When did the story of America begin? What does that story signify? These old questions are today once more becoming a matter of sharp dispute. Whether the outcome of that dispute will provide Americans with a truer understanding of how they went from where it all started to where they find themselves today remains to be seen.
The traditional answer to where and when the American story began is Philadelphia in the summer of 1776. The current editors of the New York Times beg to differ. According to the newspaper’s “1619 Project,” the story of America dates from the year when the first contingent of enslaved Africans arrived in the colony of Virginia. Everything that has ensued since stems from that fateful moment. “No aspect of the country that would be formed here has been untouched by the years of slavery that followed,” according to the Times, and by the institutionalized racism that persisted following the abolition of formal slavery. The explicit purpose of the paper’s 1619 Project is to “reframe” the history of the United States “by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.”
Those who were (and are?) oppressed, exploited, marginalized, and silenced because they were black will henceforth occupy centerstage as the true architects of American freedom, prosperity, and culture. According to Nikole Hannah-Jones, principal creator of the 1619 Project, “The truth is that as much democracy as this nation has today, it has been borne on the backs of black resistance,” a statement offered without caveats or qualifiers. Speaking for her fellow African Americans, she continues: “It was by virtue of our bondage that we became the most American of all.” If taken literally, that “we” suggests that citizens who are not black are thereby less American. The 1619 Project responds, if only implicitly, to the Tiki-torch wielding white racists who paraded through Charlottesville in August 2017 chanting “You will not replace us.” Perhaps not replace, comes the reply, but consider yourselves hereby demoted to a lower rank in the hierarchy of Americanness.
So the 1619 Project is—and is undoubtedly meant to be—provocative. Hear us, it demands. See us. Acknowledge us. Even perhaps, compensate us. Even more boldly, the 1619 Project questions the very foundation of this nation’s political legitimacy. The enterprise formally known as the United States of America derives its legitimacy from the Revolution of 1776, supposedly justified by self-evident truths and ostensibly undertaken in pursuit of inalienable rights, central among them a commitment to liberty. Backed by the authority of the New York Times, Hannah-Jones now dismisses this as balderdash, asserting 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.” In short, the purpose of the American Revolution was not to secure freedom, but to deny it. This is revisionism on a grand scale.
A project of such breathtaking audacity will necessarily elicit opposition, and not only from right-wing white nationalists. So the 1619 Project has done, notably from members of the historical profession. In a twentieth-century-style expression of protest, five eminent (white) historians of the United States wrote a letter to the Times. Sensing “a displacement of historical understanding by ideology,” they politely objected to the 1619 Project’s “new version of American history in which slavery and white supremacy become the dominant organizing themes.” Publishing the letter, the Times responded to the historians with equal courtesy—“we are grateful for their input”—while dismissing their complaint out of hand.
Pushing back somewhat harder, a second group of academics, most but not all black, chose a twenty-first-century platform for expressing their objections. In response to the nation’s newspaper of record rewriting U.S. history, they created a website. In the estimation of the scholars contributing to “1776 Unites,” that year, rather than 1619, marks “America’s true founding.” Rather than politeness, contributors to 1776 Unites opt for right-between-the-eyes pugnacity.
Consider, for example, the essay by Professor John McWhorter of Columbia University. The 1619 Project is not history compromised by ideology, he insists. It is naked propaganda in the service of political correctness or, in McWhorter’s lacerating words, “chardonnay wisdom” bottled by and marketed to the proudly “woke.” Embedded in the 1619 Project, he insists, is a belief that mere empiricism won’t suffice to uncover the truth that really matters. Truth requires “narrative,” carefully constructed to encourage “the suspension of disbelief” and thereby to reveal what has been hidden. Viewed from this perspective, McWhorter writes, “The 1619 idea, presented as enlightenment, is actually a rejection of history in favor of what we might call lore.”
According to an essay appearing in the Atlantic, “The Fight Over the 1619 Project Is Not About the Facts.” Indeed, to score the bout by facts alone is to award McWhorter and those in his corner a unanimous decision. McWhorter excoriates the 1619 Project for being strong on assertion but largely devoid of evidence. “Supposedly,” he writes,
the Founding Fathers were trying to protect slavery, despite never actually making such a goal clear for the historical record, and at a time when there would have been no shame in doing so. What are the chances that this supposed revelation would have slept undiscovered until now, when for almost 50 years, humanities academics of all colors have been committed to their socks to unearthing racism in the American fabric? Can we really believe that a group of journalists writing for the Times has unboxed such a key historical revelation from reading around, that no one else of any color has chosen to trumpet in the mainstream media for decades?
Yet if McWhorter is correct—and I believe he is—then what is this fight actually about?
At one level, the dispute is territorial, the Times asserting a prerogative—framing the past—that was once the purview of professional historians. Imagine a major journalistic outlet launching a project with the declared purpose of demonstrating that Jesus is not the Son of God, but an agent of Satan. Christian theologians (some of them anyway) might be incensed. So too with the 1619 Project: the Times is appropriating a function that hitherto fell within the remit of those possessing specialized credentials to interpret the past.
To the guild of academic historians keen to retain their proprietary privileges, the 1619 Project is a slap in the face, further evidence of that guild’s declining influence. True, historians employed by colleges and universities continue to write, teach, and mentor graduate students (producing more PhDs than there are available history jobs). Some even contribute an occasional op-ed to the New York Times. Yet their overall impact on how Americans understand their past lags well behind that of novelists (Philip Roth, The Plot Against America), best-selling popularizers (Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals), and filmmakers (Ric Burns, The Civil War), not to mention videogames and various commercial enterprises, including the Times itself. Truth to tell, as measured by their influence on the prevailing intellectual climate, academic historians these days wield about as much clout as theologians—in short, not much. So the annoyance of the professoriate at the sight of mere journalists invading their turf—even if supported by a few fellow-traveling academics—is understandable.
That annoyance notwithstanding, there is actually more afoot here than journalists usurping prerogatives traditionally reserved for highly trained scholars. While the architects of the 1619 Project may be making claims that go beyond what the available evidence will support, let me suggest that they are on to something: as a touchstone of national identity, the familiar tale of 1776, itself encrusted with patriotic lore, no longer cuts it.
Yet the subversive implications of the 1619 Project extend well beyond questioning the hitherto sacrosanct American Revolution. Whether consciously or not, the editors of the Times are tampering with the overarching meta-history that shapes the way that most citizens—and especially members of the elite—are accustomed to situating America in the broader stream of human history. That meta-history centers on three events enshrined in American memory as acts of liberation: the Revolution, the Civil War, and World War II. Together the elements of this Sacred Trilogy have served to validate the claim that history itself has anointed the United States as its chosen agent of liberation, empowered both to define freedom and to ensure its ultimate triumph. If, as Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1787, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants,” it is from these three violent episodes that the United States has drawn sustenance. Or so the story goes. Yet admit the possibility that the impetus for proclaiming independence in 1776 might have differed from the ideals specified in Jefferson’s famous Declaration, and the other elements of the Sacred Trilogy likewise become fair game.
Indeed, it is only a matter of time, in my view, before the prevailing Manichean interpretation of World War II will collapse. The unspeakable evil done by our adversaries in that conflict is indisputable and ineradicable. Yet a proper moral accounting of that conflict must necessarily acknowledge the sins committed by the United States and its principal Allies, which included perpetuating race-based empires, the intentional slaughter of noncombatants on a massive scale, and complicity in the heinous crimes of the Red Army. Factor in the experience of Black G.I.s serving in a Jim Crow army and the Japanese Americans consigned to concentration camps, and the Good War wasn’t good even for Americans.
At a moment when Donald Trump occupies the White House and the American people are deeply divided, with the Republican Party irredeemably corrupt and Democrats entrusting their fortunes to a mediocre retread, a radical rethinking of U.S. history may well be in order. Throw in grotesque economic inequality and failed wars that have exposed U.S military supremacy as illusory and it may well be time to devise a more usable past. Add to the mix pressing challenges such as climate change and a fundamental shift in the global distribution of power and it becomes obvious that the Sacred Trilogy has outlived its usefulness.
Abraham Lincoln made the essential point in December 1862. “As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew,” he told the Congress. “We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”
The 1619 Project represents a first step toward disenthralling ourselves from an imagined past of America as history’s designated instrument of liberation. That paradigm has lost its relevance to the present and poses an obstacle to grasping the situation in which we find ourselves. At long last, the moment has arrived to acknowledge that exploitation as much or more than liberation represents the abiding theme in American history, and that acknowledgment necessitates a new framing of the past. This is not a task to be entrusted to the New York Times, which does indeed have its own ill-disguised ideological agenda. Yet unless the community of scholars can rise to the task that Lincoln described, which will require recognizing its own deeply embedded ideological biases, then the Times will surely fill the vacuum. That will be deeply unfortunate.
For now, however, let us acknowledge this much: the answers that the 1619 Project thus far has on offer may be defective, but its willingness to interrogate the past is timely and even admirable.