NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE J ournalism and academia are supposed to honor, as their highest value, the fearless pursuit of truth. If you tried to parody the sad decline of prestige awards in those fields into an ideologically blinkered self-congratulatory echo chamber for progressive agitprop, it would be difficult to find a more on-the-nose example than the Pulitzer Prize awarded to Nikole Hannah-Jones of the New York Times for commentary. Hannah-Jones was, according to the Pulitzer committee, honored for “a sweeping, deeply reported and personal essay for the ground-breaking 1619 Project, which seeks to place the enslavement of Africans at the center of America’s story, prompting public conversation about the nation’s founding and evolution.”
“Deeply reported” is one way to describe an essay that required the Times to append a correction and a separate “Editor’s Note” regarding an incendiary assertion that was presented without factual support, and that resulted in Hannah-Jones’s eventually admitting, after seven months of defending the claim, scrambling to find scholarly support for it, and bitterly denouncing her critics in racial terms, that “in attempting to summarize and streamline, journalists can sometimes lose important context and nuance. I did that here.” One hesitates to think what the runners-up for the award looked like.
Technically, the Pulitzer is for Hannah-Jones’s lead essay in the 1619 Project, and not for her role as the self-described architect of the rest of the essay collection. So, we can set aside the errors ranging from American political history to basic economics that plagued other submissions and focus on the lead essay.
A Reinvented Revolution
The most dramatic and controversial assertion in Hannah-Jones’s essay was that, in 1776, “one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery.” Her essay cited nothing to support this, nor did it show even the slightest awareness of how radical a claim this is. She continued:
By 1776, Britain had grown deeply conflicted over its role in the barbaric institution that had reshaped the Western Hemisphere. In London, there were growing calls to abolish the slave trade. This would have upended the economy of the colonies, in both the North and the South . . . we may never have revolted against Britain if some of the founders had not . . . believed that independence was required in order to ensure that slavery would continue.
This is ahistorical nonsense, which is why it was met almost instantly by a chorus of derision from the leading lights of the historical profession. It gets the chronology on both sides of the Atlantic wrong. While Hannah-Jones openly scoffs that there is “no such thing” as objective history, there are absolutely such things as objective facts. Dates are one of those.
The first real strike against slavery was the 1772 Somerset judicial decision in Britain, which declared that slavery was alien to the English common law and thus could not exist within Britain without a positive act of Parliament. As Princeton University history professor Sean Wilentz has noted, however, the reaction to the Somerset case, which did not apply to British colonies, was relatively muted even in the southern colonies; it provoked nothing even vaguely resembling the furious responses to the Tea Act the following year. Most of the southern colonies had positive laws about slavery anyway; Virginia’s, for example, was enacted by the House of Burgesses in 1705.
Organized, popular movements against slavery, and laws restricting or abolishing slavery and the slave trade, were considerably more advanced in the American colonies in the 1770s than in Britain, where Parliament would not ban slavery in Jamaica and other British colonies until 1833, after many years of failures by William Wilberforce and other anti-slavery leaders. The world’s first organized anti-slavery society was formed in Pennsylvania in 1774, and the first legal ban on slavery anywhere in the world was in Vermont in 1777. Five of the original 13 states followed suit either during or immediately after the Revolution, passing bans on slavery between 1780 and 1784. The first federal ban on slavery, in the Northwest Territory, was drafted in 1784 by Thomas Jefferson and passed by the Confederation Congress in 1787. Its language would later be adopted directly into the 13th Amendment.
Slavery as such had died a natural death in Britain and most of Western and Central Europe over the ten centuries between the fall of Rome and the age of exploration, but Americans of the Founding generation were the first people in world history to set seriously about the business of killing it on principle. This in an age when, in the words of Seymour Drescher (one of the leading historians of global slavery and abolition), “personal bondage was the prevailing form of labor in most of the world . . . Freedom, not slavery, was the peculiar institution.”
By contrast, anti-slavery agitation was still getting off the ground in Britain in 1775 and remained a long way from becoming a potent political force. Wilberforce himself would not even enter Parliament until 1780 and became a publicly committed anti-slavery advocate only in 1787, the year Britain’s Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was formed. Hannah-Jones cites the Constitution’s 20-year ban on Congress prohibiting the slave trade, but she leaves out three rather important facts: that multiple colonies and states legislated against the trade before and during the Revolution; that Congress banned the trade at the first possible moment, in 1807, at the insistence of President Jefferson; and that Britain, with no such constitutional restriction, only got around to banning the slave trade the same year.
This is the tip of the iceberg; the reality, known to anyone who has studied the period with any degree of intellectual honesty and curiosity, is that the rhetoric and ideals of revolutionary America were a major driving force in compelling people on both sides of the Atlantic to think about human liberty and how it could be reconciled with slavery and other forms of forced labor. The same dynamic happened in France, where anti-slavery went from the talk of a small intellectual elite to a matter of serious legislative debate only with the French Revolution. This is human nature: People want rights and liberties for themselves and their own, and only in the fighting for those things are they brought to face the question of why those same principles should not apply to everyone.
In order to paint the American Revolution as a fight to protect slavery from an anti-slavery Britain, you not only need to ignore the whole history of anti-slavery, you also must invert the chronology and geography of the Revolution. In reality, the Revolution began in Massachusetts, and the colonies with few slaves and early slavery bans were its most enthusiastic backers, while those with the most slaves tended to have the highest concentrations of Loyalists. Banastre Tarleton, the notorious leader of the Loyalist militia in North Carolina, was heir to a Liverpool slave-trading fortune and went on to a long career after the war as a vocal defender of the slave trade in Britain. Hannah-Jones’s alternative history also requires discarding the whole historical literature of the public and private arguments of the men who made the Revolution. Virtually none of them ever attempted — in speeches, in pamphlets, even in private letters — to convince anyone else to rebel to protect slavery.
It is telling in this regard that one of Hannah-Jones’s defenders, Adam Serwer of The Atlantic, entitled his essay on the controversy “The Fight Over the 1619 Project Is Not About the Facts,” and that Hannah-Jones cited as a “brilliant analysis” an essay from left-wing historian David Waldstreicher (the only historian she named in her own essay) saying that those taking Hannah-Jones’s view of the question of what motivated the American revolutionaries “do not take for granted that the story is primarily one of uncovering the motives and beliefs of the founders.” This is quite an admission, given that the entire debate is about Hannah-Jones’s claim about the “primary” motives and beliefs of the Founders.
Waldstreicher takes the position of every conspiracy theorist: that the men who led the public debates over the momentous decision to separate from Britain were too embarrassed to mention in public or in private their real reasons, so that the absence of evidence is proof against them. But if you have read anything of the debates at the Constitutional Convention, or the 18th-century arguments over abolition in the northern states, or the rest of American politics between 1775 and 1861, you know that American slaveowners were not shy about asserting their interests. We know that the states that seceded in 1860-61 did so over slavery because they said so. Slaveowners were horrified by the 1775 effort by Lord Dunsmore to raise a slave rebellion in Virginia, after the war had started, and said so. But virtually nobody argued that this had been the casus belli in the first place; at most, it aggravated an existing breach that had already come to war. The chief self-interested cause of Virginia slaveowners such as George Washington was the opening of the Ohio Valley to settlement — and when they had secured that territory, they banned slavery from it.
Hannah-Jones’s invented history of the American Revolution attracted the most scholarly denunciation, but other parts of her Pulitzer-winning essay were misleading, at best, in their retelling of American history. She described slavery in the 13 colonies as “unlike anything that had existed in the world before,” but racial chattel plantation slavery existed in Haiti and the Spanish and Portuguese colonies before 1619. In fact, she noted that the first slaves in 1619 were stolen from a Portuguese slave ship, but never asked where it was headed. She wrote of the Declaration of Independence, “the white men who drafted those words did not believe them to be true for the hundreds of thousands of black people in their midst,” ignoring the fact that two of the three men on the drafting committee (John Adams and Benjamin Franklin) were opposed to slavery. On the Constitution, relying on Waldstreicher, she offered half-truths:
- That the Constitution “protected the ‘property’ of those who enslaved black people;” in fact, it protects property rights in general, but was specifically written to avoid giving explicit federal recognition to “property in man,” as detailed in Wilentz’s book No Property in Man. Instead, it pointedly refers to slaves as “persons.” Its only specific protection for ownership of slaves is the fugitive slave clause, with which Hannah-Jones takes separate issue.
- That it “allowed Congress to mobilize the militia to put down insurrections by the enslaved;” in fact, this power refers generally to any insurrection. It was invoked against the Whiskey Rebellion and against the Confederacy, and was cited by Congress as authority for the Militia Act of 1862, which authorized the enlistment of “persons of African descent.”
Speaking of the civil-rights movement, she wrote: “For the most part, black Americans fought back alone.” Unlike the movements against slavery and the slave trade, in which free black Americans — while important voices — were too few and too powerless to be a driving force, African Americans took the starring role in the civil-rights movement in its crucial period between the mid 1940s and late 1960s. But never alone. Other Americans marched and, in some cases, died for civil rights. Branch Rickey hired Jackie Robinson. Harry Truman desegregated the Army. An all-white Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board of Education. Dwight Eisenhower sent federal troops to Little Rock. Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, with bipartisan support from an almost entirely white House and an all-white Senate.
Hannah-Jones spent five paragraphs on Abraham Lincoln, dwelling entirely on an out-of-context quote from the 1858 Lincoln–Douglas debates and a meeting in August 1862 when he proposed to black abolitionist leaders “to ship black people, once freed, to another country.” Contrary to the implication in that phrasing, Lincoln was proposing voluntary emigration, but more importantly, both his disclaimer of black equality in 1858 and his push for colonization in the summer of 1862 (while a draft of the Emancipation Proclamation sat in his drawer) were part of Lincoln’s political strategy to bring wavering whites over to the anti-slavery cause. It is fair enough to criticize Lincoln for a certain political cynicism, or for sharing some of the endemic prejudices of his age, but to paint the Great Emancipator — who was gunned down for supporting the vote for freed slaves — solely as an enemy of black liberty is not honest history at all. Worse, Hannah-Jones claimed that “Lincoln was blaming [black people] for the war,” which no fair-minded reader of the 16th president’s public statements from 1861 to 1865 could believe with a straight face.
The First Rule of Holes
Hannah-Jones’s essay, and the 1619 Project as a whole, were sharply criticized by a who’s who of America’s leading historians of the Revolution, the Founding era, and the Civil War, most of them political liberals. The World Socialist Web Site, a Trotskyist publication, did surprisingly good yeoman work in interviewing many of these scholars, among them:
- Gordon Wood, professor emeritus at Brown University and perhaps the leading living scholar on the revolutionary era;
- James McPherson, professor emeritus of history at Princeton University and author of the preeminent single-volume history of the Civil War era;
- James Oakes, Distinguished Professor of History at the City University of New York, and a leading writer on abolitionism, Lincoln, and Frederick Douglass;
- Victoria Bynum, distinguished emerita professor of history at Texas State University and a writer on the social history of the Civil War era; and
- Clayborne Carson, professor of history at Stanford University and director of its Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute, a job for which he was hand-picked by Coretta Scott King.
The interviews make brutal reading. Wood, McPherson, Wilentz, Oakes, and Bynum wrote an open letter to the Times “as historians to express our strong reservations about important aspects of The 1619 Project.” None of the scholarly critics argued against the idea of publishing a project on this topic, or disputed that some of its content was valuable. They took issue, instead, with its sloppy treatment of the facts: “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.” They also noted how very few of the leading experts had been consulted by the Times. Noticeably, Princeton’s Kevin Kruse (who contributed a piece to the 1619 Project on traffic in Atlanta and styles himself as the leader of “Twitterstorians”) went rather silent on the controversy once the gray eminences of his own department weighed in.
The knee-jerk reaction by Hannah-Jones to historical criticism was to tweet, “LOL. Right, because white historians have produced truly objective history.” This was part of a general pattern of unserious and dismissive antics by Hannah-Jones, who calls herself the “Beyoncé of journalism.” At some point, this should probably have given the Times pause in entrusting her with the paper’s good name. It is also a symptom of the toxic Twitter environment; in a talk with Henry Louis Gates in December, she was less confrontational, admitting that Newt Gingrich and others had a valid point in asking why her history ignored white Northerners who fought against slavery in the Civil War.
New York Times Magazine editor in chief Jake Silverstein responded to the historians’ letter with a long, mealy-mouthed response: “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.” Silverstein took the scholarly vivisection of Hannah-Jones’s work as proof of “what we hoped our project would do: expand the reader’s sense of the American past.”
Finally, in March — seven months after publication — Politico published a whistleblowing essay by one of the 1619 Project’s fact-checkers, Northwestern professor Leslie Harris, taking issue with a number of things said in Hannah-Jones’s essay, and specifically observing that she had been asked to fact-check the most controversial passage and had her objections ignored:
I vigorously disputed the claim. Although slavery was certainly an issue in the American Revolution, the protection of slavery was not one of the main reasons the 13 Colonies went to war . . . Far from being fought to preserve slavery, the Revolutionary War became a primary disrupter of slavery in the North American Colonies . . .
This, at last, compelled Hannah-Jones and the Times to make one correction to the essay, changing “one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence” to “one of the primary reasons some of the colonists decided to declare their independence.” Hannah-Jones conceded, at last, that her original sentence had been devoid of context and nuance. Silverstein appended an “Editor’s Note” conceding that “we recognize that our original language could be read to suggest that protecting slavery was a primary motivation for all of the colonists. The passage has been changed to make clear that this was a primary motivation for some of the colonists.” Of course, in any popular movement, you can find somebody who believes a thing; ascribing historical causation is supposed to aim rather higher than the search for a fig leaf.
Why They Dug In
The facts are, of course, the central thing — both the hard, provable facts and the broader narratives of causation, motivation, and effect that historians draw from them. It is apparent enough that Hannah-Jones dug in so hard on her particular claim about the American Revolution because she was wedded so deeply to the narrative that the 1776 founding of the nation could not be allowed to be regarded as a milestone in the idea of human liberty. That is why her essay gave her attack on the founding such prominent placement.
In public statements, Hannah-Jones has been open that her objective was agitprop: “When my editor asks me, like, what’s your ultimate goal for the project, my ultimate goal is that there’ll be a reparations bill passed.” “I write to try to get liberal white people to do what they say they believe in. I’m making a moral argument. My method is guilt.”
As for her employer, Slate published a transcript of a town-hall meeting held by Times executive editor Dean Baquet in August 2019, in which he responded to a staffer asking
to what extent you think that the fact of racism and white supremacy being sort of the foundation of this country should play into our reporting. Just because it feels to me like it should be a starting point, you know? . . . I just feel like racism is in everything. It should be considered in our science reporting, in our culture reporting, in our national reporting.
Baquet pointed, in his response, to the 1619 Project: “I do think that race and understanding of race should be a part of how we cover the American story . . . one reason we all signed off on the 1619 Project and made it so ambitious and expansive was to teach our readers to think a little bit more like that.”
As for the Pulitzer committee, which is run through Columbia University and (predictably) includes Gail Collins of the Times, one way to pitch a piece of journalism as Pulitzer-worthy is to have it embraced by the (unaffiliated) Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. At the time of the 1619 Project’s publication in August 2019, the Pulitzer Center issued a press release touting its pride in its educational arm being “selected as the education partner” by the Times to create a school curriculum out of the 1619 Project, complete with a glowing quote from the head of the Pulitzer Center:
“We are honored to have the opportunity to work with The New York Times on this landmark initiative,” said Jon Sawyer, executive director of the Pulitzer Center. “The education network we have built over the past 13 years is premised on the belief that journalism can be the engine for public education and civil discourse. It is hard to imagine a topic more resonant, or more important, than ‘The 1619 Project.’” . . . Hannah-Jones and other contributors to the ‘1619’ issue will visit Pulitzer Center partner schools in the coming months. A schedule of public speaking appearances by Hannah-Jones and other ‘1619’ contributors will appear on the Center’s events page when available.
On August 13 — the day before publication — the Times held a live rollout event, at which Silverstein “thanked the Pulitzer Center and . . . mentioned the sheet in the [Times] magazine highlighting the Pulitzer Center’s education materials.” In September, the Chicago Public Schools announced: “Thanks to our partners at the Pulitzer Center, every CPS high school will receive 200–400 copies of the New York Times’ The 1619 Project this week as a resource to help reframe the institution of slavery, and how we’re still influenced by it today.” In October, “Pulitzer Center staff ventured to high schools and colleges in Illinois and North Carolina” to promote this initiative.
You know, and I know, and everybody else on this planet knows, that nothing full of as many shoddy errors and untruths, and subject to such withering scholarly rebuttal, as the 1619 Project would be awarded an accolade such as a Pulitzer if its politics were of the right rather than of the left. Nor, for that matter, would the Times devote such effort to defending an assertion as outlandish as Hannah-Jones’s view of the American Revolution unless it had strong ideological and institutional reasons to be wedded to the argument. Maybe this deserves a prize, but not one for honest history.
Editor’s Note: This article originally suggested that the Pulitzer Center is affiliated with the Pulitzer Prizes. In fact, the two are unaffiliated. It has been corrected.