1619 and the Narrative of Despair

Shackles used to bind slaves on display at the Whitney Plantation in Wallace, La., in 2015. (Edmund Fountain/Reuters)
A Pulitzer Prize goes to a work of oversimplified, distorted history.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE O n August 14, 2019, the New York Times Magazine dropped something of a historical bombshell on its readers. It was not some new conspiracy theory about the Kennedy assassination or some breathtaking revelation of the secret life of Millard Fillmore. It was much more dramatic. It was called “The 1619 Project,” and it consumed an entire special 100-page issue of the magazine. It also aimed at nothing less than a complete overhaul of how we understand American history. It did not, however, meet with entire agreement by American historians: At least two very diverse groups of American historians and political scientists, one headed by myself (and including eleven others) and another by my Princeton colleague Sean Wilentz, wrote letters to Jake Silverstein, the editor of the New York Times Magazine, to question a host of gaffes and misstatements in The 1619 Project. All of these were summarily waved away, and last week, The 1619 Project’s lead essay sailed merrily to a Pulitzer Prize for commentary — although if “sailed” is the right metaphor, the ship in question resembles the Bounty more than the Cutty Sark.

The follies of The 1619 Project begin with its title. Most of the time, when we think of how the United States began, we think of 1776 — the Declaration of Independence, the American Revolution, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. What The 1619 Project asked us to do was to dial that beginning date back to 1619 — the year the first African slaves were deposited on the shore of what was then the English colony of Virginia. As The 1619 Project’s lead writer, journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, insists, this was the real moment of America’s beginnings. “No aspect of the country that would be formed here has been untouched by the years of slavery that followed,” wrote Hannah-Jones. “Out of slavery — and the anti-black racism it required — grew nearly everything that has truly made America exceptional: its economic might, its industrial power, its electoral system, its diet and popular music, the inequities of its public health and education, its astonishing penchant for violence, its income inequality, the example it sets for the world as a land of freedom and equality, its slang, its legal system and the endemic racial fears and hatreds that continue to plague it to this day.”

For that reason, the purpose of The 1619 Project has been “to reframe American history” by placing “the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are as a country.” And through the articles and artistic contributions that compose The 1619 Project, Hannah-Jones and her collaborators have presented us with a totally new vista of America: not a land of hope, but one of misery; not a land of independence, but a land whose founders staged their revolution against Britain in 1776 to protect slaveholding; not a land of economic freedom and entrepreneurial capitalism, but a land where capitalism is modeled on plantation slavery; not a land that fought a great Civil War under a Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln, to free the slaves, but a land where a racist Lincoln actually plotted to deport freed slaves; a land where (in Kevin Kruse’s essay, “How Segregation Caused Your Traffic Jam”) even modern urban traffic scrums are the product of racially segregated city planning.

I  have been a teacher of American history virtually all my life, and if there is one lesson I have learned from all that, it’s to beware of historical explanations that come down to one single cause. Human events and motivations, like human relationships, are always more complicated than that, and a cause that claims to explain everything usually winds up explaining nothing. In the Middle Ages, people tried to explain the movement of the stars and the planets by putting the earth at the center. When the stars and the planets didn’t behave according to that, they invented more and more elaborate explanations of why the earth had to be the center, until finally all the elaborate explanations broke down of their own weight, and we were ready for Copernicus. Of course, not every all-purpose explanation ends with a whimper. In 1903, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion offered a similar one-cause anti-Semitic explanation for global misery, and that, as the history of the 20th century attests, ended very, very badly.

The experience of slavery explains a number of things about American life; it doesn’t explain everything, because no one thing could. Take The 1619 Project’s contentions one by one, put them under the microscope, and watch them, like every hoarse-voiced conspiracy theory, fall to pieces. Was the Revolution really fought to preserve slavery? Hannah-Jones insists that “Britain had grown deeply conflicted over its role in the barbaric institution,” leading American slaveholders to dread “growing calls to abolish the slave trade” and resort to revolution to save it. (This was an assertion so absurd that even one of the historians Hannah-Jones did consult, Leslie M. Harris of Northwestern University, objected to including it in The 1619 Project, only to be dismissed; Harris went public with her objection, and the New York Times issued a grudgingupdate.”)

But let the Revolutionaries speak for themselves. Before the Revolution, Virginia tried to tax the slave trade out of existence, only to have those enactments vetoed by the Privy Council in London. And it was during the Revolution that the rebel colonies began enacting the first emancipation plans, beginning with Pennsylvania in 1780 and Massachusetts in 1783. If the protection of slavery was that central to the Revolution, why did 5,000 African Americans fight against the British? Why is there a monument to the black volunteers of the First Rhode Island — “The Patriots of African Descent” — who shivered through the deadly winter at Valley Forge? Why, for that matter, did Britain’s West Indian colonies, where slavery was far more vital to the sugar economy and far more brutal in its oppression, refuse to join the 13 North American colonies in revolt? Why, above all, if the Revolution was so pro-slavery, did Thomas Jefferson believe in 1785 that “emancipation is put into such a train that in a few years there will be no slaves Northward of Maryland”?

But Hannah-Jones flings her accusation further than just the Revolutionaries. She presents an image of Abraham Lincoln in 1862, informing a delegation of “five esteemed free black men” at the White House that black Americans were a “troublesome presence” and that his solution was colonization — “to ship black people, once freed, to another country.” There is no admission by Hannah-Jones that the “troublesome presence” phrase was not Lincoln’s, but Lincoln quoting Henry Clay. No admission that recognizes that colonization was actually a sugar-coating to ease the swallowing of emancipation by white Northerners, “adopted” (as Frederick Milnes Edge wrote in 1862) “to silence the weak-nerved, whose name is legion.” No admission that Lincoln had already composed an Emancipation Proclamation that would declare 3 million slaves “forever free,” or that colonization would be “sloughed off” by him as a “barbarous humbug,” or that Lincoln would eventually be murdered by a white supremacist in 1865 after calling for black voting rights, or that this was the man whom Frederick Douglass described as “emphatically the black man’s president.” This is a narrative in which black leaders who preached reconciliation and seized hold of the American promise for themselves all but disappear from view; this is a narrative in which white abolitionists vanish, and in which 360,000 Union soldiers die in vain.

But Hannah-Jones’s follies are not the only ones on display. Sociologist Matthew Desmond’s essay “American Capitalism Is Brutal. You Can Trace That to the Plantation” (on the slavery-based roots of American capitalism) declares that “the cotton houses and slave auction blocks” are “the birth-place of America’s low-road approach to capitalism.” And the proof? Slave plantations used “vertical reporting systems, double-entry record-keeping and precise quantification” to extract the maximum ounce of profit from slave labor; and they were so successful that “New Orleans boasted a denser concentration of banking capital than New York City.”

Except, of course, that double-entry bookkeeping was an innovation of the Italian Renaissance, long before there was any economic system we could call capitalism. Except, of course, that the banking capital of the entire slaveholding South was smaller than that of New York City in 1858. Except, of course, that it was Southern slaveholders who were capitalism’s most energetic critics, declaring in the 1850s that “the unrestricted exploitation of so-called free society is more oppressive to the laborer than domestic slavery.” After all, reasoned the pro-slavery propagandist George Fitzhugh, “the subsistence of a slave is safe; he cannot suffer from insufficient wages, or from want of employment; he has not to save for sickness or old age; he has not to provide for his family.” On those terms, Fitzhugh could boast that “a Southern farm is the beau ideal of Communism,” not capitalism, “where each” in good Marxist fashion “receives not according to his labor, but according to his wants.”

The 1619 Project has one undeniable virtue: It reminds us that the American story has not been a perfect one; that the Founders knew that slavery was a violation of natural and moral right and yet turned away from it in the self-deceiving hope that it was disappearing on its own; that it took a horrendous Civil War to end slavery, and even then, it took another 80 years of struggle before the civil penalties of slavery were made to disappear. So let us agree on this much: Past generations of American historians have been all too agreeable to airbrushing out or minimizing black America’s claim to be American.

But is The 1619 Project the answer to that defect? Already, 3,500 classrooms and five major urban school systems (including Buffalo, Chicago, and Washington, D.C.) have adopted The 1619 Project for their history curricula. As they do this, the results will be that we teach schoolchildren that:

  • capitalism is a form of totalitarianism . . . so that we may then think kindly of socialism.
  • we should pay reparations for slavery (and Hannah-Jones has stated frankly that “the project is an argument for reparations”), as though, to reverse Lincoln’s formula in his Second Inaugural Address, every drop of blood drawn by the lash had not been paid for by one drawn by the sword.
  • history is nothing more than a web of narratives and interpretations, so that any connection of history to historical fact can be ignored. As one enthusiastic backer of The 1619 Project confessed, “often reading straight history doesn’t get us deep into emotion and perspective and feeling,” and as we all surely believe, “emotion and perspective and feeling” are infinitely more important than truth.
  • the America that Lincoln described as the world’s “last, best hope” becomes a swamp of guilt, resentment, accusation, and lethal mistrust.

Henry Ford once said that history was bunk, and his saying has invited many people to shrug their shoulders and conclude, That’s only history, why worry about it? Because, as Americans, our identity does not rest on race, religion, blood, or soil, but on a historical proposition, that all men are created equal. Take that away, render it vain, illusory, or nugatory, and we lose all identity as Americans. And then what remains for us? The great Russian dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said that the first step a tyrant takes toward enslaving a people is to steal their history, for in that case, no one has anything from the past with which to compare the present, and any horror can be normalized.

It was once said, as a commercial joke, that it’s not nice to fool Mother Nature. The same is true in this case, but not as a joke: It’s not nice to fool with history.

Allen C. Guelzo is the senior research scholar in the Council of the Humanities at Princeton University and the director of the James Madison Program’s Initiative on Politics and Statesmanship.

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