Editor’s note: The following article was reprinted with permission from ReligionUnplugged.com.
By Dr. Robert Carle
(REVIEW) When the New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project hit the streets in August 2019, people in the City rushed to the newstands to get copies. The Project claimed to reframe American history as a story of Black struggle against white supremacy. The introductory essay to the August 2019 print magazine declares that 1776 is not the year of America’s birth. Rather, the true birth date was “in late August 1619” when a pirate ship carrying 20 enslaved Angolans arrived in the English colony of Virginia. The title page of Nikole Hannah-Jones’s essay for the Project claims that these Angolans were subjected to “chattel slavery” and that “our founding ideals of liberty and equality were false when they were written.” Since it was published, the New York Times has teamed up with the Pulitzer Center to promote a high school curriculum based on the 1619 Project, which it is encouraging every teacher and every school district in the country to adopt. In May 2020, the Pulitzer Prize Board awarded Nikole Hannah-Jones the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary for her lead essay in the 1619 Project.
In October 2020, Peter Wood, President of the National Association of Scholars, sent a letter signed by an array of academics to the Pulitzer Prize Board. The letter demanded that the Board rescind the prize that it had awarded to Nikole Hannah-Jones. Wood claimed that Hannah-Jones’s essay was shot full of historical inaccuracies. The letter also cited evidence that the New York Times Magazine’s editor, Jake Silverstein, had performed academic and journalistic malfeasance by altering without public acknowledgement parts of the Project in the face of withering scholarly critiques.
This month, Wood followed up his letter with 1620, a book that tells the story of how the New York Times foisted its 1619 Project on the American public. Whereas the 1619 Project professes to tell, for the first time, the true story of America’s founding, Wood argues for a traditionalist reading of American history centered on the Mayflower Compact, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural address. Wood joins a chorus of historians who see the 1619 Project as a deeply flawed effort to reframe American history.
“If the 1619 Project were a term paper, any knowledgeable, fair-minded teacher would give it an F and be done with it,” Wood writes.
The first person to raise objections to the 1619 Project’s take on American history was African American historian Leslie Harris, author of “In the Shadow of Slavery.” In March 2020, she wrote an article for Politico entitled “I helped fact-check the 1619 Project. The Times ignored me.” A fact-checker from the New York Times had called Harris before the publication of the 1619 Project, and Harris warned that Hannah-Jones’s reconstruction of American history was full of factual errors. She vigorously disputed the claim that the colonists launched the Revolutionary War to protect the institution of slavery. She told the fact-checker that slavery in the Colonies faced no immediate threat from Great Britain, so colonists wouldn’t have needed to secede to protect it. A movement to abolish slavery was gaining steam in New England by the time of the Revolution. This movement would not begin in England until the 1780s.
Professor Harris also disputed the characterization of the Angolans who arrived in Virginia in 1619 as “chattel slaves.” In the early and middle years of the seventeenth century in Virginia, bondage labor was temporary, and Angolan men and women released from bondage labor often married white settlers and acquired considerable property. One Angolan bonded laborer, Anthony Johnson, owned a 250-acre plantation, and he successfully sued one of his white neighbors in a Virginia court. It is therefore anachronistic to claim that Black settlers during the early colonial period suffered the same legal disabilities that plagued people of African descent in the 18th and 19th centuries. Professor Harris commends Edmund Morgan’s “American Slavery, American Freedom” as an alternative to Hannah-Jones’s reading of the Virginia colony. Morgan “addresses explicitly how the intertwined histories of Native American, African American, and English residents of Virginia are foundational to understanding the ideas of freedom we still struggle with today,” Harris writes.
In the months that followed the publication of the 1619 Project, dozens of historians came forward to raise other objections to the Project. Princeton University research scholar Allen Guelzo disputed the 1619 Project’s claim that the dynamism of American capitalism was dependent upon slave labor. Guelzo writes that “southern agriculture before the civil war was a sloppy chaotic affair . . . only a few levels above hunting and gathering.” Wood quotes Tocqueville to support Guelzo’s point. As Tocqueville travelled down the Ohio River, he noticed the stark contrast between Kentucky and Ohio. In Ohio, work was connected to “the idea of prosperity and progress.” In Kentucky, slavery demotivated even the non-slave, because working was a badge of humiliation. “Living in relaxed idleness,” the slave owner develops “the tastes of idle men,” Tocqueville wrote. Slavery is the very opposite of a dynamic system that drives innovation. Whereas the antebellum South produced lots of cotton, the North produced factories, railroads and a steady stream of industrial invention.
One of the most troubling of Hannah-Jones’s claims is that Abraham Lincoln was a racist who sought to ship freed Blacks back to Africa. Her evidence for this is an Aug. 4, 1862 meeting in which Lincoln told five Black leaders that Congress had appropriated money for this purpose. In 1862, many Black abolitionists supported the idea of colonization, including Martin Delany, Henry Highland Garnet, and Frederick Douglass’s sons, Lewis and Charles Douglass. Princeton historian Sean Wilentz writes that Lincoln’s support for emancipation was never contingent on colonization. Soon after this 1862 meeting, Lincoln’s secretary John Hay called the idea of colonization a “hideous and barbarous humbug” and wrote that Lincoln had “sloughed off” the idea. Wood asks, “Can we reconcile the Lincoln who drafted the Emancipation Proclamation and led the nation to ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment with Hannah-Jones’s image of Lincoln as a racist?”
The most easily refuted of Hannah-Jones’s contentions is that Black Americans were, for the most part, left to fight racial injustice on their own. This simply ignores the abolitionist movement, the Civil War, the post-Civil War amendments to the Constitution and the Civil Rights movement. Hannah-Jones’s contention that Black Americans have had to struggle alone “is the most transparently false of all her many falsehoods,” Woods writes.
Wood describes the arrival of the White Lion at Jamestown as an interesting event that illuminates a society that had yet to form firm boundaries or an abiding sense of purpose. It was not, however, the founding of what would become the American republic. Wood proposes instead that we consider the drafting of the Mayflower Compact in 1620 as America’s founding event. The Compact sketched, for the first time in the New World, an ideal of self-government based on justice. In the wilderness, the diverse crew aboard the Mayflower would face the trials of a New England winter in an unknown land. Only 37 of the 102 people aboard the Mayflower were religious pilgrims. William Bradford and William Brewster had to draft a document which would bind both “pilgrim and stranger” into a community devoted to the common good.
In the Mayflower Compact, the signatories pledge to:
“covenant and combine ourselves together into a single body politic; for our better ordering, and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions, and offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the colony.”
This civil body politic was America’s first expression of the ideal of ordered liberty. With the Mayflower Compact, the colonists agreed to form a type of democracy that would not be practiced in Europe for several centuries. British historian Rebecca Fraser writes, “The Mayflower Compact has a whisper of the contractual government enunciated in the. . . Declaration of Independence, that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
The strength of the Compact is that it binds diverse people together in a single community. Governor Bradford and his followers had set out to found a church-state, but the large non-pilgrim population on the Mayflower prevented the implementation of the sort of theocracy that Puritans subsequently established in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The Compact did not deal with questions of church membership or national origin. Rather, it announced the creation of a community that included all sorts, Saints and Strangers, Pilgrims and adventurers.
The actual community that developed in Plymouth became a model for New England towns and villages and ultimately for the nation. It was a pluralistic and literate community that emphasized education. In time, New England teachers would carry the model West, and it would define who Americans are as a people. The Compact was the moment when the idea of true self-government began to take root. In the Mayflower Compact, we can see the seeds of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
Atlantic Staff writer Adam Serwer writes that “The clash between the Times authors and their historian critics represents a fundamental disagreement over the trajectory of American society.” Was America founded as a slavocracy? Or was America “conceived in liberty, a nation haltingly redeeming itself through its founding principles?” Wood insists that it was the latter. Slavery contradicted the founders’ love of liberty, but, perversely, slavery fell within the rule of law until the laws were changed. “To tell the story of America requires telling how the laws were changed, and how resistance to changing them was overcome,” Wood writes.
Wood believes that the proper teaching of American history is of crucial importance because we as Americans have little to substantiate our common identity. What binds our diverse population together is a common commitment to the founding documents. Citizens need to grow up knowing how these documents create and sustain a free, self-governing people under the rule of law. American school children should not be taught that the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were cynical plots to perpetuate slavery. Rather, these were aspirational documents written by people who were in vigorous pursuit of a vision of human equality. These documents transcended the sometimes tawdry lives of the men who wrote them. They gave the early Americans a vision of the more perfect union that we now enjoy.
None of this is to say that traditional American histories have adequately covered the contributions of African Americans to American culture. Wood commends Wesley Morris’s 1619 Project essay “For Centuries Black Music, Forged in Bondage, Has Been the Sound of Complete Freedom.” Morris begins his essay with an observation that the music on his local “Yacht Rock” radio station is drenched in Blackness, “an earnest Christian yearning that would reach, for a moment, into Baptist rawness.” This made Morris laugh out of bafflement and embarrassment and exhilaration. Wesley felt “the conflation of pride and chagrin” that he always feels when White people inhabit Black space with gusto.
Morris goes on to give us a genealogy of how Black music for two centuries has influenced other forms of American music, producing “the confused thrill of integrated cultures.” Morris quotes J.K. Kennard, a critic for the newspaper Knickerbocker, who wrote in 1845: “Who are our true rulers? The negro poets to be sure! Do they not set the fashion? . . . Let one of them, in the swamps of Carolina, compose a new song, and it no sooner reaches the ear of a white amateur, than it is written down, amended . . . printed, and then put upon a course of rapid dissemination.” Morris sings a different tune from most of the other Project contributors. His essay is written in a spirit of gratitude rather than grievance. Morris gives us a glimpse of what a successful version of the 1619 Project would look like.
Robert Carle is a professor of historical theology and Islam at The King’s College in Manhattan. Dr. Carle has contributed to The Wall Street Journal, The American Interest, Religion Unplugged, Newsday, Society, Human Rights Review, The Public Discourse, Academic Questions and Reason.