The 1619 Project, an effort by the New York Times to reframe U.S. history through the lens of slavery and its impact, has come under scathing criticism from several prominent historians, including two Pulitzer Prize winners, for its historical accuracy and its “narrow perspective.”
In particular, they criticized the project’s first essay and the bold claims it makes about the history of the nation, including that the founding father separated from Great Britain to protect slavery, that the nation’s founding documents created a “slavocracy,” that the Civil War did not change much for African Americans, that Abraham Lincoln was a racist who wanted to send black people back to Africa in order to foster national unity and that African Americans have struggled to obtain more rights alone, all of which are disputed by historians.
Nikole Hannah-Jones, a staff writer for the New York Times and the central architect of the 1619 Project, wrote the inaugural essay of the initiative, and she made several claims within that essay that raised concerns among historians. According to the New York Times, the 1619 Project seeks to “reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 [the date in which the first enslaved Africans were brought to the colony of Virginia] as our true founding, and 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.”
America was founded as a “slavocracy”
One of the primary claims Hannah-Jones makes in her essay is that the thirteen colonies separated from Great Britain in order to protect slavery. She argues that the antislavery sentiments growing in England threatened the power and livelihood of the colonial elite, so they decided to create their own nation to safeguard slavery.
Conveniently left out of our founding mythology is the fact that one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery. 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. The wealth and prominence that allowed Jefferson, at just 33, and the other founding fathers to believe they could successfully break off from one of the mightiest empires in the world came from the dizzying profits generated by chattel slavery. In other words, we may never have revolted against Britain if the founders had not understood that slavery empowered them to do so; nor if they had not believed that independence was required in order to ensure that slavery would continue. It is not incidental that 10 of this nation’s first 12 presidents were enslavers, and some might argue that this nation was founded not as a democracy but as a slavocracy.
Gordon Wood, emeritus professor of history at Brown University and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Radicalism of the American Revolution, disagreed with Hannah-Jones’ assessment, and while he noted that some historians have argued that slavery was a factor in American independence, the Thirteen Colonies were the leaders in antislavery movements.
In an interview with the World Socialist Web Site (WSWS), Wood said:
It’s been argued by some historians, people other than Hannah-Jones, that some planters in colonial Virginia were worried about what the British might do about slavery. Certainly, Dunmore’s proclamation in 1775, which promised the slaves freedom if they joined the Crown’s cause, provoked many hesitant Virginia planters to become patriots. There may have been individuals who were worried about their slaves in 1776, but to see the whole revolution in those terms is to miss the complexity.
n 1776, Britain, despite the Somerset decision, was certainly not the great champion of antislavery that the Project 1619 suggests. Indeed, it is the northern states in 1776 that are the world’s leaders in the antislavery cause. The first anti-slavery meeting in the history of the world takes place in Philadelphia in 1775. That coincidence I think is important. I would have liked to have asked Hannah-Jones, how would she explain the fact that in 1791 in Virginia at the College of William and Mary, the Board of Visitors, the board of trustees, who were big slaveholding planters, awarded an honorary degree to Granville Sharp, who was the leading British abolitionist of the day. That’s the kind of question that should provoke historical curiosity. You ask yourself what were these slaveholding planters thinking? It’s the kind of question, the kind of seeming anomaly, that should provoke a historian into research.
The idea that the Revolution occurred as a means of protecting slavery — I just don’t think there is much evidence for it, and in fact the contrary is more true to what happened. The Revolution unleashed antislavery sentiments that led to the first abolition movements in the history of the world.
James McPherson, emeritus professor of history at Princeton and the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Battle Cry of Freedom, told the Daily Caller:
When Jefferson wrote and the other delegates signed the Declaration of Independence, they understood the “All men are created equal” phrase to mean an equality of natural rights–including liberty, to be sure, but liberty in a state of nature. The accumulation of social and political institutions over time meant that in society people were not equal, though they hoped that society would eventually begin to approach some degree of equality, and freedom for slaves, for many of them opposed slavery, at least in the abstract, and hoped that it would eventually wither away.
McPherson also noted that the slaveholding South was not as united on preserving slavery as Hannah-Jones suggests. “Georgia and the Carolinas were pretty much united on slavery, while there was a fair amount of (at least theoretical) antislavery sentiment among Virginians and Marylanders, but in the end they tended to support the lower South on most slavery issues,” McPherson said. (RELATED: On The Left And Right, Talk Of Civil War Is Everywhere heading Into 2020)
Thomas Jefferson actively campaigned for the prohibition of slavery in new territories, and he introduced a bill as a representative to the Continental Congress in 1784 that would have prohibited slavery in any new U.S. territories — which included at the time the territories in the Deep South that would become the nation’s primary cotton-producing and slaveholding region. The measure failed in the Continental Congress by one vote.
McPherson also told the WSWS:
In the parts of the South where slavery was a minimal factor—in the Appalachian Mountain chain for example, in western Virginia and in eastern Tennessee, where there are very few slaves and very few slaveholders, a lot of the whites did not want to fight for the Confederacy, to risk their lives for what they saw as a slaveholders’ war. So you had strong currents of unionism in those parts of the South. In fact West Virginia becomes a union state—one-third of the state of Virginia—in the Civil War.
Abraham Lincoln was a racist who believed racial equality was impossible
Hannah-Jones also contended that Abraham Lincoln was opposed to black equality and that the Emancipation Proclamation was an attempt to bolster a flagging Union war effort rather than a wholehearted effort to end slavery.
Lincoln, unable to draw enough new white volunteers for the war, was forced to reconsider his opposition to allowing black Americans to fight for their own liberation. The president was weighing a proclamation that threatened to emancipate all enslaved people in the states that had seceded from the Union if the states did not end the rebellion. The proclamation would also allow the formerly enslaved to join the Union army and fight against their former “masters.” But Lincoln worried about what the consequences of this radical step would be. Like many white Americans, he opposed slavery as a cruel system at odds with American ideals, but he also opposed black equality. He believed that free black people were a “troublesome presence” incompatible with a democracy intended only for white people. “Free them, and make them politically and socially our equals?” he had said four years earlier. “My own feelings will not admit of this; and if mine would, we well know that those of the great mass of white people will not.”
McPherson told the Daily Caller that while the Proclamation did work as a recruiting tool to entice African Americans to enlist, it had many different functions and that the essay oversimplified that fact. McPherson said, “it was also a military measure to weaken the Confederacy, a political measure to meet the demands of the antislavery Republican majority in Congress and the Union, and, as Lincoln put it in the Proclamation itself, ‘an act of justice.’”
McPherson also said that Hannah-Jones’ appraisal of Lincoln’s racial opinions were an oversimplification and that Lincoln’s views on race evolved during his career. He told the Daily Caller, “Lincoln’s racial attitudes from the 1850s to 1865 were a work in progress, from a sort of soft racism as he expressed it in the debates with Douglas in 1858 to a position approaching an advocacy of equal civil and political rights in his last speech on April 11, 1865.”
The speech, delivered at the White House two days after Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, advocated for equal public schooling for whites and blacks as well as the right to vote for African Americans who passed a literacy test as well as those who had served in the Union Army. The 15th Amendment, which guaranteed the right to vote regardless of race or previous condition of servitude, was ratified in 1870.
African Americans campaigned for civil rights alone
Hannah-Jones also claimed that African Americans have continually struggled alone for greater rights. She wrote, “For the most part, black Americans fought back alone. Yet we never fought only for ourselves. The bloody freedom struggles of the civil rights movement laid the foundation for every other modern rights struggle.”
James McPherson told the WSWS:
From the Quakers in the 18th century, on through the abolitionists in the antebellum, to the radical Republicans in the Civil War and Reconstruction, to the NAACP which was an interracial organization founded in 1909, down through the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, there have been a lot of whites who have fought against slavery and racial discrimination, and against racism. Almost from the beginning of American history that’s been true. And that’s what’s missing from this perspective.
McPherson also noted that while many white soldiers in the Union Army during the Civil War held racist views and fought primarily to preserve the union, he said, “while the official motivation was preservation of the union, that increasingly became merged with the destruction of slavery, which had launched the attack on the flag in the first place. And so I don’t think you can really separate those two motives.”
Over 300,000 white Union soldiers died during the Civil War from 1861 to 1865.
Another one of the main criticisms levied against the 1619 Project from historians is that the initiative did not seem to reach and consult major researchers in the areas of history discussed in the essays. James McPherson noted that the New York Times had not approached him about the project, and Gordon Wood commented that to his knowledge none of the major scholars of the Revolution or the Civil War had been contacted.
Several public schools, including Chicago Public Schools, have announced that they will adopt the 1619 Project as supplemental material in the high school history curriculum. (RELATED: As School District Implements Busing Over Near-Unanimous Opposition, Immigrants From Communist Countries Fear Socialism Has Followed Them)
Both McPherson and Wood have expressed concern that the 1619 Project could present a misleading perspective on American history to students. Gordon Wood told WSWS, “I was surprised, as many other people were, by the scope of this thing, especially since it’s going to become the basis for high school education and has the authority of the New York Times behind it, and yet it is so wrong in so many ways.”
James McPherson also told WSWS that, “I’d say that, almost from the outset, I was disturbed by what seemed like a very unbalanced, one-sided account, which lacked context and perspective on the complexity of slavery, which was clearly, obviously, not an exclusively American institution, but existed throughout history.” He added, “I was a little bit unhappy with the idea that people who did not have a good knowledge of the subject would be influenced by this and would then have a biased or narrow view.”