We are currently living in the beginning of a new dark age. Those of us who believe in the liberal values of liberty, free speech, reason, good faith debate, and academic freedom are engaged in an existential battle with the forces of darkness. A new religion, cloaked in postmodernist language, seeks to convert the masses by force. They employ shame tactics, character assassination, and defend acts of physical intimidation which compel obedience, demand fidelity to their designs, and enforce public declarations of original sin. They demand commitment to an ideological purity as they simultaneously present themselves as agents of equality, inclusion, and justice. They are a den of thieves trained in the art of a slippery lexicon where words don’t carry their original public meaning and your words are verboten. As they deconstruct you and the world around you, reducing history and science to a glowing pile of embers, they claim that your very words are violence and your very thoughts dangerous. They engage in a form of witchcraft, believing that certain words contain metaphysical power. They invoke magic spells and incantations in the form of metaphorical self-immolation and have reprised notions of transgenerational guilt. They will label you a blasphemer for daring to assert that the sky is blue. Everything is constructed and nothing is authentic, save for what they decree.
Now, they are telling you what your history is, and it doesn’t matter that what they tell you isn’t actually true, that the history is more nuanced than they claim, or that they are telling lies by omission. You will be made to bend to the agents of the new dark age. If you do not, they will burn you at the stake in the town square of public opinion they themselves manipulate and curate.
The gamble they are making is that if they use tactics of conflation and obfuscation, people will no longer recognize objective truth. They think the truth doesn’t matter—is just a matter of unjust politics—and are wagering that people will generally give up on notions of reality as a trade-off for a little bit of peace of mind.
“Maybe if we give them what they want, they will leave us alone.”
There’s no evidence for that. They’re not leaving the people who give into them alone; they’re demanding more from them. But even if they were, the point stands. The truth matters, and some of us care about the truth. Some, like myself, who work in the field of history, will not allow it to become another weapon of nihilism utilized by those who seek to manipulate the past for transparently political ends.
As soon as the first essay of the 1619 Project was published in August 2019 in the New York Times Magazine, it almost immediately faced criticism for a false historical narrative which was present at the center of its thesis. Writer and main contributor to the project, Nikole Hannah-Jones, claims in the essay that the protection of slavery was one of the key motivators of the American Revolution. She asserts that “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. By 1776, Britain had grown deeply conflicted over its role in the barbaric institution that had reshaped the Western Hemisphere… In other words, we may never have revolted against Britain if some of 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.” This is a powerful assertion, and one that fits within a particular worldview that sees the United States as nothing but an oppressor, founded not only upon slavery but upon the institution’s preservation. It’s astonishing stuff, and it’s completely, historically wrong.
Jones tips her hand a bit early when she goes on to note that 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.”
Jones’s argument that the United States was not founded as a democracy is true. That it was founded as a so-called slavocracy less so. The United States was not founded as a democracy but as a constitutional republic. This is not hair-splitting. An entire world of scholarship in political philosophy is devoted to understanding the intellectual history and political philosophy of the framers, and their distrust of direct democracy is neither controversial nor surprising. The fact that many have come to call the United States a democracy since the Progressive Era does not diminish the fact that the United States is not, nor was intended to be, a democracy. The inability for Jones to recognize the important difference between democracy and constitutional republicanism reveals the low-grade quality of her scholarship and the political, rather than educational, aims of the 1619 Project.
In response to the first published essay, a small group of prominent historians wrote a letter to the New York Times, critiquing its broken history. The historians, which included Gordon S. Wood and Victoria Bynum, applauded the 1619 Project for what it was trying to do but nevertheless condemned the thesis central to the essay. The letter disputes “matters of verifiable fact” that “cannot be described as interpretation or ‘framing.’” The letter goes on to accuse the 1619 Project, and Jones, of committing “a displacement of historical understanding by ideology.”
This is no small matter. The issue has largely been ignored, despite reports in some publications. Most historians, and indeed most journalists, have remained silent. Possibly the most essential voice among critics, however, did not come from the historians who wrote to the Times but a PhD at Northwestern, Leslie M. Harris, who wrote an opinion piece in Politico titled, “I Helped Fact-Check the 1619 Project. The Times Ignored Me.” In the article, published in March 2020, Harris states, “I vigorously disputed the [preservation of slavery] claim. 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 goes on, “Despite my advice, the Times published the incorrect statement about the American Revolution anyway, in Hannah-Jones’ introductory essay.” Perhaps most powerfully, Harris observes “the complicated picture of the Revolutionary era that the New York Times missed: white Southerners might have wanted to preserve slavery in their territory, but white Northerners were much more conflicted, with many opposing the ownership of enslaved people in the North even as they continued to benefit from investments in the slave trade and slave colonies. More importantly for Hannah-Jones’ argument, slavery in the Colonies faced no immediate threat from Great Britain, so colonists wouldn’t have needed to secede to protect it.”
It needs to be noted that Harris’s article also condemned the historians who had criticized the 1619 Project. She notes that these are historians who have generally not focused on the issues of race and slavery in the history of the United States and North America. This is a point worth noting, but it does not discount their service in pointing to the flawed thesis of the project. I share Harris’s sentiment that for too long American history ignored the role that slavery and racism played. I also agree with Harris’s assertion that the “The United States was not, in fact, founded to protect slavery—but the Times is right that slavery was central to its story.” It is simply unfortunate that Nikole Hannah-Jones did not correct her flawed thesis—a flaw pointed out to her by Harris—prior to publication. The fact Jones saw no need to make the correction, and that she and the New York Times only sought to address it publicly once criticisms became public, demonstrates a level of hubris not befitting an historian or a journalist of the esteemed publication. Jones has stated that the correction will be made in later editions as well as in the book edition published by Random House. How such a “correction” can be made when it undercuts the entire thesis of the first essay remains to be seen.
There has indeed been plenty of discussion regarding the 1619 Project over the past year. The matter became more relevant, however, when Nikole Hannah-Jones was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in May 2020. More than this, the Pulitzer Center (which is not associated with the Pulitzer Prizes) is now working in partnership with the 1619 Project in “educational programming” to “engage students,” according to the Pulitzer Center’s 1619 Project website. Thus an essay published by the New York Times, which got the central thesis of its opening essay wrong, has won a prestigious award and is being used to create curriculum for students. This is history education in 2020. The Pulitzer Prize administrator, Dana Canedy, acknowledged that “perhaps most historians” would disagree with the central premise of the 1619 Project that the American Revolution was fought to protect slavery. Amazingly, as Canedy admitted this, she stated she was nevertheless “very proud of this selection” and that its “fresh political perspective, provocativeness of the argument, and engaging writing” is what was being awarded. You catch that? The 1619 Project won the Pulitzer Prize for its prose, not for its historical analysis.
The matter of history education has grown more complex in the wake of recent protests in response to the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. Protests have (d)evolved from a legitimate response to an epidemic of police brutality to a cultural revolution that seeks to topple all monuments related to America’s racist and slave-driving past. It is a response I empathize with greatly, yet the kind of conflation and obfuscation seen in the work of the 1619 Project can now be seen in the defacing and toppling of monuments across the United States. Such a moment may well be necessary, but it is times like these when intellectual nuance and historical literacy is most needed. A robust and difficult debate can and should be had regarding what historical figures should continue to be revered and which should not. Any nuance, however, is currently lacking. A monument of Matthias Baldwin was defaced with red paint in Philadelphia. The vandals evidently assuming the nineteenth-century white man to have been a slave owner. Baldwin was, in fact, an abolitionist who helped open a school for African American children and donated a fair amount of his fortune to the Union North during the Civil War. The John Greenleaf Whittier statue in Whittier, California’s Central Park was also vandalized. Whitter too was an abolitionist. Not all monuments defaced, toppled, or facing removal are as clear-cut as confederate monuments or memorials to abolitionists. For example, I understand the proposed removal of the Theodore Roosevelt monument which has been located in front of the Natural History Museum in New York since 1940. In this case it is the monument itself that appears to be primarily the problem. The statue includes a Native American and an African American flanking Roosevelt, on foot, as he gallantly rides a horse. It isn’t lost on anyone who sees the image that it casts the Native American and the African American into servile positions. That said, it is important to maintain fidelity to the historical record, including monuments which evoke sentiments we as a nation no longer embrace. The Roosevelt monument, instead of being simply removed, could be included in a wing of the museum which wrestles with how Americans struggle to make sense of their own past, and the need to remember it.
Monuments of the American founders, specifically the Virginia dynasty of slaveholding figures like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, George Mason, and James Madison are more complicated. Some are calling for the removal of these figures in the public square as well. A slaveowner is a slaveowner, so the argument goes. Nuance be damned. However, it is not just the fact that these are the nation’s founders—and not traitors to the United States like the Confederacy—but also that it should matter as to why a monument was put up in the first place. A George Washington monument was pulled down in Portland, Oregon, recently. And why not? He was a slaveowner after all. Here is the rub, and this is why historical literacy and intellectual nuance becomes so important: the Confederate monuments put up, primarily in the South in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, were erected to reassert white cultural dominance during the Jim Crow era. This distinction matters. Understanding that Confederate monuments were built because they memorialized slaveowners while monuments to Washington and Jefferson were established despite their participation in slavery is important for understanding what exactly the given monument was intended to symbolize and celebrate. The need for civic engagement, then, is important for both sides of this debate. The issue is not merely whether certain monuments should be taken down. It is also a matter of how they are to be taken down and by what means. Accepting mob violence as the means to do so flies in the face of the greatest of America’s liberal values. If monuments come down, it should through dialogue and reasonable debate and the votes of duly elected representatives and not through illiberal intimidation and force.
Some may wonder why I am discussing the 1619 Project’s bad history along with the broader epidemic of historical illiteracy we currently see. Do I claim Nikole Hannah-Jones to be responsible for the nation’s lack of historical knowledge and penchant for conflation? Of course not. She has merely exploited it. She continues to do so in recent interviews with the legacy media. In an interview with CBS in early June of this year, she defended the looting of rioters as “symbolic taking” because African American communities “have been looted for decades.” Apparently, stealing from big box stores and small businesses, for Jones, is a political act. In a now-deleted tweet, she subscribed to a conspiracy theory that New York police were using fireworks upon black and brown protesters to “disorient and disrupt the #BlackLivesMatter movement.” After deleting the tweet she apologized, stating that her remarks were “irresponsible” and beneath her own standards. When professor of government, Charles Kesler, wrote an op-ed in the New York Post, criticizing the toppling of monuments, arguing that perhaps the recent vandalism should be referred to as the “1619 Riots,” Jones tweeted a link to the article with the comment “It would be an honor. Thank you.” The article’s image was of a toppled Thomas Jefferson monument in front of Jefferson High School in Portland, Oregon. Thus the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer of a supposedly history-related project, who didn’t win her award for her scholarship but for her “engaging writing,” is celebrating the unlawful vandalism and mob removal of historical monuments.
It needs to be said that I share many of the concerns and supposed aims of the 1619 Project, as I do with historians like Leslie Harris. One only need to look at a history book from the nineteenth century or first-half of the twentieth-century to see the hero worship, whitewashing, and lies by omission which posed as history. This tendency to distort our history in the service to some ideological mythology about ourselves is yet another ugly part of our history, and this forces us to wonder why we’re trying, with projects like 1619, to repeat that mistake now, as though two blatant distortions make a true account. There has been an imperial impulse from the beginning of the formation of the United States, and to ignore such a fact is unethical. It expressed itself through the practice of the slave trade, the cultivation and amplification of a particularly brutal form of chattel slavery, and an expansion westward which removed the Native populations from their ancestral lands, killed ninety percent of their population—mostly through disease—and eroded their culture and ways of life. Following ninety years of slavery in the United States was a century of Jim Crow, black codes, and subjugation of African Americans under legal fictions that betrayed the promise of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments. The Civil Rights movements of the 1950s and 1960s did much to correct the laws, but concerns regarding a culture of racism that remains in the United States in the form of unfair police practices and a broken criminal justice system remain warranted.
Reform is a part of the American project. It always has been and always should be. The American project is one of creating a more perfect union. To want to make things better is itself a quintessentially American precept. To act, then, that reform can only happen by obliterating the system, ridding the nation of due process, subscribing to race-based notions of sin and purity, and assuming that all monuments were created equally evil, is a betrayal of the American mission itself. It’s time for liberals to defend liberalism again. The American mission to continually improve itself is a liberal ethos. Conservatives make the mistake of ignoring sins of the past that may linger in another form in the present. Progressives are good at highlighting continued inequalities but fail at recognizing how far we have come. Observing the progress of the American mission while relentlessly pushing for improvement has always been the prerogative of liberals.
The liberal position requires the same attention to nuance and appreciation of complexity that is required of an historically literate polity. Thus, a liberal nation requires historical literacy for its very survival. Reforms are only possible when they are facilitated by liberal principles. Conservative principles hold fast to tradition for tradition’s sake. Progressive ideology contains within it no limiting principle. Good intentions may obscure tragic results. It is up to liberals to champion the broadminded mission of history education, for the sake of a better future and for the preservation of the republic.
With that in mind, let’s make things very clear:
- The 1619 Project is bad history facilitated by bad journalism, given accolades by bad actors who appear to care nothing for the truth.
- We need only to ask the important questions, which is what good historians (and good journalists) are expected to do.
- Why did the 1619 Project ignore the corrections recommended by a respected PhD who has a deep understanding of the relevant history?
- Why were they more interested in going to print with bad history than with the truth that is more difficult to reduce and simplify?
- Why did the New York Times allow an essay that got its history so wrong at the outset to continue to publish when such a thesis wouldn’t receive a favorable grade in a first-year college history class?
- Why was the New York Times not embarrassed for being progenitors of false history?
- Why was this behavior rewarded? Why, after all of the controversy came to light of the broken history involved, was the New York Times and the 1619 Projected awarded a prize—often associated with integrity—when it was clear by the spring of 2020 that the 1619 Project got some of America’s most basic, most fundamental history, wrong?
- What does this say, at its core, about the integrity of the 1619 Project, the New York Times, and the Pulitzer board? What does it say about their fidelity to a proper, disciplined, and apolitical approach to understanding the past? What does it say about their devotion to liberal values?
- How can a group of people, who got it so wrong, be trusted now to teach to the young?
This is the greatest ramification of the distribution and accolades heaped upon the 1619 Project. It now offers curriculum to public schools and educators. Now broken history is not limited to the readers of the New York Times. It is being spread far and wide to America’s young. This is academic malpractice.
The 1619 Project is merely one great example of how history education in the United States is failing its liberal mission to inform and educate the public, especially the young. By prioritizing a politicized narrative that doesn’t even get the basic facts of the American Revolution right, the project, the New York Times, and the Pulitzer committee have revealed that history is not their main concern. It’s time for those of us who believe in the liberal mission of history education to reassert ourselves and act as an important counterweight to illiberal ideologies polluting the historical field.
If the history killers win, it will be because the liberals let them.