Politics & Policy

The 1619 Project’s Potted History

(Lucas Jackson/Reuters)
Here’s why conservatives reacted the way they did.

There is something almost antique about progressives in 2019, at least when they are defending the New York Times’ 1619 Project, a series of essays examining the legacy of slavery in America. Some of the essays deliver the goods, offering perspectives that are genuinely new and provocative. But the project’s packaging and the strident defenses of it make me feel like I’ve been transported back to the mid 1990s and an eager classmate is shoving James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me into my hands and telling me, “But you gotta give Howard Zinn props for People’s History of the United States. Prepare to have your mind blown!” 

Listen, I understand that when you’re gunning for a Pulitzer and trying to get news consumers to take in slightly more dense work, you’re liable to marketing gimcrack about how it’s “finally time to tell our story truthfully.” And some conservatives have responded trollishly. But there’s a pattern in the project and among its defenders of making an outlandish claim but defending only a modest one. The project presents a simplified and mythologized history, and rather than defend what the Times actually printed, the project’s supporters accuse its critics of simplifying and mythologizing history.

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The Times’ own brief introduction to the project sets this pattern. “The goal of the project is to deepen understanding of American history (and the American present) by proposing a new point of origin for our national story,” it explains. Well, that sounds useful and fascinating! But then in the next sentence comes the sweeping contention that “nearly everything that has made America exceptional grew out of slavery.”

Several conservatives immediately objected to this claim. After all, the term “American exceptionalism” has been used to describe Puritan religion, a geography that partly separates the U.S. from European intrigue but not from European intellect, and much more. Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry tried to reason through the statement’s political implications: If it’s true, “the only moral response is to hate America and to hate all its institutions and replace them with ones based on diametrically opposed values,” he wrote.

New York’s Eric Levitz alleged that conservatives wanted to hold on to a “potted” American history, called Gobry histrionic, and suggested that Gobry was refusing to accept that “the monstrous economic system that prevailed in the South for more than two centuries actually left some durable imprints on American culture and institutions.” But this is a much less sweeping claim than the one the Times made — easier to accept and indeed obvious.

Zack Beauchamp similarly traced conservative criticism to “a belief in American innocence — a notion that no matter how important the role slavery played in the country’s creation and history, it cannot be used to define America; that the United States’ founders must be pure and their ideals untarnished.” But one need not take this view or anything resembling it to disagree with the idea that “nearly everything that has made America exceptional grew out of slavery.”

Beauchamp championed the project’s essay from Nikole Hannah-Jones, which argued that “our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written. Black Americans have fought to make them true.” The piece covers how the patriotism of Hannah-Jones’s father challenged her skepticism about her country. Hannah-Jones has certainly hit on a major theme of American history, a theme to which conservatives have been referring in their criticism of the 1619 Project: Even while certain features of the Constitution preserved slavery, the “glorious liberty document” inspired anti-slavery movements.

The Founders recognized that slavery was the “rock upon which the old Union would split” (Jefferson). That dealing with this monstrous contradiction had been deferred by their more immediate project of getting 13 clocks to strike together (Adams).

But historians George Levesque and Nikola Baumgarten have written of the profound effect that Revolutionary-era ideas had in relation to slavery, not least in the minds of black Americans themselves, who found in the principles of 1776 arguments that could be deployed for their own freedom.

With the Revolution, Maryland and Virginia legislators rewrote manumission laws, and masters — driven by a combination of Revolutionary egalitarianism and economic necessity — freed their slaves in large numbers. The free black population in the region grew rapidly, and by 1790 more than a third of the black free people in the nation resided around the Chesapeake.

Nowhere, however, did the events and ideas of the Revolution have greater impact than in the non-plantation slave system that had taken root in the northern colonies. Petitions and other remonstrances from northern slaves appealed to the same principles the colonists were using against Great Britain. “We have in common with all other men,” said a typical plea, “a naturel right to our freedoms without Being depriv’d of them by our fellow men as we are a freeborn Pepel and have never forfeited this Blessing by aney compact or agreement whatever.”

One of the main themes of 19th-century American history was helpfully defined by president and congressman John Quincy Adams, who outlined and revealed the antagonism of the Slave Power to constitutional liberty. This antagonism was manifest not just in the extraordinary means southerners used to protect slavery, or in the war, but in their explicit justifications for founding the Confederacy. Alexander Stephens’s Cornerstone speech emphasized the Confederacy’s break from the Founding documents:

The prevailing ideas entertained by [Jefferson] and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. This idea, though not incorporated in the constitution, was the prevailing idea at that time. The constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly urged against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day. Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the “storm came and the wind blew.”

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.

Lincoln would argue that the “founders of the republic” tolerated slavery only out of necessity. According to Lincoln, the Founders “began by declaring that all men are created equal”; though in debates about expansion, Americans were defecting from that and had “run down to the other declaration, that for SOME men to enslave OTHERS is a ‘sacred right of self-government.”

While Hannah-Jones’s essay was evocative and landed on this main theme in American history, it also elided some important parts. She championed the way that African Americans such as her father have asserted that the rights in our Founding charter, and the aspirations of the American dream, belong also to them. She echoed an argument that has gained currency recently, and had elegant expression in an essay by Adam Serwer. Noting the emergence of a few conservatives who are questioning classically liberal ideas, Serwer wrote of “a peculiar irony of American history: The American creed has no more devoted adherents than those who have been historically denied its promises, and no more fair-weather friends than those who have taken them for granted.” He added that “black Americans did not abandon liberal democracy.”

But black America is not a monolith, and it contains justly famous radical figures who did abandon those ideas, perhaps understandably. Marcus Garvey supported migration back to Africa. W. E. B. Du Bois lost faith in America and moved to Ghana to live in a one-party state, as Jake Meador pointed out. Arguably, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s form of historical pessimism, grown out of the frustration of black-nationalist principles, is another form of rejection.

Black resistance to American white supremacy generated dissenting religious and theological movements, truly going to the root. Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam, clearly defected from anything like liberal democracy or fidelity to the Founding vision: “The only American citizens are the white people who are originally from Europe. So why fight a losing battle by trying to be recognized as something you are not and never will be? I am not trying to disillusion you but merely telling you the truth.” Arguably these more radical traditions improved the mainstream ones, and were improved by them in a dialectic.

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Conservatives have not been caught dumbfounded by the 1619 Project, dropping their picture books of George Washington and his cherry tree, mouths agape at the idea that the journey of black Americans from enslavement, to emancipation, and through Jim Crow and civil rights is central to the American story. We merely stand against the revisionists in emphasizing a fundamental conflict, rather than congruence, between the Revolutionary generation’s work in our founding charter and ideals and the reality of slavery. This is reflected in some of that generation’s personal and political hypocrisy regarding slavery, almost universally recognized. And it was expressed almost immediately in the growing political conflict over slavery and the attempted exit of the Slave Power from the United States. Some historians also object the project’s reliance on a distorting school of anti-capitalist history.

If the aim is to tell the history of our country “truthfully” for the first time, we have to include everyone and everything and seek the right proportion. The 1619 Project has something to offer. It fails when it falls into mere generalities and convenient elisions.

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