Earlier this year, the New York Times published the ambitious “1619 Project,” an effort to reinterpret U.S. history as one dominated by the legacies of slavery and racism—thereby, according to the Times, “tell[ing] our story truthfully.” The Project’s lead essay, from Nikole Hannah-Jones, set the agenda: “Conveniently left out of our founding mythology is the fact 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.” In addition to the publication itself, the Times has prepared a proposed K-12 curriculum to reinterpret the past through its preferred ideological lens, troubling aspects of which Max Eden has critiqued.
Remarkably, the most effective challenge—a quite devastating one, in fact—to the Times’ reinterpretation of the past has come from the World Socialist Web Site. It appears that the Times’ framing of race as the all-encompassing method of analysis motivated the publication, due to concerns that the 1619 Project downplays the importance of class in understanding American history. But WSWS chose to level its critique in a quite traditional fashion—by consulting experts in the political culture of both the Revolutionary era and the Civil War era.
The most striking thing about these interviews was discovering that the Times—despite its goals of reinterpreting the past for the paper’s readers and constructing a K-12 curriculum that could be used in the nation’s classrooms—chose not to consult several academic luminaries in the 1619 Project’s subject matters. This editorial decision raises questions about whether the project deliberately chose to ignore the work of scholars whose research contradicted the Times’ preferred narrative.
WSWS interviewed James McPherson (Princeton University, emeritus), Gordon Wood (Brown University, emeritus), and Jim Oakes (CUNY Graduate Center). McPherson and Wood are both recipients of the Pulitzer Prize; two of Oakes’ books received the Lincoln Prize. The interviews are detailed and well worth reading in full, but a few key points:
McPherson stressed the “unbalanced, one-sided” nature of the Times account, which lacked “context and perspective on the complexity of slavery,” focusing so much on one “part of the story that it left most of the history out.” As an example, McPherson noted that white opponents of slavery and racism—such as the Quakers, the abolitionists, the radical Republicans, white members of the NAACP, and whites active in the Civil Rights movement—seemed to be “missing” or minimized beyond recognition from the Times portrayal.
Wood was, if anything, even blunter: while he, like McPherson, understood that the Times effort avoids the “complexity” of the American past, he also described the 1619 Project’s portrayal as “so wrong in so many ways.” Wood was particularly critical in the framing of the Revolution as a counter-revolution against an abolitionist Britain. He reminded the Times that slavery was both an international—not just American-phenomenon—and that American “slavery in the colonial period seemed to be simply the most base status in a whole hierarchy of dependencies and degrees of unfreedom.”
Many of the framers, he pointed out, believed (inaccurately, of course) that slavery would wither away, and the Revolutionary era itself spawned movements to abolish slavery in the states north of the Mason-Dixon line (a peculiar outcome for a supposedly pro-slavery rebellion). To Wood, the turning point regarding slavery’s fate in American political culture came not until 1820-21 and the Missouri controversy, which caused “the scales to fall away from the eyes of both northerners and southerners,” as “Northerners come to realize that the South really intended to perpetuate slavery and extend it into the West.” The Times’ preference for monolithic racism as the best way to understand the past could not really grapple with intense political disagreements within the new nation.
To Jim Oakes, the 1619 Project’s claims of slavery as a uniquely American original sin, and something built into the DNA of all Americans, “are really dangerous tropes. They’re not only ahistorical; they’re actually anti-historical.” The portrayal of Lincoln in the CC essay, according to Oakes, was “ridiculous,” with the implication of Lincoln as a “garden variety racist” requiring decontextualizing or simply ignoring most of his remarks and policies on race. Oakes’ interview was pessimistic in another respect: as he observed, the changing nature of the discipline of history, while expanding our knowledge about other parts of the world, “has produced narrow faculties” in U.S. history “in which everybody is basically writing the same thing.” This groupthink suggests that the Times’ message not only will move into K-12 classrooms but will increasingly permeate college classes as well.
The Project’s initial response to these serious criticisms? National Review’s Charles Cooke flagged a Hannah-Jones tweet about Wood’s interview: “LOL. Right, because white historians have produced truly objective history.” She then minimized the effect of any criticism of the project: “My point — which y’all are intentionally or unintentionally missing — is that there is no such thing as objective history so complaints that the 1619 is an illegitimate reframing of history deny that all history is framed.”
The historians then pressed their case in a letter to the Times, stressing two issues: the project’s odd claim of the centrality of slavery in the decision of the colonists to rebel; and the cherry-picking of evidence regarding Lincoln and race. The Times easily could have responded to this letter by acknowledging the merit of the criticisms but maintaining the centrality of the project’s overall thesis. Instead, editor Jake Silverstein doubled down, commenting that while “we are not historians,” he was pleased to see that “educators” were using the Times’ work in the classroom.
Perhaps the most depressing element of the Times’ one-sided view of the past was the way in which it eliminated not only meaningful political disagreement but also the possibility of triumph by ideological dissenters. My first book, for instance, analyzed the peace progressives, a group of left-wing, mostly Midwestern, senators, who enjoyed their greatest influence in the 1920s. Their greatest successes came between 1926 and 1929 when they led the opposition to a U.S. military intervention in Mexico and helped bring about the end of a U.S. military intervention in Nicaragua. In Hannah-Jones’ America, such figures couldn’t ever achieve political power, much less use it for anti-racist ends. Purging the past of uplifting figures and actions, it seems, is a price the Times deems necessary to pay to advance the broader ideological agenda.