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The 1619 Project: Facts, Truth, and the Limits of Debate

Scott is a graduate student and historian who is interested in politics, social movements, education, and religion

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On December 20, 2019, New York Times Magazine published a letter by five of America’s top historians expressing “strong reservations about important aspects of The 1619 Project,” as well as the editor’s response. In the historians’ words, “we are dismayed at some of the factual errors in the project.” The reply of the magazine’s Editor in Chief, Jake Silverstein, to the signatories makes clear that the staff stand behind their work and will not make corrections they deem unwarranted. This includes the statement made in the lead essay by Nikole Hannah-Jones that the American Revolution was fought in part to preserve slavery.

In the weeks since Silverstein’s rebuttal, calls for debate have in practice operated more as calls for solidarity in favor of the project. The only real conversation has coalesced around who has the standing and legitimacy to criticize a journalistic work of history. The emergent consensus is not historians. Thus far, almost no scholarly criticism has passed muster by virtue of its source, let alone its substance. Nearly all critics have been rejected for such good reasons as their tone, age, race, gender, subject-matter expertise, lack of objectivity, and political affiliation, from libertarian to socialist and everywhere in between. None of these variables have disqualified supporting the project or even contributing to it.

There are, of course, some exceptions. Historian Nell Irvin Painter, for example, noted in a piece from this past August that Africans “were not enslaved in Virginia in 1619, they were indentured.” She goes on to contextualize how indentured servitude among blacks and whites became hardened racial slavery over decades and centuries. Historian Karin Wulf also exposed some of the issues caused by the total erasure of Native Americans and settler colonialism from this history in a thread on Twitter. Neither of these arguments led to blowback in the public sphere, though to be clear, neither of these historians supported their colleagues’ letter and both are in favor of the project. It is possible to be acknowledged as critical of statements or aspects of this project without seeking to dismantle it altogether.

History is, and ought to be, accessible to everyone in both production and consumption. I reject territorial claims to the production of knowledge and prefer reading a scrupulous mind, whether or not credentialed. I laud the existence of this project, which I was once very excited about and am prepared to be again. It is because I value this project that I believe it’s worth an attempt to return the conversation to why facts and framing matter, rather than focusing on who is making the criticism.

Was the Revolution Fought to Preserve Slavery?

To keep the focus as narrow as possible, I limit my analysis to a single statement of the lead essay: the contention that the Revolution was, among other things, fought to preserve slavery. The argument Hannah-Jones makes is very straightforward. Jefferson and other Founding Fathers, concerned with Britain’s “conflicted” feelings about slavery, launched the Revolution to protect the institution. Because it’s been given the weight and authority of the Times, this argument is set to be taught in primary school curriculum. This is a mistake—an unforced error born of defensive posturing in the public arena.

Indeed, in a recent piece for The Atlantic, Adam Serwer quoted project lead Hannah-Jones as saying, “had any of the scholars who signed the letter contacted me or contacted the Times with concerns [before sending the letter], we would’ve taken those concerns very seriously.” While the sentiment is understandable and even relatable, this does not strike me as a good reason to refuse the correction of a work set to be taught to youths.

Facts and Truth Are Not the Same

The issue is not that the argument is inherently wrong, but that it is woefully uncontextualized and unqualified by any reference to the larger body of relevant facts. The entwinement of abolition with the Revolution is very well known, yet totally absent from the essay. While I put less weight on concerns about the factual accuracy of what is written, I am very concerned about what is left out. Fact and truth are not synonymous, and one cannot just “frame” an argument around evidence that negatively impacts it without it being a lie by omission and therefore untrue.

Why, for instance, describe the British as “conflicted” over slavery while saying nothing about colonial opinions, when the British did not abolish slavery for a half-century after some of the northern colonies? Obviously, not every essay can deal with every issue; there are no total histories, particularly when going from 1619 to the present. The problem is that abolitionism in the colonies during and after the Revolution is hardly superfluous information for an audience that is likely unaware of it.

The 1619 Project is marketed, sold, and defended as an effort to correct the “great white men of history” narrative. It’s a very worthwhile goal, and one that many historians prioritize every day. Yet, even on its own terms, the lead essay does not do that in its handling of the Revolution. Instead, it places a veneer of critical race theory over a deeply retrograde, top-down “the founding fathers led the way” analysis. The absence of 99 percent of historical actors, including free and enslaved blacks, is not cutting-edge “framing” but a negation of agency more befitting a work of the 19th century than the 21st. Those few historians who are quoted in the piece or cited as consultants by the Times are mostly cherry-picked in their sentiments regarding slavery and the Revolution.

A Nuanced History

For example, Hannah-Jones cites historian David Waldstreicher’s analysis of Constitutional protections of slavery in her essay without offering the more nuanced treatment that fellow 1619 Project contributor Jamelle Bouie covered in his piece on Waldstreicher this past summer. Bouie acknowledges that “Waldstreicher asks readers to hold two ideas in their minds simultaneously.” The first, present in Hannah-Jones’s essay, is that the Constitution protected private property and slavery along with it. The other idea, absent from her analysis but worth quoting Bouie at length, is that:

"The egalitarian ideals of the American Revolution produced a sincere politics of antislavery. Vermont, for example, eliminated slavery in its 1777 Constitution, and Pennsylvania introduced gradual emancipation in 1780. In Virginia, where 40 percent of the population was enslaved, some planters freed their slaves… Americans were conflicted on how blacks would fit into their new republic, but a growing number could not reconcile the rhetoric of liberty with the practice of bondage."

Waldstreicher is hardly alone among the many historians who have noted that the abolition movement began in the North during the Revolution. The Quakers created the first anti-slavery society, while Pennsylvania taxed slavery out of existence. Massachusetts, the cradle of rebellion, began interpreting its Constitution as anti-slavery in 1780 and abolished slavery in 1783, enfranchising black men along the way. This list is hardly exhaustive but hopefully illustrates the point. Just how plausible is it that these colonials waged war against Britain to protect slavery in the midst of abolishing it, and why does this history not count?

In his rebuttal, Silverstein quotes a single sentence of historian Jill Lepore’s recent book: “‘Not the taxes and the tea, not the shots at Lexington and Concord, not the siege of Boston; rather, it was this act, Dunmore’s offer of freedom to slaves, that tipped the scales in favor of American independence.’” This is certainly a useful sentence in defense of the piece, and I share Silverstein’s concern that so few are familiar with it. One wonders why it isn’t even mentioned in Hannah-Jones’s introductory essay.

Dunmore’s offer, delivered some seven months after the Battles of Lexington and Concord, is far from absent in the historical record. It is indeed a hugely significant event meticulously explored by historians such as Cassandra Pybus. Compelling historical explanations demonstrate how the British threat to free patriots’ slaves led slavers, particularly in Virginia, to join the already revolting colonials when they were previously on the fence. It was but one of many strategic blunders by the British that helped expand the base of the Revolution, though it is not commonly singled out as the reason for a revolution already underway.

Neither Hannah-Jones’s essay nor Silverstein’s response mention that there were conservatively 5,000 free and enslaved black soldiers who fought on the side of the patriots, to say nothing of the contributions of all those thousands more who remained civilians. A memorial to their service in downtown Washington, D.C., has been planned and debated for more than thirty years, with the newest Congressional deadline for fundraising set to expire in January 2020. What a missed opportunity to simultaneously promote history and contemporary activism by documenting their service. Instead, black patriots who served the colonial cause in comparable numbers to those who joined the British are again ignored, this time not because of white supremacists, but rather by those who frame history entirely around white supremacy to the detriment of all else.

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History Is Argument

At the time of the Revolution, the odds of success were heavily stacked against American patriots, and I know of no compelling argument suggesting that soldiers and Minutemen—black men among them in Lexington, Concord, and all subsequent skirmishes and battles through Yorktown—were fighting to defend slavery. The Continental Army was not the Confederate Army and there is no reason to suggest otherwise.

Of course, slavery and abolition have complicated roles in the American Revolution subject to a variety of interpretations. As Lepore once wrote, “The debate about sovereignty and liberty that took place between 1764 and 1791 contains an ocean of ideas. You can fish almost anything out of it.” Yet, history is not a purely relativistic endeavor where all opinions are equally valid in the face of evidence, nor is it the act of recording facts like journalism. History is argument. It begins with a corpus of facts, around which arguments expand into narratives. Ignoring those facts and narratives that do not fit one’s own preferred conclusion is no more accepted in history than any other discipline. Just as it is an immoral prosecutor who justifies ignoring exculpatory evidence to make their case, it is a poor historian or journalist who leaves aside evidence that refutes their conclusion.

While the factual basis for acknowledging that some colonials were motivated to join the rebellion by the desire to keep their slaves is sound, the total absence of a larger context gives that fact an illusory sense of truth. The argument of Hannah-Jones’s introductory essay is strong and compelling on the whole, save for very specific statements lacking supporting context. With minor changes, perhaps even a single added sentence, this concern could be alleviated and much criticism of the project along with it.

© 2020 Scott Vehstedt