My last post addressed the New York Times’ 1619 Project. Published in August 2019—400 years after the arrival of African slaves in Virginia—the project‘s essays took up almost the entire New York Times Magazine plus a ‘broadsheet” of African-American history prepared with the Smithsonian Institution. It was a show-stopper. It argued that modern America, from capitalism to health care, was shaped almost entirely by slavery.
Many praised this tour-de-force and it received the Pulitzer Prize in 2020. But criticism also emerged very quickly, and that is the subject of this post. For example, former House speaker Newt Gingrich said on television, “The whole project is a lie.” The New Criterion magazine called it “a stupefying race-based fantasy about the origins of the United States.”
One of the most sophisticated critiques of the 1619 Project came in the form of a letter from five respected historians, headed by Sean Wilentz of Princeton. The five historians wrote: “Raising profound, unsettling questions about slavery and the nation’s past and present, as The 1619 Project does, is a praiseworthy and urgent public service. Nevertheless, we are dismayed at some of the factual errors in the project and the closed process behind it.”
The writers of the critique deemed “not true” the claim that the American Revolution was primarily fought to prevent the British from abolishing slavery in the colonies. They labeled as “distorted” the claim that black Americans fought for freedom “alone.” And they called the treatment of Abraham Lincoln’s views of blacks “misleading.” They asked that the Times correct the errors.
The Times published the letter on December 20, 2019, along with a lengthy defense from Times editor-in-chief Jake Silverstein. He declined to make corrections.
In addition to criticizing the content, the historians objected to the process. The way the 1619 Project developed was “opaque,” they said. “The names of only some of the historians involved have been released, and the extent of their involvement as ‘consultants’ and fact checkers remains vague. The selective transparency deepens our concern.”
Adam Serwer, whose article in the Atlantic appeared soon after, speculated that perhaps professional pride lay behind the historians’ letter objections more than concern with the content: “[S]ome historians who declined to sign the letter wondered whether the letter was intended less to resolve factual disputes than to discredit laymen who had challenged an interpretation of American national identity that is cherished by liberals and conservatives alike.”
But then in March 2020 Leslie Harris, a historian who had been asked to check facts for the project, wrote in Politico that her fact-checking comments had been ignored. Echoing Wilentz and others, Harris’s specific objection had been to the claim that the revolution was caused by fear that the British might abolish slavery in its colonies. “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,” she wrote.
Eventually the Times did make a modest correction. It changed two words, from:
“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.”
“Conveniently left out of our founding mythology is the fact that one of the primary reasons some of the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery” [italics added].
One writer who has taken the 1619 project and its critics seriously and treated them evenhandedly is Phillip W. Magness of the American Institute for Economic Research. Magness has written a number of essays about the project, which have been collected into a book.
In one essay, Magness summarized his views of the points raised by Sean Wilentz’s group.
First, Magness says, there is a “kernel of truth” in Hannah-Jones’s idea that the Revolution started primarily to keep the British from abolishing slavery in the colonies. However, the events in support of that idea (a court case in Britain and an offer by a British colonial governor to free slaves willing to fight for the British) are overwhelmed by other evidence. Abolition in England faced a rocky road, and even the British slave-holding islands of the Caribbean wanted nothing to do with the American revolt.
Second, on the question of the Times’ treatment of Abraham Lincoln, Magness largely agrees with Hannah-Jones. Although Lincoln had an evolving view of the purpose of the Civil War, he did not anticipate equality for freed blacks and preferred colonizing freed slaves (in Africa or the West Indies). This differs from the critical historians’ view that Lincoln concealed his views of equality to get emancipation accepted.
Third, Magness agrees with the historians that sociologist Matthew Desmond’s essay blaming American capitalism on slavery is bogus. Desmond called American capitalism “brutal,” a “low-road approach to capitalism,” and “uniquely severe and unbridled.” Magness observes that Desmond has joined a group of academics who are writing a “new history of capitalism,” which demonizes capitalism. That school, he says, has been subject to severe challenge.
In February 2020, Magness devoted a column solely to flaws in Matthew Desmond’s essay. Desmond argued, for example, that modern business accounting was largely invented by plantation owners. While Magness acknowledges that plantation owners used accounting adroitly, he points out that Desmond ignored the hundreds of years of double-entry bookkeeping and the role of the railroads in figuring out how to depreciate assets.
Desmond also argued that a slave was forced to pick four times as much cotton in 1862 as in 1801. But Magness, citing a 2008 book by economists Alan Olmstead and Paul Rhode, says the increase did not stem from brutal pressure to pick more cotton.  Rather, the increase stemmed from “biological innovation, such as creating hybrid seed strains that yielded more cotton, were easier to pick, and were more resistant to disease.”
Much more has been written about the 1619 Project. Peter Wood of the National Association of Scholars has collected many of the criticisms as part of a more positive “1620 Project.” Robert Woodson has created the “1776 Project” to offer alternative views. I would like to conclude with one more thought.
In an essay in the New York Review of Books published in November 2019, Sean Wilentz argued that, just as there was slavery and support of slavery, there was a vigorous anti-slavery movement in America. It started with Quakers in 1688, was somnolent for many years, but became a major force between 1767 and 1775.
The anti-slavery project took a long time to gestate, and a war that killed hundreds of thousands of people was necessary to complete it. Wilentz’s point was, and remains, that unlike the statement in the 1619 Project, enslaved people did not seek their liberty all alone.
 These Africans may have lived as indentured servants, not slaves, according to the History Special Investigations of Oregon Public Broadcasting.
 Alan Olmstead and Paul Rhode, Creating Abundance: Biological Innovation and American Agricultural Development (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).
3] The historians were Victoria Bynum, distinguished emerita professor of history, Texas State University; James M. McPherson, George Henry Davis 1886 emeritus professor of American history, Princeton University; James Oakes, distinguished professor, the Graduate Center, the City University of New York; Sean Wilentz, George Henry Davis 1886 professor of American history, Princeton University; and Gordon S. Wood, Alva O. Wade University emeritus professor and emeritus professor of history, Brown University.
Originally posted at Jane Takes on History. Republished with permission.