceives 
our attitudes when it charges that we dismiss objections on racial 
grounds. This appears to be a reference not to anything published in The 
1619 Project itself, but rather to a November Twitter post from 
Hannah-Jones in which she questioned whether “white historians” have 
always produced objective accounts of American history. As is so often 
the case on Twitter, context is important. In this instance, 
Hannah-Jones was responding to a post, since deleted, from another user 
claiming that many “white historians” objected to the project but were 
hesitant to speak up. In her reply, she was trying to make the point 
that for the most part, the history of this country has been told by 
white historians (some of whom, as in the case of the Dunning School, 
which grossly miseducated Americans about the history of Reconstruction 
for much of the 20th century, produced accounts that were deeply 
flawed), and that to truly understand the fullness and complexity of our 
nation’s story, we need a greater variety of voices doing the telling.

That, above all, is what we hoped our project would do: expand the 
reader’s sense of the American past. (This is how some educators are 
using it to supplement their teaching of United States history.) That is 
what the letter writers have done, in different ways, over the course of 
their distinguished careers and in their many books. Though we may 
disagree on some important matters, we are grateful for their input and 
their interest in discussing these fundamental questions about the 
country’s history.

Sincerely,
Jake Silverstein
Editor in chief

(There are important links in the passage below. Go to 
https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/20/magazine/letter-to-the-editor-historians-critique-the-1619-project-and-we-respond.html 
in order to see them.)

The 1619 Project was launched in August 2019, on the 400th anniversary 
of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in the English colonies 
that would become the United States. It consisted of two components: a 
special issue of the magazine, containing 10 essays exploring the links 
between contemporary American life and the legacy of slavery, as well as 
a series of original poetry and fiction about key moments in the last 
400 years; and a special broadsheet section, produced in collaboration 
with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and 
Culture. This work was converted into supplementary educational 
materials in partnership with the Pulitzer Center. The materials are 
available free on the Pulitzer Center’s website, pulitzercenter.org.



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