“The past is another country,” wrote the late author Christopher Hitchens, “and it can be a big mistake to try to revisit or recapture it.”
This is especially true if a journalist attempts to “reframe American history,” which is the aim of Nikole Hannah-Jones, architect of The New York Times’ 1619 Project. Hannah-Jones’ contention, that slavery and racism are the foundations of American history, may have been unquestionably embraced by the Times, but it was met with vigorous dissent from leading scholars.
Consider the following three claims made by the 1619 Project. First, that the American Revolution was fought to preserve slavery in North America. “This is not true,” wrote a group of distinguished academic historians, including doyens James McPherson, Sean Wilentz and Gordon Wood. “If supportable, the allegation would be astounding — yet every statement offered by the project to validate it is false.”
Historian Leslie M. Harris, who was a fact-checker for the project, also disputed the claim, arguing that there is no historical evidence that suggests the defense of slavery is what led to the revolution. Despite Harris’ objections, the Times published the statement anyway.
Second, nearly everything that made America exceptional grew out of slavery. This claim, that the only thing you really need to know about the United States, indeed the only thing that makes the country significant is its slave-holding past, defines the country as ineluctably guilty and racist, and advances the idea that racial hatred was and remains the driving force of American history.
“Opposition to slavery, and opposition to racism,” McPherson reminds us, “has also been an important theme in American history.”
Third, it was the year 1619, when the first slaves were brought to Virginia, not 1776 that was the “true founding” of the United States. This claim, the project’s central argument, has since been redacted from the 1619 website. When pressed, Hannah-Jones emphasized that she is a journalist, not a historian, and that her claims of the founding were a bit of “rhetorical flourish.”
This flourish would not be a problem if Hannah-Jones were a blogger, or someone not working for one of the most influential newspapers in the world. Thanks to the imprimatur of the Times, the claims of the 1619 Project have become accepted orthodoxy in mainstream liberal thought and earned Hannah-Jones a Pulitzer Prize for commentary this year. Lionsgate studios has agreed to create a 1619 film adaptation; the Pulitzer Center adapted the project for use in K-12 schools; and the CEO of Chicago Public Schools announced that 1619 literature will be provided as a resource to every public high school in Chicago.
Wood said one of the great ironies of the 1619 Project is that it is “saying the same things about the Declaration of Independence as the fire-eating proponents of slavery said — that it’s a fraud.”
Slavery is an appalling part of America’s history and should be given the gravity it deserves in classrooms; however, “No effort to reframe American history can succeed if it fails to provide accurate accounts of these subjects,” Wilentz wrote. The 1619 Project is a reminder that history, like medicine, is a craft and a science, and its complexities cannot be reduced to mere opinion.
— Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (TNS)