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History Without Truth

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History Without Truth

The 1619 Project has been thoroughly discredited, but many professional historians remain reluctant to criticize it. December 31, 2019
Arts and Culture
The Social Order

In August, the New York Times Magazine unveiled its 1619 Project, which dates the founding of the United States not to 1776, with the Declaration of Independence, but to 1619, with the arrival of the first African slave. Five prominent historians (Victoria Bynum, James McPherson, James Oakes, Sean Wilentz, and Gordon Wood) challenged the Project’s thesis, first in interviews with a socialist website, then in a letter to the Times urging factual corrections. The paper responded dismissively, and the broader reaction among historians suggests that the profession isn’t up to the challenge of defending factual accuracy—at least, not if doing so threatens what many scholars see as the ideological greater good.

The Project’s thesis, as articulated by its creator, investigative journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, is that “anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country.” In one of her essays, she promised to show 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.” Another contribution, by Matthew Desmond, portrayed slavery as integral to virtually all aspects of nineteenth-century American capitalism.

Jake Silverstein, editor-in-chief of the Times Magazine, admitted that the paper “did not assemble a formal panel for this project,” but he did identify five “scholars of African-American history and related fields” with whom the Project consulted. Only one, Tiya Miles, specializes in pre-1900 events; another, Desmond, is a sociologist whose most recent book focused on the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis. Neither Silverstein nor Hannah-Jones has explained why the Times chose not to consult with any of the letter’s signatories, all leading scholars of eighteenth- or nineteenth-century America and specialists in the issues that the Project addressed. If the Project’s editors and Hannah-Jones are ignorant about the work of the Bynum letter’s signatories, their historical competence is deeply suspect. More likely, they understood that figures like Wood or Oakes would challenge the Project’s preconceived notions of the American past, and so they deliberately ignored their work because it would undercut their own preordained conclusions. (Hannah-Jones’s dismissive tweet about McPherson’s criticism of her work strengthens these suspicions: she mockingly asserted that only “white historians have produced truly objective history” before asserting that “there is no such thing as objective history.”)

The historians’ letter requested a correction of what they called the “astounding” assertion that the American Founders declared the colonies’ independence of Britain “in order to ensure slavery would continue.” The signatories also objected to the Project’s portrayal of Abraham Lincoln as almost irredeemably racist and to its views on “the supposed direct connections between slavery and modern corporate practices, [which] have so far failed to establish any empirical veracity or reliability and have been seriously challenged by other historians.”

Though the Times claimed an interest in dialogue, Silverstein’s response avoided engaging with the scholars’ critiques and made no corrections. “We are not,” Silverstein conceded, “ourselves historians.” (This admission should give pause to any school district tempted to adopt the Times’s new history curriculum.) Silverstein offered no defense of the Desmond essay on capitalism and slavery; of the other two topics raised in the historians’ letter, he breezily asserted that “there are often debates, even among subject-area experts, about how to see the past”—without explaining why the Times chose to take such a one-sided approach. Hannah-Jones implied that she might have been open to the criticism if the scholars had “contacted me” rather than going public. Instead, however, they tried to “get people to sign on to a letter that was attempting really to discredit the entire project without having had a conversation”—as if doing so made their concerns any less relevant, or as though it were necessary for them to seek permission from her to express their doubts.

Silverstein concluded by excusing Hannah-Jones’s tweet about “white historians,” contending that the Project’s creator “was trying to make the point that for the most part, the history of this country has been told by white historians (some of whom, as in the case of the Dunning School, which grossly miseducated Americans about the history of Reconstruction for much of the twentieth century, produced accounts that were deeply flawed).” Linking the concerns of scholars like Oakes, Wilentz, or McPherson to the racist legacy of the long-discredited Dunning School is beneath the dignity of the Times.

The Times’s weak response, combined with the seriousness of the historians’ objections, raises an obvious question: why had so few historians signed onto the letter in the first place? An Atlantic article from Adam Serwer, in which scholars offered unimpressive rationalizations for abstaining from a strong public critique of the 1619 Project, unintentionally answers this question.

Bynum herself reported that other historians claimed that they were “ashamed of” and “heartbroken by” the scholars’ letter—challenging not its veracity, but rather, any act that could undermine the Times thesis. Manisha Sinha of the University of Connecticut, for instance, described herself as stuck between two camps. The historians, she noted, correctly understood that the American Revolution wasn’t “just a slaveholders’ rebellion.” But the 1619 Project was right in observing that the Constitution, as originally drafted, protected slavery. Yet the historians had never challenged this second point.

Duke’s Thavolia Glymph didn’t even bother to address the substance of the Bynum signatories’ arguments, instead condemning their “tone.” Glymph’s concern is ironic; in 2006, she signed the Group of 88’s public letter proclaiming her students’ guilt in the Duke Lacrosse case, then refused to apologize when the case collapsed and the students’ innocence became clear. Princeton’s Nell Painter refused to join the Bynum signatories despite challenging another of the Project’s alleged facts—that the Africans who arrived in Virginia in 1619 should be considered slaves. Signing the letter, she told Serwer, would have meant joining “the white guy’s attack of something that has given a lot of black journalists and writers a chance to speak up in a really big way.” So much for the value of historians pursuing the truth.

Gordon Wood has argued that the Times’s handling of the historians’ letter means that “in the long run the Project will lose its credibility, standing, and persuasiveness with the nation as a whole.” Perhaps. School administrators should certainly be reluctant to use the Project’s eighteenth- and nineteenth-century curricular material for their students. But the affair has also exposed shortcomings within the historical community. The Project’s slipperiness with the factual record provided a golden opportunity for professional historians to stand up for scholarship in an era where so many seem indifferent to objective facts. The Bynum letter’s signatories passed this test, but the broader historical community appears to have failed.

Photo: mizoula/iStock

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