What Trump is Missing About American HistoryRoundup
tags: teaching history, Donald Trump, 1619 Project, 1776 commission
Leslie M. Harris is professor of history and African American studies at Northwestern University and a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University.
Karin Wulf is executive director of the Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture and professor of history at William & Mary.
On Thursday, Donald Trump waded into a version of an argument that we've heard for decades. "The left has warped, distorted, and defiled the American story with deceptions, falsehoods, and lies,” Trump said an event at the National Archives. He accused universities and schools of “[rewriting] American history to teach our children that we were founded on the principle of oppression, not freedom.”
Trump’s immediate target was The 1619 Project of the New York Times, a collection of essays marking the first arrival of Africans in Virginia in 1619 and which sought to integrate slavery more deeply into the discussion of American history. The authors recently issued a school curriculum designed to promote more discussion in schools of slavery and its legacy of racism that continues to this day. A Times spokesperson, Danielle Rhoades Ha, defended the project, saying “it deepened many readers’ understanding of the nation’s past and forced an important conversation about the lingering effects of slavery, and its centrality to America’s story.”
This is the latest escalation of an argument that began the very moment the project was published in August 2019. Though it has been widely lauded, including by us, some historians and critics, including us, have taken issue with some of its claims. Conservative politicians have used The 1619 Project to open another front in the culture war that has long fixated on history.
Both of us teach early American history and we still get asked who got it right and who got it wrong: Was the New York Times right or wrong to write that the Revolutionary War was motivated in part by a desire to protect slavery? Did slavery have a “foundational” role in the establishment of our nation? Did the Times’ eventual revision of its language about slavery and the Revolutionary War indicate that its work is fatally flawed?
We think these are critical questions about what history is, and how we use it—but not perhaps for the reasons you might think.
The 1619 Project’s focus on slavery and racism, including its assertion and then revision about slavery and the Revolution, highlights how history is always in the process of revision through new information and new perspectives. But that process flies in the face of common ideas about history, that it is static and certain. Criticisms of the project and misunderstanding about revision come from this basic misapprehension about how we know what we know about the past.
Journalists and politicians are examples of two groups that are differently but equally susceptible to a desire for clarity and simplicity about the historical past. But the past is rarely clear and was never simple. We understand the motivation—in both cases they are eager for a usable past, a way of explaining in straightforward terms the context for the present.
That context, though, is almost always richer and deeper in ways it would be more useful to know and convey. This is particularly fraught when the subject is the American founding.
In essence, what happened with the New York Times is an example of how anyone—including journalists and politicians—can step into the stream of historical knowledge without acknowledging that the stream is moving. American history—indeed, any history—is actively created as researchers learn new facts and gain new perspectives on the past. History is unfolding chronologically: We each experience this in our lives as time moves inexorably forward. There is a tension between experiencing history—time moving forward—and representing history—holding time still. But how we represent the past is also moving; it never stays still for long, and it never has.
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