The New York Times’s 1619 Project claimed to reveal the unknown history of slavery and racism in the United States. It ended up helping to distort the real history of slavery — and the heroic struggle against it — for a generation.
Leaders of the 1963 March on Washington posing in front of the statue of Abraham Lincoln, Lincoln Memorial. August 28, 1963. (US National Archives and Records Administration via Wikimedia Commons)
Between 2011 and 2015, the New York Times commemorated the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War by publishing, every day for four years, a series of original essays under the generic title “Disunion.” The essays varied in length and subject matter. On dates of significant events — the Battle of Gettysburg, the release of the Emancipation Proclamation — longer, more thoughtful essays appeared. But the standard form was a short piece on a host of topics written by a wide range of scholars within and without the academy. There was a smattering of economic and diplomatic history, and rather more political and military history. Reflecting the current interests of the professoriate, there was a good deal of social history — with particular attention paid, for example, to brief biographies of individual women and ordinary soldiers, especially black soldiers.
“Disunion” was, in many ways, the ideal collaboration of journalism and scholarship. Many of the leading historians of the Civil War era, reflecting a variety of different approaches, were given substantial space in the nation’s premier newspaper. The series, as a whole, was refreshingly undogmatic. “We wanted a multiplicity of perspectives,” the editors at the Times noted, adding that they never “expected to cover the entirety of the war.” By 2015, when the 150th anniversary of the war ended and the series concluded, the most demanding scholars could not help but be impressed by the range and quality of the essays.
The paper’s next major foray into US history, “The 1619 Project,” could not have been more different. Extravagant claims of long-suppressed truth displaced the Times’ earlier, more modest recognition that each generation revises the past and different scholars argue over it. Collaboration was discarded by journalists who arrogantly dismissed any historians who raised substantive objections. The “multiplicity of perspectives” was gone, supplanted by an ideologically driven narrative. Not surprisingly, the 1619 Project was riddled with egregious factual errors. Yet, in some ways, the most startling thing about the project was the utter unoriginality of its claim to have discovered the historical significance of the year 1619.
“Why Weren’t We Taught This?”
In 2001, Reid Mitchell, the author of pioneering studies of Civil War soldiers, published a brief history of the American Civil War. “If we choose,” Mitchell began, “we can trace the origins of the secession crisis to one of the most famous years in colonial history, 1619.” Scholars reading that sentence would have raised no objection. We all knew that 1619 was the year the first enslaved Africans were brought to the British colonies of North America. And since we all knew that slavery was the cause of the Civil War, Mitchell’s sentence made perfect sense.
The very first seminar I had at UC Berkeley, in the fall of 1974, was taught by Winthrop Jordan, who had published a monumental history of racial ideology in early America. That book, White Over Black, had in a sense settled what we called the Handlin-Degler debate over the meaning of 1619. In 1950, Oscar and Mary Handlin published a major essay arguing that the first Africans brought to Virginia in 1619 were initially incorporated into the existing labor system and only gradually differentiated from indentured servants. The implication of their essay was that there was nothing inevitable about the transition to slavery in early Virginia. In 1959, however, Carl N. Degler argued that prejudice against black people was present from the beginning. He highlighted evidence indicating that differential treatment of blacks and whites began earlier than the Handlins had suggested.
The message of Degler’s piece was that the writing was already on the wall in 1619. To some extent, both positions were correct, Jordan answered. The importation of the first Africans was undoubtedly driven by the demand for labor, and it did take time for slavery to develop, as the Handlins had suggested. But Jordan also documented prejudices about blackness that were already evident when the English colonized Virginia. In 1619, however, those prejudices were inchoate, as was the labor system itself. From those ambiguous beginnings, Jordan concluded, racism and slavery would develop hand in hand, over time, into a full-blown system of racial slavery.
Jordan’s book moved beyond the Handlin-Degler debate, but it did not stem the flow of books and articles exploring the significance of 1619. Senior scholars — Wesley Frank Craven, Edmund Morgan, Alden Vaughan — would weigh in, but so would innovative younger historians: Kathleen M. Brown, Anthony Parent, and others. By the 1980s, historians recognized that the Atlantic slave trade had long predated 1619 and that racial ideology had deeper and more complicated roots in European history. The development of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database provided new information about the origins of those first twenty Africans.
By the 1980s, historians recognized that the Atlantic slave trade had long predated 1619 and that racial ideology had deeper and more complicated roots in European history.
But scholars also moved on to other debates over slavery and its wider significance in European, Atlantic, and American history. Indeed, the 1970s were something of a golden age for slavery studies, as academics debated — often quite ferociously — the paradoxical relationship between American slavery and American freedom, the capitalist vs. paternalist cast of Southern slave society, the vitality vs. the weakness of the slave economy, the robust culture of the “slave community” in the Old South, and the reasons for the astonishing emergence of antislavery politics in the Age of Revolution. It is safe to say that, for the past fifty years, no serious American historian doubted that 1619 was a significant date and that slavery and racism were central problems in the nation’s history.
What are we to make, then, of the opening sentence of Jake Silverstein’s introduction to the 1619 Project in the New York Times Magazine? He writes that 1619 “is not a year that most Americans know as a notable date in our country’s history.” It would be one thing if Silverstein simply promised to introduce readers to the diverse body of literature produced by generations of scholars who have meticulously combed through the records of early Virginia to unearth the story that began in 1619. Instead, readers got Silverstein’s breathless suggestion that the Times was courageously introducing us to something we never knew about and had therefore underestimated. And if it was insulting to scholars, what did it say about the thousands of students who, for decades, listened to our lectures expounding on the meaning of 1619, or who read about 1619 in their US history books? According to the Pew Research Center, 93 percent of Times readers have finished college. What were they taught?
Shortly after I entered college in 1970, Degler published a major comparative study of slavery in the United States and Brazil. He had incorporated his own insights into the importance of racism and slavery into his popular one-volume survey of US history, Out of Our Past: The Forces That Shaped Modern America, the first edition of which appeared in 1959. As it happens, that was the textbook I was assigned in the survey of US history I registered for as a freshman. Several other monographs were also assigned, but the only one I recall, because it left such a deep impression, was Kenneth M. Stampp’s The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South, the book that reoriented all subsequent slavery studies away from the racist, romanticized story that had prevailed for half a century. For the second half of the survey, we read Stampp’s The Era of Reconstruction, 1865–1877, the book that, once again, broke decisively with the racist depictions of the post–Civil War years.
We also read C. Vann Woodward’s The Strange Career of Jim Crow, quite possibly the most widely assigned history monograph of the time. It was from Woodward that I learned not only about the “nadir” of American race relations in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when Jim Crow laws were hardened, when black men were disfranchised, when lynching was common, and when, in the aftermath of World War I, whites rampaged through the streets of major American cities, including the appalling massacre of black residents in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I was taught that, until World War II, the term “race riot” generally referred to white mobs attacking black people.
By then, the early 1970s, The National Experience: A History of the United States was easily one of the most popular US history textbooks on the market, and among its distinguished group of authors were Stampp and Woodward. Jordan and another teacher of mine at Berkeley, Leon Litwack, coauthored yet another widely used textbook. These were well-written books by distinguished scholars who were not inclined to minimize the significance of slavery and racism in American history. It’s possible that mine was an unusually enlightened education, but I doubt it. Certainly, the sales of books written by Stampp and Woodward, not to mention the popularity of their textbook, would suggest otherwise.
In 1979, Frances Fitzgerald published America Revised: History School books in the Twentieth Century, an account of how dramatically US history textbooks written for both high school and college classrooms had changed over the previous decade. Unlike earlier generations, students were now systematically introduced to marginalized groups — black people, women, immigrants, workers. The tone of the books, far from being patriotic, struck Fitzgerald as surprisingly dark. Rather than nationalistic narratives telling of the inexorable rise of freedom and democracy, US history texts by then focused on conflict and violence, oppression and resistance to it, without all that much Whiggish progress.
One year later, in 1980, when Howard Zinn published his extraordinarily popular A People’s History of the United States, most of his younger readers would have sat in classes that likewise emphasized those same darker elements, perhaps relieved by tales of heroic resistance by slaves, feminists, farm laborers, and workers. Zinn’s opening chapter was a harsh critique of Christopher Columbus and the decimation of the Native American peoples. Chapter 2, “Drawing the Color Line,” was all about slavery. The first line of the chapter quotes from a black writer who “describes the arrival of a ship in North America in the year 1619.”
Rather than nationalistic narratives telling of the inexorable rise of freedom and democracy, US history texts by then focused on conflict and violence, oppression and resistance to it, without all that much Whiggish progress.
Zinn efficiently summarized the Handlin-Degler debate. “Some historians think those first blacks in Virginia were considered as servants, like the white indentured servants brought from Europe,” Zinn explained. But “the strong probability” was that “they were viewed as being different from white servants, were treated differently, and in fact were slaves.” He quoted extensively from Edmund Morgan’s 1975 book, American Slavery, American Freedom, a profoundly influential interpretation that tied the development of liberal republicanism to the simultaneous growth of slavery and racism. Zinn’s book thus reflected the large body of scholarship on slavery in early America, all of which treated 1619 as a crucially important date in American history.
In short, 1619 was there in every textbook and had been for decades. It was a staple of US history lectures in colleges and high schools across the country, and it was there in Zinn’s iconoclastic alternative to mainstream textbooks. Yet Silverstein simply assumed that Americans knew nothing about it. And it’s not only Silverstein. Historian Robert Cohen has noted that Zinn’s archives are chock-full of letters from admiring young readers who claim to have had scales fall from their eyes upon reading his book. It was so different, they wrote, from the “stodgy” and “patriotic” textbooks to which they were subjected in school. It would be interesting to know which stodgy, patriotic textbooks they had been assigned, since, as Fitzgerald documented, they had long since been displaced by much more critical accounts of US history.
Maybe the problem is the specific year. How many times have students complained that history is just a boring compilation of names and dates? With so many dates to remember, students can be forgiven for not recalling 1619, even if they were told how important it was. But what if we think instead of the larger significance of 1619 and don’t worry too much about that particular year? Even scholars sympathetic to the Times project have pointed out that the first enslaved Africans were brought to North America by Spanish colonizers in Florida, decades before 1619. One of the reasons the Handlin-Degler debate receded is that, as US historians stepped outside their provincial boundaries, they realized that the Atlantic slave trade had been in operation for more than a century by the time the first Africans were brought to Virginia. Thus, the particular year — 1619 — may have diminished precisely because historians have focused more on the larger significance of African slavery in the broader Atlantic world. If folks don’t recall learning the date, it’s not because they were not taught about the importance of slavery in early American history.
This historiography, known to most any historian of the South, continues to elude Jake Silverstein in his recent introduction to the 1619 Project, published to promote the release of the book The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story in November 2021. He is clearly unaware, for example, of the historians writing in the late nineteenth century who placed the struggle over slavery at the center of US history. They included participant-historians like Henry Wilson and Horace Greeley, gifted amateurs like James Ford Rhodes, as well as the first generation of university-trained scholars, like Hermann von Holst at the University of Chicago and Albert Bushnell Hart at Harvard. Not knowing this, Silverstein mistakes the intellectual context of the pioneering work of the black author George Washington Williams. In his “insistence on the influence of slavery,” Silverstein writes, Williams was writing “against the grain” of existing scholarship — when in fact Williams was swimming with the tide.
The progressive historians were hell-bent on erasing the significance of slavery in American history.
Silverstein credits the next generation of “Progressive historians” with replacing the supposedly mindless nationalism of nineteenth-century scholarship, while also noting that progressives like Charles Beard “hadn’t focused much on slavery.” It would be generous to call this an understatement. The progressive historians were hell-bent on erasing the significance of slavery in American history. Frederick Jackson Turner set the tone in 1896 when he declared that the fundamental conflict in American history was the struggle between East and West, not the struggle between North and South. So much for the Civil War. It was Beard who systematically ignored the debate over slavery in his history of the Constitutional Convention and who, together with Mary Beard, went on to write an influential textbook denying that slavery was the issue in the Civil War. Silverstein isolates Ulrich Bonnell Phillips from the progressive tradition of which he was a part, leaving readers unaware that his racist, romanticized histories of slavery were part of the larger effort to make it look as though slavery was not something anyone was or needed to be fighting over.
Silverstein’s account of post–World War II historiography is a cartoonish reduction of “consensus” history to mindless Cold War patriotism. There is not the slightest indication that Richard Hofstadter, the premier consensus historian, was a trenchant critic of the shallowness of the American political tradition, or that, in 1944, he published one of the earliest denunciations of the racist biases of U. B. Phillips’s account of slavery. Nor that it was Arthur Schlesinger Jr who, in 1949, insisted on restoring the struggle over slavery to the history of the Civil War. Oblivious to the way it undermines his own chronology, Silverstein ticks off a list of the galaxy of scholars who, in the 1940s and 1950s, placed the study of racism and slavery at the center of US history.
Silverstein highlights the black scholars whose work he sees as a “counternarrative” to his stereotype of the mainstream. No one doubts that pioneering black scholars helped complicate our understanding of the American Revolution and the Civil War. But I’m leery of Silverstein’s tendency to segregate the historical scholarship of blacks and whites. It’s not only Williams who gets ripped out of his context. In the 1930s, W. E. B. Du Bois produced a dramatic account of slave resistance during the Civil War, but so did Bell Irvin Wiley. Lorenzo Greene published his pioneering study The Negro in Colonial New England in 1942, but a decade earlier, Frederic Bancroft had published Slave Trading in the Old South, a devastating rebuttal to U. B. Phillips. Benjamin Quarles highlighted the problem of slavery in the American Revolution, but so did Donald Robinson, Staughton Lynd, and — need I repeat — Winthrop Jordan. The pushback against the blinkered scholarship of the earliest decades of the twentieth century was undoubtedly central to the work of black historians, but they were not alone.
The 1619 Project begins with a cliché, a tiresome liberal trope, endlessly repeated: ‘Why weren’t we taught this?’
And this is where Silverstein’s new introduction slides off the rails. For it was the success of that pushback that led conservatives, beginning during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, to complain endlessly about the way US history was being written and taught. Every complaint Rush Limbaugh or Charles Krauthammer made against the “hijacking” of American history by “multiculturalists” showed, yet again, that by the 1980s and 1990s the conservatives had lost the war. Silverstein dutifully recounts Lynne Cheney’s complaint that Harriet Tubman was mentioned more often than Ulysses S. Grant in the proposed national history standards, without realizing that this undermines the Times’ claim that the 1619 Project represents a salutary corrective to the way US history has been taught to schoolchildren for decades.
Like every ideologue who ventures into the study of history, Silverstein reduces the current controversy over the 1619 Project to a conflict between those who posit a patriotic myth and “the best scholarship” that sees the American Revolution as “sordid, racist and divisive.” There you have it: Silverstein speaks for the truth, against the critics who cling to mythology. This is self-serving claptrap. Those of us who see in American history profound divisions over democracy, equality, racism, and slavery are not plumping for a myth.
It is Silverstein who still cannot wrap his mind around the fact that, during the American Revolution, “some” Americans defended slavery while “some” Americans opposed it, and that the opposition to slavery had momentous consequences. He clings to the popular liberal myth that conservatives have “prevented generations of Americans from learning” about the “fundamental contradiction” between democracy and inequality at the core of our history — yet he does not realize that the endemic conflicts arising from that contradiction are conspicuously missing from the 1619 Project.
So the 1619 Project begins with a cliché, a tiresome liberal trope, endlessly repeated: “Why weren’t we taught this? Why didn’t we know this?” To which the obvious answer is: You were taught this. The dominant scholarship and popular work have emphasized slavery and the depth and persistence of racial oppression in US history.Original post