Sean Wilentz is a proud liberal and sometimes a hard-edged Democratic partisan. But he is also a distinguished Princeton University historian whose academic work is broadly respected across the political spectrum. That has not stopped some progressives from attacking his work for reasons more of politics than scholarship — specifically, for the sin of writing the book No Property in Man, which argues that the Constitution was shaped in good part by Founding-era resistance to empowering, entrenching, or even naming slavery. He has recently found himself in their crosshairs for his vocal criticism — along with that of other leading liberal historians — of aspects of the New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project.
In a thoughtful but unsparing essay titled “The 1619 Project and Living in Truth” in the Czech historical journal Opera Historica, Wilentz has fired another salvo against the 1619 Project, its editor and lead essayist Nikole Hannah-Jones, Times Magazine editor in chief Jake Silverstein, and more broadly, the intellectual climate of “anti-racist” politics that produce warped history while intimidating serious scholars into silence. Wilentz is scathing on Hannah-Jones’s preposterous and unsupported claim, in the lead essay, that “one of the primary reasons” for the American Revolution and Declaration of Independence was American colonial fear that the British would restrict or abolish slavery:
I instantly wondered how anyone even lightly informed about the history of either slavery or the American Revolution, could write that sentence. Unfortunately, the ensuing explanation only made matters worse. The British, the essay claimed, had grown “deeply conflicted” over slavery, and the British government was facing rising calls to end the Atlantic slave trade – a reform that would have “upended” the entire colonial economy, not just in the South. For that reason – the essay mentioned no other – the American colonists, North and South, believed that the British posed a threat to slavery, an institution they desperately wanted to protect. Rather than run the risk of losing slavery, the colonists declared their independence. The Revolution was supposedly, at its core, a reactionary, proslavery struggle to fend off abolition of slavery by the British.
The paragraph covered subjects of unsurpassed importance and it was historical gibberish. As I would later confirm with the foremost scholars of the subject who know far more about the Revolution than I, there is no evidence of a single colonist expressing support for independence in order to protect slavery. The 1619 Project’s claims were based not on historical sources but on imputation and inventive mindreading. . . . At the time of the Revolution, there was considerably more in the way of anti-slavery politics in the colonies than in Britain proper. These are elementary facts.
It required no advanced knowledge of American history to understand the perversity of The 1619 Project’s lead essay’s treatment of the Revolution. If it were a high school history paper, that discussion alone would have been grounds for failure. It’s rare, after all, to read a student get every single stated fact perfectly wrong, in support of a proposition for which there is no other evidence cited, on two of the most important topics in all of U.S. history, indeed, all of modern history, the causes of the American Revolution and the origins of antislavery. But this wasn’t a high school paper, it was the New York Times Magazine, and the author was, according to her contributor’s biography, a highly acclaimed journalist. The essay may have been historically fallacious, but it was also inflammatory and attention-getting.
Wilentz notes that he believed, naïvely, that the Times Magazine would correct the record without much difficulty if approached by distinguished historians with the truth on their side. But, of course, that misunderstands both the narrative goals of the 1619 Project and the power of Hannah-Jones (backed by devotees of that narrative) within the Times organization, a subject Wilentz touches upon. That narrative, which is a classic of the critical race theory approach to history, needed the American Founding to be irredeemably corrupted by racism and slavery as its core purposes; thus, even though Hannah-Jones’s essay would read perfectly well without the discussion of the Revolution at all, it was intolerable to her and her aims to amend that conclusion. And her power in the organization meant that, if never admitting error on this point was important to her, it would be important to Silverstein, truth be damned. Critics were there to be silenced or dismissed, not engaged in respectful debate. Wilentz repeatedly reminds his Czech readers of parallels to this approach that they know only too well:
The style of such attacks on liberal dissenters to toe the ideological line would be depressingly familiar to anyone versed in the politics in Central or Eastern Europe since 1945, although the outcomes, obviously, were infinitely less grave. . . . Other historians are willing to overlook The 1619 Project’s errors in the name of the greater good it supposedly brings to historical study and teaching, as if those errors were minor and as if the objections no more than pedantic nit-picking delivered in bad faith. Again, the fellow traveling behind falsehood would be familiar to central and eastern Europeans. . . . Subordinating truth to the demands of justice cannot be just, and may be a big step toward creating injustice, even tyranny. You in the Czech Republic have had to learn that lesson the hard way, repeatedly, over many difficult decades. “Living in truth,” as Václav Havel described it, must be the basis for more than politics, including the study of history. It appears to be a lesson that many American historians, in far less onerous but still fragile and worrisome situations, must now learn for themselves.