tags: teaching history, Revisionist History, 1619 Project, 1776 commission
Nicholas Guyatt is reader in North American history at Cambridge University and the author of Bind Us Apart: How Enlightened Americans Invented Racial Segregation.
More than a year after its appearance in The New York Times Magazine, the 1619 Project continues to drive its critics to distraction. Last month, President Trump convened a “White House Conference on American History” to defend the “magnificent truth about our country” from the “toxic propaganda” of the project.
Earlier this month, 21 scholars published an open letter to the Pulitzer Prize Board demanding that the Prize for Commentary awarded to Nikole Hannah-Jones’s lead essay be rescinded. And on Oct. 9, the Times columnist Bret Stephens wrote that the project’s “categorical and totalizing assertions” had squandered a precious opportunity to reorient the national debate on race in American history. Mr. Stephens’s conclusion was sober: “The 1619 Project has failed.”
The five distinguished historians who wrote to The Times last December to ask for “corrections” were more specific: They rejected the claims that Abraham Lincoln had failed to accept Black equality, that Black people had largely fought for their rights without the help of white allies, and that “one of the primary reasons” the colonists had waged the American Revolution was to protect slavery.
This final assertion, which appeared fleetingly in Ms. Hannah-Jones’s lead essay, became the weakest spot against which the project’s critics were determined to press. In the spring of this year, The Times reworded one line in her essay to note that “some of the colonists” saw the Revolution as a way to preserve slavery. Some critics of the project declared victory, and wondered if the entire endeavor might now be undone.
Instead, 1619 continued to resonate, not least in the extraordinary uprisings that followed the killing of George Floyd in May. With the project now seeming prophetic rather than heretical — or perhaps prophetic and heretical — a new line of argument emerged. Just after Mr. Trump’s impromptu conference on American history last month, the Princeton historian Sean Wilentz criticized both the conference and the project, writing that historians may one day conclude that they were “closely matched symptoms of the same era, feeding off each other.”