Why the Narrative Goals of the 1619 Project Matter

Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. (Molly Riley/Reuters)
They seek to support a radical, anti-American view of history.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE I ’ve previously covered the factual problems with the New York Times’ 1619 Project’s Pulitzer Prize–winning lead essay. The factual inaccuracies are important, but so is the narrative project that required them. Let’s answer two questions: What narratives are at stake in the 1619 Project, and why do conservatives care so much about the whole thing? The two are intimately connected questions.

Five Narratives About American History
There are five major narratives about the founding and development of America and its ideas, particularly as it concerns slavery and the place of African Americans in American history. What follow are, of course, simplified versions of these narratives, but they capture their essential thrust. While all five narratives contain some grain of truth, they are by no means equally accurate.

First, there is the Heroic Narrative. The Heroic Narrative is, basically, “only the good parts.” It’s the story of America’s triumphs and virtues with everything else left out or scrubbed into the margins. There is, however, virtually nobody who argues for teaching the Heroic Narrative above the level of introducing very small children to the highlights of the story first.

Second, we have the Lost Cause Narrative. The Lost Cause Narrative is the child of the Confederacy and its partisans. In academic history, it is most associated with the Dunning school of historians, who were particularly influential between the 1910s and the mid 1950s and left a lingering mark thereafter. It derives originally from the openly pro-slavery history and philosophy of antebellum figures such as John C. Calhoun, Thomas Roderick Dew, Roger Taney, Alexander Stephens, George McDuffie, and George Fitzhugh. In their own time, the Calhounists proclaimed that slavery was a positive good and a necessary component of the American economic and social system. They argued that the Constitution was explicitly intended to promote slavery and white supremacy. They urged that it was legitimate and even necessary to exercise federal power to defend slaveholders’ property rights, expand them into the territories, and acquire new lands for them.

After the Civil War, it became impolitic to promote these arguments directly in terms that were openly pro-slavery. The viewpoints of the Confederates were subsequently whitewashed, such that the debates of 1787 to 1861 were recast as fights over states’ rights. Nullification and secession were painted as legitimate choices. The Civil War and Reconstruction were held up as examples of northern aggression and federal overreach. Slavery still exists in this narrative, of course, but it is downplayed and euphemized. Fundamentally, however, the Lost Cause Narrative still rests on the old Calhounist view that the slaveholding South was faithful to the ideals and plan of the American Founding, and that the anti-slavery Union was not.

Third is the Union Narrative. The Union Narrative is the story of America’s history and ideals, told most eloquently by Abraham Lincoln. In the Union Narrative, the Founding Fathers authored a new birth of freedom unlike anything that had come before them, and they designed a wise system of government but left the job of making their ideals universal to later generations. Vital to the Union Narrative is that the virtues of the Founding were new things in the world, whereas its vices were old ones. Thus, the important aspects of the Founding were its creation of a constitutional, democratic republic, its guarantees of individual liberty, its profession that all men are created equal, and its insistence that the legitimacy of government rests on the consent of the governed and the government’s respect for their natural rights.

In the Union Narrative, the Founding generation saw slavery as an evil that had existed since antiquity and was inherited from the pre-1776 world; they took short- and long-term steps against it, but they also crafted the Constitution as a compromise with the current realities of slavery in Southern society. In the Union Narrative, it was the expansion of slavery and the Calhounists’ use of federal power (the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Dred Scott decision, the expanded Fugitive Slave Act, the congressional “gag rule,” and the effort to ban abolitionist literature from the U.S. mails) that broke with the original plan of the Founding. The Civil War, in this view, came about because the Slave Power refused to be contained within its home states, as the Founders had anticipated.

In the Union Narrative, Lincoln and the early Republicans were — while no more perfect than the Founders — right and good: They saved the nation, freed the slaves, and modified the original design of the Constitution to ensure that its principles would be universally applicable. Like the Founders, they left the nation better, freer, and stronger than they found it, yet also left more to be done by later generations. Slavery is, in this narrative, not what America was about, but it is by no means unimportant or invisible. It is at the root of what led to the Civil War and Reconstruction, and its abolition eliminated the greatest threat ever to face America’s system and its ideals. Destroying it root and branch allowed government of the people, by the people, and for the people not to perish from the earth. Doing so required a heroic effort that drew together Union soldiers, Christian preachers, and free-labor workers and industry.

Many of the leading lights of the American academic historical profession — including Bernard Bailyn, Gordon Wood, James McPherson, Sean Wilentz, and James Oakes — are to one extent or another exponents of the Union Narrative. So are leading popular historians such as David McCullough, Ron Chernow, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Richard Brookhiser, and H. W. Brands. Ken Burns’s celebrated Civil War series was primarily a Union Narrative production, although it still contained its share of Lost Cause Narrative sentiments. Popular entertainments such as Hamilton and Glory have tended to tell a Union Narrative story of the Revolution and the Civil War.

Fourth is the Black Narrative. The Black Narrative is what it sounds like: It’s the story of black Americans, told from their own perspective, in their own voices. It looks at slavery not from the viewpoint of a great argument over principle and the rights of others, but from the inside: those who lived it, endured its hardships, struggled to preserve families in chains, and had to make their way into freedom with the scars of the lash on their backs. It looks at Reconstruction not as a story of fitful national reconciliation, but as a story of liberty promised and then dashed, of a people left by the North to the mercies of the South after the war.

Fifth is the Radical Narrative. In the Radical Narrative, the American ideals were always a humbug, a scam, a lie when they were written, a conspiracy of the elites against the masses, a cover for exploitation and abuse. In the Radical Narrative, core American institutions and emblems of American exceptionalism are illegitimate and hopelessly tainted by slavery and other sins: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, individual rights, the free market, the western frontier, the rule of written law. This is the Howard Zinn or Noam Chomsky view of American history. It is the argument about the Constitutional Convention advanced by David Waldstreicher, the historian cited by Nikole Hannah-Jones’s Pulitzer-winning lead essay. It is the narrative of American history promoted by left-wing pundits such as Ta-Nehisi Coates and Adam Serwer of The Atlantic and Jamelle Bouie of the Times as an ongoing political project.

Motte and Bailey
One of the most popular tools of misleading argument on the Left is the motte-and-bailey argument. Its name derives from a castle structure: The motte is the secure fortress, the bailey is the exposed outlying perimeter. In a motte-and-bailey argument, a controversial and hard-to-defend position is the bailey; a strong, uncontroversial position is the motte. The person making a motte-and-bailey argument tries to get the listener to accept the bailey, but retreats to the motte when challenged in order to make the other side seem to be the unreasonable one. We see that directly in responses to the 1619 Project: It advances controversial propositions such as “the American Revolution was about slavery” and “market economics were invented for slavery,” but when you challenge these assertions, the response is, “Why are conservatives upset that we’re just pointing out that black people were slaves?”

With respect to the five narratives discussed above, the motte positions are that the Heroic Narrative is too simple, that the Lost Cause Narrative is bad, and that the Black Narrative has been scandalously overlooked in American history and deserves to be heard. While there are some who would resist those positions, none should be especially controversial. The Black Narrative is not the whole American story (it is, after all, the story of about 13 percent of the population), but it is an inseparable part of that story, and American history is incomplete without it. Even the Union Narrative tells less than the whole story of the Civil War and Reconstruction without the Black Narrative. If you have followed the conservative critics of the 1619 Project, however, you will notice that very little of the criticism has focused on the portions of the project that seek only to give the African-American perspective on history.

The bailey portion of the 1619 Project — most apparent in Matthew Desmond’s essay on capitalism — is the effort to eradicate the Union Narrative and supplant it with the Radical Narrative. If you look at Hannah-Jones’s essay and focus specifically on the falsehoods, it is clear that none of them was necessary to lift up the Black Narrative, and none would be necessary to elevate the Union Narrative above the Lost Cause Narrative. Instead, the common thread is promoting the Radical Narrative over the Union Narrative. Why did Hannah-Jones dig in so far on her view of the Revolution, for example? It would seem a minor point, if your objective was to discredit the Lost Cause Narrative of the Founding. Indeed, ironically, in its goal of making slavery the cornerstone of the American Founding, the Radical Narrative is actually siding with Calhoun over Lincoln. The same is true of Desmond’s economic thesis. That is not coincidental: It is a direct result of framing your arguments around an attack on Lincoln’s position. The goal of discrediting Lincoln, his importance, and his entire idea of America and its principles and institutions is apparent as well in Hannah-Jones’s focus on painting Lincoln strictly as a racist who wanted to deport freed black slaves.

So Why Do We Care?
There is a certain irony whenever people make a big deal about some argument or cause and then indignantly ask people who disagree, “Why do you care?” In this case, the narrative stakes of this debate are important to conservatives precisely because they are connected — and intentionally so — to current debates about the legitimacy of the Senate, the Electoral College, constitutional originalism, the Bill of Rights, and free markets. It matters if the American Founding was wrong and should be set aside in favor of a centralized administrative state. It matters if we see politics primarily as a way of resolving old grievances between groups rather than maximizing the liberties and potential of individuals.

Why the 1619 Project in particular? Because it was out in the open. Because they said it out loud. Much of the work of propagandizing American students against their own nation’s history and founding principles occurs far from the public stage. It is typically done gradually, one slice at a time, in classrooms and textbooks, under the control of people hostile to Lincoln’s classical liberal ideas and unwilling to listen to his intellectual heirs. Zinn’s People’s History of the United States took years to set down roots in the American educational establishment. A great deal of conservative frustration about the drift of the culture away from the nation’s ideals comes from a sense that this particular frog has been boiled slowly, without a prime public opportunity to challenge the radicals’ premises or debunk their factual inaccuracy.

Into that situation strode the 1619 Project, with the nation’s most powerful newspaper loudly and proudly proclaiming its intention to “reframe” American history in one stroke and get the reframed version immediately mainstreamed into schools. Hannah-Jones has been imprudently candid about the propagandistic purposes of the project. Ideas that typically take time to get laundered through prestige institutions were instead rushed out to the public half-washed, such that even the liberal historians of the Union Narrative were roused to alarm. It was, ironically, the same mistake that Stephen Douglas made with the Kansas-Nebraska Act and Dred Scott: It told the party of Lincoln that the house was divided, and would eventually become either all one thing, or all the other.

Ronald Reagan, in his farewell address, warned of the need to educate the next generation in an informed patriotism. The Union Narrative, properly supplemented by the Black Narrative, is the story of our history that is both true and inspiring. The 1619 Project could have aimed at that synthesis. Because it instead brought the Radical Narrative into the harsh glare of public controversy, it may have hastened an irrepressible conflict over American history.

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